Thursday, 17 April 2014

Bomb-itty of Errors is zany good fun

Quick snapshot : What do rap / hip-hop lyrics have to do with Shakespeare? Everything! At least in the saucy, cheeky production Bomb-itty of Errors now at the Granville Island Revue Stage until May 10th.

Based on Shakespeare's early slapstick giggler The Comedy of Errors that is all about mistaken identites, Bomb-itty is a fest of rap, rhyme and songs that re-tells the Bard's story about two sets of twins, parted at birth, and how their identities criss-cross one another while a DJ spins hip-hop music behind them.

Director Catriona Leger sums it up best : "This play has everything I love in the theatre : Love triangles! Revenge! Mistaken identity! Mischief! Dancing! Crossdressing! Music! And, of course, Shakespeare."

The identity criss-cross is assisted nicely by the "coincidence" of each set of twins having been given the same forename by their worn-out mom who'd dropped her "litter" in the maternity ward before disappearing into the night. Thirty years later we find we're dealing with Antipholus from Ephesus and his manservant Dromio. Their respective twins, from Syracuse, are Antipholus and Dromio, too. So when the lads from Syracuse visit Ephesus, identity mix-up and madcap antics roar out of the starting gate. (Hereafter initials will i.d. who's who in this zany zoo.)

To add to the hilarity, there are some 20 characters in the piece -- many of them cameo -- but all of them are played by just four actors. And it's the same four who reprise their 2012 Jessie Award-winning production done then by the Temporary Thing troupe via Twenty Something Theatre under Artistic Producer Sabrina Evertt. These talented lads are Brian Cochrane, David Kaye, Niko Koupantsis, and Jameson Matthew Parker, joined in the redux gig by DJ Oker Chen. Watching these guys gleefully sporting stockings-&-boobs to play their twins' spouses, I thought I was right back in the thick of John Irving's current novel In One Person that celebrates the narrator's cross-dresser actor Grandpa plus a host of contemporary transgender'd souls.

The Bard's original Comedy was built on puns, wordplay, sight gags and plot shenanigans involving countless dubious and dimwitted characters from the shady side of town, huffy insultees who hiss, ditzes &c. &c. All these types were created by "MC Willy Shakes" -- as Director Leger muses he might be known today -- to entertain holiday-time beer-swilling Elizabethan law students from Inns of Court in fin de siecle 16th century. So when a quintet of New York University Department of Drama students* decided to adapt a Bard script in 1999 in the "rap" mode of that epoch, they chose just the right one and aimed it at the same "target demographic" -- just a Y2K version instead of a 16th century one.

Oh yeah. A "bomb" in millennial-speak is "heavy sick". And "sick", don't you know, is big-time good. So if you are wearing "sick" jeans they are tres, tres cool. Thus they wanted to emphasize that this contemporized version of "Errors" is considered a major whack-o-jolly-good story. A bomb-edy of a com-edy, just re-spelt contempo -- got it?

Plotline sketch :  The plotline is simple. Unmarried S.Antipholus quickly meets up with E.Dromio and thinks him the S.Dromio instead, while E.Dromio acts as if this Antipholus is his married boss. Therefore the two of them think each other is addled or stupid or just obstreperous when they confuse each other's roles, relationships, and activities in town centre Ephesus. Flip that scenario over to the other two twins and you've got quadruple mix-ups occurring serially.

Now add E.Antipholus's wife Adriana and her airhead sister Luciana into the mix. Adriana can't figure out why S.Antipholus, her "man", is acting so aloof from her. And meanwhile S.Antipholus develops the hots for Luciana, who is scandalized that her "brother-in-law" could come on to her, but charmed as well. Along the way throw in MC Hendelberg (Jewish jeweler rapper), a scatology obsessed keystone cop, spaced out Bobby the tone-deaf bike courier, rastafarian naturopath Dr. Pinch and a Nike nun -- oh lordyno end of Bard-like busy-ness to challenge and tickle the 21st century brain.

