Thursday, 22 January 2015

Bullet Catch a fun evening of magic & froth

Background conceits : In an age of rampant terrorism, racketeering drug lords and local gangsters in SUVs all around us, quite possibly a live Beretta 92 handgun on stage at Granville Island aimed straight into the mouth of the lead player is not exactly your first choice for divertissement from the nightly news. But then again, Scot theatricalist Rob Drummond might change your mind in the generous hour of tricks and illusions and stories he tells and performs in Bullet Catch

Drummond is a self-deprecating entertainer who instantly engages the audience's trust. He tells of a certain Victorian magician named William Henderson* who died when the 300-year-old trick known as the "bullet catch" went horribly wrong. The bullet didn't catch in his teeth as it was supposed to nor did he spit it out onto a plate. It killed him dead instead. One Charles Garth was alleged to have been the volunteer audience member who wound up pulling the trigger. In pained letters, Garth tells of his agony at dispatching Henderson quite by accident. He suffers grievous guilt, even wonders whether it was a staged suicide executed as a homicide.

On stage, Drummond invites an audience volunteer to assist him. A diminutive middle-age mom named Katie volunteered. Drummond has Katie read out Garth's letters. And, like Garth, it becomes obvious this local volunteer on the Revue Stage will be the person asked to pull the trigger on Drummond at show's end. (These parallel universe coincidences between Charles and Katie are not lost on the audience, of course : magic feats are nothing without significant foreshadowing and breathy build-up.)

What else, you ask... ? : Along the way to the ultimate trick of the show, other acts of legerdemain and prestidigitation, mind-reading and illusion are performed in the normal manner : Who's got the single white ball, who the two black? Let me guess. (Spot on.) Pick a word from a book, Katie, I'll figure it out. (He did.) Think of a significant event : its substance; when it took place; with whom. The specifics nailed close enough for huzzah's from both Katie and the crowd. Let's us levitate this telephone table together. They do. (Then the audience majority demands to see the "how" it was done. With feigned pain, Drummond demonstrates what stiff wire and light-weight balsam and a tablecloth can do to dupe the masses, self included.) Let's break a beer bottle and then risk slashing our hand on the jagged neck as we smash three of the four mixed-up lunch bags it's hiding under. Imagine. No blood. Katie got it right.

Drummond carries himself not just amiably and pleasantly, it's almost as if he believes in his own tricks, though that's all part of the deception, too. Three outsize signs snitched from Dr. Freud proclaim LOVE, SAVE, and KILL adorn the upstage wall. These three words Freud claimed are the three alternative responses everyone has upon meeting strangers. As Drummond humourously and vernacularly puts it -- "Can I kill it? Can it kill me? If it can't, can I shag it?" These are the background questions he puts forward to advance the night's theme.

Philosophy, anyone ? The superficial Freud bits feed into the somewhat facile "philosophical" questions posed for the night : "Do you believe that free will is just an illusion? Do you believe in anything -- just what's the point of it all? You shouldn't have to talk yourself into believing in faith, God or an afterlife, life is simply what it is," Drummond proposes. Further, it was "existential nihilism", he states, that overtook the earlier god-centric values and gave way to an emerging belief in deterministic fatalism. Sure. Why not. Something had to kill God. Just not sure Bullet Catch really needed this hook.

Still, all of this was but lead-up to the challenge put to volunteer Katie at the end : would she agree to shoot him, on stage, so he could catch the 500 m.p.h. 9x19 mm Parabellum slug between his teeth and not have his head blown off instead...? Katie would theoretically have to act either from "faith" or from some sort of a predetermined choice already made for her. She didn't reveal which she felt was, um, the trigger. Upon "magically" surviving the shot, Drummond proclaims : "There's a point to all of this, and it's that we all need each other."

Production values : Performed as an opener in the 2015 PuSh Festival, Bullet Catch was produced in association with The Arches from Glasgow. Their stage designer Francis Gallop put together a functional magic show set replete with steamer trunk, poster easels, an easy chair and various hidey places. Lighting designer Simon Hayes flipped spots and hi-lites appropriately around the set. The teasing violins selected by sound designer Ross Ramsay were engaging, a nice aural link for all the visuals on stage.

Who gonna like : This is fun stuff not to be taken seriously at all. Rob Drummond ain't no Harry Houdini or even my fictional namesakes, Harry Blackstone pere et fils**. Drummond's a Glaswegian actor who got taught a trick or two to make the conceits of the play work. His jocular interaction with volunteer Katie was charming in its improvisation. Katie's willing and eager and unskeptical chitty-chat with Drummond was central to the evening's success. No question a dullard of a volunteer would have scotched the show's entertainment quotient completely. Easy laughs, interesting mind-games, a casual delight in spite of the weaponry piece !

*Addendum 1: Without much doubt the alleged "William Henderson" in the Bullet Catch script was based in actual fact on an American conjurer, lit.& fig., a man of Scot descent from Brooklyn. His real name was William Ellsworth Robinson but he masqueraded as a mute Chinese magician named "Chung Ling Soo". This moniker was a purpose-driven rhyming bastardization of the name of the bona fide Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo (1844-1922) whose berobed and ornamental stage presence Robinson also "borrowed". He traipsed around Europe outfitted as an oriental poseur to replace his earlier more prosaic, occidental real-life character "Robinson The Man of Mystery". Meagre fortunes in America for that persona, apparently.

It is further reported that Mr. Foo was sore displeased with his doeppelganger "Soo", and speculation circulated that Foo might have been in some way implicated in Robinson's death. Such rumours were natural as part of the mythos behind the bullet catch trick that killed him. The fatal bullet that lodged in Mr. Robinson's lung was due to a dirty musket misfiring. This despite the rifle having been inspected by two British army foot-soldiers on furlough who were among the audience of 2,000 that fateful night of March 23, 1918 at the Wood Green Empire theatre in London.

