Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Shakespeare's Rebel not without a cause or two

Story backdrop & overview :  Author C.C. (Chris) Humphreys is a novelist (13 published so far) and playwright (four) whose works have been translated into more than a dozen different languages. He is also an actor -- who sometimes thinks he "owns" Hamlet -- and is an aficionado of swordplay. As well he is a good buddy of Bard Artistic Director Christopher Gaze who directed Shakespeare's Rebel. The play is Humphrey's distillation for theatre of his novel of the same name, a drama script he originally cranked out as a thesis project for his MFA degree at UBC.

At a speech last month in Denver to a forum of historical novelists, Humphreys praised the work of his fellow storytellers : "I don't claim to be much more than an entertainer. That's my main job, as I see it : to give people a bit of a break from their everyday lives. But I hope that perhaps by dwelling in the past for awhile, it enables them to more clearly see their present... We are all in the same boat, wrestling with the same demons in an often frustrating and insane business. Yet it is one that allows us to delve into history, uncover the famed and the forgotten and give them a fresh voice...to explore the world, beyond us, within us."

Plot quicky : Humphreys takes the fast-fading world of Elizabeth I at fin de siecle 16th century. The Irish are getting uppity. QEI's lover and field marshall Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex II, is sent to quell the disturbances. While there he plots to overthrow his aging Queen despite his sexual attachment to her. Her conspiracy-attuned Rasputin is one Sir Robert Cecil who is Devereux's true target. For his part, Cecil desperately wants Essex's head, and history tells us how all that played out

Enter a fictional character named John Lawley. He's England's most famous swordsman. He's also a binge drunk who has lost the love of Tess, the mother of their bastard son Ned, now a teenager and budding thespian with Lord Chamberlain's Men. Tess has had enough of Lawley in his cups for weeks on end and has taken up with an insipid chap named Sir Samuel D'Esparr instead. Lawley aches and pines and quaffs quarts of whisky at her loss.

Same time we find Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in launch mode. Chief actor Richard Burbage likes the mercurial Lawley but is fearful he will do damage to the fledgling theatre troupe. He agrees to take Lawley on as his fight director. Shortly, however, Lawley is conscripted to join Essex as a real-life cutthroat in Ireland. He can't quite escape the political grasp of Liz or dodge the crafty Cecil, either. 

All this political intrigue and folderol to achieve Humphrey's storytelling point : will Lawley get Tess back or not, and what prices must be paid along the way?

Noteworthy production point : Humphrey quipped to his Denver listeners last month that the historical dialogue he imagines "is inaccurate but plausible", what he calls "bygonese". "We happen to write stories that are set in the past. But we are inevitably reflecting out lives, our times, our influences to readers who live now...and the only thing that matters to me, at least to start, is story, story, story," he told them. Worthy examples of "bygonese" are Lawley sniggering at Tess's newly betrothed Sir Samuel D'Esparr : "He is poor in everything but fat -- the man is a walking pudding!" Or when Lawley dawdles after an order from QE1, she chides him : "About it, Mr. Lawley, the times press us!"

Does the novel survive as a stage show ?  People tell me they read historical novels for richness of backstory detail, nuance and narrative descriptors. The success of a novel's cultural commentary -plus- layers of intrigue-&-insight will depend on the writer's ability to imagine and create. How well they weave and serge myriad storyline threads together all the while advancing a unifying plot is always the trick.

Stage drama, by contrast, is built on just two primary footings : dialogue-&-action. A plot's stitchery is what the characters say and do, no more no less. Plays do not enjoy the luxury of an author's ramble that starts out "Once upon a time in a land far, far away...". What isn't self-obvious must be inferred, and quickly so, for a play to maintain cadence and pace. (And none of the convenient cheats of photo overlays and flashbacks and prequel peaks available to filmmakers, either. Plays are classic WYSIWYG, full-stop.)

Shakespeare's Rebel is fraught with intrigue and multiple story-lines -- a yarn -- that at times reminds one of a cat's playtoy : higgledypiggledy strands of plot all mangled and knotted. But some helter-skelter chaos to the contrary notwithstanding, Rebel mangages -- switching metaphors here -- to achieve trills of harmony as well as clang us with the odd cacophonous chord, too.

Characters that bind :  Humphreys' characterizations of Lawley (Benedict Campbell) and Tess (Jennifer Lines) meet well indeed his own objective of wanting to focus on "story, story, story". Particularly so because of these actors' talents. While not as compelling perhaps as he was in Lear, Campbell gives Lawley a raucous and robust presence. Lines was coy & charming & coquettish & caustic all at once in her role -- sheer delight to watch and hear. Bard veteran Colleen Wheeler virtually reprises her 2013 role as Elizabeth Rex both in delivery and costume. Her imposing presence and petulance -- "God's teeth!" she swears, a la Glenda Jackson -- are forceful and compelling, as is her fatal love for Devereux. 

John Murphy as the tragic Earl of Essex displayed appropriate bi-polar moods and actions, while Robert Klein's "puritan with a hunchback" Sir Robert Cecil was a convincing evil coward.