Production values :  Even 15 years after its conception and first steps, this play-cum-breakdance-cum-musical-cum-slam-poetry-jam is a marvel in its imagination and high-kilowatt energy. The opening prologue reveals these four brothers are two sets of twins from the same Mom whose drug dealer Dad suicided in prison. Their orphan history is simple : "Grew up in the world of hip-hop / Surrounded by the 1-2-3 don't stop!" They tell the audience this ain't comedy, this ain't tragedy, "It's a new style, it's whatever we want it to be!" But mostly it's comic. When E.Dromio thinks S.Antipholus is his married boss, S.A. answers right smartly : "I have no mistress / I have no maid / It's been months / Since I've been laid!"

Nevermind the mistaken identity schticks. The cross-dresser turns of Niko Koupantsis as Lew-chee-ann-a! are nothing shy of brilliant. It looked to me like he enjoyed that role even more than his straight E.Dromio one. Jameson Matthew Parker as Adriana is equal to the x-dress challenge, too, but the part is just not as LMFAO as Koupantsis's. David Kaye dancing about as Dr. Pinch gets top footwork marks. Throughout Brian Cochrane as both S.Antipholus and as MC Hendelberg elicited great guffaws.

Words are stretched to achieve forced rhymes -- "Ephesus" somehow rhymes with "breakfast is" early on. Hip-hop patois and rhythms abound as in the sing-songy "Dro-me-oh-oh-oh-ee-oh-ee-oh-ee-oh", while break-dance riffs command centre stage attention constantly. Messrs. Koupantsis and Kaye are superb in that regard, particularly at the end when Brothers Dromio meet each other again for the first time. Choreographer Joel Sturrock has executed his challenge remarkably, not just the dancing but also the nanosecond costume changes required of the cast. Costume designer Vanessa Imeson pulls off harlequin-esque costumes for the four principals wonderfully well. The cameo costumes for the in-drag parts were goofy good fun each one. Ian Schimpf's West Side Story-ish brightly coloured brick-&-corrugated iron doors graffiti motif was perfect for the tight Revue stage. 

Who gonna like ? : Let me repeat what Director Catriona Leger said at the top : "This play has everything I love in the theatre : Love triangles! Revenge! Mistaken identity! Mischief! Dancing! Crossdressing! Music! And, of course, Shakespeare." Throw in hip-hop rhythms and original music (by Anami Vice) to boot, and you've answered the question. In the zone on all those planes? You'll come away delighted. 

Meanwhile Shakespeare purists, people who figure "rap" is missing the letter "c" at the front, and folks who like their tunes in musicals to be hummable on the way home -- well, this one maybe ain't exactly the one you're gonna want to stand in line for. 

For the rest? Bomb-itty is just so irreverent and clever and imaginative and low-brow-brilliant it's time well wasted as Comedy Central puts it. You can't help but hiccup & giggle.


* Playwrights from NYU : Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, Gregory Qalyum, Jeffrey Qalyum and Erik Weiner.


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Sunday, 13 April 2014

Proud spoofs boring ol' Canadian politics

An unlikely premise behind it all :  Actor/playwright Michael Healey's Proud is a turn at what American comedian Stephen Colbert might call "Stephen Harper spoofiness". No wonder. Harper set himself up perfectly as Canada's satiric alter ego to Richard Nixon when in 2006 he delivered 10-year-old son Ben and 7-year-old daughter Rachel to their Ottawa school and promptly shook each of their hands (!) to the amazement and joy of the omnipresent paparazzi. Viewed as aloof and calculating, Harper's way of saying "Have a nice day, kids!" became as trademark as Nixon famously flashing his fake-double-V finger salutes while chirping "I am not a crook!"

But Proud is more than tittle and tattle about SH's time in Ottawa. And the Healey script is more than the kind of one-dimensional hoo-hah that comedian Rich Little mastered in eviscerating the perpetual 5-o'clock-shadow-and-over-eyebrow'd Nixon. Healey insists his purpose, believe it or not, is to engage Canadians in just what it is they want and expect from the solons running the country in far-fetched Ottawa. And so his depiction of SH, delivered engagingly by Andrew Wheeler, is broader and richer and subtler and more nuanced than Handshake Dad has shown himself publicly to be capable of.

