Thursday, 26 March 2015

Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike a fun mash-up

Background notes :  Playwright Christopher Durang's 2012 play is not, he insists, a satire about the doomed Russian writer Anton Chekhov who succumbed to tuberculosis after lifelong suffering at age 44 (1904). And while his primary characters all snitch Chekhov names, they are not based directly on Chekhov's people. The brooding gloom and despair of Russia's fading Czardom gives way to Durang's Boomer malaise of angst and anomie and existential neurosis run amok. Which moods are fueled and exacerbated by the characters' greater attraction to their memories and lost lives -- or to to-day's virtual seduction of electronica -- than they are to one another. "My play is not a Chekhov parody... I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them in a blender," Durang told Playbill's Harry Haun a couple years back.

Indeed, while Chekhov's folks pined away on the Steppes -- despairing both of and for hope -- Durang's cluster of malcontents in VSMS down anti-depressants for Rx-based life solutions instead. Durang laughingly notes through sister Sonia : "If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about."

Storyline is serious silliness :  The chief story-line involves three siblings, V-S-&-M. Each was given a Chekhovian name by their former university professor parents, who also mucked about in community theatre productions where they lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Mom & Dad fetched this bunch up in a rambling old farmhouse they couldn't afford as time wore on and pensions got squeezed. Its mortgage and upkeep for years, now, have been looked after by younger sister Masha, a fading actress from The Big City whose mirror has cracked with age. She's a 40- or 50-something ex-hottie.

Vanya and sister Sonia -- who was adopted at eight and wears that fact like a scarlet letter, or a noose -- have spent their adult lives together taking a stipend from Masha and nursing Mom and Dad until the final curtain rang down on each of them from Alzheimer's. Thus Vanya and Sonia have not themselves, it seems, ever really lived their own lives. When Masha arrives for a surprise visit, she is by now a 5-marriage veteran. After years of absence she parachutes in with boy toy Spike, 20+ years her junior, in tow -- he a one-time bit-part film actor who "almost got" a second role years back. Masha says she is not only a broken actress but a broke one at that. She threatens to sell the farm with its cluster of 10 cherry trees that they all argue might, or might not, an orchard quite make. 

Vanya and Sonia are thrown into a mid-life tizzy at the prospect of losing their bucolic jail cell. Having to face their lifelong ennui and inertia at last is a menacing prospect. Particularly now that Vanya, 57, has but recently admitted to Sonia he is (an unrequited) gay. Sonia, 52, has never had a lover, either, of any gender. Except each other as Bickerton twins whose chief skill is nattery at one another.

Two other characters spice up the action : housekeeper Cassandra who looks through a glass darkly to peer into the recesses of the future (and like her Greek namesake, is not believed). Along the way their neighbours' niece, a wishful actress named Nina, shinnies on by and befriends "Uncle Vanya". Masha feels threatened by this newby. But they're all invited to a costume party up the road. At Masha's insistence she leads the troupe dressed as Disney's Snow White. The rest are decked out as others from that movie. The second act starts after they return and must face whatever "new world order" stares at them the morning after.

Script's punchy one-liners amuse heartily : From the get-go Durang's script magnetizes viewers. Swiping one-liners from various Chekhov scripts such as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters, Sonia (Susinn McFarlen) has the best bits. When Vanya (Jay Brazeau) snipes that his coffee's coolish this morning, Sonia fires away : "I have two pleasant moments in my life and one of them is bringing you fucking coffee!", seconds before she smashes his cup on the floor. "I'm in mourning for my life!" she moans. When Vanya scolds her she responds sullenly : "That was just my 'I hate my life and I hate you!' response. It's a reflex."

Enter their weekly housekeeper Cassandra (Carmen Aguirre) who talks of her "curse", to see shadows, warning darkly of one Hootie Pie about to disturb their familiar habits. "I see calamity lurking up the driveway -- oh, magical mystery tour!" she predicts.

Masha (Anna Galvin) descends with Spike (Robert Salvador), and the zingers fly fast and furious. She greets them with her easy sisterly sarcasm "You both look the same, older, sadder, but the same." Sonia complains how Masha has always outshone her and Masha doesn't miss a beat : "You often outshine me -- when I'm not here you outshine me!" Sonia tells her "My only relationship with men is at the check-out when they say 'Here's your change, sweetheart.'" Part neo-Chekhov, part Woody Allen, part Neil Simon, Durang's snappy dialogue (and a couple of well-hewn monologues) propel the action forward in choice lurches and burps right through to the end.

Acting moments aplenty here : VSMS was directed tightly and cleverly by Rachel Ditor. Her staging of the cast had the Stanley crowd rollicking and giggling galore on opening night. 

As Sonia, McFarlen displayed marvelous reach and grasp of comic timing in bemoaning her fate : "I'm a wild turkey!" she declares repeatedly in reference (from Three Sisters) to turkeys that regularly fall out of trees and die. As noted, Durang's best scriptwork is hers to utter. McFarlen nails, almost breathtakingly, a monologue at the end where a would-be suitor from the costume party, Joe, calls her Evil Queen / Maggie Smith out-take "glamorous". "You're calling me because you like me? How odd," Sonia says to the unseen, unheard Joe with pure touching surprise and not a wit of irony.

Loudest applause at curtain was reserved for Carmen Aguirre's Cassandra. Her sustained self-trances commenced with the word "Ohhhh!" bletched forth gutterally for 45 seconds each time, the sound somewhere between a gag reflex and a death moan. Coupled with her flip snips of sarchasm -- the abyss between who utters sarcasm and the recipients who don't get it [Urban Dictionary] --which were prime. When she enters Act 2 with her voodoo rattle and doll to torment Masha (and dissuade her from selling the farm), Aguirre was Gilda Radner unplugged.