During the forensic investigation into "Chung Ling Soo" Robinson's untimely and spectacular demise, numerous letters written to and by family members and others were referred to in the public cache of evidence, giving rise to the "Garth" letters in the current performance. Robinson's death was ultimately ruled "death by misadventure", an accidental homicide with no charges laid against anyone. Robinson himself was identified as the culprit who had been sloppy in the husbandry of his magic show prop that then blew him away.

But speculation abounded throughout. Wiki tells us a friend of Houdini's, a fellow magician named Harry Kellar, who wrote plaintively to him : "Don't try the bullet-catching trick. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will 'job' you. And we can't afford to lose Houdini. Harry, listen to your friend Kellar, who loves you as his own son, and don't do it!" Scriptwriter Drummond quotes much of this but references his fictional "Henderson" rather than the two real-life Harry's as its source. 

For some fascinating history on the bullet catch trick and on Mr. Robinson/Soo, go to or check out Wiki or punch into your browser this URL that sets out many of the stories : 

**Addendum 2 : The father/son Blackstone magicians were actually Chicago-born folks surnamed "Bouton" on their birth certificates. They appropriated their stage identity from the downtown Michigan Avenue hotel named in honour of USA railroader and local political heavy Timothy Blackstone who was prominent in the US midwest in the late 19th century.

Particulars :  In association with The Arches, Glasgow and PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Until February 7th at the Revue Stage, Granville Island. 75 minutes, no intermission. Phone 604.687.1644 for schedules and tickets. 

Production crew : Writer, Performer, Co-Director Rob Drummond.  Co-Director David Overend.  Arches Artistic Director Jackie Wylie.  Tour Producer Bruce Strachan.  Production and Stage Manager Marcus Montgomery Roche.  Stage Designer Francis Gallop.  Sound Designer Ross Ramsay.  Lighting Designer Simon Hayes.  The Arches Graphic Designer Niall Walker.  The Arches Media & Marketing Manager Georgia Riungu. 


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

PostSecret a tale for our times for sure

Backdrop : PostSecret The Show is a Vancouver original creation that premiered in Canada in its final Preview performance Tuesday night at the Firehall. The show flows from American Frank Warren's original 2004 art project for gallery Artomatic in New York. From there the idea and the project went Kaboom! across the world and morph'd into an ad-free weblog that at some 700,000,000 hits and counting is by far cybersphere's most popular site.

PostSecret* is the result of some 700 thousand postcards Warren and his long-suffering wife have received at their home at 13345 Copper Ridge Road in Germantown, Maryland 20874 US of A. That's the paper piece. Then there's the 700 million hits on his website. What's the buzz? Secrets. Anonymous secrets. Anonymous secrets never before told to anyone. 

In The Show three actors guide the multi-media event that blossoms on the upstage screen. We witness peoples' sex secrets, their personal politics, their triumphs and stupid human tricks. All are played out visually and audially to amuse, entertain, shock and sadden us by sharing the haiku of their hopes and fears. And as Charlie Hebdo reminds us so harshly, words and pictures can be just as "real" to some as the crack of a Kalashnikov and the smell of cordite. 

The social media expression to describe the show's origins is "crowd-sourced storytelling". The stories come from the messages off the original postcard folks wrote on, the graphics they added -- some of which the publishers of Warren's six bestseller books kiboshed for commercial or litigation-chill reasons -- all of which are stitched together in a storyline that has been a few years in sketch and blueprint mode. And it changes too, even daily, with each new rehearsal as new secrets come into play, including the audience's.

That many of the word-snips and collages and photo-grabs have a suicide leitmotif is unsettling but hardly surprising given the statistics on how alienated and lonely social media mavens tend to be. Meanwhile Warren himself spent years manning suicide call-in hotlines, so the territory is familiar turf for him. But the reassuring piece in all of this is that so many of the messages proclaim how and Warren's published books have pulled folks back from the brink through the connection and empathy they feel from reading other people's anonymous messages supporting them.

The Firehall show :  To a backdrop that immediately conjures singer Don McLean's iconic paean to Vincent Van Gogh, the show opens with a twinkling starry, starry night screen on a palette blue and grey. But no McLean's tune to be heard nor his lyric of the "eyes that know the darkness in my soul". Instead the first image is a smiling blonde co-ed clutching a white board with the words "You Are Not Alone" ink'd on it. Which immediately called to mind, sadly, the suicides of BC's Amanda Todd and Nova Scotia's Rehteah Parsons as a result of teen-age bullying following internet photos of them having "party sex" (sic). 

But from there the show moves quickly through a number of postcard repro-shots with their anonymous revelations, many quite hilarious, such as : "I sell my late husband's pornography on e-bay" or "I used to pee in snowballs before throwing them at friends" or "My husband and I have never farted in each other's presence and we've been married 30 years!" My two favourites ? "My dad told me the ice cream truck only played music when it ran out of ice cream" and "I tried God, but coffee and therapy work better". Meanwhile the most commonly received secrets at Copper Ridge Road are (1) "I pee in the shower" (!), and (2) "I wish there was someone I could share my secrets with." [Why is it the pee and fart "secrets" get the most audience laughs...?]

Production values exciting : Certainly not a play in any normal sense, the show's excellent visual imagery features actual cards Warren received that are flipped onto the screen with fade-ins, fade-outs, pop-ups, sequentialized slo-mo, overlays, multi-shot anthologies, zoom-ins, Powerpoint-y arrows -- a visual feast of eye-treats and animations excellently arranged by a consortium of artistic techies.