As D'Esparr, David Marr once again wins Pan American Gold for his stentorian basso profundo comedia projections : no better boffo in the land. 

Production values contribute and detract : As a long-ago coffee house drama coach, I found myself uneasy and edgy that the troupe tried to stretch out the blocking in order to fill the available space in the Douglas Campbell Theatre rather than change the space to fit the action. I.e. fire marshall considerations aside, the south riser and its overhead light bar needed to be moved north a full dozen feet to compress the open acting space at that end to match the size of the thrust stage rectangle opposite. Only during the 5-man swordfight scene did the south-end open space get used effectively : the rest of the time actors were simply plopped in its corners to fill it out, and it didn't work well either visually or dramatically.

That wee kvetch aside, the "stage north" set by Marshall McMahen that quadrupled as Globe stage and castle and pub and Tower of London worked crisply and effectively. 

Costume Designer Christine Reimer's threads for all these characters were spot on in their wealth of variety -- from Queen Bess's gold and cream regal gown (seen previously in Rex) to the men's unbuttoned doublets and capes to the working class peasant dress of the publicans and actors, all of the costumes were a real time-appropriate treat to the eye.

For his part, Fight Director Nicholas Harrison had a breathless workout of a challenge staging all the swordplay scenes, but save a wimpy faux performance early on by Essex showing off in private for Lawley, quite convincing choreography the rest of the show when the slash-&-bash routines were "game on". 

One staging caveat : always better to use a scalpel than a bludgeon, I believe. Essex's flatulence / bowel movement scene is nothing if not puerile and thus condescending to the viewer -- even worse than Costard's dead chicken & bra nonsense from Love's Labours Lost. Had Essex merely said to Lawley "I prefer to read Bess's letter whilst I vacate!" as he disappeared bare-bum behind the curtain would have been a more risible schtick for sure. 

Who gonna like : Rebel brings together history and make-believe in a delightful spin of a story, as Humphreys hoped it would. Perhaps some over-cute word-choices in the script -- the D'Esparr = "Despair" joke worked only once, not a 1/2-dozen times. Still this is an evening enjoyably spent re-imagining all these influences that converged in time & space during that remarkable epoch in the neverending saga that is Britannia. Shakespeare's Rebel is an event well worth a summer's gambol through Vanier Park. 

Particulars :  Adapted for the stage from his novel by C.C. Humphreys. Now on until September 19th at the Howard Family Stage at Vanier Park. Run-time 140-minutes plus a 20-minute intermission. Tickets and schedules for repertory performances with Bard's three other plays via http://bardonthebeach.org or by phoning the box office at 604.739.0559.

Production crew : Director Christopher Gaze.  Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Scenic Designer Marshall McMahen.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Composer & Sound Designer Murray Price.  Production Dramaturg Martin Kinch.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager Lorilyn Parker.  Apprentice Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn.  Apprentice Director Jacquie Loewen.

Performers :  Anousha Alamian (William Shakespeare).  Michael Blake (Richard Burbage).  Ian Butcher (Thomas Waller).  Benedict Campbell (John Lawley).  Craig Erickson (William Sly).  Robert Klein (Sir Robert Cecil).  Jennifer Lines (Tess).  David Marr (Sir Samuel D'Esparr).  John Murphy (Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex II).  Chirag Naik (Ned Lawley).  Declan O'Reilly (St. Lawrence).  Andrea Rankin (Sarah).  Nathan Schmidt (Lord Sandys).  Colleen Wheeler (Queen Elizabeth).

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Thursday, 9 July 2015

Les Mis had 'em on their feet cheering

Backdrop to the musical : It is difficult if not impossible for 21st Century North American bourgeoisie of any age to think of themselves, realistically, as "wretched" like the folks in this synonymous musical. But most of us are hopeless romantics and tend to root for the underdog, particularly where class struggles and turf wars are involved. Add a few catchy tunes, flags waved deliriously, period piece costumes galore, an iconic woodcut of a forlorn waif to advertise it all, and Les Miserables is what you get. And what gets you! The show continues to pack in patrons to full houses : some 60 million folks have seen the play worldwide since it was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985 and outruns The Phantom of the Opera in London's West End to this day.

Semi-quick re-cap of the plot : The story, based on the Victor Hugo novel, is set amongst the sketchy outskirts of Paris circa 1830. The country has been in turmoil for 20 years since Napoleon met his Waterloo. In the words of Englishman Thomas Hobbes, life in those times was "solitary, nasty, brutish and short" for most folks. Abject poverty and a cholera outbreak didn't help much to cheer them up, and flagons of wine only fueled them so far, so long.

Main character Jean Valjean, Prisoner 24601, has been released from jail after 19 years -- five years for stealing bread to feed his starving sister's boy but 14 years tacked on by the gestapo-like Inspector Javert for various escape attempts. Javert finally paroles Valjean but remains ever-suspicious he will relapse.

When the Bishop of Digne offers Valjean food and shelter, Valjean proceeds to steal the bishop's silver wine goblets. Digne forgives him, claims to the gendarmerie he has gifted Valjean not only the cups but adds in a couple of silver candlesticks to boot. In return, he commands Valjean to start a new life of virtue. Inspector Javert, learning Valjean has violated his parole obligations, vows to spend his life getting his man behind bars once again. 