Jay Brazeau made the perfect choice to play "Uncle Vanya". Portly, kindly, wisely he acts as foil for both Sonia and Masha with understated comic turns. His sustained monologue at play's end -- arguably Durang's "purpose" in writing the piece, to whinge and kvetch at the Millennials' life of cyber-playthings and virtual reality -vs- Boomer memories of Old Yeller and the Mickey Mouse Club and Howdy Doody on t.v. plus hand-written letters in a time when people licked stamps, not peeled them -- Brazeau's sustained verbal blitz at Spike earned spontaneous mid-scene applause.

As Masha, Anna Galvin gave her part every centimetre of irony Durang intended to depict a narcissist on a downward arc straight from her history of B-movie sex flix in Hollywood. Mr. Salvador's "reverse strip tease" as Spike -- putting his clothes back on after strutting about in his blue gaunch much of the night -- was show-stealing hilarity, as was his air guitar exit stage left. Pure unmitigated male ditz. Between the two of them one could not help but conjure Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher in their horny phase. Katey Hoffman as the star-struck wannabe actor was all charm and innocence.

Production values aid & abet : Veteran set designer Alison Green produced perhaps the most convincing and realistic and all-embracing set I have witnessed in three seasons at the Stanley, and there have been many of excellence. The cutaway Pennsylvania farmhouse with exposed rafters and dormers and faux riverstone pony walls and chimney plus rattan settees was unimprovable. As lit by Adrian Muir, the set utterly engaged the eye. Sheila White's costumes were perfect : Vanya and Sonia in their frumpy morning bedclothes could not have been more telling of their comfy familiarity together.

Who gonna like : This is manic mainstage comic fare that Vancouver audiences will surely line up to see. Sonia and Vanya's wailing arias about lost life, lost opportunity, lost identity were delivered with rich comic edge. While Durang's script was overly long-ish and had, oh, maybe three-too-many references to Ozzie & Harriet as that halcyon time in their childhoods, fact is the Ditor production aims for laughs, shoots smartly and accurately, and kills no innocent bystanders along the way. The crowd opening night ranged from age 10 to 85, and there wasn't a downturned mouth to be seen at the exit doors.

Particulars :  Written by Christopher Durang.  67th Tonys Best Play award in 2013, same kudos as well from the Drama Critics' Circle. From March 19-April 19 at the Stanley Theatre on South Granville. Run-time 2 1/2 hours with intermission. Schedules and tickets via artsclub.com or telephone 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Rachel Ditor.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Costume Designer Sheila White.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Sound Designer Murray Price.  Stage Manager Allison Spearing.  Assistant Stage Managers Ronaye Haynes, Peter Jotkus.

Performers :  Carmen Aguirre.  Jay Brazeau.  Anna Galvin.  Katey Hoffman.  Susinn McFarlen.  Robert Salvador.


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Saturday, 21 March 2015

WGT's Laburnum Grove reading is cheery stuff


Twice a year Western Gold Theatre mounts what they call "studio productions" at the Performing Arts Lodge (PAL) 8th floor studio theatre. They are elaborate readings -- the players all hold scripts in-hand -- but replete with period costumes, sets and full-out blocking of stage movement. Their current two-hour production that opened Friday and closes Sunday is of the J.B. Priestly (a.k.a. Priestley) 1933 script Laburnum Grove set in Depression-weary North London.

Background notes on the playwright : J. B. Priestly died at age 89 in the very year his contemporary George Orwell set as the stage for his masterpiece Big Brother novel 1984. Orwell's book of rampant privacy invasion and liberty suppression by Government spawned the eponymous adjective "orwellian" that many apply to the Harper government anti-terrorism Bill C-51. But I digress. There is, meanwhile, no parallel adjective "priestlyian". This despite the fact the man was a giant of letters in his time. Some have called him "the last sage of English literature". 

Priestly's tally included some 120 books and 50 play scripts. Wiki tells us that between ages 70-84 he published no fewer than 21 (!books, including histories, critical essays and novels. But he wasn't just an ink-stained-wretch wedded to his black steel Underwood : during World War II he was also known as the voice of the people for BBC radio. He made chipper and cheering weekly patriotic broadcasts for them throughout the war. Comforting words spewed forth once the smoke from his omnipresent tobacco pipe had cleared.

No, there is no adjective "priestlyian" probably because the man was generally upbeat : clearly he drank from a glass perpetually half-full. His belief was that a writer should maintain an "ironic detachment" from the goings-on all 'round. Priestly aimed his works -- like his American counterpart composer Aaron Copland -- at the common man.  Neither the snoots and snots and puffed-up tots of polite society nor those bolshies from academe who brag they are society's intelligentsia were his target audience. Just plain Jack and Jill Bloke were his people. In that context it is interesting to note he was an avid supporter of CND -- the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament -- whose peace symbol 75 years later is still the ubiquitous badge sported by teens and college kids.

Why a renaissance of Priestly ? : In a world of terror politics that are our daily fare, the middle-brow well-made-play has an attraction for folks wanting divertissement without significant cranial gymnastics. Amusement that is catchy but not goading or heavy-handed. A comedy of manners with a whiff of social commentary attached just to niggle and tweak.

Laburnum Grove was published the year Adolf Hitler rose to power in tumultuous Europe. Across the saltchuck in Blighty, by comparison, life was still in mid-Depression struggles though starting to show signs of recovery, as the saying has it, in stits-&-farts.

Enter George Redfern of the shady, ambient North London comfort zone in Shooter's Green, Ferndale and its lazy, cozy sidestreet village of Laburnum Grove. Genial George, a successful wholesale paper supplier, seems to have but one worry : whether his tomato crop will prosper in London's notorious rainy-damp climate.

But George has company at home. In-laws and wannabes and would-be hand-out seekers who have outstayed their welcome by days or weeks, not just hours. Daughter Elsie's fiance Harold wants set-up money to drive a used car lot. Brother-in-law Bernie Baxley wants to jumpstart a business supply agency : a mere 450 quid would do the trick right smartly, he pleads. 

Over dinner George hucks a rotten tomato at them : I've given up the boring paper supply business in favour of producing high-quality counterfeit bonds and notes with a criminal gang, he tells them. A kind of 1930's "quantitative easing" by pumping more currency into circulation. And from there the shenanigans and hijinx proceed. 