Actors Kahlil Ashanti, Ming Hudson and Nicolle Nattrass provide the dialogue, generally giving voice to the myriad cards and e-mails the project has received. Nattrass's enactment of a mother's aghast acceptance of her daughters' confessed secret -- sexual abuse at the hands of her husband, their father -- was graphic and poignant and utterly gripping, as if it were her own tale. Tears swelled my eyes instantly. 

All three were loose and flexible and played their lines more "with" the crowd than "to", less "script" than "interplay". Kudos to each and all ! Excellent guitar stylings by Mario Vaira connected all the story-snips with Jamie Burns' clever lighting design that flipped nicely from one actor to another. 

While created by Frank Warren, the stage show idea was originally the brainchild of Vancouver's TJ Dawe, Justin Sudds, and Kahlil Ashanti dating back to 2010 that they pitched to Warren and he agreed to eagerly. It was workshop'd previously as part of Vancouver Fringe's Pick Plus Series. First N.A. opening was in April, 2014 at the Booth Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina. Upcoming presentations of the show and Warren's stand-up presentation are slated for Seattle, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Omaha, New York and Wisconsin in the next two months.

Who gonna like : As a man who pines for the return of dial telephones and Western Union**, I confess I struggle with social media. I eschew Facebook & Instagram and only do Twitter to promote the BLR blogsite -- though I am an old school e-mailer from cyber's horse-&-buggy days. 

PostSecret The Show will definitely appeal to college and university students and hip multi-media mongers, no doubt more to them than to folks preferring the typical fictional fare and blocked-out acting of an author's script that is more the norm on Vancouver stages. 

This show pushes the boundaries of tradition in ways that delight and touch and sadden and cheer. As McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message. Go see for yourself what a brave new world we truly do live in.

*Addendum 1.  PostSecret began as "community art". Businessman Frank Warren traipsed New York City after work for days on end handing out some 3,000 pre-addressed postcards to strangers, others just scattered about hoping to be found and mailed. His instructions were for folks to share, anonymously, some deep dark secret they'd so far hid from the world.

Expecting only modest returns, he got hundreds and hundreds. Soon he began posting them on the blog he created for that purpose. Wiki tells us that in his 2006 book My Secret (HarperCollins) Warren claimed that secrets "...are meant to be empowering both to the author and...are inspirational to those who read them, have healing powers for those who write them, give hope to people who identify with a stranger's secret, and create an anonymous community of acceptance." Elsewhere he has been widely quoted as saying : "Confessing a secret, even to ourselves, can be transformative. Sometimes when we think we're keeping a secret, that secret's actually keeping us."

A 2011 app for mobile phones lasted but three months after it was hijacked by thousands of trolls, sexters, "griefers" and other socially imbalanced junkies who liked Andrew Weiner's tumescent style of photo-sharing. Warren spiked the site over Christmas that year. Meanwhile other successor apps like Whisper, Secret and Yik Yak are hauling in buckets of venture capital : life in 2015 proves that as much as nature abhors a vacuum, no cybervoids allowed.

**Addendum 2. In a May 31, 2005 New York Times piece titled "Bless Me, Blog, for I've Sinned", Sarah Boxer pronounced thus : 

"One odd thing about PostSecret is that there's a real disconnection between what the confessions are and what the readers think they are. One reader from Texas wrote, 'Thank you so much for building a window into so many souls, even if it only shines light on the darkest part.' A reader in Australia wrote: 'Each is a silent prayer of hope, love, fear, joy, pain, sorrow, guilt, happiness, hatred, confidence, strength, weakness and a million other things that we all share as human beings...there is no fakeness here.'

No fakeness? Oh, but there is. And it is the fakeness, the artifice and the performance that make this confessional worth peeking at. The secret sharers here aren't mindless flashers but practiced strippers. They don't want to get rid of their secrets. They love them. They arrange them. They tend them. They turn them into fetishes. And that's the secret of PostSecret. It isn't really a true confessional after all. It is a piece of collaborative art."

N.B. I find this critique acerbic, stingy and mean when filtered through the heart. Cognitively, however, I discern a tinkle of harmony in it.

Particulars : A Firehall Arts Centre Production in its Canadian Premiere. January 20 - February 7. 280 East Cordova Street. One hour forty-five minutes, one 15-minute intermission. Phone 604.689.0926 for tickets.

Production team : Created by Frank Warren, TJ Dawe, Kahlil Ashanti, & Justin Sudds.  Directed by TJ Dawe.  Animations by Egg Studios, Jeremy Stewart, The Glossary & Dana Goldman.  Assistant Director Fay Nass.  Lighting Designer Jamie Burns.  Music by Mario Vaira.  Special sound editing by Jared Brickman.  Stage Manager Heidi Quicke. 

Actors :  Kahlil Ashanti, Ming Hudson & Nicolle Nattrass.


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

All That Fall is a gem of wordplay & anomie

The play's primary conceit : All That Fall was written as if "the whole thing's coming out of the dark" Irish playwright, novelist and poet Samuel Beckett pronounced at the time the BBC aired it as a radio play for the first time in 1957. Beckett never intended it to be blocked, choreographed, orchestrated or seen. Let it be but heard. Let its darkness descend from a radio speaker and creep into the listener's ear. It's about the words. Always the words. But words enhanced just a wee bit by some colloquial sound effects from horsey clip-clops to train whistles to snorts and farts and farmyard chicks.

Thus except for a French t.v. version and a German stage performance in the 60's he authorized -- both of which Beckett apparently loathed -- the script has been mothballed for 50 years. Until Beckett's estate approved it for staging three years back, but staging only if its actors perform the script as if they were in a radio recording booth together.