Valjean, meanwhile, follows the good Bishop's advice. He opens a factory and gives locals employment. He has also become the town's popular and respected mayor. But all is not 100% well. One of his workers, Fantine, has been fired. She has turned to prostitution to earn a few francs to feed herself. Her illegitimate daughter Cosette is a foster child, virtually a slave to some nasty innkeepers the Thenardiers and is treated worse than Cinderella. Valjean promises the dying Fantine he will look after Cosette, whom he then adopts. Shortly Cosette buds into maidenhood. She falls in love with a university activist named Marius who has swooned over her, too, much to the chagrin of Cosette's erstwhile buddy Eponine Thenardier : she also pines, achingly, futilely, for the charming Marius to requite her love.

Marius and a cadre of idealistic U. students, fresh off some tavern carousing, start a short-lived anti-monarchist revolution -- known as the Insurrection republicaine a Paris en June 1832. They man some makeshift barricades to protest their wretched state. With hope-&-prayer-&-pamphlets-&-bravado they encourage the townspeople to join them and rise up against their oppressors. As the insurrection falls, Valjean saves Marius from death and forgoes an opportunity to kill the vindictive Insp. Javert who is still chasing him. In the end both Javert and Valjean die -- as much from world-weary hearts as anything else. 

Structure of the show : Les Mis is a musical very much in the modus operandi of Andrew Lloyd Webber (but clearly absent Webber's non-pareil lyricist Tim Rice). The dialogue, thin though it may be, is sung as well as the tunes that stitch everything loosely together. The two primary characters Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy) and Javert (Warren Kimmel) carry the bulk of the dramatic action as well as the lion's share of featured pieces. Fantine (Rebecca Talbot) offers up a touching ballad "I Dreamed A Dream", as does Eponine (Jennie Neumann) in "On My Own". Comic relief is brought through the grimy grinning grifter innkeepers (Nicola Lipman \ Andrew Wheeler), while student leader Enjolras (Stuart Barkley) leads his buddies in some rousing fight songs as well as their futile Insurrection.

Standout singing : Murphy reprises the role of Valjean he performed in ACT's 2009 version of Les Mis. In his opening solo "Who Am I?" and later in his plea to God for release "Take me now, bring me home!", Murphy's tuneful tenor voice reminds one of balladeer Randy Edelman. But it is Warren Kimmel as Javert whose baritone pipes impress the most, particularly his wistful "Stars" in Act I.  Ms's Talbot and Neumann, as noted above, bring the strongest women's solo voices to the show. That said, two of Les Mis's catchiest and most popular tunes are the equally hilarious "Master of the House" and "Beggars at the Feast" by the Wheeler / Lipman duo as M. and Mme. Thenardier. Truly a giggle, both and both! Excellently mic'd each and all, the ensemble voices were sharply rehearsed and tuneful throughout, aided with just-right orchestral stylings supplied by the backstage Bruce Kellett \ Ken Cormier orchestra.

The show makes the show : While Les Mis doesn't provide as many opportunities for choreographed numbers as other shows she's worked on, Valerie Eastman's tavern scenes and Cosette's wedding feast numbers were crisp and clever, as was the short but catchy "Turning" piece featuring the women. Ted Roberts' set -- particularly the seemingly thrown-together barricade of wagon wheels, bedsteads, kitchen shelves, beer barrels et al -- was hi-lited, lit.&fig., by Marsha Sibthorpe's excellent moody lighting. Probably most eye-catching of all, however, had to be Alison Green's sumptuous costumes. The cut-away tails for the student rebels accentuated, symbolically, how much of the naif was at play in each of their idealistic frat-boy souls. 

Who gonna like : The nearly universal standing ovation given the cast on opening night July 8th was definitely not the kind of pro forma standing-o Vancouver audiences are so inclined to jump up for.  No indeed. The crowd's enthusiasm for the overall spectacle of sight and sound was genuine and spontaneous. It underscored the fact that this Arts Club big-stage musical adds mightily to the verve and juice of local stage excitement this summer. For fans of the contemporary musical showpiece genre, a hot Les Mis production in the air-cooled Stanley is a go-to gotta-see gotta-take-the-visitors night of fun and escape you'll all surely remember.

Particulars :  A musical by Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text by Alain Boublil & Jean-Marc Natel. Additional material by James Fenton. Adapted and originally directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Original orchestration by John Cameron. At the Stanley Theatre ACT stage on South Granville. Currently slated to end August 16th. Run-time 170 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission. Schedules and ticket information via www.artsclub.com or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production Team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Co-Musical Director \ Reorchestration \ Keyboard Programming Bruce Kellett.  Co-Musical Director / Keyboards Ken Cormier.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Costume Designer Alison Green. Original Sound Designer Chris Daniels.  Sound Consultant Andrew Tugwell.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager Colleen Totten.