Harold, seemingly aghast at the prospect of marrying into "dirty money", cancels his engagement to Elsie. George asks Baxley and wife Lucy to take the heartbroken Elsie off to see a West End gangster flick, gives them a couple of (counterfeit?!) notes to fund their fun night out.

When George's wife Dorothy arrives back home and hears the story, she convinces all that George was just funnin' with them to get their goat and send them scurrying for cover so as not to be "accessories". Convinced now they were duped by George, Harold renews his marriage plea to Elsie. Bernie and Lucy revive their business start-up beg. Forsaking George was easy and convenient when his wealth was thought tainted. Accepting and loving George is easy and convenient, once again, when his wealth was laundered anew. For the moment at least.

Message sent over the wireless :  Albeit written two decades before my own suburban youth on this continent, Laburnum Grove speaks to the same hypocrisies and grievances we lobbed at our parents' generation once we became know-it-all collegians in the 60's. How beneath the veneer of respectability and self-righteous good works lurked deceits and grifter schemes and social infidelities galore, despite everyone's straight-&-narrow facade of conformity and pious Sundays.

Priestly mines these themes for all they're worth but does so with only slightly more irony than one would find in a typical "Father Knows Best" t.v. episode. Indeed his writing instantly brings to mind the famous Horace Walpole quote from half-a-century earlier : "The world is comic to those who think / And tragic to those who feel." Priestly was mostly a thinking man, no question.

Production values : The nine actors in Laburnum Grove only joined forces for the first time on the PAL stage on Tuesday, three days back, to put this show together. A cast member admitted they were still blocking bits of the action as late as this afternoon. So the fact they could pull off an engaging and commendable performance -- and give Priestly his due in such a compressed time-frame -- is a remarkable feat for each one of them, surely. But impossible without the steady focus'd hand and eye of director Anna Hagan to guide them each step of the way.  

Notable character nuances were provided most obviously by Pippa Johnstone as the ingenue daughter Elsie, while her mother Dorothy by Susan Hogan gave viewers a warming Judy Dench-like turn. Brendan McClarty as the boffo "man from Singapore" Bernard was a spot-on lazy lout. Dad George played by Keith Martin Gordey kept the crowd guessing throughout, engagingly, what was truthiness -vs- what was factoid about the source of his value(s). 

Thanks to the generous assistance of properties master Michael Gall of the Arts Club Theatre and others, the theatre-in-the-round set was a convincing sitting / dining room approximation of the times. Costumes were great Sally Ann vintage, each one, the hint of mothballs ever near the pastiche of pleats & ruffles & tweeds and their attendant mix of stripes, plaids and prints. 

Who gonna like : Small theatre fans will enjoy to see how nine actors in a 20 X 30 foot space can entertain so effectively. Folks eager to escape t.v.'s nightly newsreel horrors will appreciate J. B. Priestly's ironic flip 80 years on. Students of stage art (of any age) who want to appreciate and grin broadly as they enjoy what focus and energy and enthusiasm can achieve in the right hands with the right script in just 72 hours time will learn much from this fun piece of business.

Particulars : Produced and presented by Western Gold Theatre. At the PAL Studio Theatre through Sunday. 581 Cordero Street. Phone 604.255.4313 for schedules and tickets. Or patch into the site www.WesternGoldTheatre.org for more info.

Production crew :  Director Anna Hagan.  Set Designers Glenn MacDonald & R. Todd Parker.  Lighting Designer Terence Kelly.  Sound Designer & Stage Manager Chris Allan.  Assistant Stage Manager R. Todd Parker.  Box Office Jane Clayton.  Graphics/Web/Print Joseph Emms.  Photographer Jason Kanyo.  PAL Theatre Manager Astrid Sars.  PAL Technical Director Nathan Hoffman.

Performers :  Tanja Dixon-Warren.  Keith Martin Gordey.  Ron Halder.  Brett Harris.  Susan Hogan.  Pippa Johnstone.  Victor Mariano.  Brendan McClarty.  John Prowse. 


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Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Mozart & Salieri = whimsy, genius & pure delight

Backstory to the show : Most people who think of the Mozart and Salieri story immediately conjure the Peter Shaffer script Amadeus, taken from Mozart's middle name that means, in Latin, "loved by God". The 1984 movie directed by Milos Forman was a runaway success : it garnered eight Academies. Well, Mr. Shaffer, move over. Vancouver's Seven Tyrants Theatre group is without doubt the new champion storyteller of this tale.

Neither Shaffer nor 7TT creators David Newham and Daniel Deorksen came up with this potboiler of a plot on their own, of course. Stage folk are all well aware of the original 1830 mini-play (two scenes, seven pages of dialogue) by Alexander Pushkin and the 1897 opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov based on it. It's how 7TT treats the material that's so different.

The story is simple : chief operatic composer to the Viennese court in the late 1700's, Antonio Salieri -- at least how the myths would have it -- was utterly jealous of the genius of his younger contemporary Mozart. He figured the only way his own musical masterstrokes would ever survive would be if Mozart were killed off in his prime. And how better but by beguiling him with a freebie dinner and drink, and then poisoning his wine.

Talk about an operatic storyline : it is reported Salieri was not exonerated of the "poison plot" allegation until an Italian court did so, officially, in 1997, fully 206 years after Mozart wrote his last note. (Meanwhile death by rheumatic fever seems to be the most infectious theory to-day.)

No question Shaffer's play and subsequent movie were sumptuous -- less kindly critics have called them "bloated". In the hands of Messrs. Newham and Deorksen, by contrast, the story of these two music men is whimsical, imaginatively rich, and short. They do better in 75 minutes what Shaffer's celluloid version required some three hours to view.

The fun of 7TT's version : In a manner similar to their loudly applauded Beggar's Opera production of 2014, Newham and Deorksen have structured this year's 3-hander to be a show "celebrating absurdity" in Deorksen's words. There are five "Fantasias" that roll out chunks of the Pushkin play.

