Thursday, 11 February 2016

The (Post) Mistress sings small-town vignettes

Quicky version

Tomson Highway is the 11th of 12 Cree children from northern Manitoba. He was born in a tent on a snowbank, son of a caribou-hunting dad and a quilter mom. Highway unabashedly credits the Roman Catholic Guy Hill Indian Residential School in Clearwater, MB near The Pas with his becoming both tri-lingual and a piano-playing musician during his nine years there. Playwriting he took up when he turned 30-something, and cabaret-style shows are what he seems to favour most these days. The current show has also been produced in Cree, Kisageetin as well as in French, Zesty Gopher s'est fait ecraser par un frigo (that sings the song of a man & his wife & their fridge that's in transit to new digs).

The (Post) Mistress brings to life Marie-Louise Painchaud ("hot bread"), postie-extraordinaire in the town of Lovely, ON near the copper mining mid-size city of Complexity an hour away at the northern tip of Lake Huron. Through what seem to be cosmic & heavenly juices in her veins, Marie-Louise absorbs all of Lovely's inhabitants' secrets just by holding the townsfolk's mail in her hand.

Subtitled "The Small-Town Musical of Sealed Secrets", the show is a single-actor piece that features a dozen songs with English, French and Cree lyrics. The layered stories of Lovely's residents are filtered through Marie-Louise's yeasty and risible imagination. Neither cabaret pastiche nor full-on musical, The (Post) Mistress engages musically what it might lack a bit by way of compelling dramatic arc. Still, anyone who's lived small-town rural life and who remembers how the expression "You've got mail!" once meant receiving an actual paper envelope with a 6-cent stamp on it -- not just a Ding! followed by cybertext on a "device" -- will surely relate to this engaging throwback to a recent kind of "once upon a time".

Wordy version

From the footlights : Accomplished dancer, performer and singer, Patricia Cano is Marie-Louise (though Cailin Stadnyk will do the Wednesday and Saturday matinees and replace Cano altogether for the show's final week). Cano has long accompanied Highway as  singer/performer in the various cabaret shows he's traveled around the world. Brazilian guitarist and composer Carlos Bernardo is her long-time friend, meanwhile, and in 2008 she spent six months absorbing the Carioca sound scene in Rio with him. Thus cross-pollination being what it is with creative folk, quelle surprise Mistress features tango and bossa nova beats along with a couple of South American storyline detours. But also a host of Berlin cabaret stylings -- Highway once jokingly referring to himself as the Cree version of Kurt Weill -- as well as French cafe chanson and pop renderings to boot. 

What the show brings to the stage : For BC viewers this is a singular piece because of all the Central Canada native Cree, French-Canadian, and Metis influences that converge in a uniquely Lovely time and place.

With Western influences being a mix in recent years mostly of WASP, South Asian and oriental folk, to hear stories and tales that spring from post-contact native generations who mix and cohabit and populate with French immigrants and their descendent Quebecois is eye- and ear-opening in a rich and colourful way. 

Mistress may be called a "small-town musical" but really it's just a fleshed-out series of cabaret tunes starting with the Cree ballad "Taansi, Nimiss" (Welcome, sister!) that sets the stage for "songs we're going to sing". 

Eleven songs in all by the Highway / Cano collaboration that each tells a tale of love, loss and sizzling snatches of sex : "It was so hot in Rio de Janiero they wore nothing but dental floss to go shopping!" Cano sings of one such letter-writer's escapade. 

Letter after letter, story after story : widow Eva Pocket who hooked up, fatefully, with Marly Fitzsimmons from N'Awlins. Diane Gagnon who ran back to mom's in Lovely to escape her boring taxi dispatcher husband and the kids. He writes plaintive futile pleas for her to return. 

From a younger perspective there's eight-year-old Babette whose mom, madly estranged from dad, has 100% forbidden her to see him. So Babette writes instead "How long you have been playing in such a wondrous land!" This pain from a Grade 3 hand that cries out from back east as she gazes up at Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in the song "Oh Little Bear". And aches.

Message behind the melodrama ?  Listening to Marie-Louise recite so many tales of marriages suffering loss, abandonment and bitterness, the words of the playwright from a 2015 interview are recalled pointedly (Highway at that time celebrating nearly 30 years with his life's love Raymond Lalonde, "the kindest man on the face of the earth") : 

"I always say I get treated better than the Queen. When I look at all these heterosexual men who have gone through these tortured marriages, with the hatred, the cruelty, the alimony payments, it's like a battle zone. I thank God every day that I'm not heterosexual. I thank God for that privilege."*

To wit. In the song "Love I Know Is Here", Marie-Louise tells the tale of a couple who live 10 miles outside of Lovely and write charming letters to one another. Only at the end do we learn "How can you not be happy even if they are two men living together in sin?" Marie-Louise asks ironically, winking at the crowd. The song, likes its successor to end Act I, is wholly reminiscent of the Kurt Weill style.

And that would be the other Weill / Jacques Brel look-alike "The Window". It tells of Rosalind Johnson, originally from an innocent town called Kirkland who ventures to TO. There she meets sexy car mechanic Gus Cassidy. And despite a bloody violent end to their marriage, Rosalind spends the next 60 years still pining for "the man of 20-something standing in the window" where she first laid eyes on him moonlighting as a sexy, coy department store model.