The Orchestra :  Graham Boyle, percussion.  Henry Christian, trumpet \ flugelhorn.  Ken Cormier, keyboards.  Sasha Niechoda, keyboards \ keyboard programming.  Angus Kellett, keyboards.  Andrew Poirier, trombone.

Ensemble : Sarah Carle. Oliver Castillo. Caitlin Clugston. Eric Craig. Kevin Michael Cripps. Jocelyn Gauthier. Erik Gow. Jesse Martyn. Alexander Nicoll. Cathy Wilmot. Jacob Wolke. Sylvia Zaradic. 

Performers : Cameron Andres (Gavroche).  Stuart Barkley (Enjolras).  Kaylee Harwood (Cosette).  Warren Kimmel (Javert).  Nicola Lipman (Mme. Thenardier).  Jaime Olivia MacLean (Young Cosette).  Kieren Martin Murphy (Jean Valjean).  Jennie Neumann (Eponine).  Sayer Roberts (Marius).  Rebecca Talbot (Fantine).  Andrew Wheeler (M. Thenardier).  Eloise White (Young Eponine).

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Saturday, 4 July 2015

Lear is breathtaking, mesmerizing, brilliant

Backdrop to the famous King Lear : King Lear is perhaps the most literary and gilded story of a father having a profound and prolonged Snit ever imagined and written in English (or likely any other language). The plot commences with a vast stretch of crudulity : Dad decides to try on semi-retirement. He says he will trifurcate the lands of his British kingdom and visit them in equal shares on his three daughters. He will retain all kingly prerogatives for himself, however. In historical UK such a scenario would be quite unlikely given all the intrigue over the centuries to keep the country's chippy clans and cousins unified under one crown.

How it all begins : The play starts when Lear asks each of the girls point-blank who is prepared to slaver their profession of devotion over him most : she and her mate will get the "largest third" of his kingdom. Eldest Goneril and second sister Regan heap on the sweet nothings.

Then comes baby sister Cordelia, youngest, fairest, most prized by Dad, as yet unwed. She refuses to play the game, however. Because, she tells him, when I marry I will need to give half my life's love to my betrothed : how can I possibly declare 100% of my heart to my father. No, to you, Dad, I will continue to show the affection and respect expected of a dutiful daughter, same as you've shown me all my life, that's it.

And from that unlikely start within the first scene a tragical tale unfolds with banishments, mayhem, murder, plucked-out eyes and caselots of WS's clever words to explain the why of all this hopelessly negative EQ run amok. Love = blind loyalty = property = power -- and all fly on gossamer wings. That something so benign as "filial ingratitude" should ever wreak such familial havoc is utterly unimaginable except in theatre.

"My tender-hearted nature shall never give over to harshness," Lear declares with typical blindness along the way. Is he daft? Suffereth he from senility or dementia or late-stage onset? All of the above and then some were this piece contemporary drama. But in WS's time there was still considerable truck in Fates, astrology, gods both generic and Christian, Mother Nature -- all of which are blamed singly and collectively for conspiring and condemning privileged royalty & aristocracy to let hubris o'ertake their senses.

A word about 'tragedy' : Since first reading it at university, King Lear has always struck me as considerably less a whole than the sum of its parts -- more potboiler than poignant treatise on how death stalks everyone in Lear's entourage -or- how love is complicated in family relations. 

A straightforward definition of tragedy leads me to this view I've held some 50 years now : "A drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a result of a tragic flaw or moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavourable circumstances."  [Courtesy online Free Dictionary].

Hard to imagine disagreeing with Cordelia's logic about her heart were any of my three adult bairns to aim such a point-of-view at me. Even if I considred qualified or conditional love an "unfavourable circumstance", surely I would not be brought to ruin  or suffer extreme sorrow or be unable to cope as a result. Lear the victim of moral weakness or just royal ego writ large? Tragic flaw or pompous pique?

Lear doesn't enrage like Macbeth. Or engage like poor Hamlet. But he has captured the imagination of actors and audiences for four centuries. To this day patrons and critics and academics continue to swoon.

Enough, already, what about Bard's production : Director Dennis Garnhum mounted the Bard version originally with Theatre Calgary for its 2015 winter season so the production is not new in that sense. Nor is the script new to the Campbell family. Campbell pere, Douglas, all but owned Lear's role in his time in the footlights (the Bard's Howard Family stage is named in his honour). For his part, Campbell fils Benedict absolutely shreds the role as snowboarders would say.

Indeed, to call this production "engaging" would damn it with faint praise. It is not engaging. It is gripping. It clasps eye and ear relentlessly. It compels a total baptismal immersion into the magic waters of WS. Benedict Campbell channels Lear completely, thoroughly, inextricably. The power of his crescendos and decrescendos and sotte voce whispers resonates across and above the mainstage such that the air ambulance jet helicopters plying the skies overhead are upstaged and cowered. His capture of the cadence and the inflection and the nuances of WS's dialogue is stupendous.

Character dynamics galore : Despite my misgivings about a plot fundamentally about events that "come between a dragon and his wrath", the dramatic tension of the script no matter its faulty psychic footing wins out completely. (The late psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser disparaged what he called "cause-&-effect" personal conduct, e.g. that Cordelia's demurral at Dad Lear's demand for infinite adoration should somehow justify his subsequent psychic implosions. No, Glasser would contend, such behaviours are pure choice by Lear.)