A plot of sorts : ATF is essentially a day in the life of 70-something Maddy Rooney. She's creaked up her rheumatoid bones and failing kidneys to go greet her blind husband Dan. He's on the Saturday noon commuter train after his 1/2 day's office work in the city 30 minutes away. She wants to surprise him. It's his birthday. Turns out the train's late by a full 15 minutes. Dan is evasive as to just why. Seems petulant when asked. There's a hint of a mishap. Something untoward delayed his timely deliverance, no question. But this sketchy whodunit piece won't slot into the puzzle until play's end. (The script's weakest element, no question i.m.o.)

Along the way Maddy gives her fundamental scorn and disappointment at life a vigorous work-out. Cranky outhustles creaky every step of the way. An "hysterical old hag" she calls herself and sets out to prove it. Her encounters include a teamster hauling dung in a cart and a cyclist clanging his bell followed by a truck that nearly flattens her and finally a limousine car she squeezes into after snorts aplenty. Seems both she and the car are stuck with a bum starter. This bit of slapstick byplay is welcome relief no question.

Whom the gods would destroy... : Maddy's world is rife with irritations and jeremiads and petulant grievances that span the ages. Until the end when one gigantic guttural ironic laugh erupts, if briefly. That's when she and Dan, now shambling their way home in the wind and rain, review what a visiting priest's scheduled sermon for Sunday's service is slated to address. From Psalm 145:18 he'll speak about how "The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down," Maddy announces. 

At this the Rooneys, she the Mad one, he blind, erupt in spontaneous fits of laughter. Quite possibly it's the only real mirth they've shared in many moons since Little Minnie left them abruptly four decades or so back. (Whether Minnie ever truly lived in flesh or only in their shared phantasy we never finally find out.) But since her departure their union has been more akin to a later Beckett observation about many married couples : "Alone together, so much shared." 

[Aside : The Rooneys' ongoing ghostwalk through time and space put me instantly to mind of the wondrous Robert Penn Warren poem "Waiting"* that originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1978 and was included in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Now and Then published that same year.]

On the way home Dan weighs the pro's and con's of continuing to work as an office cipher pinching pennies with delight -vs- the impending drudgery of endless domestic chores that retirement will foist on him. Not to mention the irritating neighbourhood children. Indeed, at times Beckett's script seems a cross between the W. C. Fields dictum "Anyone who hates kids and dogs can't be all bad" and philosopher Thomas Hobbes' rueful observation that "Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." 

But clearly Beckett's lines have the effect to amuse, too. Maddy's near bottomless self-pity wrings laughs galore out of the audience because that's one way to deal with one so apparently miserable as this. Existentially her cry of "Can't you see I'm in trouble? Have you no respect for misery?" is the stuff of Albert Camus, Eckhart Tolle, Ernest Becker and countless other thinkers over the years. But those lines drew hearty laughs from folks, too. "It is suicide to be abroad!" she moans. "But what is it to be at home, what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution!" she wails to herself in response. More laughter!

Clever acting by all : Lee Van Paassen as Maddy is a painful joy to watch as she plays out her endless angst and anomie and wistful longing for her girlish sexier self. As Dan, William Samples wields a wizardly cane and a waspish worldview with equal zing and snap. Leanna Brodie steals the scene where she plays the Protestant spinster named Miss Fitt (ha-ha Mr. Beckett). For their parts, supporting cast Adam Henderson and Gerard Plunkett add delightful idiosyncratic turns as a bunch of other "characters" roaming that time and place in this squib of Irish history.

Production values : The soundscape of ATF is what helps make it unique and fun. The actors having to run stair steps, walk through gravel, make donkey and chicken and cow and wasp noises give the piece a special fun factor. Jeff Harrison's lighting was subtle and engaging and supported completely what Director Duncan Fraser intended. Fraser says in his Director's Note : "...this is a Beckett we have not seen before, it tells of his youth and his humour and his playfulness". No question about that in the least. He adds : "So close your eyes, we'll provide the audio, you provide the visuals, and paint your own play." The less I looked, the more I just listened and turned the words over in my head, the more vivid the paints became.

Who gonna like : So soon after Dylan Thomas : Return Journey, Samuel Beckett's All That Fall is a terrific segue for lovers of Irish wit, nuance, and sheer lilt of language. Whether one views Beckett's piece as a bit of comic absurdity in the vein of a Ionesco or more serious reflection on the agony of surviving in a God-less world, it would be difficult to exit the Cultch not having been roundly entertained. Sharp sharp performances by veterans who amuse and provoke in equal measure.

Particulars. Written by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Produced by Blackbird Theatre in association with The Cultch. At the Historic Theatre, Venables @ Victoria, until January 24. One act, 75 minutes, no intermission.  604.251.1363.

Production team. Producer Blackbird Theatre. Director Duncan Fraser. Set/Costume Designer Marti Wright. Sound Designers Chris Cutress and Scott Zechner. Lighting Designer Jeff Harrison. Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith. Production Manager Jayson McLean. 

Actors. Leanna Brodie. Adam Henderson. Gerard Plunkett. William Samples. Lee Van Paassen.



by Robert Penn Warren

You will have to wait. Until it. Until
The last owl hoot has quavered to a
Vibrant silence and you realize there is no breathing
Beside you, and dark curdles toward dawn.
Drouth breaks, too late to save the corn,
But not too late for flood, and the dog-fox, stranded
On a sudden islet, barks in hysteria in the alder-brake.
Until the doctor enters the waiting room, and
His expression betrays all, and you wish
He'd take his goddamn hand off your shoulder.
The woman you have lived with all the years
Says, without rancor, that life is the way life is, and she
Had never loved you, had believed the lie only for the sake of the children.
Until you become uncertain of French irregular verbs
And by a strange coincidence begin to take
Catholic instruction from Monsignor O'Malley, who chews a hangnail.
You realize, truly, that our
Savior died for us all,
And as tears gather in your eyes, you burst out laughing,
For the joke is certainly on Him, considering
What we are.
You pick the last alibi off, like a scab, and
Admire the inwardness, as beautiful as inflamed flesh
Or summer sunrise.
Until you
Remember, surprisingly, that common men have done good deeds.
Until it
Grows on you that, at least, God
Has allowed us the the grandeur of certain utterances.