One final song that deserves a shout-out. "When Last I Was in Buenos Aires, Argentina" kicks off Act II with the randiest, raunchiest number of the night. It's a saucy tango titillater that Marie-Louise acts out demonstratively, hornily. All about a lover's summer there with Ariel "of the dark eyes and the flaring nostrils" and his suppers of el spaghet with a Sriracha style sauce flown in from Paraguay. Needless to say the affair with Ariel was more than equal to his el spaghet once the jungle jiggery-pokery factored in. 

Acting pin-spot : Patricia Caro as Marie-Louise Painchaud is a one-woman force majeure. While her original forte was as a dancer and then a community theatre player, singing she added to her repertoire through her connection with Carlos Bernardo plus a sojourn a decade back to South Korea to study with a voice master. 

Luxuriant in size, beauty and presence, Caro's blocking, choreography and inspired dance footwork hopping atop and around the various stations and platforms at the Lovely post office were all quite exhilarating to behold. Whimsy and humour and controlled exaggeration informed every step, every pirouette, every pounce. Caro's antic ballroom break-dance vivre is reason enough to see this show.

On the songstress scale, Caro is an accomplished cabaret balladeer with a rich and resonant contralto though not always equal to the higher register notes. But her dusky smoky basement blues joint sound -- sexy and edgy both -- brings out the best from Highway's tunes and lyrics. That a majority of the 3/4 house on opening night gave her a standing-o reveals the enthusiasm her performance attracted.

Production values of note : As suggested above, Director John Cooper and Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg grab top-spot honours for the rigour and inspiration they bring to Patricia Caro's Arts Club debut performance. Quick, clever, exacting stuff that utilizes all corners of the Goldcorp stage.

Ted Roberts turns in yet another superb set, lighting and visual design performance. Goldcorp stage is not easy to fill while making the audience cozy and involved. But 1000% more do-able here than at the old Playhouse Theatre at QE that failed on that score religiously.

Three-sided bleacher seats with coffee house tables at the downstage edge was a good use of space. The current Canada Post m.o. banality of countless mailboxes -- but done here rising to the infinity of space in a sworl design -- was effective. 

Music accompaniment limited to piano and sax/flute with Bill Sample and Bill Runge was crisp and lively and just-right subtle, too.

Two Hmnnnn...! script reservations. (1) The plot revelation at the end about Marie-Louise. Quite artificial and contrived and unnecessary to the stage magic. The mystery of her cosmic mind-reading would work better remaining a tease. (2) Preaching. Telling the audience straight-up "I hope people will learn to stop hurting each other and learn to laugh..." is flat-out patronizing despite its good intention. 

Who gonna like : This show is not the compleat stuff of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, but it has many comparable moments. Patricia Caro's vigour & enthusiasm & deft fancy dancework and singing prowess are a package of talent to leave viewers breathless. A broad mix of seniors and GenX and millennials at opening night -- and a high-pitched junior or two in the audience chirping in with gusto --  speaks to a show whose grins of enthusiasm and standing-o clappers from the seats will appeal to cabaret lovers for whom some Canadian history lessons put-to-music is on their list. 

Particulars :  Book & Music by Tomson Highway.  At ACT's new 1st Avenue / Olympic Village stage at the BMO Theatre Centre.  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission.  On until February 28th.  Schedule information & tickets via http://artsclub.com or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director John Cooper.  Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.  Set, Lighting & Video Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Kirsten McGhie.  Sound Designer Scott Zechner.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Apprentice Stage Manager Ashley Noyes.

Performers (music) :  Bill Sample (Piano).  Bill Runge (Saxophone).

Performer (actors) : Patricia Cano (Marie-Louise Painchaud).  Cailin Stadnyk (Marile-Louise Painchaud -- select performances noted infra).

Addendum :  Tomson Highway is outspoken on many fronts in ways that are often not politically correct. He does not, for example, subscribe to the liberal fuss over "appropriation of voice". In a September 30, 2013 interview with Maclean's magazine, he noted:

"I'm part of the first wave of native writers in this country and we had to be aware of political correctness; it was kind of forced upon us. For the next wave of native playwrights, they should be afforded the freedom to let their imaginations fly. And we all need to help them get there. If a black, Chinese lesbian ends up being cast as the chief of an Indian reserve, then that is the choice of the writer, director and producer and it's nobody else's business.

"I don't particularly want to work with people who are scared, for whatever reason. And people who think that way [about appropriation of voice] are scared, they're chickens! I feel most comfortable with people who are brave and courageous. Who are politically incorrect, for goodness sake. I love politically incorrect. I mean, it's essential for art."

On the subject of residential schools, Highway told Huffington Post's Joshua Ostroff two months ago : "All we hear is the negative stuff, nobody's interested in the positive, the joy in (Guy Hill Indian Residential) school. I learned your language, for God's sake. Have you learned my language? No, so who's the privileged one and who is underprivileged?

"You may have heard stories from 7,000 witnesses in the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) process that were negative. But what you haven't heard are the 7,000 reports that were positive stories. There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn't have happened without that school."

Highway cites two primary influences on his artistry : his remote northern upbringing with his family on the Barren Lands Indian Reservation and on the "cosmology" of mainstream native thought : "The most privileged boys in Rosedale and Forest Hill are lucky if they get 20 metres of lakefront for two weeks every summer. We had 50 lakes for two months year; we had entire islands to ourselves, just us. It is unbelievably beautiful up there and nobody sees it but us because it's inaccessible. The older I get, the more I realize what a spectacular childhood it really was. My father was the king of this enormous domain; we grew up as princes of the north. This country has royalty, too," he told Huffington Post's Joshua Ostroff in December.

