Thursday, 30 October 2014

Saint Joan teaches viewers valuable history

Overview :  In 1994 Oregon theologian Marcus Borg wrote Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw's classic Saint Joan, penned some 70 years earlier, presents almost as if GBS had known or anticipated Borg and his radical ideas.

Borg posits that Jesus wasn't an "institution" in the way most of the God-fearing Christian world and its adherents are organized to be. Jesus, known as the Son of God, is to Borg a spiritual force that grows and changes. Borg's Jesus puts me to mind of uber-physicist Stephen Hawking's characterization of spirit as "the dynamic force that creates and expands the universe". Ever-growing, never static or entropic. And thus never utterly "knowable". 

Similarly, I find, is the character of Joan of Arc as imagined by GBS. Joan -- known as the farmer's daughter "Jennie" in her French village of Domremy in Lorraine -- is a true believer in God, God's majesty, God's omniscience and omnipotence. Same as most Christians believe. But to Joan, God's will is made known to her not through the Catholic Church nor through Christ nor even through Jesus, really. Rather through two Catholic saints, Catherine and Margaret, with the odd cameo appearance to her of Archangel Michael. Joan hears their voices in what Edgar Allen Poe would call the "tintinabulation" of the bells (bells, bells, bells, bells...), particularly when heard by Joan from afar, as if in echo.

She believes the saints have a direct connection to God that trumps any institutionalized version of God's will as interpreted and "managed" by the Catholic vicars of the 15th century. Like Borg some 5 1/2 centuries later, Joan through GBS has a vast distrust of the powers that be (initial'd TPTB by Borg). And thus she runs amok of both French and English who are TPTB when she leads French troops to victory at Orleans and Rheims. After the latter triumph, it is she -- not the Pope, not the French bishop -- who instals the pusillanimous dauphin as King Charles VII there, France's traditional coronation cathedral. And shortly thereafter her ineluctable trek to the stake kicks up its pace considerably. Her torturous demise occurs scant weeks later. 

For Rome, Joan was a heretic. Pre-Gutenberg Bible (1454), the Vatican had Christendom in a virtual hammerlock on biblical interpretation. And then there is its bureaucracy and its beliefs in papal infallibility, apostolic succession and such. That Joan felt her mandate came almost directly from God and not mediated through church directives, pronouncements and interpretations was too large a threat to ignore. 

For the English peerage and aristocracy, Joan represented a threat to their land inheritances and the perquisites of vassalage. The English also had the matter of their soldierly pride being near-mortally wounded by this village girl in men's military britches.

TPTB could live with no other outcome than this candle being snuffed out once and for all.

What GBS thought : Life experience and literature teach us that the gap between tragedy and hubris can be narrow and thin. Particularly where Big Ideas come into play. And even moreso when they butt up against the Big Institutions that claim provenance and exclusive ownership of "truth". Whether TPTB are organized religion and its various churches, government, or even what outgoing USA President Dwight Eisenhower presciently warned of in 1959 -- "the military industrial complex" -- fact is these powers delight in swatting down pesky challengers, especially when they are cheeky and charismatic.

Often Saint Joan is referred to as a tragedy. It is not. It is a history lesson dramatized. A play with tragic moments but also many comic riffs, almost a bit self-consciously smart-aleck at moments. GBS portended as much in the Preface to the play he wrote at his country estate Ayot St. Lawrence in May, 1924, just four years after Joan was canonized as Saint Joan by the Vatican. GBS, for his part, characterized Joan like this :

"At eighteen Joan's pretensions were beyond those of the proudest Pope or the haughtiest emperor. She claimed to be the ambassador and plenipotentiary of God, and to be, in effect, a member of the Church Triumphant (translation : saved Catholics in Heaven) whilst still in the flesh on earth... She had an unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgment and authority, and for War Office tactics and strategy... As her actual condition was pure upstart, there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: the other that she was unbearable."

That last point was never more emphatically expressed in GBS's play than when King Charles himself in exasperation and pique says of Joan at the end of Scene 5 : "If only she would keep quiet, or go home!" The audience thought it a suitable laugh-line on opening night.

Fun to be had in the script :  Saint Joan is so rich a script that no doubt countless Ph.D. (English Literature) theses have been written about it. It is a play that is written to be heard far more than to be watched, which is no criticism whatever of Director Kim Collier's ambitious and striking visual interpretation that was a year in the thinking, the reflecting, the try-it-on-for-size-ing in virtually every aspect. More on that below.

But it is the richness of GBS's prose in the piece that is almost as much a treat to listen to as a script from The Bard himself, though in a strictly GBS kind of way : 

E.g. when Joan meets the Archbishop for the first time he makes this observation : 

"Child, you are in love with religion." 

"Am I?" asks Joan. "I never thought of that. Is there any harm in it?" 

"There is no harm in it, my child," the Archbishop says, "but there is danger." 

"There is always danger," Joan responds, "except in heaven. Oh, my lord, you have given me such strength, such courage. It must be a most wonderful thing to be Archbishop." 