Supporting Campbell with equal verve and creative interpretation is Scott Bellis as Lear's Fool, who carries Shakespeare's thematic intent : "If I were not a fool, nuncle, I would have thee beaten for being old before thy time!" he tells Lear. Lear is shaken at the impudence. "How's that...?" he responds edgily. "Thou shouldst not have been old until thou had been wise," Fool continues. "Oh, let me not be mad, be mad, sweet Heaven. I would not be mad. Keep me in temper. I would not be mad," Lear snuffles lamely in reply. Bellis works the Fool with ingenious thrumming and teasing taunts ever mindful of his fragile favoured position as Lear's confidante and conscience. His success is but transitory.

John Murphy as Earl of Kent and then the disguised "Caius", Lear's Irish best boy, was acrobatic in the Caius role, a true gem of character acting. As real-time Edgar and then the self-disguised outcast Tom of Bedlam, Nathan Schmidt gave both his Gloucester roles a hearty turn. Brother Edmond was played with quiet demonic menace by Michael Blake. Until he was blinded (graphically!), I found David Marr's Earl of Gloucester too consistently on the "shouty" side of the audiometer. Sisters Goneril (Colleen Wheeler) and Regan (Jennifer Lines) reminded me of many siblings I've witnessed over the decades : equally capable of loyalty, cozening and conspiratorial waspishness. Well-wrought sizzle and seething by both.

Production values add up : Scenery designer Pam Johnson decided on a utilitarian set : six carpenter'd spike gates; teak-like tables and royal stools; Cariboo-cabin stairs leading to railed platforms upstage. All of this lets the acting draw the audience in without distraction. Costumes by Deitra Kalyn offset richly these spare set designs. Good period-piece original music by Dave Pierce contributed nicely to the overall effect : the opening Repent! dirge was perfect.

Who gonna like : Not to fawn, but I do not believe I have ever heard an actor in Vancouver wrestle the magic poesy and dialogue of Billy Bard to the ground quite like Benedict Campbell achieves in his superb interpretation of this oh-so-intemperate fellow Lear. Despite the governor that checks my enthusiasm for the play's plotline, I make no apology for the thick throat and free tears that coursed my cheeks at Lear's reaction to Cordelia's death. No parent could respond otherwise, I reckon. This production, some three hours' stage-time, held my attention from breath one to breath the last. I would go again in a heartbeat.


Addendum :  Over the years I have found one of the hardest tasks is to summarize a play's plot succinctly and readably. Bard On The Beach's program notes do this well indeed for this typically-complicated Shakespeare plot, thus I reproduce it here with my thanks to them :
   

   King Lear, the King of Britain, has decided to retire and divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Before doing so, he asks each of them to tell him how much they love him. His elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, shower him with words of love. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, replies simply that she loves him as much as a daughter should. Outraged, Lear banishes Cordelia and divides his entire estate between the two older daughters. His loyal advisor, the Duke of Kent, objects to Lear's actions and is also banished. The King of France offers to marry Cordelia without a dowry and the two depart the kingdom.

   Meanwhile, Lear's friend, the Earl of Gloucester, is told by his illegitimate son Edmund that his older, legitimate son Edgar is plotting to murder him. This is a lie made up by Edmund who wants his brother's inheritance for himself. Edmund persuades Edgar to flee for his life. Edgar goes into hiding by adopting thde disguise of a beggar named "Poor Tom".

   Having given up his kingdom, Lear plans to stay with Goneril and Regan for one month at a time. The banished Duke of Kent disguises himself and rejoins Lear at the home of Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany. Goneril complains to her father about the riotous behaviour of his entourage of knights, and asks him to dismiss half of them. Angered at this lack of respect, Lear departs to stay with Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall. However, he finds the two daughters are of the same mind. Distraught, Lear wanders out into a wild storm.

   Led through the storm by Kent and his Fool, Lear is brought to a hovel where Edgar has been hiding. Gloucester secretly arranges for Lear to be sent to Dover, where Cordelia has landed with the French army to fight on the king's behalf. Gloucester is punished by Regan and Cornwall for the act of loyalty to the king.

   As war between England and France looms, Edmund takes advantage of both Goneril and Regan's growing attraction to him. Lear is reunited with Cordelia, but soon the time comes when all sides must meet on the battlefield.  

Particulars :  Now on until September 20 at the Bard BMO mainstage at Vanier Park. Run-time 180 minutes plus a 20-minute intermission. Tickets & schedules for the repertory performances with Bard's three other plays via http://bardonthebeach.org or by phoning the box office at 604.739.0559.

Production crew :  Artistic Director Christopher Gaze.  Director Dennis Garnhum.  Costume Designer Deitra Kalyn.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Original Music Composer Dave Pierce.  Fight Directors Haysam Kadri, Karl Sine.  Production Dramaturg Shari Wattling.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Kelly Barker.  Apprentice Stage Manager Alexandra Shewan.  Apprentice Director Mike Griffin.