As for his spiritual underpinnings, in his Maclean's 2013 interview he declared : "I like to convey joy. I want to convey that our primary responsibility on planet Earth is to be joyful : to laugh and to laugh and to laugh. I do not believe what I was taught as a child by Roman Catholic missionaries that the reason to exist is to suffer and repent and that the more of that we did, the more deserving we became of happiness in the afterlife. I mean, depressing, or what? I'm of the opposite opinion : the way the my native culture works is that it teaches that we're here to laugh, that heaven and hell are both here on Earth and it's our choice to make it one or the other."

In a similar vein in a December 10, 2015 interviewwith Martin Morrow of torontoist.com, Highway related the following : "Highway agrees that writing about [women] has been a lifelong obsession; but it has nothing to do with modern social movements and everything to do with his ancestral beliefs. 'Pantheism, which is the basis of native mythology and cosmology, sees God in nature. And the centre of native cosmology, certainly in Cree culture, is feminine. So I write obsessively about that. For Highway, the root of our problems is monotheism, the belief in one God, particularly since that God is perceived to be male. 'It's a patriarchal superstructure and it leads to fascism : 'If you don't believe in my God, I'll kill you, I'll destroy you...' Why did [God] come alone? Where was his wife? Where was his girlfriend? And the answer to that question is that she was here all the time. Our father art in heaven, but our mother is here on this planet. And if we don't recognize that, and that we need to preserve this planet, we're doomed.'"

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

Pride & Prejudice captures Austen remarkably !

Quicky version

You have to start at the beginning, at the very first line Jane Austen wrote as the opener to her novel then-named First Impressions that a decade later would publish as Pride and Prejudice. "It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Austen's tongue had to be lodged squarely in her cheek when she wrote that in 1799. Because what she surely meant by way of accurate reflection on how matrimonial transactions worked in her life and times would read thus : "It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of no money must be in want of a husband with a good fortune." But the irony infecting Austen's nuanced voice is what makes her original sentence vastly more appealing and whimsical -- her "playfulness" to use Austen's own descriptor -- than my prosaic and boring re-write.

For its part, the Arts Club production of this adaptation by Victoria playwright Janet Munsil is cheeky, bright, clever, snappy, original, silly, fun, zippy -- downright brilliantly conceived, well cast and embracingly performed. Artistic Director Bill Millerd claims that this 576th production of ACT "is one of the largest and most lavish plays we have produced". Yes, lavish in the senses of unstinted, wild and abundant, not lavish to mean heavy droopy Regency-era furniture, rugs, brocaded drapes and stuffed shirts. 

And as for doubters who are progressive, even vigorous feminists I know are fans of the Edwardian dramedy Downton Abbey with all its pomp, circumstance and manorisms. Similarly in this piece from 100 years earlier still : snobs and their pretensions have always intrigued democrats because we see them through more egalitarian prisms. We laugh both with them and at them. Just like Jane Austen herself did so wistfully and smartly with her waspish zingers at her society's foibles.

Kudos! and Huzzahs! to all the creative talent so vigorously and plentifully on display at The Stanley.
Wordy version

From the footlights : Confession. I have never read Pride and Prejudice. Thus only through research did I discover that the Bennet family comprises Dad, Mom and five sibling sisters. The girls are all of marrying age in that time and place. Mom is fixed in the thought they each must secure marriage commodity rights right smartly for their future well-being. The play begins at the family's modest estate of Longbourn. A certain Charles Bingley has arrived to rent the nearby estate of Netherfield. He has his good friend with him, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, visiting from the grounds of his princely principality called Pemberley some three days' carriage ride to the north. (In today's world Darcy's wealth would number some $15 million -vs- poor Mr. Bingley's net worth of about only half that.)

Dad Bennet thinks second daughter Elizabeth would make a fine catch, while Mom is certain eldest and prettiest daughter Jane might make the better chattel at market. When they all meet, Darcy presents to Lizzie as vain and abrupt and haughty (the Pride piece) and she takes an instant dislike to him (the Prejudice piece).

Throw in the following : cousin Collins who will eventually inherit the Bennet property -- he's a goof and a boor and a bit of a local joke, but he has friends in high places. Darcy's aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh who thinks no one's sufficiently snotty to meet her standards. A randy young soldier named Wickham who catches young sister Lydia's eye and more. Bingley's snobby sister Caroline. Lizzie's friend Charlotte Lucas whom Mom worries is going to snag Bingley away from any grasping Bennet finger. Oh and add one or two others just for the heck of it -- some 17 actors in all including eight newbies in their first Stanley Theatre ACT outing.

With merry and ironic twists and turns, there's an "all's well that ends well" outcome and feel to the storyline that Jane Austen wanted to tell. In a letter to her niece Fanny in 1814 she wrote : "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection." Or, similarly, as she is quoted elsewhere : "Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love, bound to one, and preferring another." Ironic perhaps, Austen herself never married before she died at just 41 years of age.

How it's all put together : Simple crisp elegance is how I would describe Director Sarah Rodgers' delivery of Janet Munsil's script. Between them what they realized is that they must capture the core of Austen -- whose voice through dialogue and narration in her book is what makes her so prominent a literary force -- these qualities are what make P&P either the second or the fourth most favourite English novel of all time, depending on your factoid source. And these qualities need to be acted out. 

So. Marry rapid-fire clever dialogue with Choreographer Julie Tomaino's combination playground frivolity / drill team precision footwork routines for the cast, and what you get is 123 minutes of acting that never slows or abates in its energy and whim and delight.