Now, did GBS intend this as a laugh-line? I think so. The ACT opening night crowd agreed and complied heartily. Meanwhile this exchange also reveals a constant in Shaw's rendering of these events : there is endless foreshadowing at play throughout along with its theatric cousin dramatic irony (impossible to avoid seeing we all know Joan's life outcome in advance).

Script & casting considerations :  Artistic Managing Director Bill Millerd notes that director Collier and crew chopped a heck of a lot of GBS's 79-page script out in the interests of not losing audiences generally accustomed to 120 minute divertissement, max. Which they did, starting with GBS's 12 pages of Epilogue that would have added another 1/2 hour to a show that inclusive of breaks runs nearly 200 minutes as it is. My reading of the script concludes that Ms. Collier et al did wonderfully well at this self-appointed task. 

In addition Ms. Collier deserves a litany of kudos for the exceptionally imaginative blocking she choreographed for the company up down over around the 3-tier set of risers. Every corner of the stage was well-engaged throughout. 

As Joan, Meg Roe is a delight and perfectly cast : impish, snappy, waspish, charming, and engaging even when being biblically pedantic and tedious. Her final soliloquy to the Inquisition court was moving indeed, particularly her final words to them : "You are not fit that I should live among you." 

Another 12 actors round out the script's 24 roles, obviously doubling and tripling up all over. To this ear and eye there was not one miscue, whatever, in Ms. Collier's casting. A few highlights among the unanimous excellence :

Tour de force performance(s) by Scott Bellis as both the pugnacious and irritable Chamberlain and as chief antagonist Bishop Cauchon who claimed "mercy" was his chief mission. More sustained character immersion for those roles could not be imagined. 

As the egregious English Earl of Warwick, Dean Paul Gibson was just the right mix of pomposity and wit. His "hitman" Chaplain deStogumber (Gerald Plunkett) suffers massive and convincing PTSD after witnessing Joan's immolation. He cries out in abject anguish to Warwick (ironically, GBS no doubt intended) : "You madden yourself with words : you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper...O Christ, deliver me from this fire that is consuming me!" Responds Warwick coolly : "If you have not the nerve to see these things, why do you not do as I do, and stay away?" 

Captain Dunois played by Daren Herbert was an utterly convincing field marshal, champion of Joan's, realistic warrior and philosopher soldier. An excellent turn.

As Brother Martin Ladvenu, Kevin MacDonald was heartfelt in his sympathetic embracement of Joan and loyalty to her until the very end when she became a "relapsed heretic" right before her being excommunicated and trussed up for burning. A necessary and well-executed antidote, Ladvenu, to the various other vengeance-mongrels on stage all growling and slavering for blood.

Two glictional ditches : [My sorry attempt to catch anyone's attention from Director, to actor, to speech coach]. And once more it's some priggish angst for pronunciation verisimilitude. 

The word Shaw gives to Blightey soldiers in France is to call them the  "Goddams". Yes. From "God damn!"originally, no question. Now my Websters New International Dictionary of the English Language : Second Edition [Unabidged] Copyright 1953, however, declares the pronunciation should be "GAWD-ham", even spelt "Goddem" in some prints. But on ACT's stage it comes out that the Brits are "GOD-DAMS", with equal emphasis on each syllable, maybe a swidgeon more on the "God-" but not much. Script researchers would do well to catch this and coach their charges to get it right. Same as I had to look it up to learn that Shakespeare's "Zounds!" in King John is pronounced "Zoonds" instead of how it looks and zounds.

Second is my harpy snipe, play after Vancouver play, at the local tendency to emphasize cursewords. Captain Dunois in Saint Joan is of unmarried parentage born. Thus he is by definition a "bastard". And, typically, even acquires the nickname "Bastard". But no need to pronounce it BAStard! each utterance. In current vernacular a similar epithet might be "dickhead". But it doesn't come out Dickhead! each time. No, mostly just "dickhead" with maybe, maybe a slight emphasis on the first "d", as in "dickhead". 

Who gonna like :  My mentor in labour relations gave me a wonderful cautionary note early in my career 40 years back : "The mind can only absorb what the backside can endure." Now this is not criticism of this Kim Collier production. They've done a great job of axing and chipping and snipping. And the fact is the 3-hours you are there you are listening and seeing George Bernard Shaw's unique flow of words -- expositional, hortative, lyrical/whimsical. Its length notwithstanding, for a terrific history lesson -- and a reminder why chances are, if you're like me, you treat with disdain most of the institutional organizations you've had to cross paths with in your life -- you will go see Saint Joan. Because that cognitive / affective buzz-kill these agencies cause in you will be wonderfully set off by the swack of visual / audio treats this performance provides. Saint Joan is just the kind of mind-stretcher everyone needs now and again.


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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Three Tall Women challenges & compels!

Bit of playwright background : Edward Albee is pure laine Western in his orientation., He knows neurotic. Three things we fret over (& over & over & over) primarily, all biggies : death, time, and the pursuit of happiness. Sub-sets would be one's place or station in a competitive, condescending, churlish culture. Neurotic about one's contribution to or profit from the so-called "American Dream". Neurotic about memory of who did what to whom when.