In each Fantasia, the show's stars perform snitches and slabs of both Wolfie's creations and those of Salieri. Mozart (Masae Day) does turns on violin and piano with equal theatric finesse, while Salieri (David Whiteley) performs just as well on the viola -- symbolically as well as factually "second fiddle" to Mozart.

But stitching their stories together and encircling them with joyous abandon is a character called The Player (Cate Richardson) whose soprano chops give us the show's narrator. Dressed as a hottie harlequin in nylons and garters and peacock wings, The Player intro's each Fantasia with some story exposition and lyric funnin', telling the audience from the start that "this is a twisted version of the tale you think you know".

As the story unfolds : Salieri refers to himself as a "craftsman" who labours away grindingly in Mozart's spontaneous shadow. He laments : "I was content, at peace, I took quiet pride in my work." By contrast he says Mozart is "some celestial cherub who came to bring us several tunes from Heaven".

Along the way there's a delicious tavern interlude where Wolfie and The Player join forces in a rubadub pick-up rendition of The Turkish March. That Mozart plays a squeezebox pretty well sums up this goofy and charming bit of cabaret. Their silliness only infuriates Salieri, however. "You are unworthy of yourself!" he exclaims, and what follows is a sardonic soliloquy reminiscent of the chant "This Jesus this Jesus this Jesus must die!" from Superstar. He is consumed by his "destiny". He crescendo's his jealousy and proceeds to kill off his nemesis all the while professing brotherly love and admiration. Does so while Mozart plays for him his final creation, appropriately, the Requiem in D minor.

Production values galore : Any criticism of this wonderful piece of theatre would be to pick at very small nits indeed. I shan't bother. I can only exult at its creative imagination. In musical director Deorksen's notes he states "I found powerful justification to twist and turn the sanctified classical compositions however we needed." Snatches of Muppet-y music from Sesame Street, gospel strains from N'Awlins, and shoo-be-do-be-do early rock tunes punctuate the original score in ways that made me grin with joy.

As for characterizations, in production director Newham's words "I wanted the focus of the play put on our shared modern experience of Mozart's image, his legend and, of course, his music...Therefore I wanted the audience to see Mozart as Salieri sees Mozart : as a child, a genius, and a monster."

While Richardson as The Player had the most pronounced role given her wild costumes and singing prowess, Day as Mozart was engaging and endearing and a giggly treat. As Salieri, Whiteley brought the appropriate gloom and high dudgeon to his part, at times seeming to channel Steven van Zandt of Soprano's fame.

Three other aspects of the show need mention however. Costume designer Ines Ortner was positively inspired in her outfitting of each of the characters. The Mozart and Salieri capes and wigs and leggings were spot on. And speaking of spots. David Newham's lighting design with its red and green and blue and yellow backlit scrim, its Aurora Borealis moments and the individual spots (and dark lights) on each player were utterly right each moment of the show. Choreographer Catherine Burnett executed her challenge marvelously. From the Chaplinesque stealth of Wolfie sneaking to his grand piano to the pixie prances of all three to The Player's struts offset by 5th position poses, the blocking and stage business were sheer fun to watch.

Who gonna like : If you don't like classical music; if you don't know anything whatever about Mozart; if Salieri is a name utterly foreign to you. Well, you could still derive some pleasure out of this for all the production values noted above. But some "likes" and knowledge in the preceding categories would help. As well as having seen Amadeus along the way just to know what all the kerfuffle about these two guys is all about. 

For those who have some grounding in these areas, well, I really can't say quite enough. This is intimate small theatre entertainment of the most creative and exciting kind. For Vancouverites who like to kvetch that the local scene is too mainstream for them, this is must see! entertainment. A more engaging night of sheer originality and punch and fun I can't quite imagine.

Particulars : Produced by Seven Tyrants Theatre.  Created by Daniel Deorksen and David Newham.  Adapted by David Newham from Alexander Pushkin's classic play as translated by Genia Gurarie.  Musical score by Daniel Deorksen inspired by the works of Wolfgang [Amadeus] Mozart and Antonio Salieri. At the Jericho Arts Centre until March 14. Run-time 75 minutes, no intermission. Phone 1.877.840.0457 for schedules and tickets.

Production crew : Director David Newham.  Music Director Daniel Deorksen.  Assistant Music Director Phyllis Ho.  Choreographer Catherine Burnett.  Costume Designer Ines Ortner. Stage Manager Susan Currie.  Assistant Stage Manager Sandra Yee.  Lighting Designer David Newham.  Seamstress Joanne Raymont.  Publicist Marnie Wilson. Box Office Manager Linden Banks. 

Performers : Masae Day. Cate Richardson. David Whiteley.

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Saturday, 7 March 2015

Sister Judy tackles Jesus, love & commitment

Backdrop to the play : In a time of worldwide terrorism, jihad! and the beheading of Christians on the shores of Tripoli, a play that debates the tenets of New Testament theology might be sentimental-&-quaint -- or possibly just irrelevant. Until one focuses on the L-word behind it all : love. And then it has the power to magnetize.

Sister Judy is a local piece by former Nova Scotian Shawn Macdonald who once upon a time pulled a stint at a Catholic university back there studying theology and philosophy (as did this reviewer at a Baptist college in Michigan a lifetime ago). His play was eight years in the birthing from its original conception, finally championed for production this season as an Arts Club's Silver Commissions Project.

At first blush the plot is fairly basic. Sister Judy Maclean [Jenny Wasko-Paterson] teaches religious history at a Catholic university somewhere east of Eden. Father Frank Sweeney [Mike Wasko] is her bosom buddy (and, incidentally, real-life spouse). On Friday evenings the two of them swap single malts and foot-rubs and social jib-jab in Judy's campus office, her refuge. Enter Ruth [Lili Beaudoin], a chippy chirpy teenage Frosh nerd. She announces herself a big-time fan of Judy's copious scholarship about the emergence of Christianity from the time of St. Paul up to Emperor Constantine. It was Constantine's Nicene Creed in the early 4th Century, of course, that established Christianity as the official religion of the occidental world.  