Sunday, 4 January 2015

Yin-yang buddies = The Odd Couple : a 2015 Lower Mainland reprise tour for The Arts Club

BLR note : What follows is a slightly modified version of BLR's original review from January 30, 2014 of ACT's Stanley Theatre production. As the principals both on-stage and off- are mostly the same, a re-mount of last year's review seems appropriate given the play's B.C. tour about to commence. See Particulars at review's end for location & performance details. 

Plot quicky :  Since its launch in 1965, The Odd Couple's first act has been hailed by some critics as arguably the single-best scene of American comedy ever scripted for the stage. And maybe so. Even despite the considerable time-warp between that back-in-the-day moment and now.

Hot summer Friday night. New York City. Poker night at Oscar Madison's apartment where his mid-life bachelor gig plays out since his wife Blanche quit their marriage some six months back and escaped to California. 

The five players at the table take turns kvetching, snarling and growling about their lives, their wives, their fates and the crappy slow pace of the night's game. They scarf back leftovers out of Oscar's defrosted fridge -- whether aged cheese or mold doesn't particularly faze them. They fist their poker cards with gusto and throw chips and cards and commentary around as randomly as teenage burps or gas attacks.

Number six at the weekly table, Felix Ungar, is late, MIA. Unknown to his posse, his wife Frances has just drop-kicked him out of their house. When they learn this news, they fear he may be suicide-depressed. No wonder : he has just telegram'd his wife telling her that's what he is about to do. 

Divorce was typically a serious mid-life crisis for men back then -- statistics reveal that marriage in the early 60's stood a 4:1 chance of succeeding. And both Oscar and Felix have failed the test. They are rejected husbands who work day-jobs, not lothario playboys of the Mad Men stripe who are serial cheaters. When Felix finally appears, his chums rally round to prevent a 12-storey fall from grace and the tale of Oscar-&-Felix and their upcoming life together under the same roof begins.

A Tale of Its Time :  I reckon no English-speaking North American can possibly not know of this iconic Neil Simon script. The original Broadway stage mount in '65 featured Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. The 1968 movie paired Matthau with Jack Lemon. Then TOC morphed into a 70's t.v. sitcom starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. 

To recap : both of Simon's characters are professional news writers, but that's about where the similarity ends. Oscar is a highly-paid cigar-chomping sports gob whose preferred lifestyle is casual / messy / live-for-the-moment, not unlike many sports contests. He's often tardy with the alimony and child support payments because of his saloon skills and chronic poker losing streaks. 

Bosom buddy Felix (Robert Moloney), meanwhile, is a fuss-o-matic : a neat-freak finicky neurotic who writes straight news for CBS and likes life orderly, from kitchen utensils to emotions. So unlike the more cavalier Oscar, Felix is rattled to the core now that his right-tight suburban married world has fractured and splintered.

The yin-yang personality clash set up by Simon survives mostly because we are parachuted, wholesale, back into the early 60's -- pre-VietNam; pre-Woodstock; pre-Steinem's Ms. magazine and the advances of feminism since. Too, the play features two long-time male buddies who're thrust together by chance, not design. Were they man-&-wife there would be no play. Sexual politics ain't yuk-yuk. Particularly today. 

But two age-old chums from Ike's time who play poker together? They can riff and natter and scold one another like frat-rats because comic incompatibility works when played out at this level. Indeed, Neil Simon's gift to the stage throughout his storied career has always been to find scads of punchy laugh-lines right in the midst of existential fear, heartache, and the uncertainties that pounce when dreams go awry. No better vehicle than this frozen-in-aspic script to prove the point.

WYSIWYG :  Director John Murphy does what he often does with timepiece material. He madcaps the action with lots of slapstick blocking and choreography. Wildly contorted individual facial gestures, hyped-up coughs, Keystone cop chases, 3 Stooges pratfalls -- they're all part and parcel of the ACT re-mount [that is reproduced in toto for tour in 2015 except for actor Mike Wasko who replaces Andrew McNee as Oscar]. 

Murphy does take liberties with his casting : the poker bunch, ostensibly all in their 40's, include a couple of sexagenarians whose ages belie Simon's dialogue. But no matter to the 2014 audience eye. Because the fact is many groups of friends nowadays, both men's and women's, include 2-3 generations all playing well together in the same sandbox : age differences matter way less now than they did to our folks. 

The NYC cop in the poker bunch, Murray, was played by Joel Wirkkunen who gave the most robust and witty turn of the group. But Josh Drebit's Speed as the ever-impatient card sharp was a mere 1/2 kph behind in comic delivery. Great body language in the card table routines from each of the older two, too -- Alec Willows as Roy, Oscar's long-suffering accountant, and Cavan Cunningham as the penny-pinching and henpecked Vinnie.

Murphy's slapstick approach coupled with direction to his cast to hyper-ventilate Simon's dialogue saves TOC from its fundamental irrelevance in today's uber-caffeinated-nanosecond-attention-span culture. Because who cannot laugh when Oscar tells the ever-agitated Felix early on : "You have a low threshold for composure. You're the only man in the world with clenched hair." But Simon also manages to make his characters empathetic, as well as comic, such as when Oscar confesses he's lonely living alone. He invites Felix to move in to his 8-room apartment : "I love you almost as much as you do," he says. "I'm proposing to you."