The overall picture, usually, is not pretty or reassuring. And no playwright understands this as intuitively, perhaps, as Albee. He, recall, was made famous on Main Street by the Richard Burton / Elizabeth Taylor childless couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In it they immortalized Albee's recurring motif in their black-&-white snapshot of life's degradation in 1966. Little did they know their roles showed how we were all perched on an epochal doorstep -- post-modern cynicism. That's the legacy we've lived with since. (Others, more kindly, prefer to call it our "lapsed idealism" instead.)

In Three Tall Women (1991) we watch age as it has unfolded since the Liz & Dick time from 25 years earlier. To this viewer there is no question whatever : in TTW Albee creates a masterpiece. A masterpiece on three levels : an existential 20th century slice of life; insight into one woman's psyche from three perspectives; a dramatic structure that fractures the normal dimensions of space and time as we rely on them to be.

The three characters are known as A, B, and C as they interact on stage. C is 26. B is 52. A is 92 but claims, whimsically, to be just 91 -- what a smirky C supposes is "some tiny victory" that A may be struggling to claim over aging.

Plot overview : In Act I we find A (Anna Hagan) a near-invalid pre-demential grandmother being cared for in her well-appointed apartment. B (Beatrice Zeilinger) is her caregiver, 52. C (Meaghan Chenosky) is A's assigned lawyer, 26, an associate from a big downtown law firm whose founder Harry died some 30 years back just before A's husband Earl did.

The act focuses on A recalling the nine decades of her life in snitches and snatches. B is solicitous and patient, for the most part, looking after A's wet nappies, her broken arm, her incessant yada-yada. Not so C. She's the ingenue, a cheeky young adult in her law office uniform who in a moment of atypical condour checks herself : "Why can't I be nice...?"

When C reacts challengingly to a story A is telling, B chides her : "Let it be." She says "Let it be" lots. A, for her part, is all about the past-made-present, as it is for many in their latter years. "Who likes anybody any more?" she demands. "People all turn out not to be what they were meant to be."

Her height, her folks, her hubby, her horses, her jewelry, her sister (the drunk) -- on-&-on A prattles : I don't know what I'm saying, what am I saying?" she wonders. Shortly she clarifies : "I remember, but it comes and goes. I think I know then I don't know what I don't know...I don't know if I loved (Earl) -- I can't remember. I can't remember what I can't remember."

Obviously A is the once-bright matriarch starting to fade into the penumbra of Alzheimer's emerging shadows. She's rich. When she reflects on her life it's not unusual that there should be pride, regret, whimsy, guilt, quashed hopes, paranoia that everyone is out to get her money. Many a life has been punctuated quite so.

Albee tries to unpack all this for us. Can we admit it? In the end our life's story looks and feels and smells just as it was each squishy messy step. The only way out is to not set yourself up. Only you can avoid the disappointment that comes when dreams end. How? Three Tall Women tries that question on for size.

Enter Act II :  Act I ends with A having a stroke and put on a ventilator in her apartment bed. In Act II Albee turns all of Act I on its head and puts A's irrepressible yak into perspective.

There are now two A's. The one comatose under covers on the bed. And a second one, the "resuscitated" matriarch, still kompas mentis and lively, late 80's-ish. B has morphed into what was the 52-year-old version of A, i.e. A as she was three decades earlier. And C, the 26-year-old, is both A and B as a 26-year-old.

Oh. And then there's "the Boy" (Matt Reznek). He is the son of these women / this woman. Boy says nothing in the play. Ever. Just takes up space ostensibly suffering and grieving over the near-dead body of A lying under covers on the bed. But lots is said about him. The ambulatory aging A is forgiving-ish. Middle-age B can't stand the sight of him and wants him gone. C is curious : at 26 she has yet to meet Earl and marry him and have Boy. She wants to know all about him.

What a clever, nay brilliant, conceit by Albee. Three women hover over the near-corpse of "herself" as they reflect with and for one another on what was happening for each of them at that earlier part of their collective life. C insists she can avoid fate : "I won't become this!" she spits at both herself at mid-life (B) and at her late self (A). They talk about Earl. Each of them asks, "Why did I marry him?" he, the short Jew with the small pee-pee who cheated on "them". Answer from one of them to the others : "Because he loved tall women, and you liked short men!"

Turns out Boy left, abruptly, after witnessing Mom getting it on in the stable hay mow with a groomsman. B can't forgive because Boy just "packed up his attitudes and left" and didn't re-surface for 20 years. Guilt no doubt spurs her on. A is more kindly : "We never do (forgive)," she admits, "but we play the game."

B now admits to the horseplay with the groomsman. "It starts as revenge, then self-pity, then it turns into pleasure for its own sake -- he rides us the way it was in the pornos and we scream!" B foretells C who shudders and denies, again, that she will turn out that way. "How you got to be her is one thing, how you get to be me is another," A tells her. C protests : "I will not become you, I will not, I deny you, I deny you!"

Words. Words that gurgle and burble and tumble over one another. Like David Mamet and Harold Pinter, Edward Albee is all about words. Words that repeat and repeat and repeat as they bump into one another : "I was tall, I was tall, I used to be tall but I shrunk."  "Mother, or was it Father, was always strict and fair, strict and fair."  "Sis never had an eye out for the men, I always had an eye out for them, you need to have an eye out...".