Peformers :  Anousha Alamian (A Knight).  Scott Bellis (The Fool).  Michael Blake (Edmund).  Ian Butcher (Oswald).  Benedict Campbell (King Lear).  Craig Erickson (King of France).  Robert Klein (Cornwall).  Jennifer Lines (Regan).  David Marr (Gloucester).  John Murphy (Kent).  Chirag Naik (Burgundy/Curan).  Declan O'Reilly (Albany).  Andrea Rankin (Cordelia).  Colleen Wheeler (Goneril).  

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Saturday, 27 June 2015

Love's Labours Lost a Bard romp 20's style

Backdrop to the current show :  As often the case in shows at the Howard Family stage at Bard on the Beach, WS's Folio script is merely a launching pad for some wild-&-crazy shenanigans designed strictly for the fun of it. And so it is with Love's Labour's Lost -- a rollicking musical romp -- that won't give viewers much of the bard's 1593 scheme of things but provides a hoot of a time anyway judging by the opening night crowd's enthusiasm.

The script was written as an amusement for WS's Elizabethan patrons and friends as a Sunday afternoon's diversion before supper. A script that lends itself quite naturally to doffing the sonnets and poetic flights of its original and creating instead a cheeky, chirpy spoof on Al Capone and Prohibition circa 1920. Put to music to boot -- some 20 flapper-era classics, mostly ballads -- with lots of trumpet and honky-tonk piano. 

The Capone-clone, one Ferdinand, decides to give up women and liquor for three years. His saloon Navarre will become a scholarly celibate retreat instead (!). Not wanting to risk offending The Boss, his lieutenants Berowne and Dumain sign on for the no-fun-fast as well. (In the original, Berowne was written not only by & about Shakespeare himself, but his part played by Billy Bard, too.) 

Amusement for these newby ascetics is left to a bloviating buddy of Ferdinand's, Don Armato plus his imp of a companion Moth. One Costard joins these two as the show's slapstick goof and clown of an emcee. They're to be the diversion from the boys' fasting, studying and meditation. Said monk-ish abstemiousness is to last a full 36 months supposedly. Until Day 2 or 3, that is, when a certain Princess arrives on the scene with her two playmates Rosaline and Katherine. 

Instantly Ferdinand is smitten by Princess, so prohibitions be damned, by rights he'll have to relax the rules a bit for his henchmen, too. And they comply eagerly, getting all googly-eyed for the two playmates. And so the inevitable boy-meets-girl chases begin. It's gifts and poetic letters professing undying love in short order from each of the three. But the lasses are no speakeasy floozies easily charmed. They've got a couple of deuces up their sleeves as well to deal out to their horny pursuers. 

"There's no such sport as sport by sport o'erthrown / To make theirs ours and ours none but our own / So shall we stay, mocking [their] intended game / And they, well mock'd, depart away with shame," Princess coaches her teammates prophetically in WS's classic rhyming iambic pentameter. 

In the end the boys will be subjected to lustus interruptus for 12 months before the gals entertain their fancy anew. The candle of love must first survive 8,760 unrequited dark hours before it can be respark'd, the women all demand.

WYSIWYG : Director Daryl Cloran declares in his program Notes that his goal is to mimic "falling in love for the first time" but make it au courant. "Ultimately, that's what's so exciting to me about adapting a script -- the process of exploring, shedding and inventing to get to the heart of the story and find a way of telling it so that it resonates with a contemporary audience."

"Shedding", in this case, meant his scissoring fully 50% of the original LLL script and interpolating not just 1920's Chicago gangsters and flappers but some Pythonesque WWI French pilot dudes into the mix as well.

Cloran's primary aide de camp in this exercise is Musical Director Ben Elliott whose serial song selections supplanted the Shakespeare poetry Cloran snipped out so vigorously : "Ain't Misbehavin'".  "Someone To Watch Over Me".  "I've Got A Crush On You".  "Blue Skies".  "It Had To Be You". "Paper Moon".  "Dream A Little Dream Of Me." "When You're Smilin'" -- to name the most familiar and popular.

Production values WS would applaud : The night's frolic works on many levels. The fact that the music chosen by Elliott is all of a genre -- Jazz Age balladry -- ties the show together melodically in a particularly crowd-pleasing way. We're all suckers for Gershwin et al regardless of age. Add to that the crisp and clever Gene Kelly-ish choreography by Valerie Easton whose ever-excellent intuition and hard work pay off admirably. Couple those features with the knock-your-socks-off 1920's costume wizardry by Rebekka Sorensen-Kjelstrup and the visual \ audial electricity gets the tent zapping with energy, no question. All of this aided and abetted by Marshall McMahen's speakeasy set on risers and floor-level surrounded by tiers of playgoers : the result is an immediacy and intimacy brought to LLL that the Howard venue always inspires. 

