Tuesday, 29 August 2017

BLR summer furlough -- see you in Septober!

With the end of the major theatre season here in Vancouver -- and 17,300+ hits on the BLR  site since last September -- we are taking advantage to grab a late summer furlough that includes home projects + cycling here-&-there + general gad-abouting until Thanksgiving-ish. 

Thank you! for your support. It is a privilege to be part of the Vancouver professional theatre "family" for sure. Back soon. 


Tuesday, 22 August 2017

A Chorus Line presents apt Millennial messages
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Earning a living as a professional chorus line dancer is about as likely a choice as thinking your garage band will crush the hit parade charts. But such is the central conceit of the 1975 song-&-dance show A Chorus Line with its music by Marvin Hamlisch.

Two dozen dancers in rehearsal togs hoof it out in bare stage tryouts while they reveal what nagging muse or life experience led them to this sketchy career choice. These are not superstars or divas trying out here, rather a bevy of supporting-role performers who will dance collectively. They are the chorus, not the soloist -- none of them will be allowed even a moment's pirouette in the limelight. And only eight will be selected. All this is the more pertinent because a dozen of the cast are in their debut FCP production, a swack of them second or third year Cap College theatre students or recent grads.
Colourful warm-ups from the troupe of Roy (Brodie Kyle Klassen), Chelsea (Chelsea Huang), Butch (Conor Brand), Tricia (Alina Quarin) and Frank (Thomas Chan) who rehearse a try-out number.
Allyson Fournier photo

Written in the early 70's while the VietNam war raged on and Nixon secretly rained bombs on Cambodia for a full year before admitting it, the show nevertheless fits analogously into our current age of rising Millennials. They also face difficult career and lifestyle choices in the challenging socioeconomic environment of today : e.g. in Canada some 50% of young adults (20-24) still live at home or are boomerang kids -- double the rate of fifty years back.

How it's all put together : The show's narrative structure is an oddity, particularly in an age where "trigger warnings", "safe spaces" and "identity politics" are the norm at college campuses across North America. Because the director of the show-within-a-show Zach (Christopher D. King) asks each of the performers to reveal some spark or catalyst in their history that brought them to this place. He hopes this will help him choose the "four boys, four girls" he ultimately needs for his chorus line troupe to support the principal dancer in an unnamed upcoming New York show. (Even those gender determinants would likely prove controversial in today's LBGTQ social milieu were these "real" theatrical try-outs instead of a meta-play from back then.)

Connie (Jolene Bernardino), Diana (Vanessa Quartino), Val (Sarah Canuta) & Judy (Hailey Fowler) execute some semaphore kicks trying to impress Zach (C. D. King) who is an Oz-like character on-mike in the wings offering encouragement & a priestly shoulder.
Allyson Fournier photo.
Happily there's a Billy Elliot feel afoot here as the kids' "ballet class liberated me" stories pop up regularly. Loneliness, gender confusion, domestic strife, bodies that quit on their owners early and snap career hopes -- these are the tales shared on-stage in word and song. Original director/choreographer Michael Bennett (d. 1987, age 44) collected some 40-hours of audiotape from real-life dancers telling their life histories. Much of the dialogue put together by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante who produced the show's book is reportedly taken verbatim from these recordings about the dancers' agonies and ecstacies pursuing journeyman dancer status, not stardom. The "joyous grind" of night-after-night tightly choreograph'd line-dance routines.

The troupe : all shapes, sizes, colourful get-ups & stories.
Allyson Fournier photo.
Production values that shine through :  Fresh off her FCP directorial debut of Cats at the diminutive Jericho Arts Centre 18 months back that had BLR all in a rave, Rachel Carlson is ACL's director and choreographer. And it is precisely in that realm -- the choreography, blocking & stage presence -- that ACL's strength as a work of performing art does its best on the functional Waterfront stage. The delightfully colourful 2017 rehearsal costumes added a level of visual appeal noticeably absent 40 years back, according to reports. In this show, too, Arielle Ballance's musical direction of her band was nothing shy of kick-ass. 

For its part, the full house at Tuesday's final Preview performance revealed an appreciation and enthusiasm for the energetic effort of these young actors. What they tell is a 40-year-old Broadway story that is not a set-piece classic musical like Music Man or Mary Poppins or Fiddler on the Roof. Rather ACL is a mix of Edward Albee meets Albert Camus meets Harold Pinter meets Bob Fosse. It tells a tale of existential angst where wannabe show dancers in the time of Spiro Agnew and J. Edgar Hoover struggle to make a life performing in musical theatre, which even then was decidedly less a moon in wax than in wane.

N.B. That said, fact is ACL is the 6th longest running musical in Broadway history, with 6,137 performances in its 15-year run between 1975 and 1990. Its popularity arose in that post-Viet Nam era when the excesses of political hubris were front-&-centre on display, when a suppression of individual showmanship for the sake of group survival was a more popular notion than it is now as we witness anew a worldwide rise in populist, alt-right tumescence.  