In the end, finally, A takes it all in and just laughs at B and C and Boy in a single sweep, mimicking C's last "I deny...!" outburst : "I deny you, you deny me, and of course we all deny each other...!" she says, barely hiding a snigger, and then draws all three together.

Fact is karma is karma. We can deny what was. We can deny what might be. But we can't deny what is. And, in the end, Albee reminds us, is is all that is. This moment. Not our memories or our projections, our days gone by or our days yet to come. Just this. In all its thisness. There is nothing more, nothing less, nothing other.

Production values astound :  That Anna Hagan is a long-time friend is irrelevant. Her performance as A in this piece is simply astonishing. Watching her every facial grin and grimace, every wee twitch of her body -- "Don't you dare touch me!" she yells at B in Act I -- her glee at breaking a glass so B will have to clean it up, her yelp when C manhandles her broken elbow, her aged crippled hobble to the loo, her knowing looks and giggles and wise calmness in Act II when B or C blows a gasket over past or future events -- watching these ever-so-subtle nuances sent shivers through me. Such skill and deftness and precision simply cannot be taught. They are learned over decades, they are also innate. This is star power on display, a nonpareil performance.

Beatrice Zeilinger gives viewers a rich and rounded turn as B, quite different in persona as between acts. Her shout at Boy to get out of her house now! brought a lump to my throat. Meaghan Chenosky gave an equally convincing and compelling performance as C. Her nascent career will up! up! up! no question whatever.

The 8th storey room in the Performing Arts Lodges at 581 Cardero where Western Gold Theatre performs is a gem of a space. Up close and personal, it was made doubly welcoming in TTW by the sumptuous Plaza Suite-style set of Glenn MacDonald (assisted by R. Todd Parker). The costume designs by Naomi Lazarus -- perfect surname given the play -- were simply terrific, particularly the Act II time-period dress of the three women representing style during their respective decades of the last century.

Who gonna like :  Forty years back as a fledgling high school drama teacher for a few seasons, I loved the small-set stuff of Pinter, Albee, Mamet, Ionesco, Beckett. Let others do their musicals and big-set extravaganzas, I felt. For me it was "the words", always "the words" -- get them just right and the elbow-close coffee house theatre venue would abound in resonance and dramatic impact, laughs and tears and pathos. So it is with veteran director Terence Kelly's remarkable and superbly-coached ensemble that is, now, on this intimate stage at this moment. Until November 9th.

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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Avenue Q re-mount milks script for mirth

N.B. The review that follows is an updated redux of the original BLR review from the Summer 2013 ACT production. The company's current re-mount is now mid-way through a tour around BC. Commencing November 20 (to January 3rd), the troupe will be at ACT's Granville Island stage. The review below follows Tuesday's gig @ the Surrey Arts Centre (until Oct.25). Please check with www.artsclub.com to see when Avenue Q will come to a stage near you.

Overview : One could be forgiven for wondering whether Avenue Q is shorthand for Avenue Queer given the re-emergence of that word in the lexicon of contemporary sexual politics. Once highly out-of-favour and decidedly non-p.c., the renaissance of "queer" occurred at roughly the same time that Hawaii's whimsical rainbow logo was appropriated in earnest by the gay community. No more a rainshower tourist come-on, rainbows now have been copyright'd to folks who have a non-heterosexual orientation. So be it. Times change. 

When it was mounted in 2002, meanwhile, the musical Avenue Q may have stood symbolically for "quixotic" or "quirky" or, perhaps best, "quick-witted" : all of these qualities are omnipresent and effervescent for sure! in this idiosyncratic NYC neighbourhood. 

The characters we meet are knock-offs of 1970's Sesame Street-types. It's just they've morphed from hippies in Hush Puppies to Gen-Xers with krappy college degrees and superb existential angst living communally along Q's streetscape. Together they fret about jobs and bills and sex and social relations circa Y2K. And "they" here means both the flesh-&-blood actors themselves -and- the hand-held Jim Henson knock-off puppets attached to most of the actors. Sometimes you watch the actor, other times the puppet, often going cross-eyed watching both. It's a total hoot

To add to the fun, in this decade's update there's a wonderful new "learn this word" screen -- schadenfreude -- meaning we're all to have some fun and delight in others' misery (think of Vancouver joy at anything dyspeptic in Toronto whether Rob Ford, ice storms or Maple Leaf hockey). Between that bit of sniggery and the number "We're All A Little Bit Racist" -- well, the innocent stuff we and our kids enjoyed on S.S. or The Muppet Show way back in the day goes Poof! in a jiffy on Ave. Q.

The show kicks off with a 23-year-old named Princeton (Jeremy Crittenden) lamenting "What do you do with a B.A. in English?", which segues nicely into the company challenging one another with assertions "It sucks to be me" that ends with them all wondering "Is there anybody here it doesn't suck to be...?" 

First impressions : Tonight's Surrey performance played to a mix of white heads and variously-dyed middle-agers. It was obvious the sass of Q both delighted and "squeamed" the audience. The latter particularly during the number "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" which featured the puppets Princeton and Kate Monster (Kayla Dunbar) having endless congress in more positions than even the Kama Sutra spells out. Tenement super Gary Coleman* (Evangelia Kambites) has the line that aces it: "If you're doing the nasty, don't act as if you're at the ballet." Half the crowd of some 200 roared, the other half seemed to twitch a bit self-consciously.