Frank, for his part, has recently begun to question the Vatican's claim to be the world's "one true religion". He grapples with Jesus-as-Christ 
-vs- Jesus-the-Jewish-carpenter. Is it right that Rome's official messengers must be celibate priests and nuns nearly 1,700 years later, he wonders? As he decamps Judy's refuge the first Friday in September he asks / tells her : "Don't worry about me, pray for me!"

Judy struggles to respond with "faith statements" to the challenges thrown at her both by the ingenue Ruth and the starting-to-lapse Frank. "Love," she proclaims, "is the most important thing ever. It feeds us and creates for us what we are all looking for. Without Jesus, there is no love, only a universe of lost and broken souls."

Ruth stumbles up to Judy's lecturn weeping after the first lecture of the year. She starts to blubber spontaneously about how confused and lonely she is. Judy jumps in and asks her if she's struggling with her faith. Ruth doesn't answer. Tears come. Words fail. They agree to meet later. And from there the play unfolds.

Debates drive the dialogue : On one level, the play canvasses some traditional debates that have long raged in the Christian community : institutional devotion and faith -vs- the "personhood" of both Jesus and contemporary followers. When Judy challenges Frank, who is boycotting his duties, "What about the the mass, what about the liturgy?" Frank spits back : "What about me? As long as we say the magic words every day the church doesn't give a good goddamn! It's God's curse -- He's really great! the greatest! -- but I can't feel His arms around me."

Re-enter Ruth. She throws all sorts of intellectual spitballs at Sister Judy's defence of the Church and its doctrines. Judy's intrigued by this precocious student who, socially, is a cork bobbing in an ocean of Frosh beer and frat parties she's trying desperately to avoid. Ruth tells her how her mother died when she was just seven. And her dad is a social misfit who retired from his psychiatric practice so he could marry one of his patients. Judy is touched by these tales. She invites Ruth to dinner one Friday. Judy sees herself in this role as Ruth's "sister" Judy and her surrogate mom, both. "May our friendship be long and a safe place for both of us," Judy tells Ruth in a piece of consummate foreshadowing.

In vino veritas : Unlikely as it seems given their respective roles as professor and student, Judy and Ruth commence dinner with Judy pounding back the zinfandel as if compressing a decade of communion cups into a single night's vespers. Ruth takes advantage of Judy's growing inebriation. She digs into her past as a teenager, as student, as, possibly, an ex-girlfriend or lover of boys before she took the holy vows. At one point, looking at Ruth's tattoos, Judy implies Ruth may be gay. "Gay!?" Ruth explodes. "Just because I think guys my age are idiots, does that make me a dike? Just because you think I'm a sad little screwed-up orphan girl?"

The conversation focuses on Ruth's robust skepticism about Judy's "mystical union with Christ". Liturgy, love, and life's lost stories all get a vigorous verbal workout and crescendo. The play builds to a resounding climax that reveals core truths about who each of Judy and Ruth and Frank really are at the moment, at this point along life's path. But also who they were during other sidetrack jaunts in their lives. Where, possibly, their apocalyptic revelations will lead. Back to church and its liturgies and sanctuary? Forward down more personal spiritual paths? Together, alone, who's to tell.

Production values : Sister Judy is first-rate drama. Its characters are real and believable. Their struggles resonate. Its theme is as timeless as time. In playwright Macdonald's words : "Our fear of the unknown, of 'living in the question,' prevents us from relaxing our grip on our truth. We live our entire lives out of that truth and make all kinds of decisions and choices designed to keep that truth alive, and 'the question' at bay." 

When "truth" is based on words rather than on the tender touch of lovers, friends and family -- when it's hooked to the idea of love rather than to raw impulse and the viscera of our guts -- the choices we make may generate loss and scar tissue and spiritual isolation instead, Macdonald seems to say.

Lots of kudos to Director Patrick McDonald for his obvious inspiration to his characters. As Ruth, Lili Beaudoin revealed terrific emotional power and thrust. Her skills will adorn many a Vancouver stage in years to come. An exceptional Brava! performance of breadth and depth and sheer energy. 

Jenny Wasko-Paterson gave Sister Judy an emotionally tight and nuanced turn. To "stage" inebriation in its phases as she did -- both physically and emotionally -- is plain hard to do convincingly.

Mike Wasko as Frank, still a virgin at midlife -- wondering whether he should just continue to masturbate and go to confession the rest of his days or take the plunge, doff his collar and sign up for singles' cruises -- was spot-on in showing us how love is more than an idea and a verse.

Only one aspect of the afternoon's delight troubled me. The sheer bulk of the upstage scrim behind centre stage. Ted Roberts' creation of Sister Judy's "refuge office" stage left was perfect in its clutter and intimacy of ideas stacked willy-nilly. And her dining room stage right in the nunnery was rich in its aged brocade feel. But that damn scrim. Too-wide by six to eight feet! i.m.o. The distance between the office and the dining room was disconcertingly and distractingly large : the eye wanted the set scrunched together, more intimate. But such is mere quibble. Overall the set had Roberts' magical touches that are his trademark and for which I have long championed him.

Who gonna like : It probably wouldn't hurt for folks to have a wee footing in Christian practice and tradition to derive full measure from Shawn Macdonald's clever creation here. But "it ain't necessarily so", as the old lyric has it. Because the power of the performance comes from its subtitle -- "A Love Story" -- and love whether talked about in Scripture or poems or novels or the lyrics of pop music or, better yet, acted out in person, love is always magnetizing as I said at the start. This last production at the Revue Theatre before next season at the new Olympic Village civic venue is an inviting and engaging and utterly rewarding 90 minutes of drama and stage excellence. 

Particulars.  Created and written by Shawn Macdonald.  At the Revue Stage, Granville Island through March 21st. Show duration 90 minutes, no intermission. Performance schedules and tickets via 604.687.1644 or www.artsclub.com.