No question the "premise" of P&P grates. Women positioning themselves to be the men's selected choices in the marriage marketplace. But still, Jane Austen delivers a sling of righteous one-liners, some of which were borderline scandalous for fin de siecle 1799, others just clever repartee that would work in any era :

"We must be blind to the nonsense and folly of others."

"Few men have heart enough to fall in love without encouragement."

"Tease at him, laugh at him, you must know his weaknesses."

"I am not a respectable female."

"My courage always rises with every attempt to provoke me."

"Why did we come here -- if only I had my headache like I'd planned!"

"It is my duty to stand by my husband even when he is narrow-minded and foolish."

"I do not think too little can be said of your marriage."

"The purpose of our lives is to make sport for our neighbours." 

Production values of note : Sparse minimalist but wholly effective staging. Oversize impressionist paintings across the upstage scrim and 35 X 50" paintings on wheeled dollies with individual scenes to tell us we're in the country; we're looking at one estate or another; we're indoors at Pemberley.

Furniture for the set is wheeled in by the actors in grey-light dimness, the primary technique a kind of military march of the big furniture lineally across the upstage scrim and then briskly brought forward and plopped precisely mid-stage where it belongs. Most delightful of all was the actors' dervish whirling of the armchairs up, down over and around each time before the cast set them around the appointed table.

And all the while downstage left, Daniel Deorksen on guitar and Sarah Donald on violin providing delightful stringed accompaniment to the merriment on stage.

Costume Designer Christine Reimer aced it throughout. The "lesser wealthies" the Bennets had functional village dress but managed rich and subtle ball-gowns for the dances. Lady Catherine's dowager queen outfits were supreme. Given the purposely minimal stage stuff, the costumes hit the eye strikingly. Nice! pay-off.

Acting pin-spots :  To this viewer's eye, one starts with veteran Scott Bellis as the insipid cousin Mr. Collins. Every moment he is on stage he simply delights with his wimpy grating boffo pastor routine slathering after Lizzie, to no avail. And then marries the security-conscious, frigid Charlotte Lucas (Georgia Beaty), Lizzie's BFF.

But a mere 1/2 step behind with her constant breathlessness and hypochondria -- all her "tremblings, flutterings, spasms, beatings of the heart" -- would be Katey Wright as Mrs. Bennet, nicely foiled by the deadpan irony of husband Mr., yet another rich outing by Vancouver favourite David Marr.

Naomi Wright as Elizabeth (Lizzie, Eliza), Jane Austen's protagonist, delivered breadth and insight into her character's role. She was every bit of "obstinate, headstrong, impudent and insolent" that Shirley Broderick as Lady Catherine accused her of, wonderfully, with all those pointed thumps of her octogenarian cane to punctuate each adjective, each pejorative.

As Mr. Darcy, Eric Craig was just the right mix of arrogant bully and semi-soft-hearted appreciator of Lizzie's wit and and snipes. (And gotta say, I have never witnessed two more compelling end-of-show kisses than Craig and Wright gave each other. Wowza !)

Both Daryl King as Charles Bingley and Kaitlin Williams as his love Jane Bennet charmed oh-so-sweetly, while Amanda Lisman as sister Caroline Bingley was a snob caricature writ large. 

Of the newcomers, Raylene Harewood as Lydia and Kayla Deorksen as Kitty, the two playful younger sisters scampered and skipped and romped around the stage wonderfully. Delightful turns not only by them but by all the young performers, no question.

And to this eye it was precisely all the scampering and skipping and romping across the stage in-&-out, up-&-down, over-&-back throughout the night that is the best tribute of all to Director Rodgers and Choreographer Tomaino and, of course, to the actors themselves. For it was this feature perhaps more than any other that made the show so entertaining from Moment #1 to Moment #End.

Who gonna like : Normally I do not exude quite as much enthusiasm for a show as I have for this one. Frankly I went to The Stanley a bit of a skeptic how Jane Austen could appeal to me, a semi-quasi-feminist in 2016. [Or given the transcendence of transgender folk, maybe we truly are in a post-feminist epoch. But I am utterly insufficient about where such stuff sits these days.] 

This is the point : it is precisely the joyful abandon with Austen's novel that Janet Munsil captures in her script while not forfeiting any of the key plot or character elements that are so enticing. Along with the directing / choreography matched to the minimalist set and props. 

Said it above, will end by saying it again :  This adaptation by Victoria playwright Janet Munsil is cheeky, bright, clever, snappy, original, silly, fun, zippy -- downright brilliantly conceived, well cast and embracingly performed. Artistic Director Bill Millerd claims that this 576th production of ACT "is one of the largest and most lavish plays we have produced". Yes, lavish in the senses of unstinted, wild and abundant.  

No question. Of the 130 or so productions I've seen in the last four years, ACT's P&P ranks easily among my top five (and j.s.y.k. the 7 Tyrants' production of Mozart & Salieri remains #1 on my list).

Again : Kudos! and Huzzahs! to all the creative talent so vigorously and plentifully on display at The Stanley. 

Go. See. This.


Particulars :  Script by Janet Munsil based on the novel by Jane Austen.  At ACT's Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre on Granville.  Run-time 150 minutes including intermission.  On through February 28th.  Schedule information & tickets via www.ArtsCentre.com or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Sarah Rodgers.  Choreographer Julie Tomaino.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Sound Designer Daniel Deorksen. Production Dramaturg Veronique West. Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Apprentice Stage Manager Koh McRadu.  Assistants to the Director, Alen Dominguez & Laura McLean.