A decade back when Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx stitched together the music and the lyrics and Jeff Whitty did the storyline, "Sex and the City" still reigned despite the true reality t.v. of the 9-11 terrorist attacks just a year earlier. America was still looking for divertissement driven more by phantasy than by autogiography, thanks. Q answered that need nicely because of its hooks back to Muppetry and Sesame Street as well as the relative innocence, still, of young people living communally trying to both break out and break in -- break out of juvenile mind-traps and break in to careers and security and "purpose". "Gotta find my purpose, gotta find me !" Princeton wails.

Plotline look : For all its cleverness, the script is a bit of a time-piece. It is no longer quite as fresh as it might be though still scrappy and punchy, e.g. apparently no one thought to up-date Princeton's putting together a "mix-tape" for Kate Monster that features the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus" and "Yellow Submarine" and Celine Dionne's "My Heart Goes On" from Titanic instead of a thumb-drive with current Coldplay ballads or Adele's heart-throb stuff or Cinematic Orchestra's Patrick Watson doing "To Build A Home".

Then there's the still-in-the-closet homosexual Republican investment banker stereotype, um, Rod (also Crittenden). He's got the hots for roomy Nicky (Nick Fontaine). Rod tries to deny he's gay and even sings of a fictitious girlfriend named Alberta from faraway Vancouver as his cover. That pretend-girlfriend song schtick was doubtless trite and condescending back in 2002, but its lyrics are truly a clanger on the ear in 2014.

What about the kindergarten teacher (Jeny Cassady) known as -- wait for it! -- Mrs. Thistletwat. The over-the-top-ness of that name is just that -- was a decade back, too -- but not helped in the least when her classroom aide Kate Monster stresses the t-ness of the 3rd syllable emphatically each time she utters it same as Ms. Dunbar did, regrettably, in playing the same role in the 2013 show.

The wonderful Trekkie Monster character -- like Big Bird on bad acid -- played by Mr. Fontaine insists that the Internet has one primary purpose : "for porn". In Y2K that probably was a major purpose for newby computer users delighting in the medium's immediate at-hand possibilities. But an updated laugh-line could surely have been crafted. In 2014 when juvenile cyber-bullying leads to suicides and priests store whole caches of child-porn on their laptops, the "innocent" porno joke loses some of the comic titillation and tumescence it may have enjoyed in yesteryear.

Character take : Quibbles aside, Q is a marvel of flesh, felt and thrown-voices choreographed superbly by Director Peter Jorgensen who brags tongue-in-cheek he can now add "muppet porn" to his live theatre curriculum vitae.

Rick Lyon's puppets and their persona are wonderfully wrought and acted out by their puppeteers even as they have their own flesh characters to project, too. The Bad Idea Bear characters (Fontaine and Cassady) are a delight of comic mischief, hilarious without being stale-dated in the least. Their Bear impersonations and spot-on spontaneity are a highlight of the show. And the choreography between them when sharing the two animated hands of puppet character Nicky was step-perfect.

As the protagonist Princeton, Crittenden was well and capably cast -- he made his 3-D felt characters come vitally alive. Rod's head flopping on his therapist's lap was classic slapstick. Counterpart and occasional girl friend Kate Monster (Ms. Dunbar) has terrific pipes, no question, her powerful voice even more rounded and rich than a year back. For her part Selina Wong as the Japanese-American named Christmas Eve proved she was no slouch of a singer, either, particularly in her duet with Kate "The more you love someone / The more you wish him dead". 

Wannabe comic Brian (Andy Toth) was once again cast to feed a stereotype -- the fatman struggling to urge laughs out of his brain and his belly, first, then out of his buddies. His wedding day costume of red-high-top Converse shoes, knickers and a polka-dot yarmulke by designer Jessica Bayntun was truly a sight set against Christmas Eve's Delores del Rio neon flamenco get-up. Great visual fun.

Production values : As it did last year, memory of this show will take me back to previous-Jessie Award winner Marshall McMahen's striking tenement set -- a whimsical asymmetrical caricature of 1930's walk-ups in dirty reds and rust, like pop-up illustrations of skid road housing one might imagine from a kid's learn-to-read-book.  Musical Director Sean Bayntun led an able ensemble, his dance on the keyboards particularly earful on the Surrey stage. Jessica Bayntun's costumes were just right, enabling the Henson-esque puppets to steal the limelight for the most part.

Who gonna like : The key to Avenue Q's success for viewers will depend on the degree to which they are prepared to just play along with puppets as people and people as puppets singing and dancing out this catalogue of familiar (if-dated) neuroses on stage.#   In my view the ideal demographic to enjoy it would be the 14-45 set, though Boomers will also relate from their break-out / break-in years. WarGen viewers will have eyes and ears strained and tested a bit uneasily but nothing they can't handle. 