The set-up :  The storyline is built on "truthiness" as well as "spoofiness". It's 2011. SH has commandeered victory not only in ROC, he's also taken the Quebec seats actually won in 2011 by Jack Layton's Orange Horde. No longer required to seek the consensus he needed when he was a minority PM, Harper now has free rein. The play's set-up is how he tries to manipulate a pup of an MP from small-town Quebec, one Jisbella Lyth (Emmelia Gordon) and how she outmaneuvers and outwits him due to his overweening hubris. The other primary character in the piece is Harper's Chief of Staff Cary (Craig Erickson) who clearly is not based on the real life uber-confident but fatally flawed Nigel Wright -- he who paid off Senator Mike Duffus's $90,000 phony expenses and got fired once exposed. 

Script's notorious history :  From Y2K forward, Healey was playwright in residence for Toronto's Tarragon Theatre that prides itself as being "a leading Canadian company for the development, creation and encouragement of new work" (sic). From the get-go Healey had planned a trilogy of plays, two of which Tarragon in fact did produce : Generous (2007) and Courageous (2009), which explored those two themes of human conduct. Then came the rough draft of Proud. Hold on a minute here, cautioned Tarragon's artistic director Richard Rose. After reading it he forsook both of those qualities -- generous and courageous -- and, ironically, donned the proud masque instead. Seems a nervous and silly board member had warned Rose : "Handshake Harper might sue us for libel!" Rose refused to mount the show. "Bollix!" bellowed Healey. He promptly resigned his playwright commission. 

With his wife's encouragement they borrowed against their household line of credit to mount the show themselves. Then they and friends staged a series of readings across the land to fund-raise and pay the Healeys' LOC back, which they did. A Toronto competitor, the Berkeley Street Theatre, mounted the show. Guess what. No libel suit from 24 Sussex Drive.

Plot quicky :  SH wants to consolidate power after all those years as a minority PM. How to do that? First give your grasp at power the tumescent title The Harper Government. Then move to distract the press. Frosh MP Lyth stumbles into Chief Cary and PM Steve plotting the day's next moves. She's hot for a condom because she wants to "do" CBC's Evan Solomon who's on The Hill to interview her in her new office. Neither Steve nor Cary has one in their wallet, nor act as if they know what one is, even. But let's use this sexy ditz, Steve muses, to propose a bill criminalizing abortion after 20 weeks. That'll get the progressive rabble rabbling. And while the chattering classes are distracted by her anti-abortion proposal, hey, we can gut the Liberal-leaning Privy Council and the press won't even notice. And meanwhile we won't support her bill in any event -- being both practical and cynical -- but it'll keep the rednecks in our base quiet at least. 

Everyone goes through the motions, but Lyth finds eagerness and power from her proposal as it progresses through the House and gathers unexpected momentum. And now the antics between the PMO and the upstart MP can proceed apace. But all the while infused with comic flashes and flushes that drive the endless political monologues forward. (Bias : Based on my 40 years' experience as a B.C. public servant, all too seldom are politics "dialogue" -- more often just "serial monologues" between entrenched adversaries. Ever notice how the word "ideology" appears to stem from "idiot"...?)

Playwright's cut at it : In an Artsmania interview 18 months back, Healey revealed his modus operandi : "This was never intended to be a documentary or a straight-up biography. It's a heavily fictionalized depiction, but the aspects of (Harper's) personality that I've seized on are the ones that create the engines in the play that ask the questions that I want to ask about our politics... [T]here's an enormous amount of comedy available when you explore politics because what's said and what people intend are often two very different things, there are secrets galore, there are enormous power differences among people. All of these things contribute to comedy and make for a fun night in the theatre."

Firehall performance values :  No question the 43 souls who witnessed Sunday's matinee -- and in doing so sacrificed a delicious sunny playday outside -- found much to chortle at in this Donna Spencer-directed effort. 

It helps to have even a vague notion of Canadian national politics and current events. If like the silent majority you'd be even more apathetic if only you could bother, this clever but flawed script ain't for you. Here's what it's not : it's not a critique of The Harper Government. SH is just the excuse, the vehicle, the means to Healey's end of talking up political ideas both macro and micro. More than once the SH character talks of what "ideal" Canadian government looks like : long-term boring stability and security. Sort of like the 2006-2011 Harper minority rule when sleeping with the enemy whether PQ, Liberal or NDP at any given moment made sense to Harper to prevent a non-confidence vote.