Performers :  Yoshie Bancroft (Georgiana Darcy).  Paul Barton (Mr. Wickham).  Georgia Beaty (Charlotte Lucas).  Scott Bellis (Mr. Collins / Mrs. Reynolds).  Shirley Broderick (Lady Catherine de Bourgh).  Eric Craig (Mr. Darcy).  Daniel Deorksen (Mr. Gardiner).  Kayla Deorksen (Kitty Bennet).  Sarah Donald (Mrs. Gardiner).  Raylene Harewood (Lydia Bennet).  Daryl King (Charles Bingley).  Amanda Lisman (Caroline Bingley).  David Marr (Mr. Bennet).  Sarah Roa (Mary Bennet).  Kaitlin Williams (Jane Bennet).  Katey Wright (Mrs. Bennet).  Naomi Wright (Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Bennet).  

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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Sondheim's Company a charming time piece

Quicky version

Company is a series of vignettes about five New York City couples circa 1970 who are not friends themselves but are all friends of a bachelor, Robert, who is turning 35. The show was a break-out piece for songwriter-lyricist Stephen Sondheim whose work putting words to Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story music was his previous stage high note.

Presented randomly, the vignettes depict couples whose relationships are in varying states of development, dishevelment or outright disarray, if only momentarily. And yet each couple tries to convince their bachelor buddy Bobby to "Jump in! The water's fine!" in the marriage pool. Lovable but aloof, the phlegmatic Bobby prefers casual, desultory relationships with three part-time girl friends instead. Only at show's end does he decide, precipitously, he may take the plunge albeit mate unknown.

What is remarkable about this play are Sondheim's songs and the lyrics that populate them, not the storyline that is derived from some 11 individual playlets written by George Furth. Musical comedy fans who want some flashback moments about what couples' influences were at play a half-century back will find lots to chuckle at as well as be moved by Sondheim's sure grip on songwriting.

Wordy version

From the footlights : Prior to Company, live theatre on Broadway in New York generally dealt with the travails of the upper-middle-class, all Gatsby-esque machinations and clutter. Sondheim's show featuring five separate striving middle class couples with marriages in various stages of development, dishevelment or outright disarray, put to music, was new in design and theme. Sort of Stephen Sondheim underscoring tunes to dialogue-bits by Edward Albee and Alice Munro and Harold Pinter and Neil Simon.

Through 15 songs, the lives of Bobby's friends and girlfriends are revealed in all their day-to-dayness from those vastly more innocent times, fully three decades before 9/11 changed the New York landscape for good. While complex-ish, these are stylistic moments of angst for sure. Such as when Joanne (thrice married) sings slightly sardonically about the ladies she lunches with : "Here's to the girls on the go / Everybody tries / Look into their eyes / And you'll see what they know / Everybody dies." (In 1965 Boomers had already got bent on Bob Dylan's early rap-piece "Subterranean Homesick Blues" : "Short pants, romance / Learn to dance / Get dressed, get blessed / Try to be a success." To such as these, Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch" surely rings as 50's quaint.)

But not to sound or be cynical in the least. As Dooley Wilson put it so pointedly to Humphrey Bogart's Nick in Casablanca, the "it" in human relationships never really changes. It truly still is the same old story as time goes by.

How it's all put together : Structurally the play has Bobby invited to dine and party with each of the five couples to celebrate his 35th. Also individual scenes with each of his girlfriends. Two acts, two hours for these meetings plus the "company" chorus numbers that really make the show.

With each couple, there's a hook or quirk that's explored starting with Sarah (Jennifer Suratos) and Harry (Jacob Woike). She's a chocolate-loving chub in calorie withdrawal. He's a twice-busted DD trying to avoid booze. Their schtick is to nag one another about their addictions with Bobby in the middle blithely swilling bourbon and mediating. 

From this one of the show's funniest one-liners : Sarah proclaims "Sara Lee is the most phenomenal woman since Eleanor Roosevelt!" After a provocative tease from Harry about "all those fat broads in her wrestling class", the scene collapses lit.& fig. during a clever karate sequence, followed by the song lyric : "It's the little things you do together / That make marriage a joy."

Next up come Peter (Peter Monaghan) and Susan (Amy Gartner) who announce gaily and with verve that they're about to go to Mexico to get a quicky divorce that later boomerangs on them

Marijuana made the scene in USA on college campuses around the time the Beatles and the Stones burst onto the rock stage. Thus a charming giggle of a scene involving toke-ups with David (Mark Wolf) and Jenny (Cassady Ranford) on their NYC balcony. David says he's "potted", proof positive Sondheim, 40 at the time he wrote Company, wasn't there. A lyricist's ear brought that forth, surely, not a toker who lived it. 

Sondheim circles back repeatedly to the marriage theme to tie these vignettes together. After proclaiming "I'm not avoiding marriage, it's avoiding me", Bobby's three girl friends Marta (Cecilly Day), April (Morgan Chula) and Kathy (Brianne Loop) direct a delightful put-down piece at him trois : "You could drive a person crazy!" they proclaim, and ultimately he loses them all.

While slowish to develop, Act I ends crisply. Easily my favourite chart of the night was Cecilly Day leading the others in "Another Hundred People" about the 100's and 100's of people arriving in NYC by the hour. These are some of Sondheim's most compelling lyrics of all. 