Who gonna like : In 1980 I performed in a Lerner-Loewe remembrance piece called On The Street Where You Live directed by the late Scott Wheeler at the White Rock Players Club. I never did master the bloody step-ball change dance step required of me, though like Mr. King in this show I managed to hide upstage mostly and do a fakesimile sufficient enough under the circumstances. 

But it is that experience that makes me appreciate this Fighting Chance Production of A Chorus Line the more. No doubt the ACL script shows its age : taking 60+ minutes to have more than a dozen dancers try to relate to their abbreviated life stories is a stretch. But of course the Hamlisch music -- just like the Lerner-Loewe pieces I struggled through nearly 40 years back -- Hamlisch helps make up for how in 2017 the Michael Bennett 1975 existential plot-&-characterizations may fail to fully engage today's dramatic imagination. 

Still, ever had a "jones" in dance, in music, in acting, in writing, in social causes that you'd do in a heartbeat because you love it so much -- or simply because you don't just love it, you need the money, too? If you relate to those kinds of life experiences you will find much that entertains you in this re-mount of an old favourite song-&-dance show. No question it is lovingly and energetically and engagingly presented by an eager team.

Particulars :  Produced by Fighting Chance Productions -- Artistic Director Ryan Mooney. At the Waterfront Theatre, 1412 Cartwright Street on Granville Island. Until Saturday, September 2nd. Tickets & schedule information via the internet through FCP's website @ http://www.fightingchanceproductions.ca.  Run-time two hours straight, no intermission. 

Production Crew : Director & Choreographer Rachel Carlson.  Musical Director Arielle Ballance.  Assistant Choreographer Hailey Kragelj.  Set Designer Brian Ball.  Lighting Designer Andie Marie Lloyd.  Sound Designer Peter Young.  Costume Designer Rachel Carlson. Stage Manager Kara McLachlan.  Creative Consultant Ryan Mooney. (N.B. Original production conceived by Michael Bennett, then workshopped in collaboration with authors of the show's book, James Kirkwood & Nicolas Dante. Music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban. Directed & choreographed by Michael Bennett with assistance from Bob Avian.)

Performers : Haley Allen (Bebe).  Jesse Alvarez (Paul).  Joline Bernardino (Connie).  Kaden Chad (Al).  Thomas Chan (Frank). Justin Daniels (Mark).  Kailua DeLeon (Lois). Lucia Forward (Cassie). Hailey Fowler (Judy).  Chelsea Huang (Vicki). Christopher D. King (Zach).  Brodie Kyle Klassen (Roy).  Greg Liow (Mike).  Amanda Lourenco (Maggie).  Lindsay Marshall (Val).  Ricardo Cunha Pequenino (Richie).  Ben Platten (Greg).  Alina Quarin (Tricia). Vanessa Quarinto (Diana).  Kailley Roesler (Kristine).  Alishia Suitor (Sheila).  Marcel Tremel (Larry).  Eric Vincent (Bobby).  

Kick-ass Band : Arielle Balance (Piano).  Lindsay Goldberg (Trumpet).  Monica Sumulong (Bass).  Murray Cameron Smith (Drums).  Bryan Vance (Reeds).


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Master Class "spoofs" Stalin's USSR censorship
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Backdrop to the script : A Canadian self-described "ex-composer" named Julian Lee was the impetus behind UK's prolific dramatist David Pownall penning Master Class. The show is an imagined midnight vodka-guzzle with the grizzled Georgian bear Joseph Stalin and his culture commissar Andrei Zhdanov. Together they rage against composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich and others heading up the Union of Composers for their "anti-Soviet" compositions.

To provoke him, Lee in the mid-70's provided Pownall a slim 103-page volume by BBC correspondent Alexander Werth who reported on the 1948 Conference on Musicians in Moscow. It was less a "conference" than a show trial. From Werth's 1949 book Musical Uproar in Moscow plus the accompanying minutes of the conference, Lee challenged Pownall to "respond" to those events that had occurred some 30 years previously. 

Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian stand accused as the chief perpetrators of a musical style dominating the USSR's Union of Composers. The meeting minutes condemn them as guilty of "formalist perversions and many undemocratic tendencies (that) include atonalism, dissonance, contempt for melody and the use of chaotic and neuropathic discords -- all alien to the artistic tastes of the Soviet people." For his part, in his closing remarks to the conference Zhdanov referred to them as "academics" whose works were utterly deficient compared to the "poetic realism" of such as Tchaikovsky, Rimski-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.

Sergei Prokofiev (Chris Robson) offers up a bit of atonality to Zhdanov (James Gill) & Stalin (Tariq Leslie). 
Photo by Javier R. Sotres
What resulted from Pownall's consideration of all this was an attempt to bridge the history of grim repressive Communist censorship with no few bits of whimsical Brit-inspired comic flair not all that far off Monty Python ("I spit in your general direction!") stuff. All in all the script is less a look at the composers than it is a caricature of the Soviet leader Stalin and his consigliari Zhdanov (who, anticipated to be Stalin's successor, would die just seven months after the February, 1948 conference.) 