Felix agrees. And before the night is over he has antisceptick'd the entire pizza-box Chinese take-out carton gerbil-cage apartment. Director Murphy does this cleverly, having the poker bunch act as Felix's proxies to complete the task. 

Scene 2 opens on the next poker night with the set in full-Felix fashion : the table is decked out with coasters to prevent watermarks; oversize serviettes for all; BLT sandwiches on crustless pumpernickel; ashtrays emptied after each ash is flicked. But when Roy smells Lysol and ammonia on the playing cards, the group exits en masse stage left in a snit over F.U.'s fastidious buzz-kill of their Friday fun. 

Still, it's what Oscar sees as Felix's "wimp factor" vis-a-vis his estranged wife Frances that drives him the most crazy. He puzzles aloud : "In a world full of roommates why do I choose the tin man?"

The second act looks promising for the odd couple. Oscar arranges a soiree with two British sisters, the Pigeons, who live in the same building. Felix, master chef, plans the meal, a London broil. But when widow Gwendolyn (Sasa Brown) and divorcee Cecily (Kate Dion-Richard) arrive, he goes nearly catatonic and can hardly talk due to first-date jitters. 

Only when Oscar repairs to the kitchen to fetch drinks does Felix warm up, showing the girls pix of his family. Felix whimpers "Divorce, it's a terrible thing." Cecily, with a perfect Liverpool lilt, quips back : "It can be if you don't have the right solicitor!" Immediately, however, she realizes Felix is in "unmanly" tearful pain. Soon there's a 3-way crying jag as they all swoon over their imperfect but lost marriages. In a heartbeat both of them love "poor, sweet, tortured" Felix.

Rewind moment to 2014 ! Suffice to say the London broil burns to a crisp in the kitchen. A fire bell sounds, as if to signal the set's kitchen oven is on fire. But No!, truth is the hazer ACT was using to generate faux-smoke in 2014 shorted out, smoked up a storm and set off the Stanley Theatre alarm for real. The play resumed after a 14-minute delay as firefighters from two streets north re-set the alarm panel. [Well handled, ACT team!]

Back to scriptThe incinerated London broil forces the party to move to the Pigeons' apartment, but Felix demurs out of shyness and guilt over his ex-, Frances. Oscar both implodes and explodes over the botched date. Their ensuing hunt-&-chase around the apartment with Oscar threatening to kill his buddy was vintage. Even mid-chase Felix manages to straighten the dining table chairs and scoop up some paper litter off the floor. He's promptly sent packing but winds up, of course, bedding down with the Pigeons in their upstairs roost -- irony and fun being Simon's signature traits. 

N.B. The Pigeon sisters were very welcome comic relief within this goofy romp. Relief because up till then the show had been as if plastered with For Men Only stickers given all the poker motif among a bunch of grunty post-WWII men. When the Pigeons descended, these two birds delighted at every move : they sat almost in each other's laps, finished each other's sentences, sported complementary 60's dresses, had matching red and blond bouffie hairdo's and shared a swack of Liverpool giggles. Pure fun !  

Production values :  David Roberts' set was a nice cut at 1965 Manhattan chic. Ceiling arches. Pale blues and pinks on the walls,  inset applique flower accents, scalloped furniture throughout, and a chrome floorstand ashtray to covet even for a non-smoker. Barbara Clayden's costumes were perfect for the times, even slobby Oscar's What Not To Wear blue/brown sport coat and pant mix. Marsha Sibthorpe's lighting was spot-on, particularly the solar eclipse blue lighting during scene changes by the poker bunch. And last but not least, sound designer Murray Price underscored the antics with some tight jazz quartet charts matching progressive sounds one would surely have heard at Birdland in the 60's.

Who gonna like : This is a period piece, as noted. Some may find the trip down memory lane a chance to smile and smirk, sentimentally, at the mores of a distant era. Others may find the dialogue too dated and man-centric for their liking, now, nearly 50 years hence. 

Still, Andrew McNee as Oscar [in 2014] brought a nuanced interpretation to his mostly macho role, and Robert Moloney did some fine excruciations as the tightly-wound Felix. [2015 reviews of Moloney\Felix and Mike Wasko\Oscar t.b.d. by other critics as I shan't see this year's mount.]

Neil Simon is a master of the genre. His lines and timing provide much to amuse in a performance bursting with energy and wit. 

Particulars : The Odd Couple. By Neil Simon. Sponsored by The Arts Club Theatre of Vancouver. On tour commencing January 9, 2015, as follows :

North Vancouver \ Capilano College Centre for the Performing Arts. January 9.  604.990.7810.

Maple Ridge ACT Arts Centre & Theatre. January 10.  604.476.2787.

West Vancouver Kay Meek Centre. January 12-13.  604.981.MEEK (6335)

Surrey Arts Centre. January 14-24.  604.501.5566.

Mission / Clarke Theatre. January 26.  1.877.299.1644

Coquitlam / Evergreen Cultural Centre. January 27-31.  604.927.6555.

Burnaby / Shadbolt Centre for the Arts. February 2-3.  604.205.3000

Chilliwack Cultural Centre. February 4.  604.391.7469

Production Team : Director John Murphy. Set Designer David Roberts. Costume Designer Barbara Clayden. Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe. Sound Designer Murray Price. Stage Manager Allison Spearin. Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.

Featured Actors :  Robert Maloney. Mike Wasko. Sasa Brown. Cavan Cunningham. Kate Dion-Richard. Josh Drebit. Alec Willows. Joel Wirkkunen. 