As Steve, Andrew Wheeler turns in a steady performance : at various times bombastic, blustery, babbling, awkward, forceful and/or bemused. His endless buttoning/unbuttoning of his blue serge suit jacket as he blathered forth was bang on. But it is Emmelia Gordon as the Frosh MP Jisbella who is the most rounded and engaging player in the piece. Her bubbly stream of f-word utterances and coquettish power-sluttery -- completely stereotyped, not one iota of p.c. here at all -- nevertheless make the viewer want to have a beer and a giggle with her. Craig Erickson's Chief of Staff Cory struck me as not edgy enough -- I wanted more of Nixon's Bob Haldeman than Obama's schmoozy flakmeister Jay Carney. Oddest character was Jisbella's grown-up son Jake (Scott Button). He provides a soliloquy of Healey's last words about politics in a superfluous (and pedantic) anti-climax to end the play. Odd business, this.

Theme-ish stuff : The script's attempts to discuss "beliefs"-vs-"feelings" and "strategies"-vs-"tactics" on The Hill serve mostly to advance the plotline, not provoke us to think overly hard. SH sums up the thrust of the play when he notes, slightly off-key, that "Political inconsistencies are situational : integrity is the last thing Canadians want in their politicians." Hmnnn. Tell that to Brazeau, Wallin and Duffy, eh? 

Or possibly the best comment on politics occurs during a discussion of nihilism : Jisbella blurts out at SH, "Fuck, all this shit is fucked!" Or, how not to lol at Jisbella's summation of her anti-abortion bill. She confesses it won't solve what has become a non-existent social problem. But, she acknowledges, it will satisfy the PC base : "It's pointless, it's stupid. It works because it's meaningless -- it's perfect politics!" Healey must have been channeling ex-PM Jean Chretien when he wrote that line, Chretien who once observed : "Canada is a country that works in practice, just not in theory.

Postscript : Healey's ideal government :  At the conclusion of his Artsmania interview with Anita Malhotra, Healey responded to her ultimate question "What, in your view, would be a perfect Canadian government?" Healey gave a succinct (but probably naif) everyman response i.m.o. : "I think government that isn't worried about scoring points would be a perfect government. A government that's willing to admits its mistakes, a government that is willing to listen to evidence and change its view if the evidence convinces them they need to change their view, a government that projects a kind of centredness to the world -- a kind of calm conscience to the world. A government that's fiscally responsible, a government that takes my tax dollars very, very seriously and a government that is less interested in marketing than it is in policy." 

No question. A 1st-world dream like this is better than real life in many of the world's 2nd and 3rd-world zip codes. Think about it. How utterly decadent to be able to go watch good acting and giggle about politics. Conjure life in Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, Central African Republic et al. Healey reminds us we in Canada -- whether proud about it or not -- are life's luckiest folks indeed. 

P.S. Quite coincidentally to-day (140414) I downloaded the April 21st e-version of Maclean's onto my iPad to browse on Canada Line. And in it was the following interview with Tom Flanagan, a long-time Alberta Conservative / Wildrose operative. His cautionary tale about cyber-world media instantaneity is worthwhile. But specifically I dedicate its reading to Richard Rose of Tarragon Theatre. If he and his squeamish board member really thought Michael Healey's SH character was the "true" Stephen Harper whom Healey was libeling, they need only read this for proof Healey's SH is a pastiche, a satirical and artistic and whimsical caricature based on the the guy -- not, not by a long shot, the actual Handshake Dad whom Flanagan used to advise. To make such a profound error in judgment in the arts realm where freedom of expression is foremost is not just gutless but unforgivable.   



http://contentviewer.adobe.com/s/Maclean's%20Magazine/e5d3693b3f95480a8a76987efdc3a82d/MME_20140421/03h_interview.html


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Sunday, 23 March 2014

Chelsea Hotel thrills Cohen fans old & new

Quick take :  If Leonard Cohen's musical poetry tickles your ears and steals your heart, don't miss the latest reprise of Chelsea Hotel that closes this coming Saturday at the Firehall Theatre. Six song-&-dance troupers blow the heck out of a dozen or more different instruments as they weave a clever tapestry displaying Cohen-the-man, Cohen-the-loner, Cohen-the-hustler. Melancholy, loss, romantic angst and love's wreckage are never far from the tip of Cohen's quill & inkwell. No question a slummy-ish hotel set is the perfect backdrop to showcase the man's storied talents.