"Some come to stare, some to stay / And every day / The ones who stay / Can find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks / By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered barks / And they walk together past upholstered walls with crude remarks / And they meet at parties through the friends of friends who they never know."  Listening to Day's poignant delivery of that refrain again-&-again, how could the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" not come to mind.

Then the show's possibly single-best comic performance, from Amy (Leah Ringwald). She is all dressed to marry Paul (Xander Williams) and she suffers the most compelling neurotic case of buyer's remorse ever staged. Sheer utter delight. Only when the pleasingly dull Robert offers his hand to Amy as a stand-in for Paul does Amy exit upstage centre quite happily with bouquet-in-hand to go through the nuptials with Paul after all.

Ending Act I is what turns out to be Sondheim's theme for the entire piece when the likeable duffus Robert sings "Marry Me A Little" : "Someone... / Marry me a little / Love me just enough / Warm and sweet and easy / Just the simple stuff / Keep a tender distance / So we'll both be free / That's the way it ought to be / I'm ready!" Reminds me of a contemporary bachelor friend, twice divorced, who announced just prior to Divorce #2 : "I'm fine with marriage, but only for about three days a week...!"

Final number that really struck home was the troupe's kick-off to Act II, "Side By Side By Side". A vaudeville / follies routine strutted with canes and bowler hats that champions The Bob : "What would we do without you / Should there be a marital squabble / Bob will be there / How could we ever get through / What would we do without you?" The blocking and costumes and timing and staging were all crisp, tight, visually and aurally a delight. Fun fun fun indeed.

What the show brings to the stage : As the head atop this review suggests, Company is a charming time piece of musical theatre that is lovingly resurrected by the United Players of Vancouver under Director Brian Parkinson. The lyrics of Stephen Sondheim strike the audience more compellingly than his tunes which, while Tony Award winning, generally-speaking do not create the ear worms of an Andrew Lloyd Webber piece [whether one loves or loathes ALW notwithstanding].

The subject of heterosexual marriage ("Love and marriage / love and marriage / go together like a horse & carriage" -- Frank Sinatra) is not au courant. A quick visit to Commercial Drive in EastVan, for example -- the neighbourhood where we lived for a decade -- reveals numerous lesbian couples, many with children, often enough mixed-race families. 

But the concept of "lifelong commitment" to another human being is what Company brings back to the fore that will ever be relevant, regardless whether straight or some aspect of LBGTQ. Giving up a large chunk of personal independence is always the trade-off for mutual comfort, support and intimacy beyond the cheap thrills of a one-night-stand. (In Company, both of those ideas are played out a bit : Bobby's one-nighter with April that they both enjoyed, but when she agrees to drop her stewardess flight to Barcelona the next day to loll around Bobby's bed a bit more, all he can respond is "Oh gawd!" Also there's the curious bit of Susan's husband Peter wondering if Bobby would be up for a little male-on-male tumescence. Bobby is utterly nonplussed at the prospect and leaves Peter on the porch drooping.)

Acting pin-spots :  Strong performances throughout among the 14 cast, no question. Precisely and delightfully selected to a person by Director Brian Parkinson. The actors who most engaged me and my family, consensus tally, were Jacob Woike (Harry), Leah Ringwood (Amy), and Cecilly Day (Marta). Nick Fontaine as Robert / Bobby was steady and strong, with a marvellous singing voice, but his staging by Mr. Parkinson was a bit too laid-back, nonchalant, and emotionally detached. One imagines a slightly more energized aloofness would work somewhat better for contemporary audiences. 

The individual voices, particularly Amy Gartner's stupendous soprano and Caitlin Clugston's hefty alto profundo as the middle-age dipsomaniac Joanne ("The Ladies Who Lunch") also stood out among the others already cited.

Production values of note : Clever functional Laugh-in knock-off set (without the doors) by Brian Ball. Utterly suggestive of NYC apartment window walls. No adornment necessary. The multipurpose rectangular boxes for chairs and loveseats and the boudoir scene worked neatly. 

Choreographer Julie Tomaino crafted some intricate footwork among the cast in their chorus numbers that was first-rate : clipped, variegated, tightly wound, but used the whole stage at the same time. Brava! 

Musical Director Clare Wyatt's team threw great chops at the charts before them. Enticing sounds with interesting cadences and minor tune nuances.

Who gonna like : As noted repeatedly, this is delightful time-piece stuff. Folks who want a TDML of what was once thought to be utterly avant-garde musical theatre will giggle and chortle and clap with enthusiasm. Sunday's matinee featured a handful of 20-somethings, most of the crowd however both of junior-senior and senior-senior pedigree. That's because the central conceit of the show -- "Is marriage worth it?" -- is a subject that time has created countless variances of and convolutions thereto. Thus a 1970 cut at it in the pre-9/11 heterosexual universe of the time freezes the photo (Snap!) in a still-frame f1.4 close-up. No matter. This is a tight and well-rehearsed and completely robust group of actors that brings Company together. Just for the numbers I highlighted above I would happily go again.

Particulars : Produced by United Players of Vancouver. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Book by George Furth. At the Jericho Arts Centre 1675 Discovery Street, through February 14. Run-time 120 minutes, with intermission. Phone 604.224.8007 for schedules and tickets or on-line @ www.unitedplayers.com.