Thursday, 18 December 2014

Cohen cabaret Chelsea Hotel cleverly captures 
the man & his music

Quick take : Leonard Cohen's musical poetry will once again astound you and steal your heart at the Firehall Theatre's fourth reprise of Chelsea Hotel. As they did a year back, six song-&-dance troupers weave a clever tapestry showing us Cohen-the-man, Cohen-the-loaner, Cohen-the-hustler. Melancholy, loss, romantic dread and love's wreckage are never far from the tip of Cohen's quill & inkwell. That's why a famous NYC hotel that's tattered and torn is the perfect backdrop for his stories put to song.

Redux : Leonard & Janis :  Vancouver's Tracey Power conceived, scripted, directed and choreographed the show as well as performs in it this year. She must be as exhausted as she is exhilarated. She pitches the story on an endlessly re-written Cohen storyline, "Chelsea Hotel #2". In it LC recalls a night of sharp drugs and limp sex with Janis Joplin.

As Cohen sings it he's enjoying some wee-biddy fellatio from JJ to the hum of streetscape chirps & sirens below. "You told me again you preferred handsome men / but for me you would make an exception / And clenching your fist for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty / You fixed yourself, and you said / 'Well never mind, / we are ugly but we have the music.'" Janis explained it somewhat differently in a 1969 Texas interview. She maintained Cohen "gave me nothing" the night in question. Then quickly added : "I don't know what that means. Maybe it just means (he was) on a bummer."

Power's power unclenched : Power's cabaret format features some two dozen Cohen songs in whole and in bits, intermingled and refrained again-&-again (e.g. "I am the one who loves / Changing from nothing to one.") The plotline works but is a bit wimpy : unless you like hearing all about writers who write about writers having writer's block. "Script constipation" I call it. And chitty-chat of same should be off-limits just like the bathroom kind. Still, Marshall McMahen's clever set rescues the scene : Kayvon Kelly, writer manque, emerges from a mountain of scrunched-up poetry and song lyric detritus piled high and wide. Classic Cohen, this. The sufferer championing his angst and dread. Words not only fail him but taunt and defeat him altogether. Stacks and stacks of them.

Kelly shares the stage with five other actor musicians. Three women -- Power, Rachel Aberle, and Marlene Ginader are the lost / abandoned / forsaken loves who are central to Cohen's world : Suzanne, Marianne and Jane. Along with Kelly, Benjamin Elliott and the show's musical director Steve Charles join the women in this two-hour bittersweet musical caper. Once again I was doubly amused by "I'm Your Man" that this year features Power prancing about in a bedsheet blowing a kazoo. How could I not remember the Sigmund Freud vignette : the good Dr. puffing away on one of his signature stogies during a lecture. After sucking in a good mouthful off the thing, Freud released it ever-so-slowly and lovingly from his lips. With a wee grin he proclaimed : "And it's also a cigar!"

Throughout the show the women sing songs designed by Cohen to be for men about or to the women in their lives. But these days gender is more a matter of preference, choice and public declaration. Out-of-the-womb biology is less relevant. So who sings what to whom works regardless. Analogous to the basement bathroom markers at the Firehall : one with pants, one with a skirt, and one 1/2-pant \ 1/2 skirt on each door.

The songs tell the tales : Fortunately not all of the songs in Chelsea Hotel have the same tempo and tone and melancholia of Cohen's oh-so-famous lost lover laments. Musical director Charles jazzes up LC's tunes to make them a lot less "drone-y" than he is famous for. Surprise stylings galore pop off Charles' arranger's notepad, notably the chirpily up-tempo "Closing Time". "Suzanne" countrified with cello and banjo was a treat. As last year, the layered harmonies of "Marianne" were tight tight tight. And I can never tire of "First We Take Manhattan" done in 2:2 rock double time. More whimsical and less Teutonic than Jennifer Warnes' famous cover of it with its jackboot heel-clicks echoing underneath.

Indeed, it's the cabaret collection of cover songs deconstructed from Cohen's originals that are then re-synthasized with a dizzying array of instruments : banjo, accordion, tambourine, blues harp (a.k.a. harmonica), double acoustic bass, electric bass, violin, cello, electric guitars, acoustic guitar with pick-up mic, drums, ukulele, keyboard piano and organ and if my ears didn't deceive, an off-stage mandolin plink'd once or twice for good measure. Each of the cast play a slew of these instruments in this talent jamboree of theirs.

Poor ol' Lenny, gotta love him : The leitmotif of Leonard Cohen's lyrics and poetry is always rejection, loss, hoped-for redemption. "I cannot follow you, my love / You cannot follow me. / I am the distance you put between / All of the moments that we will be" he mourns. Reminiscent of Dave Matthews' haunting song "The Space Between". Love is real, physical, metaphysical and lyrical always. "Now I am too thin and your love is too vast." Or, "Lover come back to me [repeated seven times] / Let me start again, I cried." Which of course is but the flip-side to "I know from your eyes and your smile / Tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine / For awhile." Or this priceless line : "I heard of a saint who loved you / He taught that the duty of lovers / Is to tarnish the Golden Rule" -- done richly and memorably by Kelly and Power. 

Indeed, LC's entire oeuvre is what I would term "universal self-indulgence". It's that universality in our common western 1st- world experiences that rescues some lyrics from a bend toward banality. 

Music highlights : To start the second act Kelly sings "Chelsea Hotel #2" with a clarity and sensitivity and poignancy and subtlety I quite frankly don't remember him achieving a year ago. He does the same at show's end with "Bird on a Wire" with its romantic opener "Like a bird on a wire / Or a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free...". Bravo!

Another of my favourite Charles arrangements was "That's No Way To Say Good-bye". The Cowboy Junkies style is spot on with string bass and banjo. Superb stuff. Many of the exchanges musically and dramatically are very touching between Kelly and Ginader as various iterations of Cohen's star-crossed lovers. 