Player performance high-lights :  As Don Armato, Andrew McNee brings a robust silliness to his pompous part, mirrored nicely by Dawn Petten as Jaquenetta, the ditzy flapdoodle femme who's got him all hot and bothered. Best twosome across the night, however, had to be Josh Epstein as Berowne and Luisa Jojic as Rosaline : their duet "If you were the only girl and I were the only boy / In a Garden of Eden made for two" is simply lyrical : rich, sonorous, touching. Anna Galvin as Boyet, Princess's chaperone, brings an engaging Brooklynesque touch to Chicago, while Andrew Cownden as the boffo Costard is a quick-step howl the night through. Solid stuff from each of the rest of the cast for the most part -- young Lili Beaudoin as Moth a real giggle. 

Who gonna like : Slicing-&-dicing Shakespeare's original dialogue radically and subjecting what's left to a 20's Broadway cabaret format runs the risk of doing two things badly. 

Purists who pine for WS poesy and classic interpretations -- even when whittled back somewhat for length -- will likely find themselves a bit estranged from this imaginative and phantastic spin on things. 

As well, some sight gags were unnecessary and slightly patronizing, viz. Costard's dead chicken Lucille schtick + the gratuitous bra bit that was paired with it. Or the glacial pace when each of the women announce in turn the details of their particular 12-month purgatory to their lovers at play's end. 

But in all Bard's LLL is a buzzy mix of olde-&-new that brings people to their feet and puts their hands together with cheers and laughs that only proves, once again, how versatile a Shakespeare script can be when the right folks are brought in to give it the right stuff.

Particulars :  Now on until September 20 at the Howard Family stage at Vanier Park. Run-time 130 minutes plus a 20-minute intermission. Tickets & schedules for the repertory performances with Bard's three other plays via http://bardonthebeach.org or by phoning the box office at 604.739.0559.

Production crew :  Artistic Director Christopher Gaze.  Director Dayrl Cloran.  Costume Designer Rebekka Sorensen-Kjelstrup.  Scenic Designer Marshall McMahen.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Musical Director Ben Elliott.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison.  Production Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager Lorilyn Parker.  Apprentice Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn.  Apprentice Director Melissa Oei.

Peformers :  Lindsey Angell.  Lili Beaudoin.  Andrew Cownden.  Daniel Doheny.  Ben Elliott.  Josh Epstein.  Anna Galvin.  Jeff Gladstone.  Jay Hindle.  Luisa Jojic.  Sereana Malani. Andrew McNee.  Dawn Petten. 

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Thursday, 25 June 2015

Godspell is clever choreography & staging

Personal backdrop, confession :  In January, 1971 as a senior high school English teacher I used my ancient iron Underwood to type out on the old mimeograph stencils (that smelled vaguely of iodine) some 53 pages of the libretto of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar. Without hesitation I violated the copyright restrictions from the book that accompanied the vinyl 2-record set their studios released the year before.

Not only was the title of the rock opera avant garde, but its name and raunchy lyrics struck the world as downright blasphemous just 10 years after the first Catholic President was elected in USA. So for both of those reasons I delighted as a lapsed-Baptist to inflict JCS on my English class students in Grades 11 & 12 : to be experienced and discussed as drama, literature, religion and music. In those days in Newton, BC one could get away with such teachable moments. The late Superintendent Jack M. Evans welcomed rebels with a cause. No longer, alas.

Thus I found myself midway between shocked & gobsmacked to discover that until today I had never seen or heard the musical Godspell (from the olde English word meaning "gospel" or "good news"). Nudging 70, I am pleased to be, on occasion, an ingenue. Which is what I am with this script, and thus able to view it with eyes that are at once myopic and fresh.

Given my JCS experiences 44 years back, I entered the Granville Island main stage of Arts Club with some curiosity about the timeliness of the script that was originally a Master's Degree thesis project by its creator the late John-Michael Tebelak in 1970 at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. 

After a show involving his fellow drama majors, the original two-week, 10 performance public run took place at the famed experimental Cafe LaMama in Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1971. About the same time Stephen Schwartz, another Carnegie Mellon grad, was hired to write a new song score. All but one song from the original ("By My Side") were scrapped in favour of Schwartz's mix of folk, gospel, rock and pop done vaudeville style.

Nostalgia re-mount, or...?  : What relevance a musical about the Jesus story mostly from the Gospel of Matthew when fewer than one-in-three Canadians professes to be a practicing Christian these days (Maclean's, April 13, 2015), thought I. Director Sara-Jeanne Hosie issues her own explanation in the show program : "Godspell was never intended to be a story about religion; it was meant to be a story about community. When I set out to cast this piece I did not have a specific gender, age or race in mind for any of these roles -- particularly Jesus (Jennifer Copping). I was looking for a cast of multi-talented actor-singer-dance-musicians...who had the right spirit to carry this story."

A ginormous hit 45 years back, Godspell enjoyed some 2,000 performances before being made into a movie in 1973 and then virtually mothballed by big-city professional theatre companies until it was re-mounted on Broadway in 2011. Having said that, its continued production over the decades by high school drama clubs, community theatre groups and local churches continued apace, meanwhile, according to the show's archives. So what do Hosie (who also choreographed the piece) and her troupe achieve in the current production that will attract summer crowds in Vancouver?