From the footlights : Reviewing the New York Odyssey Theatre opening in 1987, NYT critic Dan Sullivan told viewers that the show is not "a grim study in totalitarian thought control". He counseled : "Don't think 'Darkness at Noon.' Think 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.'" And, having reviewed the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre production of Master Class that same year for the Now newspaper group, I remember referring to the script back then as "a juicy little potboiler" : thus no question the Sullivan comparison is wholly apt.

The show is a character study that reveals Prokofiev as an ailing 56-year-old man willing to risk trading verbal shots with Stalin, 69. (They would both die on March 5, 1953.) The considerably younger Shostakovich, meanwhile, 41, betrays a diffidence and nervous reticence in the face of the sarcastic onslaught of shame flung his way by these formidable and dangerous leaders, only standing up to their sneering bully-boy antics once or twice.

Dmitri Shostakovich (Chris Lam) reveals the pain and fear that underscore his musical genius.
Javier R. Sotres photo
Act 1 concludes with purposeful violence against Prokofiev and his musical creations and was by far the only climactic scene in the show. (No Spoiler-alert here on purpose). The show concludes after a dithery Act 2 and does so with a whimper, not a bang : Stalin passes out, wearied by his vodka binge in the dim dawn hour. But not before some delicious satire and smart fretwork on the keyboard wrought by Chris Robson portraying Prokofiev.

What the show brings to the stage : Some have dismissed Pownall's script, in effect, as "random rhetoric in search of a clear dramatic purpose". Not so fast, say I. It has, after all, been performed in some 20 countries and translated countless times for staging in ex-Soviet states. And while it is a fool's errand to summon USA's Donald Trump ad nauseam, there are comparisons to be made particularly with the descent, however short-lived, of Anthony Scaramucci into the bowels of the White House inner sanctum. 

Consider anew New Zealand critic John Smythe's cut at Pownall's Zhdanov character ten years back : "...Zhdanov personifies the truism that despots can only wield widespread power when thick-headed sycophants and delusional sociopaths sign on to implement the frontline abuse." So there is relevance in examining how the heavy hand of autocratic power corrupts. Absolutely, just as Lord Acton observed when Stalin was still in short pants at the seminary in Georgia. 

Production values that shine through : There is much to like in the staging of this show, particularly the Lauchlin Johnston set that engages all four corners of the chummy Jericho stage well indeed. Costumes and lighting effects accompanied Johnston's set in harmony, no cacophony anywhere.

What prevents the script from engaging us as compellingly as it did 30 years back, however, is just history. When Pownall wrote it in the early 80's, the Gorbachev expressions glasnost (cultural warming) and perestroika (restructuring) were barely known outside the Soviet Union, the USSR that is no more. And no question the current autocrat in power in Moscow is Russian to the core : no Georgian satellite DNA in his blood nor Mongolian nor Ukrainian nor Uzbek. So the show easily could have been cut, particularly in the second act, by 15-20 minutes and none of its theme would have been sacrificed by as much as a grace note. 

Stalin tries to assist the composers in writing a piece taken from the Georgian medieval poet Shota Rustaveli's classic "The Knight in the Tiger's Skin". Clearly good music is not forthcoming. But some hilarity is.
Javier R. Sotres photo
Acting pin-spots : My recollection of the Playhouse production of '87 was the role of Stalin, played here engagingly and forcefully by Ensemble Theatre Artistic Director Tariq Leslie. What I did not remember was how rich and compelling the role of Andrei Zhdanov is in the play, excellently rendered in this production.by James Gill. It is in the Zhdanov character that Pownall's droll Pythonesque one-liners pop out spontaneously and expressively.

Personally the second act, for this reviewer, comes down to Chris Robson's Prokofiev riffing off a pastiche of musical forms trying to tie together the Rastafeli medieval poem with its lion, tiger the knight Tario together with Jack London, Siberia, and wolf ghosts. Oh what fun a ride that is. Opposite Robson in both personal style and height was Chris Lam playing Dmitri Shostakovich who Zhdanov accuses of writing "miserable, whining, complaining dirges all the time". His response? "Maybe I'm a depressive...". Pownall's understated, tongue-in-cheek Brit smartassery comes through cleverly in such stuff.

Who gonna like : This is a period piece that is incapable of clutching our hearts and minds with the force it did in the mid-80's for the historical reasons noted above. But for people who have a jones for Soviet history and the effects of totalitarian thinking. For people who are alive to the cultural context of why moderns such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich might have been considered so un-Soviet in the post-WW II world. For people interested how a nation faced up to the fact that 20 million lost their lives -- a whole generation of adults, leaving only grandparents and grandkids in their wake -- this is an interesting dramatic snapshot, no question. Proof positive, too, how The State, in whatever iteration it appears on earth, cannot successfully suppress the muse for true artists.

Particulars : Produced by Ensemble Theatre Company.  At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  On until August 18.  Tickets & schedule from the company website www.ensembletheatrecompany.ca.  Run-time 140 minutes, including two intermissions.

Production team : Script by David Pownall. Director Evan Frayne.  Assistant Director Shelby Bushnell.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Lighting Designer Patrick Smith.  Costume Designer Julie White.  Sound Designer James Coomber.  Stage Manager Karen Chiang. 