For his part, Elliott at moments almost steals the show acting as Kayvon's muse and conscience. Aberle and Power choreograph well indeed the twin angels / devils forever teasing and taunting the show's self-absorbed cad of a protagonist. Steve Charles' singing and string-play throughout are champion. The cacophonous "Hallelujah!" at the end starts off wonderfully jarring, then resolves into its original melodious self to finish off.

Production values : Once again Power's choreography was clever, engaging and utterly in synch with the McMahen set. No corner of the homey Firehall stage was left out of the exuberant action. Designer Barbara Clayden stitched together an eclectic mix of plain-jane off-the-rack twills and Converse runners plus circus get-ups and cocktail waitress black-&-whites and funky ribbon'd hair for lover Ginader. The white-face make-up throughout on most of the cast added a neat thematic hue. Ted Roberts' lighting aided all the right moves at all the right times. Slight mic-ing sound balance problems in act one -- Ms. Power's mic particularly all but screeched. But problem solved by Act 2. 

Who gonna like : No doubt there are scores of folks who find Leonard Cohen's writing not only self-indulgent but mawkish and melodramatic. I am not one of those. Tracey Power's script produced by Donna Spencer is a true joy to watch jump into action.  Chelsea Hotel is entertainment that not only excites and thrills both eye and ear, it displays all the verve and spunk and spice of Vancouver's rising stars of the future. Move over, Boomers, the next wonderful wave of stage performers is not only at the door but right in front of you in a Must see! performance.

Particulars : Chelsea Hotel : The Songs of Leonard Cohen at the Firehall Arts Centre theatre, 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until January 3, 2015, Box Office 604.689.0926.

Production Team : Artistic Director / Producer Donna Spencer.  Creator / Director / Choreographer Tracey Power.  Musical Director and Arranger Steven Charles.  Set Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden. Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Sound Designer Xavier Berbudeau.  Stage Manager Jaimie Tait.  Apprentice Stage Manager Emma Hammond.  Assistant Stage Manager Jillian Perry.

Featured Actors :  Rachel Aberle.  Steve Charles.  Marlene Ginader.  Tracey Power. Ben Elliott.  Kayvon Kelly.

Appendices :  

The Vancouver connection in the Janis / Cohen story

The dubious get-on between Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen occurred shortly after Janis's final Big Brothers and the Holding Company concert here in Vancouver at the Coliseum in October, '68. The band formally dissolved at midnight. Warm-up for them that night was a newbie group called Chicago Transit Authority. Their big-band instrumentals, reminiscent of David Clayton Thomas's Blood, Sweat & Tears, excited the crowd. Soon CTA would become, simply, Chicago, after the actual bus & elevated train company CTA sued them over name copywright. Personally I enjoyed the band CTA much more than I did Big Brother : Janis was uber-pissy on a quart of Southern Comfort bourbon, a x3 or x4 margin above her normal altitude and cruising speed. I can still hear the words "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz" : they sounded mushy, sort of like "Lorne, wonja buy me a moozhiging frien'?". It wouldn't be long before Janis' last moozhiging frien' was a needle stick in a 2nd class L.A. motel room.

Backdrop to the show's title

The Chelsea Hotel in NYC has been a famous and favourite drop-in home for artists of all sorts ever since it opened back in 1885 and was, for one brief shining moment, NYC's tallest building. Joni Mitchell's chipper & cheery "Chelsea Morning" gave the place rock start status, though its fame had earlier been marked, darkly, when poet Dylan Thomas died there on a grey November day in 1953 after bragging about the 17 or 18 or 19 whiskies he'd just finished polishing off at his favourite watering hole the White Horse Tavern up the street. 

The 250-room 12-storey Victorian gothic with iron brocade balconies gained further notoriety when punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there in 1978. (Out on bail, Vicious himself would die in Greenwich Village of a heroin overdose just five months later. The investigation into the murder in Room 100 at The Chelsea was promptly abandoned by NYPD and never proven or solved.)

Cohen stayed at The Chelsea in the late 60's along with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, when Cohen was chasing them around The Big Smoke to absorb their genius. This was around the time the Canadian National Film Board championed the emerging Montreal persona. His metier was poetry in those days that he shared both in books and in coffee house gigs. The NFB put out a 16mm black-&-white bio-pic I used to show my senior high English students, Ladies and Gentlemen : Introducing Mr. Leonard Cohen. Clever and amusing, the flick includes Cohen bathing in a clawfoot tub at a seedy Montreal hotel while he smirks at the lens and writes the words caveat emptor on the bathroom wall as a kind of warning to viewers about all this precious fooferaw over him. But music was bursting in Cohen's breast, too, not just poetry, and NYC was where those times were a-happenin' and a-changin'. 

Best description of the hotel from Cohen's time there came from someone named Nicola L. in a 2013 Vanity Fair article by Nathaniel Rich entitled "Where The Walls Still Talk". Quoth she : "Anything could happen... It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can't remember which. It was a crazy time." 

"Hallelujah" out-take : 

Cohen's iconic 1984 spellbinder "Hallelujah" reportedly had some 80 (!) original verses to it. After years of slashing and re-writing, Cohen managed to bring it down to just seven. Its final two verses perhaps say all Cohen himself might, ultimately, want to conclude about his life as a writer and performer:

"There's a blaze of light in every word / It doesn't matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.../ I did my best...I've told the truth...And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before The Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

k.d. lang's performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is probably unmatchable among some 300 other covers of the song that media journals report as having been recorded, one of the more recent by Rufus Wainwright in his best-hits album "Vibrate" from last year.