Production crew.   Director Patrick McDonald.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Darryl Milot.  Lighting Designer Martin Conboy.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Apprentice Stage Manager Fernanda de Maio Teixeira.

Performers.  Lili Beaudoin.  Mike Wasko.  Jenny Wasko-Paterson.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Ribcage explores au courant Canadian themes

Performance backdrop : Creator / performer Heather Hermant originally embarked on the Ribcage : This Wide Passage project while researching the history of a cross-dressing French Jewish woman from 1738. The first Jew reportedly to have set foot in what 130 years later would become Canada. All this recorded in Quebec City archives and referenced in a 1926 publication The Jew in Canada that was in her grandparents' library. 

One Esther Brandeau presented herself in Catholic Quebec as a Christian male, Jacques La Fargue, ostensibly to blend into the brave new world across the Atlantic being populated and exploited for its riches. While the "how" is not a matter of public record, fact is Brandeau / La Fargue was "outed" as a gender-crosser. Her "passer" credential was unmasqued. In the process her being a Jew and not a Christian was "outed", too. When she refused to convert to Catholicism she was promptly deported. And there her history ("herstory") stops dead in its tracks.

What fascainated Hermant in her research about Esther was Brandeau's "multi-crossings" occurred some 275 years ago -- not in our contemporary world of sexual befuddlement and "gender search". Female to male, Jew to Christian, Euro to Brave New World. For herself, Hermant is not only of Jewish-Christian roots, she refers to her own "queerness" as centrally self-defining too (she uses none of the expressions "gay", "LGBTQ" nor "lesbian" to describe herself : queer is what she says she is.)

Creator's creative biases : Hermant, not unlike writer Joseph Boyden in The Orenda, is fascinated by first peoples and the post-contact world we now know as Canada (the word derives from the Iroquois word kanata, meaning "village" or "gathering place"). Ribcage, she noted in a Canadian Theatre Review (CTR) article in 2013 "takes seriously the indigeneity of the place we now call Canada and interculturality is a profound commitment to co-witnessing the past in the present."

Hermant is nothing if not serious. A researcher, scholar, educator and performance poet, she is more than just intrigued, nay, seemingly obsessed with how history informs the present and how first footsteps from the past pursue us centuries later. 

In the CTR article she also notes : "[Ribcage] captures my search for a queer history of place compelled by the queer...resonances I found with her/his story. It is a search for my belonging(s) as a queer and as a child of a Christian-Jewish family whose origins cross the language/cultural divides of the first settler communities on Turtle Island." (Turtle Island is the name given to North America by various first peoples' groups as part of their religio-geo-mythos.)

What this performance looks like : Ribcage is not a "play" per se. It is a performance work. It is poetry slam writ soft. It is a videography. It is avant garde dance & rhythmic movement. It is biography. It is exploration. It is incantation. It is a meditation. It is kaddish (a mourner's prayer). Just so. 

In a current interview with Olga Livshim for the Jewish Independent, Hermant describes Ribcage similarly : "It is somewhere between spoken word and storytelling, physical theatre, a series of interdisciplinary tableaux, a performance installation, all of it in a theatre. I just understand it all as poetry, regardless of whether words are involved or not."

What the audience is presented with is a mix of impressionistic dance and choreograph sequences by Hermant that reflect Esther's boat trip to the new world. Her transformation to Jacques. Her playing ? trying out ? living ? Jacques in the forests and marketplaces of the New World as she/he had reportedly done for five years previously in the south of France. And finally her interrogation and battery by the French Catholic authorities in Quebec when her twin "passer" guises are "outed".

Background 8mm. black-&-white films provide lengthy sequences of both shoreline and mid-sea ocean. Of woods in Eastern mid-winter. Of men/women/she/he switches back-&-forth. All this unfolds as a dream sequence in part -- or perhaps a rather nasty daydream. 

Production values : The video installation by Kaija Siirala (along with videographer Melina Young) is married to composer Jaron Freeman-Fox's original fiddle music that fuses jazz and Indian classical and bluegrass. Note-perfect cacophony and harmony both. Violist Elliot Vaughan virtually stole the show for me in what the program notes refer to as "blurring the edges between performance styles". Amen, Mr. Vaughan. Snatches of styles my ear interpreted to be from Bela Bartok, Philip Glass, & Aaron Copland among others. Add to them the worlds of zydeco and bluegrass. And then put all this together with articulate abandon -- this requires heroic sublimity and command indeed. Bravo! 

Lighting designer Simon Rossiter illuminated and enhanced the piece's themes dealing with history and how it is told to us (encoding) plus how we receive it (decoding). Luisa Milan's tunic-like tops and sensible boots for both Brandeau and La Fargue worked both functionally and visually. 

Which brings me to Director Diane Roberts and her staging, blocking, and choreography of the piece. While idiosyncratic, overall the stage movement struck me as spastic-like in many sequences and often too repetitive to engage me compellingly. The interrogation scene was annoying in those respects.  Ms. Roberts declares in her notes that these are "stories under skin, mingled in blood, buried in bones and breath". Nice! description indeed. But the trick in all this is for one's impressionistic stories to transcend the painfully personal so they achieve heights of universality. On that plane the show's reach, regrettably, rather exceeds its grasp i.m.o.

That said, one could not help but feel Heather Hermant's visceral relationship with her material. "Memory is the place where we perform history," she remarks, adding, "and we do not aspire to belong." In her notes she talks of "a search for self, for story, for history. For what falls through. For why and what footprints we let remain." She calls it a midrash (an interpretive texture) about the history Quebec recorded of the "multi-crosser" Brandeau / La Fargue. Hermant admits an ongoing "grappling with this tale" as both author and performer.  We must be cautious of both the encoding and the decoding aspects of history as it's presented to us, she seems to say. And we must be alive to the fact, too, that the story and its nuances change with each moment we relive and rework them. 