Performers :  James Gill (Zhdanov).  Chris Lam (Shostakovich).  Tariq Leslie (Stalin). Chris Robson (Prokofiev).  

Addendum :  Ensemble Theatre Company, in its fifth Vancouver summer repertory season, describes itself thus : "Vancouver-based Ensemble Theatre Company is dedicated to producing accessible and relevant theatre. The company sees theatre as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on current issues, and takes artistically innovative approaches to classics as well as mounting challenging modern and contemporary plays. The non-profit arts organization is devoted to nurturing both artists and audiences, creating a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas and dialogue."


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Irving's Owen Meany raises old grievances anew
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Popular American novelist John Irving's books are often described as storytelling that is Dickensian. Sprawling. Epic. I.e. not lending themselves to the reductions and redactions required of stage or film treatment (The 1999 Cider House Rules flik captured a few slices of the original novel mostly thanks to Michael Caine's superior turn as Dr. Wilbur Larch : one twinkle in Caine's eyes is worth a dozen Irving pages). 

For his part, British playwright Simon Bent took on the challenge of adapting A Prayer For Owen Meany to the stage because he himself prefers economy to embellishment. Crystallization rather than the full-on character elaboration Irving is famous for. Such challenge is what Director Ian Farthing's troupe the Ensemble Theatre Company currently faces at the chummy and intimate (and summery hot!) Jericho Arts Centre.

A show for our time ? In reviewing Irving's novel for the New York Times back in March of 1989, Alfred Kazin observed that "...some of our most talented novelists see the political condition of American society as a disaster, the temper of many Americans as correspondingly dangerous. In 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' John Irving makes it all too plain, and with positive rage, that in his eyes American society has been a moral disaster since the 1960's." Nigh unto 30 years back when Kazin wrote that descriptor.  Long! before any of Bill-&-Monica, WMD, 'Arab Spring' -or- The Donald. 

Important to note that the operative words in Kazin's piece are "moral disaster". JFK sleeping with Marilyn Monroe is pointed to as a cardinal example of such. This from a horny, priapic Owen who propositions a high school classmate's mother. 

Step-dad Dan gives son John (Anthony Santiago) a baseball glove that thrills Owen Meany (Chris Lam), too.
Photo by Javier R. Sotres
For its part, today's zeitgeist features a world whose antithetical religious faiths are openly at war not only with each other as usual, but sect-vs-sect as well. Given the seemingly amoral world that is now ours, then, remounting this script is apt and appropriate. Human reflections and age-old themes are resurrected anew. The Meany dialogue abounds with considerations such as fate-vs-free will; faith-vs-doubt; organized religion-vs-personal spirituality; loyalty-vs-identity; freedom-vs-duty.  Perhaps not simply a trip down memory lane to look at the post-WW II America of the 50's and 60's -- that was Irving's avowed purpose when he originally scripted his 637-page saga.

What the show brings to the stage : Two lifelong friends are the play's focus. They remain so, perhaps curiously, even after the age 11 soprano-voiced shrimp Owen Meany (Chris Lam) accidentally kills the mother of his friend John Wheelwright (Anthony Santiago). Just 39, Tabitha Wheelwright (Alexis Kellum-Creer) -- whom Owen loves desperately -- dies from a freak line-drive foul ball to the left temple Owen hits at the boys' weekly little league game. Her breathtaking death is what inspires Owen to think himself an "instrument of God", else why would God permit such a tragedy at his hand?

Happier times when Tabitha (Alexis Kellum-Creer) and Dan Needham (Adam Beauchesne) plan to wed.
Javier Sotre photo.
With the death of his single-mom mother -- the identity of his father remains a family mystery for years to come -- John is put through his paces on a host of religious and personal footings. Most of the action occurs in his home town somewhat archly named Gravesend, which can be given either atheist or Christian meanings. Competing theologies -- Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregational -- are visited and dissected, often with irony and comic flair. 

Along the way Owen is regularly bullied for his slight stature and skreaky voice, not to mention his fat intellect, his continuous disparagement of The System and this fixation of his that he is God's "instrument" -- a new Jesus, perhaps. He has dreams and visions, and imagines (correctly, it turns out) the precise day and time of his own death. 

He joins the U.S. Army, does service in Nam as a medic and comes home alive. After Owen's heroic death in Arizona at the hands of a messed up white trash teenager, his buddy Johnny hies himself off to Canada to teach at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. Shortly before, the ball that killed his mom is found so the final apocalyptic revelations of the plot are now all at hand. Johnny provides the show's denouement with a touching tribute that echoes the words of the quirky little fellow, his friend : he'll pray to God the rest of his days to Please! just bring him back!

Production values that shine through :  Having read Meany years ago, I for one might agree that at first blush it appears unfit for conversion to a stage play. But Simon Bent -- except for a hopelessly didactic soliloquy by Owen at play's end -- does a clever turn pulling the best bits from Irving's layered story and making a watchable comic soap opera with serious ethical underpinnings out of it all.