The set-up :  Vancouver's Tracey Power who conceived, directed and choreographed the show obviously concluded The Chelsea would make a great hook for the musical review because of a favourite Cohen chart, "Chelsea Hotel #2" in which Cohen recalls a night of drugs and sexcapades with Janis Joplin.  "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / You were famous, your heart was a legend. / You told me again you preferred handsome men / but for me you would make an exception / and clenching your fist for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty / you fixed yourself, you said / 'Well never mind, / we are ugly but we have the music." In a 1969 Texas interview, Joplin recalled the night. She said Cohen "gave me nothing" but then quickly added : "I don't know what that means. Maybe it just means (he was) on a bummer."

Cohen stayed at The Chelsea in the late 60's along with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, when Cohen was chasing them around The Big Smoke to absorb their genius. This was around the time the Canadian National Film Board championed the emerging Montreal persona. His metier was poetry in those days that he shared both in books and in coffee house gigs. The NFB put out a 16mm black-&-white bio-pic I used to show my senior high English students, "Ladies and Gentlemen : Introducing Mr. Leonard Cohen". Clever and amusing, the flick includes Cohen bathing in a clawfoot tub at a seedy Montreal hotel while he smirks at the lens and writes the words caveat emptor on the bathroom wall as a kind of warning to viewers about all this precious fooferaw over him. But music was bursting in Cohen's breast, too, not just poetry, and NYC was where those times were a-happenin' and a-changin'. 

Power's cabaret format features some two dozen Cohen songs in whole and in bits that are covered by the troupe. There's a John Irving-esque plot stitching the songs together -- about a writer writing furiously and all the while fretting and fussing that writer's block prevents him from producing The One Indelible Lyric Of All Time. The show opens in an imaginative set by Marshall McMayen in which Kayvon Kelly, the Cohen alter ego, emerges from a paper mountain of scrunched-up poetry and song-lyric discards. (Indeed, as if to mock two stereotypes, over many decades the Buddhist and Jewish Cohen has often kvetched about his suffering in life as a wordsmith -- the pain words cause writers as their minds struggle for "just the right one" in any given line.)

Hallelujah out-take :   Case in point. Cohen's iconic "Hallelujah" that celebrates its 30th birthday this year reportedly had some 80(!)
original verses to it. After years of slashing and re-writing, Cohen managed to bring it down to just seven. Its final verse has lines that perhaps say all Cohen himself might, ultimately, want to conclude about his life as a writer and performer : "I did my best...I've told the truth... / I'll stand before The Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."  k.d. lang's performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is probably unmatchable among some 300 others who the media journals say have recorded it -- most recently by Rufus Wainwright in his best-hits-album "Vibrate" released just three weeks ago. For its part the raunchy rock rendition of the song the Firehouse gang rolls out satirically is worth a go, too. But it was Kelly doing it as an extra-slow-mo ballad to close the show (to a standing-o) that brought tears to the eyes of more than one patron Sunday afternoon.

The troupe :  Kelly shares the stage with five other actor musicians. Three women -- Lauren Bowler, Rachel Aberle, and Marlene Ginader reflect former (read : lost, abandoned, dumped) loves that the never-married Cohen famously wrote about : Suzanne, Marianne, and Jane. They are joined by two men, Benjamin Elliott and Steve Charles in the two-hour comic and bittersweet musical caper. I was doubly amused by the number "I'm Your Man" that features Bowler prancing about the set wrapped in a bedsheet blowing and humming a kazoo. Cute stuff in its own right but also because it reminded me of an old Sigmund Freud vignette : while smoking one of his signature stogies on stage during a lecture, Freud took a long drag, pulled it slowly from his mouth, gazed at it fondly and proclaimed : "And it's also a cigar!"