Who gonna like :  As suggested earlier, readers of Boyden's celebrated The Orenda will likely relate to this eurofication tale told from its various Christo-Jewish queeriness perspectives. The original music / film sequencing were pure delight only a tin ear would not appreciate enthusiastically. The show is 70 minutes of experience that is clever and creative, no question, but will resonate likely more with self-conscious seekers of identity from the Gen Y cohort than any other.

Particulars : Creator / Performer Heather Hermant. A Firehall presentation co-produced with Vancouver's urbanink productions, March 3-8. Run-time 70 minutes. Box office 604.689.0926. On-line via firehallartscentre.ca.

Production crew / creative team : Director Diane Roberts.  Composer Jaron Freeman-Fox.  Musical Performer Elliot Vaughan. Video Installation Kaija Siirala.  Videography Melina Young.  Lighting Design Simon Rossiter.  Costume Design Luisa Milan.  Stage Manager Michel Bisson.   Voice Coach Lopa Sircar.  Technical Consultant Conor Moore.  Sound Consultant Troy Slocum.  

Performers : Heather Hermant, actor.  Elliot Vaughan, viola.

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Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Mountaintop an engaging phantasy trek

Personal remembrances :  Martin Luther King, Jr. (birthname : Michael) was assassinated during my final year of college in Michigan. Where I had fled back to from Hollywood after witnessing the smoke from the Los Angeles Watts ghetto riots three summers before. Like most of my classmates, I had seen the news clips of Dr. King's "I have been to the mountaintop!" speech -- his Promised Land promise -- from the day before at the Mason Temple on Walter Cronkite's CBS news. And despite being a self-described skeptic about public idols, I had been moved by the passion of his oratory. The speech was electrifying theatre, no question, made moreso by references to the constant threats that circulated menacingly wherever he went.

And while a giant of a man at only 5' 6" tall, King's down-to-earth personal habits -- particularly his wandering eye from wife Coretta Scott King -- had already been well-publicized. To this day I have no doubt it was FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover who saw to it Dr. King's peccadilloes were leaked from their confidential surveillance files to the press. Hoover was nothing if not spiteful, possibly to masque his in-the-closet self while condemning others who had equal power to him in the public eye. But that's for another time, another play.

And so it was that by the time Dr. King was shot dead I did not apotheosize him the way millions of idolizing adults did. I was a college kid. As a free speech exemplar and existential change-agent, King was a political hero of mine, just as Bobby Kennedy was. But I believed I saw them both -- then, as now -- for what history has proven they were : men of tremendous vision and courage and ambition and a full complement of ordinary human foibles, too. For his part King, like the Kennedy boys, was a womanizer. Unlike them, King smoked (unfiltered Pall Malls), and that weakness endeared him to me. Unlike them, he ate too much and carried a sizeable midriff bulge. From a family with a history of weight issues, I liked that about him too. He was, in a word, real in ways those jocks, the cavorting Ivy League Kennedy boys, were not.

Plot overview background :  Rising star playwright Katori Hall wrote The Mountaintop in 2009. Ms. Hall was born in 1981, so King in fact had been dead forty years when she decided to write about him, inspired by her mother's stories of the man. Mom Hall lived only a block away from the motel in Memphis where he spent his last hours. She was tempted to go to his Mason Temple rally, but Katori's grandma waved her off, fearing violence, as King was there to confront the city's mayor over a strike by some 1,350 civic employees, many if not most of them black. King dignified and elevated and championed these workers. He insisted, repeatedly, that they be referred to as "sanitation workers", not "garbage men", analogous to how the word "prostitute" has given way to "sex trade worker".

By the time Hall took to writing the play, 9/11 had long since come and gone. George W. Bush had come and gone. Wall Street had imploded a year before. Obama was now President and staring the Tea Party right in the eye trying not to blink first. The world economy was in the tank. A perfect time to look back wistfully and creatively at the King years.

But Ms. Hall, a Master of Fine Arts graduate from Harvard, knew she needed a contemporary hook to mount a play about this dead American hero. To her Gen Y contemporaries and the Millennials who followed, MLK was known mostly from glossy photos and YouTube cuts of his famous speeches. And so her hook became to imagine a real-time blood-&-guts Martin Luther King, 39, on his last night in Room 306 of the scruffy Lorraine Motel off Mulberry Street where lunch diners and saloons and dry cleaning shops were its closest neighbours.

King smokes, check. He drinks, check. He cusses real good, check. He has an eye for sexy women, check. Let's imagine all these habits together with a maid who comes to King's room with some Pall Malls and some coffee and see where all that takes us. 

How it all plays out : If viewers know the 1996 Nora Ephron masterpiece film Michael, what awaits them in The Mountaintop will not particularly surprise by way of technique. In Michael, John Travolta is the archangel of the same name who is sent to earth one last and final trip by His Master. He has some jobs to attend to, some folks whose wounds need t.l.c. before he is "sent home" for eternity.

In The Mountaintop there's an angel come to earth, too. Camae (Crystal Balint) is sent by Her Mistress the night of April 3rd to prepare Martin/Michael (Dion Johnstone) for his "cross-over" that's about to occur once the fateful gunshot rings out on the Lorraine Motel balcony the next morning. Like the movie angel, Camae is a rough diamond for sure, lots of cuss-words, packs of smokes at the ready, a hip-flask. The flip here is she's just a day-old-angel with a shapely body and a checkered past who came to an untimely end and now must rescue King as Task 1 for Her to forgive Camae of her earthly sins. 

But this angel scheme does not become obvious to playgoers until half-way through the 95-minute one-act performance. Until then, what is presented narratively and naturalistically are the two characters of Camae and King riffing on one another coquettishly, sharing smokes, spiking King's coffee, challenging one another about the drift of upcoming speeches and the future of the civil rights movement generally. But unless there were "something up" in the play, the continued presence in Room 306 of a motel maid on her first shift at The Lorraine would make zero dramatic sense whatever. 