Staging (blocking, actor placement & stage business) by Director Ian Farthing was extremely effective on the "thrust" stage -- audience on three sides. Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston's ginormous wooden armchair for pint-sized Owen was perfect. His accompanying side-piece living room for Owen's dour Irish parents next door to dad's quarry worked well for contrast.  Costumes, lighting and sound spots contributed to a rich outing. That the script was cut down by a 1/2-hour and compressed into two acts instead of three as performed elsewhere previously was certainly a wise dramatic decision. 

Angry brother (Francis Winter) rants at Owen Meany over his brother's futile VietNam War death.
Javier Sotre photo.
Acting pin-spots : Kudos to Chris Lam for maintaining his high-pitched nerdish performance the night long as God's tormented agent Owen Meany. As one steeped in Christian theology for most of my seven decades, the thrust-&-parry of the religious arguments resonated well. Opposite, Anthony Santiago as Johnny worked hard to act the part of Owen's grammar school chum.

The nascent lovers Tabitha (Ms. Kellum-Creer) and Dan Needham (Adam Beauchesne) were touching, lit.-&-fig. Their wedding \ funeral staging piece was clever and well-executed. As the Jarvitt family's 15-year-old psycho son, Francis Winter was chilling. Of the dozen other actors on stage, special shout-outs to Sue Sparlin as Grandma Wheelwright and to her sardonic cook and helpmeet Lydia played by Lindsay Nelson. Both choice bits of acting. But strong performances by everyone in the show, no question.

Who gonna like :  It certainly helps to know the Irving novel, its context, its Christian religious nuances from back-in-the-day, why the VietNam war was such a turning point for America at the time, all that. But even the middle-age woman behind me who had to ask what Episcopalian and Congregational church affiliations were all about -- Canadian equivalents being the Anglican and United Church groups, I advised her -- even she and her entourage enthused over the performances Ensemble Theatre Company put forth. 

Easy to kvetch over the usual overemphasis on the eff-word that Vancouver actors are famous for. And, as mentioned, the final Meany soliloquy was painful -- patronizing, pontifical and redundant -- but that is adaptor Simon Bent's "my bad", not the fault of the ETC company : and besides it's over in a few scant minutes. 

In this social media universe that consumes us, visiting ideas that require considerably more contemplation than a mere 140 characters on Twitter or the immediacy of an Instagram msg. is time well-invested for a summer night's divertissement out at Jericho Beach. 

Particulars : Produced by Ensemble Theatre Company.  At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  On until August 18.  Tickets & schedule from the company website www.ensembletheatrecompany.ca.  Run-time 140 minutes, including two intermissions.

Production team : Script by Simon Bent, adapted from the novel by John Irving. Director Ian Farthing.  Assistant Director Adam Beauchesne.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Lighting Designer Patrick Smith.  Costume Designer Julie White.  Sound Designer Karina Pry.  Stage Manager Sammie Hatch. 

Performers :  Mariam Barry (Girl/Sam White/Jarvitt).  Adam Beauchesne (Dan Needham).  Sue Sparlin (Grandma). Gabriel Carter (Dr. Dolder/Mr. Meany).  James Gill (Rev. Wiggins/Rawls).  Alysson Hall (Mary Beth).  Simon Hayama (Mr. Fish/Randy White/Jarvitt Father).  Alexis Kellum-Creer (Tabitha Wheelwright).  Chris Lam (Owen Meany).  Lindsay Nelson (Lydia).  Connor Parnall (Harold/Larry/Coach Chickering).  Christine Reinfort (Mrs. Lish).  Anthony Santiago (John Wheelwright).  Kim Steger (Mrs. Meany).  David Wallace (Rev. Merrill).  Rebecca Walters (Barb Wiggins/Jarvitt Mother).  Francis Winter (Boy/Chief Pike/Jarvitt Son). 

Addendum :  Ensemble Theatre Company, in its fifth Vancouver summer repertory season, describes itself thus : "Vancouver-based Ensemble Theatre Company is dedicated to producing accessible and relevant theatre. The company sees theatre as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on current issues, and takes artistically innovative approaches to classics as well as mounting challenging modern and contemporary plays. The non-profit arts organization is devoted to nurturing both artists and audiences, creating a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas and dialogue."

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Verona's Two Gents amusing & lite with a twist
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : My favourite author Nobel laureate Alice Munro titled her 10th short story collection (2002) Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Whether on the mark in the least or not, it is certainly arguable that Munro chanced upon her title as a prim precis of Wm Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. (To flesh out this drift a few additional nuance-words such as "ambition", "lust", "hypocrisy", "betrayal" &c. would be in order as well).

Written as a 20-something when WS was first starting out -- many historians think it his first play, perhaps -- four centuries of critics agree on one thing at least : the play presents little by way of true substance. 

Still, T2GoV clearly captures some of the exquisite pangs-&-pain that Spring fever produces in hot young bloods. And does so with vintage Billy Bard finesse. Says the duplicitous protagonist Proteus early on, "O, how this spring of love resembleth / The uncertain glory of an April day / Which now shows all the beauty of the sun / And by and by a cloud takes all away!"

A touch between Silvia (Adele Nironha) and Valentine (Nadeem Phillip) is all it takes.
David Blue photo.