In 50 words or less... : I heard one elderly matron lean on her cane and cackle "Gosh that was funny!" at her pal while another I overheard puzzled to her hubby : "What was the kindergarten teacher's name again...?" In the end, when it's children's-dreamworld-meets-adult-reality -- Oz is Oz after all --probably any age can find something to relate to and have a heck of a laugh while doing so. 

* Coleman's character is based on the erstwhile t.v. child star of the show Diff'rent Strokes whose aura later in life dimmed to being a tenement manager in slummy NYC. His finest adult life moment, Kambites tells us, was when he sued his parents for ripping off his Strokes royalites, only for them to have to file for bankruptcy later. That little vignette sync's wonderfully with the overall tenor of Q and its characters.

# Here's how ACT describes the show in its media promotional materials. I could never improve upon it by tittle-or-jot so I simply reproduce it for readers for their benefit:

Warning : Full puppet nudity and other vulgarities will induce laughter. This is a puppet show. However this is not your kids' puppet show as it sneaks a peak at raucous sexual congress, failed childhood stardom, excessive drinking, moving in and out of a slummy neighbourhood, investing, mix-tapes, cute creatures doing bad things, singing boxes, getting laid off, finding your purpose, getting fired, getting rehired, ruvving someone but wanting to kirr them, exotic dancing, erotic dancing, exotic erotic dancing, homosexuality, racism, pornography, masturbation, interracial marriage, interspecies relationships (monsters and humans), roommates, coming out of the closet, coming out of your apartment, getting ahead in real life, going to college, pan-handling, wishing you were back in college, coming out of your shell, and recycling.

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Educating Rita tells a touching tale of yore

N.B. This is a "late" review of this play due to BLR's summertime cabin & travel interlude. At present there are only a few more performances left. Check the ACT website at www.artsclub.com for remaining showtimes.

Overview : 19th century American educator Brander Matthews who loved literature and theatre with a passion is credited with the expression : "A highbrow is a person educated beyond their intelligence." Which anticipates two alternative meanings : (1) that an educated person is a mere mimic of ideas they fail to understand, really, but like to throw hi-falutin' words about them anyway; or (2) a person may achieve book-learning and even knowledge, but along the way they lose their native intelligence / common sense that require no education. (Nowhere, of course, are both tendencies so evident as in the average parliament. Or, of course, in the hallowed halls of academia. Maybe best in your typical boardroom of bureaucrats, he admits after nearly four decades doing it...).

Playwright Willy Russell's 1980's script Educating Rita runs for another week at ACT's Granville Island Theatre. Directed by Sarah Rodgers, it is an oxidized timepiece of humour, pathos and irony. Along the way it proves both aspects of Brander Matthews' discerning insight. 

The plotline is almost intuitive : Rita (Holly Lewis) is a hairdresser, real name Susan, who doesn't like the jibber-jabber of her class. She's married to a blue collar workman who just wants to bed her down to pump out kids. Rita, meanwhile, wants to "expand her mind" as the old cliche has it. She's not o.c. about it, she just wants to rise above her station and learn, like 'Liza Dolittle, to speak articulately and cleverly. And she thinks an Old Ivy literature jones just might fetch her up proper, now, at age 26. 

Enter professor Frank (Ted Cole). He's the alcoholic cynic academic, in that order. He's going through his paces doing adult-ed at Open University to lubricate his exchequer & fund his habit. In the first act he's all faux irritation and glibness, while in the second he's a vaporous stodgy drunk ("Mr. Self-Pity Piss Artist" Susan now brands him). From the quasi-heroic  "You give me room to breathe!" in the earlier going he's now pegged as a chauvinist pathetic lech by play's end.

WYSIWYG : ER is a classic of its era, clever Pygmalion rip-off though it may be. Peasant girl wants to up herself. Doting (condescending) father figure steps into the breach. What starts as a top-down treat of self-discovery ends up in role reversal : the student is "liberated" while the mentor winds up enchained in his self-pity, self-loathing, self-destruction. James Mason playing Prof. Hummy Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's momentous flik Lolita leaps instantly to mind.

During Saturday's matinee viewing I asked myself why ACT in 2014 would mount anew such a timed, safe, middlebrow patriarchal drama. Precisely the stuff that critics of the Vancouver live theatre scene regularly love to disparage. I.e. little content that is new or challenging, nothing particularly "threatening" or even really surprising here. 

Fact is its draw, obviously, is precisely just that accessibility. The largely Great Generation crowd filled 3/4 of the seats and giggled and guffawed at all the right times. Also what's wrong with gaining even a moment's insight into human foibles and frailties ? It's that quality that would seem to explain this re-mount of the obviously dated plot & dialogue. To view ER in what many now claim is now a post-feminist epoch doesn't deny the universality of these big-ticket themes : Personal agency. Freedom. Core values examination. Hubris. Humility. Regret. Release. Redemption.

Some clever dialogue that is timeless : During the early discovery exchanges, Rita asks Frank about his personal life. He ditched his same-age wife to snatch up a college co-ed in her place, current wife Julia. Sensing disparagement of her, too, Rita wonders why. Frank demurs. "It's myself I'm not too fond of, not her. Over time you'll find there's less of me than meets the eye."