Their byplay unfolds. If King frets about his next speech -- "America is going to hell!" he pencils in -- Camae prods him toward the rhetoric of the late radical Malcolm X instead : "Fuck the white man, we should kill the white man!" This she urges in faux-MLK oratorical flight while jumping up and down on his bed in his shoes and suit jacket. King is intrigued : "You have a weakness for violent words." Camae replies : "You speak of love, you die by hate." Ultimately he talks himself down : "They hate so easily and we love too much. One thing we have in common -- we're scared -- and fear is what makes us human."

But Camae persists in her goading, calling King a "bourgie Negro". She makes flip comments about God. King cautions her : "Gods don't like to be laughed at!" Camae shoots back : "God's one funny motherfucker. She even likes dirty jokes." About then King collapses on the floor for the umpteenth time when thunder crashes outside. Camae grabs him : "Michael, Michael, just breathe, I'm going to get you through this night." Hearing his birth name Michael at first sends him into uncontrolled rage suspecting her of being an FBI "spook". But shortly he learns of her Heaven-sent purpose. "I read your Blessings file and it's bigger than your FBI file, and that's bigger than the Bible!" she tells him.

Hall's trick here lies somewhere between Rod Serling's popular Twilight Zone from the 60's and Steven Spielberg's brief mid-80's phantasy show The Mission that in one episode featured a trapped WW II gunner who's an aspiring cartoonist. He imagines wheels being drawn Disney-like on his doomed aircraft and proceeds to land it safely. [?!]

Here there's a goofy phone call between King and Her where he pleads that She give him more time. That's followed by an even goofier pillow fight between angel Camae and King. I was put to mind of Travolta in Michael having his game of chicken with the bull out in the pasture. Because part of the trick is how the characters switch between "real" time and "God-time" back-&-forth. Many critics assail all this as juvenile and over-reaching nonsense by playwright Hall. I, for one, "believed" it all in Efron's Michael and I "believe" it in Hall's The Mountaintop, too. 

Camae finally relents in a way to King's desperate wish to be "given more time" to finish what he started. He says he is prepared to end his time on earth if only he can have a glimpse of the world to come once he's dead. King speaks repeatedly of the civil rights "baton" that needs to be passed off, not unlike John McCrae's plea to those who survive World War I : "Take up our quarrel with the foe.  / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch -- be yours to hold it high." 

Here Hall injects her final, clever conceit : the beds in the Lorraine Motel spread part and a series of black-&-white photos in stage-wide collage are projected onto the scrim showing scenes from life in USA over the ensuing 40 years. From 16-year-old Larry Payne being killed by police in the summer of 1967 whose death King recalls painfully and repeatedly, not much progress between then and the summer of 2014 when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Such seems to be the leitmotif of the photos scattergunned onto the screen. All the while Camae rhymes off the names of the dead and their surrounding event markers just like Billy Joel did in his classic song-elegy "We Didn't Start The Fire".

Production values : Director Janet Wright made wise cast selections in both Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Each has considerable stage presence and perfect pipes to project MLK's real and imagined words. Johnstone particularly was convincing in his depiction of a sick and weary and wounded and beaten but unbowed King ready to face down Memphis mayor Henry Loeb. That said, King's throwing himself prostrate and writhing in seizure each and every time the outside thunder rolled was, to this viewer anyway, a bit of a stretch even for a stage play.

Wright's blocking for Johnstone seemed a bit more complete and convincing than Balint's, for some reason. Her stage action struck this eye as somewhat wooden by comparison much of the night. But her moments of juice and sass and her tender touches were terrific. 

Resident ACT veteran set designer Ted Roberts aced the Lorraine Motel bedroom accoutrements. One could almost smell the Lysol and bedbug spray and the mold on the curtains and twin double beds. Sound designer Brian Linds' thunderous weather clamour joined Marsha Sibthorpe's customary lighting prowess for great effect. Candelario Andrade's projection design of all the scattergun photos was excellently executed.

Who gonna like : The Mountaintop resonated particularly with me given the personal remembrances noted up top. This is not a play of action. This is not a play of character development. These are characters and caricatures both that Katori Hall has created. 

Hall's foreshadowing comments about King's impending death are altogether too frequent and heavy-handed -- the audience knows the history here, after all, no need to keep swacking us with "hints". But that's just quibble. The pace of her script is gentle and humane and charming and convincing. The result of it all is a play that provokes serious & reflective thought rather than buzzy excitement. We giggle and titter along the way, but we come away musing on what could have been-might have been-should have been -- and what's perhaps to come.

In the end the crowd exits sharing some wee sadness that as a people and as nations we lucky first-world folk haven't progressed as far as we might have hoped or wished since Dr. King's brave and remarkable and memorable trek among us so many years ago. And that isn't a bad take-away by any measure.

Particulars :  Written by Katori Hall. In performance at ACT's Granville Island stage February 12-March 12. Performance time 95 minutes without intermission. Tickets via www.artsclub.com or at 604.687.1644.

Production crew : Director Janet Wright.  Assistant Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Sound Designer Brian Linds.  Projection Designer Candelario Andrade.  Stage Manager Marion Anderson.  Assistant Stage Manager Lucy Pratt-Johnson.

Performers :  Crystal Balint.  Dion Johnstone.

Addendum : A hand-out in the show bulletin announces the 1st Annual Rights and Freedoms March this April 17th.  

April 17th isn't just the 33rd anniversary of our Canadian Charter, but also the day when Dr. Martin Luther King's torch of equality and understanding arrives in Canada for the first annual 'Rights and Freedoms' march. A peaceful celebration, it begins at 9:30 am from Canada Line's Olympic Village. Join us as we walk eastward along the seawall towards the Science Centre, around False Creek past Canuck Place, arriving at David Lam Park.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was intended to be a source for national values and unity, where people share fundamental principals [sic] based on freedom and equality.

Don't be a spectator -- be a participant. Take Dr. King's torch of understanding and pass it to your fellow man [sic].

If you didn't march in the 60's, it's not too late. Mark your calendar. Be part of history. Be part of this movement.

info@rightsandfreedomsmarch.com
www.rightsandfreedomsmarch.ca


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