How it's all put together :  Proteus and Valentine are gentry'd buddies who've grown up together. Their camaraderie is a fraternal love bond : they are tight as mates, "two brothers from a different mother". Proteus however has fallen arse-over-teakettle in love with the fair Julia. Valentine sniggers that love is "but a folly bought with wit / Or else a wit by folly vanquished." So Valentine heads 30 leagues west for gentlemanly grooming in the Duke of Milan's entourage. In leaving he predicts his pal Proteus will just continue to loll around Verona "living dully sluggariz'd at home" and "wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness".

But not quite so. Promptly after exchanging engagement rings and a mouthful of sweet nothings with Julia, Proteus is peremptorily ordered by Dad to join Valentine at the Duke's. Maybe some noble grace will rub off on him, too. Julia is heartsick. Despite a swack of skepticism from her maid Lucetta, she decides to don a disguise as "Sebastian", a page, and pursue Proteus to Milan to swoon anew in his arms.

In Greek mythology Proteus was the elder son of Poseiden known by some as the "god of elusive sea change", a character "mutable". For its part the name Valentine stems from the Latin meaning "strong and worthy". These WS characters quite follow suit. 

Almost instantly upon arrival, the love-skeptic Valentine is smitten by the Duke's daughter Silvia. She snatches his "strong and worthy" heart 100%. When he shows up soon thereafter, meanwhile, the "mutable" Proteus decides he wants Silvia for himself : his betrothed Julia is now "dead" to him. Without a soupcon of guilt or conscience he quickly betrays the young about-to-elope couple to the Duke. 

Manservant Launce (Andrew Cownden) with dog Crab (Gertie the Basset Hound) in an animated moment.
David Blue photo.
His bosom buddy Valentine is promptly banished, thus Proteus is free to pursue his quarry. And pursue he does, even after admitting to himself that "Sylvia is too fair, too true, too holy / To be corrupted with my worthless gifts." She is / She isn't. But not for want of trying : he even elects to force himself on her in a controversial attempted rape scene for which Valentine, not Silvia, presumes to forgive him.

Some reflection on the script : Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse, among others, opines that WS's ending to T2GoV was written all in a rush and/or was dictated by the actors in the troupe Lord Chamberlain's Men that included some fellows named Crosse, Slye & Poope (sic). Methinks must needs be so. Because ne'r was "a happy ending for all" less likely or warranted by its preceding plot sequences and character faults. But thankfully not so simple an ending to come on this night.

Director Scott Bellis rationalizes the original plot-&-dialogue this way : "This play rarely gets a professional staging nowadays...yet it is popular with high school and college drama programs. Like most of his comedies, it centres on themes familiar to the young : friendship, fidelity and love. Perhaps it is fitting that young people gravitate toward it...Like the Romantic poets of early 19th century Europe...these characters are expressing and acting on their emotional impulses, risking it all to ride those waves of feeling wherever they lead." To reveal the contemporized Bellis Ending in 2017 to this 1589 script would do neither him nor his troupe justice, so I shan't.

The honest Valentine (Nadeem Phillip) has to cope with his disloyal comrade Proteus (Charlie Gallant).
David Blue photo.
T2GoV as written demonstrates key Billy Bard comedy components that he will hone and perfect as time goes by : the men tend to be gullible, somewhat shallow nits, while thru their moxie-&-courage the women stand and deliver the best lines by far. As well, the comic relief of the manservant clowns Speed (Chirag Naik) and Launce (Andrew Cownden) along-side his pissy dog Crab was spot on, some of the best such stuff WS ever wrote i.m.o. (The latter two are show stealers for sure.)

Production values that shine through : Three primary values drive this production. Director Scott Bellis's decision to take Billy Bard's original romantic comedy and : do it up as modern farce-&-slapstick; interject present day laugh lines; hyperbolize Proteus's numerous innate character flaws; insert ironic cross-dressing of the outlaws into this male-only Elizabethan script. All of it served his unquestionably welcome feminist spin on the show. 

Second was the engagement of Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg to choreograph Bellis's interpretation. Her various dance routines across the night were manic and chipper additions that replaced chunks of dialogue (including some quoted at the top of this piece). It hi-lited the strong backslapping huggy bromance leitmotif WS intended regardless how blatantly sexist such frat-boy stuff appears to today's eye.

Third was the decision of Bellis and Costume Designer Mara Gottler to outfit the cast in Romantic 19th century threads. From the rich and sumptuous to the funky and earthy, they all worked wonderfully well. Piss, dirt, booze, perfume -- we smelled it all just by looking.

Footnote kudos as well to Sound Designer Julie Casselman whose romantic violins & cellos & string bass percussion enriched the visuals on stage nicely.

Acting pin-spots : Nadeem Phillip's Valentine was impassioned joy and hurt both, while opposite Charlie Gallant's at times shouty Proteus was a cleverly-projected pathetic character throughout. The byplay between Kate Besworth as the "jiltee" Julia with her maidservant Lucetta (Carmela Sison) was swell stuff. But it was Adele Noronha's Silvia that to this viewer married the original WS character with the contemporary version everso smartly. Her endless dripping sarcasm at Proteus was priceless. Typically for Bard shows, not a weak performance anywhere -- too many pin-spots to index each and every one individually.