Bowler doing that song points to an interesting dynamic at play here : the fact of the women often singing lyrics clearly designed to be performed by a man singing to or about a woman. That makes for some engaging and dramatic shape-shifting on stage when listening to Cohen's lyrics out of a her instead of a him.

The songs :  Fortunately not all of the songs performed in Chelsea Hotel have the same tempo and tone and malancholia of Cohen's oh-so-famous ex-girlfriend ballads. The show's brilliant musical arranger, Steve Charles, proves how Cohen's musical oeuvre can be manipulated in the right hands to pump up his most famous songs and make them a lot less "drone-y" than Cohen often does himself. 

Charles mixes and matches Cohen's songs with surprise stylings galore, most notably the chirpily up-tempo "Closing Time". "Suzanne" to a cello / banjo backdrop was superb. The 4-part harmony on "Marianne" was tight tight tight. "First We Take Manhattan" done in cheeky syncopation made it a whole lot less Germanic and more universal. 

The leit motif of Leonard Cohen is always rejection, loss, hoped-for redemption. "I cannot follow you, my love / You cannot follow me. / I am the distance you put between / All of the moments that we will be" is a refrain sung repeatedly. And this observation about an unrequited relationship : "Now I am too thin / and your love is too vast." Or what about : "Tonight will be fine, for awhile...". Another oft-sung line : "Lover come back to me [repeated seven times] / Let me start again I cried." One of my favourites of Charles's arrangements was the song "That's No Way To Say Good-bye" done Cowboy Junkies style in pitch-perfect three-part harmony by the women with just banjo and bass accompaniement. Oh, sweet. Most of these exchanges are between Kelly and Ginader as the always-star-crossed lovers. For his part Elliott plays the role of the writer's muse, while Bowler and Aberle are often a pair of choreographed angels / devils ever-taunting the cad writer Kelly.

But you don't go to this for the story-line. You go to see and hear a clever cabaret collection of cover songs all deconstructed from Cohen originals and re-synthasized by a monstrously talented six-pack of song-&-dance pro's. You'll hear banjo, accordion, tambourine, harmonica, double bass, violin, cello, electric guitar, electrified acoustic guitar, drums, ukelele, keyboard piano and organ plus no doubt one or two others I missed. The cast rotated themselves around playing these various instruments with amazing cross-over talent on each.

Production values :  Power's choreography of the cast was clever, engaging, and spot-on with the McMayen set, exploiting every corner of the diminutive Firehall stage to wonderful advantage. Impossible to not conjure flashbacks of the Joel Gray Cabaret movie that was tour de force. Equal tdf here, no question. The group's costumes were an eclectic mix of plain-jane off-the-rack twills & Converse runners to circus get-ups by designer Barbara Clayden. Elliott the gangly muse as a kind of faux ringmaster in tails was perfect, as were the dancing twins Bowler and Aberle in their cocktail waitress black-&-whites. Ted Roberts' lighting was, as always, properly moody and apropos for each moment. 

Who gonna like : Some folks are too young to know the troubadour Cohen. Some folks find the Cohen genre too moody and self-indulgent and single-theme-y. But some folks will discover in this Power/Charles collaboration an absolutely stunning and unforgettable afternoon. That was me, that was my wife : she said she cannot remember a dramatic performance in all her life that she ever enjoyed more than this !

Footnote re: the hotel :  The Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in NYC has been a famous and favourite drop-in home for artists of all sorts ever since it opened back in 1885. Joni Mitchell's chipper & cheery "Chelsea Morning" gave the place rock star status, though its fame had earlier been marked, darkly, when Irish poet Dylan Thomas died there on a grey November day in 1953 shortly after bragging about the 18 whiskies he'd just finished polishing off. The 250-room 12-storey Victorian gothic with iron brocade balconies gained further notoriety when punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed his punk girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there in 1978. (Out on bail, Vicious himself would die in Greenwich Village of a heroin overdose just five months later : the investigation into the murder in Room 100 at The Chelsea was promptly abandoned by NYPD and never proven or solved.) Best description of the hotel from Cohen's time there came from someone named Nicola L. in a 2013 Vanity Fair article by Nathaniel Rich entitled "Where The Walls Still Talk". Quoth she : "Anything could happen... It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can't remember which. It was a crazy time."  