As for Rita's complaints about her family's day-to-day "earthiness" as compared to the headiness of academia, Frank says ironically : "Yes, we pluck birds from the sky and nail them down to learn how they fly."

Rita protests why she wants to embrace this culture of his : "All I see is everyone pissed or stoned and just going through their lives day-to-day. The meaning is all gone -- disease, vandalism, violence, homes burnt out -- they're all caught up in the 'got-to-have' game...All I want to find for the time being is me !"

"Art and literature begin to take the place of life. They're valuable, but you may have to suppress, even abandon your uniqueness," Frank warns Rita so she not delude herself she will find true "meaning" in them. But Rita is having none of that. She leaves hubby Dennis, bunks in with Trish, enrols in summer school full-time. She and Trish pull all-nighters reading Blake, Chekhov et al. She tells Frank : "She's got taste, Frank, just like you. Everything in her flat is dead-on pretentious!" 

By play's end, Susan dismisses Frank because, she accuses him, "You'd rather see me as a peasant !" He retorts, drunkenly, that this new song of self-confidence she sings is just "shrill, hollow and tuneless". As he heads off for a two-year college-ordered sabbatical in Oz -- England's traditional penal colony -- he asks Susan to join him there in exile. She refuses, of course, but helps him pack up and then gleefully snips ten years off his life to prep him for the next phase of his journey. Her parting observation to her mentor is this : "Of everything you've given me, I've learned most of all I have a choice."

And that is where and how the wise observation of Brander Matthews comes into play. Susan's intuition, at last, that "class" is not the district or the flat where you live. It's the stuff of your heart, your soul, your presence where and when and however you find yourself, book-learnin' or no.

Production values :  As Rita/Susan, Holly Lewis delivers a tour de force effort as a homegrown Liverpool native. Her L'pool accent -- via Dublin to this ear -- is consistent throughout. Two wee problems for folks in the nosebleed seats, however, are the Gatling-gun velocity of her words in that accent coupled with the fact, whether intended or not, her every sentence ends on a rising soprano note as if posing a question...? 

Ted Cole as Frank articulated and projected effortlessly, even when the drunk. He did not overdo the fawning Professor bit, his character's Humbert-lecherousness mostly subtle, which only added to how pathetic a loving lonely mess he truly is.

Set and costume designer Drew Facey wins Huzzah's galore for the superb facsimile of an Ivy professor's musty, fusty intellectual island with its 25-foot windowpanes, dozens of bookshelf stacks where he squirrels away both his whiskey bottles and the intellectual cunning that now but ferments with age. 

Sound designer Cayman Duncan's kicker from the Kinks "A Well Respected Man" was the perfect ironic opener for the show. As well, each of the dozen or so scene changes was punctuated with little-known indy acoustical clips from groups such as Daughter (singing "Youth"). Each hand-picked sound-bite accompanied Gerald King's crafty chiaroscuro lighting that allowed the actors' stage business to continue even during these transition moments.

Who gonna like :  As noted throughout, this is a period piece of well-wrought theatre. Folks in the mood for a trip down memory lane to embrace some never-stale human themes will enjoy the crisp acting & complementary mileux this production amply provides.


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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Feisty and fulsome fare = ACT's Blue Box

Overview :  Vancouver actor, playwright and memoirist Carmen Aguirre will doubtless spend her life trying to get smug 1st-world gringos to understand the passions that burned in her as an exiled-Chilean schoolkid who was born again as a teen-age anti-Pinochet resistance fighter in the 80's. In her one-woman script Blue Box those often frightful memories are shot through the prism of an early-30's drama queen who happens to be in lust with a chicano California t.v. actor. Her description of him will surely remind boomers of George Chakiris from West Side Story. In Aguirre's monologue these two stories infuse one another, confuse time continuously, and steadfastly refuse to part company even for a second.

Blue Box reprises at the Arts Club Revue stage until November 1st her 2012 Cultch show. It sizzles and seethes and sputters with antic revelation but never quite boils over randomly. No mere oozing of sex and politics here. Rather it's a spiel of cerebral emotions recalled across 90 breathy minutes. One might term it well-rehearsed "free association" -- a tale of two continents, two countries, two human states : the rational and the visceral -- and the torments and triumphs each of them presents. N.B. plot spoiler alert : in the first line uttered for comic effect Aguirre throws the "c"-word in the audience's face. She reveals that her play's title refers to the female genital condition that is akin to men's tumescent blue affliction occasioned by coitus interruptus. But first let us digress.

Backdrop :  Following the coup over socialist President Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973 -- aided and abetted by Nixon's Henry Kissinger and the CIA -- Aguirre's family along with tens of thousands of other Chileans fled the country to avoid concentration camps, torture, or being "disappeared" -- a verb-form spawned at the time -- i.e. kidnapped and killed by Pinochet's equivalent SS shock troops. But half-a-dozen years later, when Aguirre is only 11, her family abruptly decides to uproot itself from Canada to return to the South American "cone" to join a host of anti-Pinochet resisters working to overthrow him both from within Chile and from neighbouring countries. To nationalize copper and other industries and wrest them from greedy American capitalista for wealth redistribution to indigenous compesino was, and is, their holy grail.