Who gonna like : As with Taming of the Shrew, our more egalitarian sensibilities now than back-in-the-day make the subject matter of T2GoV difficult to embrace freely. But Billy Bard's plot twists and character manipulations and "stupid human tricks" demonstrate that in our 1st world enclave it truly is a case of plus ca change, plus c'est meme chose on so many levels. 

As usual, the Howard Family Stage is a welcome place to be embraced by the magic the Bard troupes regularly conjure. No question this a slickly delivered show with visual and audial richness that found the opening night crowd laughing out loud throughout and giving up many a hearty Huzzah! at curtain. 

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 35 shows between now and the September 20th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.orgRun-time 120 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Scott Bellis. Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Scenery Designer Marshall McMahen.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Sound Designer Julie Casselman.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn. Apprentice Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart.  Directing Apprentice Kayla Dunbar. Costume Design Apprentices Hannah Case, Alex Kirkpatrick.

Performers :  Kate Besworth (Julia).  Andrew Cownden (Launce). Paul Moniz de Sa (Antonio; Eglamour).  Edward Foy (Duke of Milan). Charlie Gallant (Proteus).  Gertie the Basset Hound (Crab). Olivia Hutt (Hostess).  Luisa Jojic (Pantina). Chirag Naik (Speed).  Adele Noronha (Silvia).  Kamyar Pazandeh (Turio).  Nadeem Phillip (Valentine).  Carmela Sison (Lucetta). 

Friday, 7 July 2017

As time does not permit a 2nd look at this show, I submit it anew as originally reviewed back in February in full faith it retains its original qualities.  \ B

Bittergirl a madcap Sex & the City musical romp
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  On Friday, September 14, 2001 my wife and I frantically searched for something to watch on t.v. to escape visions of the unspeakable events from 9/11 three days previously. With more pain than vehemence I announced : "I can't imagine bringing myself to watch Sex And the City ever again...". And since that day I haven't. Not a moment's urge to take in even one re-run episode.

But then 16 years later along comes Bittergirl, ACT's current On Tour musical show (that will play Granville Island June 15-July 29). It forces viewers to flip back in time pre-9/11 to a simpler and more simplistic epoch. Bubba was Prez, like him the economy was tumescent. That S&TC time "when girls were girls and men were men", assuming the very notion itself doesn't make you gag on four or five levels. 

Bittergirl is gags all right. Put to song-&-dance. To a swack of 60's girl band riffs, three friends commiserate how they each got dumped by their man. How they moped and wept and stewed and fretted, and then coped, antically, frantically, trying to make lemonade from the lemons they'd been handed. Mostly how, as women, they were socially and culturally conditioned : to over-analyze the krap out of their miseries and fill the airwaves about it all ad nauseam.

How it's all put together : This is musical comedy that is fetching and magnetic and enticing because it conjures those pre-cynical times, as unliberated and unliberating as they might have been. The actors are given letters instead of names : the "dumpee" women called A, B and C. An everyman character, D, plays each of the women's ex's. This, presumably, to point to some sort of universality of the first-world Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus experiences many of us in North America had back in the day.

As co-author Alison Lawrence told Richard Ouzounian in 2014, "You have to turn your tragedies into funny stories. You tell them so often that you can make people at cocktail parties laugh over what once made you cry." And cocktails are gulped down just that much more gustily with the aid of catchy tunes from the Detroit of Boomer daze : The Ronnettes ("Be My Baby"), The Crystals ("And Then He Kissed Me"), The Three Degrees ("When Will I See You Again?") or Ashford & Simpson ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough").  It's as if Bittergirl was written to put all the song lyrics into a story decades after the fact.

What the show brings to the stage : Campy, kitschy satire is surely the result in today's world from a script first launched in 1999. What else to do with the dialogue of D (Josh Epstein) when he utters such groaners as "It's not us, it's me!" (a line I used back in '62 in Grade 11). That one is almost always twinned with "I can't give you what you need...".  What about the existential angst approach : "I've lost my drive, my passion, my magic..." or "I love you, but I'm not in love with you." But, best for last, this screecher : "This is hard for me you know...I'm going to be the bad guy here," D says in a tone of mock self-flagellation and projected pain. To show his empathy right up front, don't you know.

Break-ups, particularly in our junior grown-up years, basically sucked. There was usually no mutuality involved. A "do-er" dumped a "do-ee". After the shock, the Kubler-Ross formula DANDA kicked in big-time : denial, anger, negotiation, depression, acceptance. Then came the manic phase every 30-something I ever knew (self-included) went through : such things as ditch the sensible sedan & buy a snazzy sportscar; dress up in designer duds, start working out; eat-binge; drink-binge; sex-binge if you get lucky; either go bohemian or anal-retentive immaculate -- the variations on a theme are almost endless. But mostly a self-indulgent, self-pitying schtick that lasts as long as you let it.

Production values that shine through : There is no narrative or dramatic arc here. Just a sequence of songs (see Addendum) that the women sing in trio, spoken lines in unison, a stream of musical moments that bring to life and provide a kind of storyline to the lyrics of the tunes they sing.  Tight, tight, tight! harmonies among the three all night long. Slick stuff indeed. 