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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Breakthrough e-wizardry in Helen Lawrence

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan famously declared that "the medium is the message". Meaning that movies, for example, distort time and space and sequence and perspective in ways normal 3-dimensional human activity -- or a stage play -- cannot. Not, that is, until Vancouver visual artist Stan Douglas and local writer-producer Chris Haddock's collaboration to create Helen Lawrence now bending perceptions at the Stanley. HL is a multimedia visual and thematic dance oh-so-cleverly choreographed by its creators and by video programmer Peter Courtemanche along with a squad of talented 3D artists led by Jonny Ostrem.

Plot-&-set quicky : On its face the play is a film noir-style piece set in post-war Vancouver. The old Italian Renaissance-style Hotel Vancouver at Georgia and Granville had been boarded up to face the wrecking ball even though it was but 30 years old. (Its utility expired once the current Hotel Vancouver a block away opened in 1939.) But returning soldiers, desperate for civvy-street living quarters, squatted in the derelict old landmark. Shortly after the city sanctioned it to house some 1,000 veterans and their families before it was torn down in 1949 and paved over for a parking lot for 20 years until the Eaton Centre / Sears / Nordstrom parade of hopefuls that have succeeded it. 

As was the story in many post-war coastal cities, Vancouver was a rough-cut diamond in those days. Lots of natural beauty, sure, but also gambling joints and bookies, brothels and speakeasies that prospered thanks to police protection rackets that ran the show despite "tough on crime" but gullible politicians at city hall. Prime location of the action in Vancouver was the Strathcona district that housed a blend of multi-racial, multi-ethnic folk as well as being the home of Hogan's Alley where all these seedy but enticing social enterprises could be sampled by people from all walks of life around the city. 

From the decrepit dowager Old Hotel kitty-corner from The Bay and across from Birks in the heart of downtown to Hogan's Alley in DTES -- these "two solitudes" that nevertheless feed off each other set the stage for the action. 

Femme fatale Helen Lawrence has hopped a train from California to hunt down her ex-lover who was her millionaire husband's murderer who quickly disappeared N of 49 leaving her to take the rap for him. She's on the lam from an L.A. psychiatric "sanatorium" where she'd been held pending medical clearance to stand trial. She lodges at the once-gracious Old Hotel in centre de ville but ultimately tracks her prey down in Strathcona. 

Meanwhile the enterprising cats from the Alley are busy plotting and scheming with the police chief to preserve their underhanded businesses and perks. It's the duplicity and mendacity of all these gangsters and grifters and racketeers -- and not to forget the "hooker with heart" stereotype of noir films -- that provide the fundamental storyline of the show. Cop vs. cop, brother vs. brother, thief vs. thief, but all with a pinch of redeemable qualities, too.

Back to McLuhan : The plot of HL is pretty well incidental to this theatre event, however. Because the show is all about "functional blend" : the troupe's acting done mid-stage with minimal props blended with real-time videos of their actions being simultaneously projected onto a gossamer scrim across the proscenium in front of them. It is this visual legerdemain that is the hook and the treat and the conceit of the performance. 

Director Douglas calls it a "work of visual polyphony". For more reasons than one the audience can't help but watch both the actors and the projected images from the four cameras downstage that are tracking them. But the biggest trick had to be Mr. Courtemanche's creation of the computer software needed to pull all this off. His wizardry and Douglas's artistic vision allow 3D graphics derived from pictures of the old hotel and the Alley make the scrim videos appear as if the stage action was actually taking place in its rooms and on DTES's 1948 streetscape.

The result is a Stanley stage that visually dazzles and crackles with energy. You can watch the theatrical version, or much of it anyway, or you can watch the cinematic version. Take your pick. The on-the-set action behind the scrim or the Jumbotron black-&-white simulcast up-close-&-personal in front. Or both at the same time. Life as cinema, cinema as life, a perfect metaphor for today's ubiquitous Twitter'rs and Facebook'rs. As theatrical experiment HL is brilliant and breathtaking in its boldness. 