For some, it's Godspell's music. Many of the tunes quickly become an earworm -- not unlike the music of the Swedish group ABBA in its mega-hit Mama Mia. Once the worm gets in your ear you can't expunge the tune by an act of will, it seems -- only time, sleep and other divertissement to take your mind off it (think of "Day By Day" that the 5th Dimension covered in 1973).

For Hosie, it was the thought of spontaneous encounters at a train station that provided the show's staging hook : "A train station is a transient place but it doesn't have to be. It can be a place where there are profound moments of community. Where strangers can come together and share joys, fears, music and laughter. If we can lift our heads and really see the other people with whom we share space on a daily basis, we can learn so much about how others exist in the world and, hopefully, make it a more welcome and colourful place to be," she states in her program Note.

Jesus, 2015  -- an unresurrected Jewish guru -- plus friends : The structure of the show is to take parables and sermonettes attributed to Jesus (e.g. the story of the prodigal son; the Beatitudes, &c.) and expose some uninitiated random folks to their messages. Through song-&-dance. As the show opens, a clutter of Jerusalem Station passengers, glued to their android and iPhone devices, repeat aloud various "words of the prophets (that) are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls" as S-&-G put it. They bump into one another rudely and generally live in their own preoccupied worlds. Until Jesus arrives and begins her messaging about folks' need to love their tormentors and through humility be exalted ever after. 

As has been done repeatedly with this script, current-trend ideas and icons give the piece an urgent presence : social media; Tesla cars; Darth Vader; student loan oppression; a Ted talk. These updates are obviously designed to appeal to younger theatre-goers who might have little grounding in formal Christian mythos and theology -- never learned any of it to begin with -or- any such teaching they might have had un-stuck itself as quickly as a 10-minute-back Instagram. How else to make room for the latest social media inputs that are forever zapping their device-screens and their brains? 

Production values compensate largely :  Albeit the theology is too dense and the show probably 20 minutes overlong, full credit to Director Hosie, the performers and the production crew for a visual and audial jamboree of clever choreography, tuneful charts to accompany Jesus's teachable moments, and a set and costumes colour-co-ordinated to provide some Wow! moments.

Ms. Copping as Jesus was a smart choice with her swirled shoulder-length locks, warm engaging smile, and powerful voice. But probably it was Lauren Bowler as the sex kitten Vamp -- particularly during the Lazarus number -- who grabbed the spotlight most effectively on the night. Her pipes and pizzazz are hard to top. As Judas, Andrew Cohen turned in a strong performance, though Matt Palmer as The Architect may have outshone him in the second act with some terrific acrobatic footwork and singing bravado.

Musical Director Danny Balkwill did double duty as The Cop of Jerusalem Station, also The Cop of the Aisles getting patrons to keep the stairs clear for all the action that roared up and down them all night. Doing "Day By Day", waitress Janet Gigliotti's voice was rich and sensuous and earned hearty applause. Lead Scott Perrie's vocal subtlety on "All Good Gifts" was a sweet and touching turn.

For their part, the sets, lighting and screen projections of Messrs. Alan Brodie and Sean Nieuwenhuis feature imaginative backlit coloured panels behind the train station platforms and staircases that taken all together were balanced and pleasing and co-ordinated well indeed with the coloured-shoe costuming schtick schemed up by designer Connie Hosie. 

Cleverest of all, however, was Director Sara-Jeanne Hosie's choreography and blocking of the 12-member ensemble on the train station platforms that tied the evening's jump and bounce and whirl-a-gig dance riffs together with the songs and sets. It is her energy and wit that give the show its final pleasing gestalt in spite of its off-the-shelf afterlife preachings by creator Tebelak back in the day. Can't be denied, however, that the Golden Rule theme that prevails is universal good advice any time. 

Who gonna like : Folks who remember Godspell from its earliest hippie-dippie days will no doubt get a buzz off their ol' fave tunes being re-struck by the many talented vocalists and instrumentalists who populate this cast. Similar to JCS in this respect, the contempo flip of Biblical language and story-telling in modern patois is fun for those who have such a hankering. As noted immediately above, meanwhile, surely the stand-out staging and choreography and visual zing! will please people the most regardless of their religious bent. 

Particulars : Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak. Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (whose Wicked is currently popular on Broadway). At the Arts Club Granville Island stage through August 1st. Schedules, curtain times and tickets for the 2 1/2 hour show (including intermission) via artsclub.com or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew : Director / Choreographer Sara-Jeanne Hosie.  Musical Director Danny Balkwill.  Set & Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Set & Projection Designer Sean Nieuwenhuis.  Costume Designer Connie Hosie.  Sound Designer Geoff Hollingshead.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Assistant to the Director Anna Kuman.  Musical Assistant Caitlin Hayes.  Apprentice Stage Manager Airyn Lancaster. 

Performers :  Danny Balkwill.  Lauren Bowler.  Andre Cohen.  Jennifer Copping.  Janet Gigliotti.  Aubrey Joy Maddock.  Matt Palmer.  Kale Penny.  Scott Perrie.  Katrina Reynolds.  Craig Salkeld.  Lindsay Warnock. 


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