Clever LBD costumes for all three women atop their Ron Zalko fitness shorts. Interlacing the three women's experiences -- the abandoned married mom who supported her grad school husband; the long-term live-in who was jilted her on "marriage proposal evening"; the short-term hot-to-trot gal whose lover lost his "magic" -- all the frantic spinnery of the three as stitched together by Director / Choreographer Easton was really quite priceless.  

A wee quibble about the band : while obviously capable and competent, their style was a bit too prosaic to this ear. It was if they needed a wee bit of Blood, Sweat & Tears interpolation to jazz them up a bit.

Acting pin-spots : Lauren Bowler never fails to zap this viewer's senses with her spunk, her command, her zing and crisp delivery. And in this role she showed she could clean your house as efficiently as she'd clean your clock if you crossed her. But also good punchy delivery from both Cailin Stadnyk and Katrina Reynolds as well, Stadnyk crescendoing nicely into the show's final numbers. Josh Epstein as Everyman Dork was nimble and fun as the x3 Jilter -- and probably the best vocal power among the troupe.

Favourites : "Anyone Who Ever Loved" -- best of the night -- tears came big. Stadnyk's Barbie / Ken doll sequence sparring with RCMP-wannabe hubby. The "Love Hurts" cell phone bit to kick off Act 2 that was pure unadulterated ROTFLMFAO. And, of course, the Tequila shooter scene that morphed from "orange is the new black" to glittery sequin'd magic at show's end. 

Who gonna like : Full-immersion girl-group sing-along. The lyrics of those long-ago achy-breaky songs brought to life. This is life in the time of Archie and Edith Bunker writ large through music. Whatever relationship it had with the real lives of the playwrights is purely incidental at the hands of she-who-can-do-no-wrong-in-my-mind Valerie Easton. Fun, silly, musicky, lyrical stuff that manages to draw out a few tears of sentiment along with all the laugh lines from songs and times we Boomers cherish. 

Some complain the script is too "untimely" in an age when women's breakthroughs of ceilings high-&-low are demanded. But as much fun and purpose in Bittergirl as in a re-mount of West Side Story or Mama Mia! or ACT's incomparable Black & Gold Revue that rocked Vancouver some 30 summers back. The question is not "Why?" but "Why not!

Almost to a person in an almost full-house, the Surrey Arts Centre audience gave a rousing & robust & lengthy standing-o at last night's performance. And no wonder.

Particulars :  Written by Annabelle Griffiths Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, Mary Francis Moore. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  Run-time 85 minutes with one intermission.  At the following venues, dates and Ticket Information phone numbers as noted :
>  Surrey Arts Centre, now until March 4th, 604.501.5566.  
>  Clarke Theatre, Mission, March 5th, 1.877.299.1644.  
>  Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, March 7-11, 604.927.6555.  
>  ACT Arts Centre, Maple Ridge, March 12th, 60.476.2787.  
>  Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Burnaby, March 14-15, 604.205.3000.  

Production team :  Director / Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Music Director Diane Lines. Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Lighting Designer (select venues) Ken Reckahn.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Running crew : Alberto White, Head Tour Technician.  Darren John, Tour Technician.

The Band : Diane Lines (Piano).  Madeleine Elkins (Guitar).  Niko Friesen (Drums).  Linda Kidder (Bass). 

Performers :  A = Lauren Bowler.  B = Katrina Reynolds.  C = Cailin Stadnyk.  D = Josh Epstein.

Addendum, Song List :
There's No Other Like My Baby (written by Phil Spector & Leroy Bates)

Opening Medley:
    I Hear a Symphony (Holland-Dozier-Holland)
    And Then He Kissed Me (written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry)
     He's a Rebel (written by Gene Pitney)

Where Did Our Love Go (written by Holland-Dozier-Holland)
If I Can Dream (written by Earl Brown)
Mama Said (written by Luther Dixon & Willie Denson)
Anyone Who Had A Heart (written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David)

Fitness Medley:
     I'm Gonna Make You Love Me (written by Kenneth Gamble & Jerry Ross)
     Ain't No Mountain High Enough (written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson)
     Hot stuff (written by Peter Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer & Keith Forsey)

When Will I See You Again (written by Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff)
Always Something There To Remind Me (written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David)
Tell Him (written by Bert Berns)
Be My Baby (written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry)
Love Hurts (written by Boudreaux Bryant)
Think (written by Aretha Franklin & Ted White)
Yesterday Man (written by Chris Andres)

Jail Cell Medley:
     This Is My Life (written by Bruno Canfora with English lyrics by Norman Newell)
     Keep Me Hangin' On (written by Holland-Dozier-Holland)
     I Will Survive (written by Dino George Freaks & Freddie Perren, immortalized by Gloria Gaynor)

Megamix Finale:
     Too Many Fish In The Sea (written by Norman Whitfield & Eddie Holland)
    Mama Said -- Ain't No Mountain High Enough -- I Will Survive -- Hot Stuff -- Keep Me Hangin' 
     On -- Think -- This Is My Life