Production team : Director Brian Parkinson.  Executive Producer Andree Karas (Artistic Director United Players).  Production Manager Fran Burnside. Technical Director Neil Griffith.  Assistant Directors Barbara Ellison, Jordon Navratil. Musical Director Clare Wyatt.  Choreographer Julie Tomaino.  Assistant Choreographer Nicol Spinola.  Dance Captain Brianne Loop.  Set Designer Brian Ball.  Lighting Designer Randy Poulis.  Costume Designer Jordon Navratil.  Sound Effects Designer Sean Anthony.  Properties Designer Linda Begg.  Stage Manager Becky Fitzpatrick.   

Performers : Francis Boyle (Larry).  Morgan Chula (April).  Caitlin Clugston (Joanne).  Cecilly Day (Marta).  Nick Fontaine (Robert).  Amy Gartner (Susan).  Brianne Loop (Kathy).  Peter Monaghan (Peter).  Cassady Ranford (Jenny).  Leah Ringwald (Amy).  Xander Williams (Paul).  Jacob Wolke (Harry).  Mark Wolf (David).

Musicians :  Jeremy Orsted (Trumpet).  Gordon Roberts (Drums / Percussion)  Jennifer Williams (Reeds).  Clare Wyatt (Piano).

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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

MoFo With The Hat is serious soap comedy

Quicky version

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis admitted to Harry Haun of Playbill that he would easily have been persuaded to change the title of his comic sizzler The Motherfucker With The Hat to something more marketable. Because as George Carlin noted in 1972, the "mofo" word is one of seven that wouldn't pass the censor's click at NBC even on the irreverent "Tonight Show" of Johnny Carson. Didn't then, wouldn't now nearly 45 years hence.

Fact is it's a throwaway line repeated countless dozens of times about a bunch of beautiful losers in New York who do or did drugs, who do or did love their mates, and ultimately confess they do or want to or did one another along the way. Can an ex-con still trust his AA sponsor once he learns the smooth-talking "clean" guy slept with his girlfriend whom he's loved, deliriously, since high school? Where is trust, where is faith, where is release from life's impulses and scams both external and inside us?

This show is like David Mamet meets Lewis Black meets Spike Lee : intense, visceral, layered, profane, silly, riddled with stupid human tricks. If you like comic drama that gives nods to truthiness about human nature, Firehall's production that continues through Saturday is definitely for you.

Wordy version

From the footlights :  The Firehall Theatre stage in DTES Vancouver is the perfect venue for a show about druggies, past and present, and the co-dependencies they thrive on with one another. The title that is routinely censored with asterisks is intentionally spat in your face, designed purposely to make you wonder how an object as simple as a man's summer hat would ever link to such a profane subject & noun.

Fact is playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis admitted to Harry Haun of Playbill that he would easily have been persuaded to change the title of his comic sizzler The Motherfucker With The Hat to something more marketable. Because as George Carlin noted in 1972, the "mofo" word is one of seven that wouldn't pass the censor's click at NBC even on the irreverent "Tonight Show" of Johnny Carson. Didn't then, wouldn't now nearly 45 years hence.

What Guirgis manages is to cluster a bunch of lovable low-life together in the heart of New York City. They venture out of their walk-ups in search of coke or quicky sex or maybe some Kentucky Fried, when what they really are looking for is a beacon to point them to new horizons away from the sketchy lives they lead.

Ex-drug dealer Jackie (Stephen Lobo) has just been paroled from prison after 26 months and has scored a labouring job with FedEx. Sobriety is his main hope, along with quickly bedding long-time girl friend Veronica (Kyra Zagorsky) who still has a jones for cocaine. Earnest to achieve the second objective, he spots "the hat" and launches into a tirade about which "mofo" it belongs to that he should mess up. The guy downstairs is chief suspect. 

Jackie's AA sponsor is RalphD (John Cassini), 15 years off the sauce and into veggie juices and body-builder powders he sells. His wife Victoria (Lori Triolo) finds all this has become tedium and tether. She knows he's been unfaithful (those tell-tale MasterCard onion skins!) and she's desperate to be fulfilled once more, casting lusty eyes at Jackie. Rounding out the bunch is cousin Julio (Francisco Trujillo) who is Jackie's life coach, b.s. detector, and wannabe macho defender like Jean-Claude Van Damme.

How it's all put together : A homegrown New Yorker with an Egyptian dad and an Irish mom, Guirgis likes catchy grabby titles with religious, racial and/or colloquial-ethnic NYC hooks. Previously was Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, followed by Our Lady of 121st Street, a very popular bio-uptake on the New Testament's baddest dude The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, also an intriguing slap at p.c. called Dominica the Fat Ugly Ho that he mounted as artistic director of LAByrinth Theatre troupe whose company co-founder and periodic director was the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The sting and bite of sardonic humour are always part of Guirgis's stylistic action. In MoFo the show opens with Veronica rolling a dollar bill and snorting coke while she cleans her apartment and yaks with Mom on the phone. Mom is also strung out on coke, it seems, or perhaps abuzz on booze, or both. Veronica feels the need to give her some daughterly advice in dialogue that only an exceptionally acute and sensitive ear could ever imagine :

"Ma? O.K., look, for the last time, my opinion, you are still a good-looking' woman with a huge, loving' heart and you're not hard to please -- clearly -- but you're dating a fuckin' big-time loser with a head like a actual fuckin' fish!...O.K., like, please, alls I'm gonna say, Ma, when you see him tonight take a moment. Take a breath. Take a real good look and just ax yourself in all honesty, 'Do I wanna fuck him or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika and feed him to da barracuda?' O.K., ma, gotta go!"*

Shortly Veronica confesses that she's been seeing someone while Jackie's been in stir after Jackie spots the hat and does a snifferoo worthy of a CSI send-up. "The pillow smells like Aqua Velva and the bed smells like dick!" he rants. They have the first of uncountable blow-ups. "Maybe I overreacted because you questioned my integrity... Look at me, I would rather kick a 3-legged cat down the stairs than say 'I love you'," Veronica retorts.