A half-dozen years pass and teenager Aguirre joins the resisters herself, marrying another young fighter. Together they learn to fly Cessnas and Tomahawks and make surreptitious supply drops into Chile, no longer protected by the prophylaxis of her mother's safe haven in next-door Bolivia. The resistance oath states : "I will never speak of the organization or my involvement in it to anybody."  Puzo's Godfather oath of omerta as real-time Chilean mutismo.

Aguirre broke the mutismo spell with her 2012 memoir Something Fierce : Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter that won the 2012 Canada Reads competition. Most recently, among more than a dozen other scripts, comes Blue Box. 

Fast-forward : a decade and more after those resistance years Aguirre finds herself back in North America. From afar, now, she witnesses Pinochet's exile in Britain in '98 and his subsequent death in Chile in '06 awaiting trial for his 1970's human rights abuses as diktator / kommandant in her homeland. Aguirre falls giddily in lust -- love, perhaps -- for a Los Angeles t.v. star about the time she has moved back to Canada. Here she relates, poignantly, her stint performing phone sex gigs from a call centre cubicle on East Hastings. (Her "Kentucky Billy 14-year-old orphan" tale was told to a dead-silent and serious house where the only sound was a subdued sob.)  Subsequently she graduates from Studio 58 and begins to make her mark dramatically. 

Aguirre describes Blue Box as a "no-holds-barred examination of two core stories that live within me. One belongs to the South, the other to the North. The only thing they have in common is that they happened to the same person. They both explore the theme of unconditional love in completely different realms : the romantic and the revolutionary, and the tension between the two, ultimately asking where self-love fits in." 

In a 2012 Cultch interview with Sarah Marsh she refers to the piece as a "lament", which is what always lives on after love's loss. If so it's lament wrapped in a confection akin to the opening night cream puffs served up at show's end. The performance put me to mind of Englishman Horace Walpole's dictum of some 150 years back : "Life is tragic to those who feel, and comic to those who think." Blue Box is a retrospective on Aguirre's tragic teen-age resister years as reconstructed through a mid-life memory that always has an eye for comic effect. 

Ambitious stuff : does it work ?  The overlay of memories is brilliant in its time-shifts, its place shifts, its character shifts. One must listen ever-so-carefully to discern whether the airport being talked of is LAX with horny memories of the chicano actor or a high-Andes mountain pass airstrip where Resister Husband and his unabashedly asexual wife Aguirre are dropping surreptitiously out of the night under Pinochet's radar. Why an asexual marriage? As a freedom fighter "having a personal life is an act of treason" she explains -- it opens one up to revelation of resister secrets under torture.

Said chicano, meanwhile, is given the moniker Vision Man throughout the piece because he reminds Aguirre of a description from a dream vision brought to her, she believes, by her dead grandmother. (No coincidence that mystic mythologist Joseph Campbell numbers among her favourite authors.) After a somewhat awkward opening prologue where she complains that Nordic North American women have cobwebs on their bodies where vaqueros should giddy-up instead, Aguirre settles into her "routine" that is anything but. 

For the rest of the show she flips between competing memories. Such as one of an ex-Nazi blue-eyed Argentinian secret police stalker vis-a-vis another, this one of a wild and sexually explicit tryst in her car at Spanish Banks in Vancouver. Along the way she tells us eyes dilate primarily in two conditions : sexual arousal and raw fear. Thus she commands what she describes as the hummingbird in her heart to die at the Argentine border at age 20 so as to not betray her fear. Later she wishes this same metaphorical bird to take a wee breather when she falls, for the umpteenth time, for the unfaithful t.v. chicano charmer. Truly he's a beaut. He yells out to her under a 50-foot Hollywood Blvd. billboard of himself : "Yo, Carmen, be sure to catch the show tonight, it's all about me...!"

Take-aways from this show :  Blue Box proves an old rule -- matters of the heart cannot be explained. In the words of Kentucky novelist Walker Percy, memories need to be "discharged", like a storage battery, because they are "gone and grieved over and never made sense of." Directed by Brian Quirt of the theatre company Nightswimming, Blue Box succeeds in its discharge through Aguirre's imaginative and inventive monologue. 

Revolutions aren't "romantic" because they're politically doctrinaire. But they are intellectually and emotionally passionate times, no question. The fears her rebel mentor Rafael taught her to overcome through acts of will I can only marvel at, not once having been a prairie mile nevermind a hair-breadth near such angst and danger.

Later-life affairs with drop-dead gorgeous actors, for their part, are both romantic and emotionally passionate, true, but "intellectual" and "doctrinaire", hardly. 

Somewhere along those co-existing continuums Carmen Aguirre spins an intriguing and engaging tale from her heart. At times dramatically uneven, it nevertheless engages the audience, particularly the two dozen or so who joined her in some impromptu salsa dancing on stage late in the show as well as the numerous standing-o enthusiasts at curtain call. 

Who gonna like : As we exited the Revue Stage, two late-middle-age men aside us chatted. "What the fuck was that all about?" one demanded of the other. "Do you think it really happened that way?" I had to chuckle as the single affirmative word "Yes!" crossed my mind. The line between "fact" and "actual" may blur on occasion, but never the core "truth" Aguirre acts out. 

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