Turns out the part-time lover (six sex events over two years) is none other than RalphD. But the onion skins wife Victoria tells Jackie about reveal much more than just the odd motel jiggery for sure. Jackie toggles between murderous and mesmerized by befuddlement. In her head, Veronica bellows -- a la Saul in Henderson The Rain King -- "I want! I want! I want!" but is instantly all mental muddle when trying to understand just the "what" is of that pained and insistent urge. Maybe it was that 2-bedroom house in Yonkers and the Dick-&-Jane kids Jackie promised her before he became a drug dealer. But that likely wouldn't have been enough either.

Rehab, recovery, release from dynamic demons of all sorts, these are the questions Guirgis poses poignantly, tellingly, loudly, profanely. And love, too, can be just such a demon, he suggests, as tenacious and futile as booze and drugs. From its grip many never succeed at liberating themselves even after 12 steps or another dozen or more.

What the show brings to the stage : As noted infra, this script of Guirgis brings to mind David Mamet meeting Lewis Black meeting Spike Lee : intense, visceral, layered, profane, silly, riddled with stupid human tricks. RalphD preaches the clean life : French classes, archery, surfing, flossing his teeth. He claims in perfect AA lingo how Veronica is stuck "in a cycle of self-sabotage". 

When confronted at last by Jackie -- shortly before they exhaust themselves in a fight-to-a-draw -- Ralph tells him "If you need money for rehab, or an exorcism, get in touch." Victoria probably nails it by telling Jackie, who spurns her come-on, "Ralph is not your friend, Ralph always wanted a dog and now he has one, you!"
Jackie muses : "Funny how people can be more than one thing..." 

The Veronica he says he loves he labels a "psycho, nasty, twisted, damaged heartbreaker" while cousin Julio reminds Jackie he's no saint either : "You startled me with your bad manners and your stupidity and your ego!" he says.

Pace, cadence, street vernacular, "like" and "bro" and the "man's code", MoFo is a poetry slam, an extended rap in staccato, contemporary free verse with power and verve that bespeak a man (Guirgis) utterly in touch with his times. Like Phillip the Bastard in WS's King John, I came away thinking "Zounds! I was never so bethumped with words!"

Acting pin-spots :  It would be unfair writ large to deny any of the five principal actors a shout-out in this review. 

Obviously the tortured and torturous love affair between Jackie and Veronica was the chief focus for Guirgis. Stephen Lobo positively thrilled with his crescendos both happy and (mostly) angry, but his sad tremolos too. Kyra Zagorsky was equal measure word-for-word, gesture for gesture. Director Brian Markinson deserves unchecked kudos for what talent he drives these two characters to deliver. Verbal hits to the solar plexus and the heart from both all night long.

As the invidious RalphD, John Cassini oozes the kind of smug self-congratulatory faux-wisdom a genuine AA sponsor might in fact 
offer up. His cynical self-indulgent worldview is currently on display in the U.S. presidential sweepstakes. 

Lori Triolo, however, caught this reviewer right in the throat in her confessional monologue to Jackie when her disgust and revilement for RalphD were revealed, and why. My oh my what a moment of sheer pathos.

The ironic, comic commentary of Francisco Trujillo as Cousin Julio was priceless. Somewhere astride "bi" and not-so-ambiguously gay, his acting as conscience for his cousin Jackie was top-rung stuff.

Production values of note : Between scenes Eric Banerd popped and slapped some street bongos and drummed a set of laundry soap pails down stage right. Crisp, precise pieces one and all. Bravo! performance by Banerd and a clever visual / audio interjection designed by the creative team.

Laughlin Johnston as props and set designer pulled off intriguing interconnected contrasts between Veronica's bedroom, Julio's spotless kitchen chromeware and Victoria's aging living room. Better Sally Ann choices could not be made. Costumes by Beverley Huynh were spot on, particularly Veronica's ultimate sexy singlet that proclaimed "Let's Get Lost".

Who gonna like : If profanity ain't your gig, miss this. But if the rhythms and patois of a contemporary blue collar immigrant NYC Puerto Rican barrio sound like they might be worth a listen, MoFo is for you. These humans' touching fretful attempts to find love and meaning and purpose ring true to the heart. For 100 minutes of non-stop energy and yearning and rue and grace, you've got just four nights left to reward yourself this indulgence.


Particulars : The Motherfucker With The Hat.  Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Produced by Firehall Arts Centre in association with Haberdashery Theatre Company. At 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until January 30, 2016. Box Office 604.689.0926 for nightly & matinee performances.

Production Team : Director Brian Markinson.  Producer Donna Spencer (Artistic Producer Firehall Theatre).  Props & Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Beverley Huynh.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Percussion Eric Banerd.  Stage Manager Kelly Barker.  Assistant Producer Jenn MacLean Angus.  Props Coordinator Yasu Shimosaka.  Technical Director Jamie Burns.  Production Assistant Kayla Heselwood.

Performers :  John Cassini (RalphD).  Stephen Lobo (Jackie).  Lori Triolo (Victoria).  Francisco Trujillo (Cousin Julio).  Kyra Zagorsky (Veronica). 


* Not having a script, my thanks to Hilton Als of The New Yorker 110425 for much of this extended quotation.

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