A wee but... Depending on one's seat, however, much of the centre stage-acting is often blocked by the camera dollies doing the filming right behind the scrim. Seven rows from the front and off to the side as we were, well, this occurred sufficiently often to force us to watch the video version, want to or not. A perhaps unintended plus, meanwhile, was the actors' blocking and expressions in the equivalent of floor-to-ceiling 70mm. celluloid being thrust right in your face. 

Genesis & theme : Fully five years in the making, HL's images as directed by Douglas accompany writer Haddock's script (Haddock the originator of Da Vinci's Inquest) and demonstrate how juxtaposed civility is with lawlessness at any given moment, then as now. Haddock says his work means "creating fiction out of history and bringing a veracity to the fiction".  I.e. no "one truth" can tell Vancouver's history -- there are many, and they overlap and infuse one another.

Douglas for his part points to the seeming chaos of the world's social structures in the post-war, pre-50's-boom time -- the start of the Cold War; critical housing shortages everywhere; wildly unstable economies. That zeitgeist pointed directly to the visual effect he intended : to mix live and virtual realities to demonstrate via "images (that) are fundamentally unstable and relationships ...constantly in flux". The result of this visual overdub and re-mix of the real with the virtual brings about "the potential (for everything) to fall apart any moment...much like the futures the characters are trying to forge for themselves."

What about the acting ?  The dozen actors who comprise the cast were all expertly cast. Highest kudos from this reviewer go to Allan Louis as faded jaded ex-boxer Buddy Black and Sterling Jarvis as his brother Henry. Nicholas Lea as Mrs. Lawrence's ex-lover Percy Walker had terrific facials as a brawny bullying bookie. The ex-carny hustler turn of Haley McGee as hotel receptionist / maid Julie ("But everybody calls me Joe...") was a delight to watch, except, late in the play, a strangely perfunctory embrace of her Old Hotel boss and buddy Harry Mitchell played tightly by Hrothgar Mathews. Local favourite Tom McBeath sleazed the role of Sergeant Leonard Perkins goofily and bibulously -- spot on. And as Helen Lawrence, Lisa Ryder brought immediately to mind the husky breathiness of Kathleen Turner in her Body Heat days -- equally vixen and viper. "Don't tread on me" indeed.  

Special mention needs to go to Nancy Bryant as costume designer. Every stitch worked wonderfully well, both in colour on the actors mid-stage and in the black-&-white video shots. Real classy consistent period stuff. The Buddy Black frayed ex-boxer robe was as classic as Helen Lawrence's white suit and sexy hats. For his part, composer and sound designer John Gzowski coupled moody saxes and basses with big band riffs that underscored the script and the times perfectly.

Who gonna like : This is a show for rabid live theatre fans who like to flirt with Netflix, too. Because its uniqueness and cleverness and force of creativity compensate completely for all those sight-line contortions one might be put through. (Probably a balcony seat in the centre would overcome much of the camera dolly distractions.) That said, the computerized scrim-work that marries the nearly-bare stage blocking into 3D's of the hotel and Alley scenery is nothing shy of marvel. 

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Thursday, 20 February 2014

Driving Miss Daisy motors along charmingly

Script recap :  It's 1948, Atlanta, Georgia. There's a new old odd couple in town. A Southern Jewish matron Daisy, 72, and Hoke, 60, her Negro car driver. Daisy's in denial. Son Boolie has hoist her driver's license after she backed her new Packard across the lane and wiped out her neighbour's 2-car garage. He unilaterally appoints Hoke as her driver. Nothing against "coloreds" she insists, it's all about loss of independence and personal agency. We watch snippets of the lives of Daisy and Hoke over 25 years. And witness their relationship evolve -- the crotchety she and the subservient he -- as they become a lot chummier than when they start out. The film version starred Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy. It won best script adaptation and Best Picture at the 1990's Oscars, three years after the original off-Broadway stage show that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Fast forward. There has since been a curious 20-year-hiatus between the last stage performance of DMD and today. Hmnnn. Odd for such a gold medal launch both on stage and on the big screen in just a couple of years. But maybe no real mystery after all.

Why the gap ?  Critics whinge that Alfred Uhry's script is "lightweight", a "very slender work" that is "simplistic" and "romanticized". Probably that's in part because of the stereotypes of DMD's characters. In 1948 Daisy is an aging Jewish matron nearly 20 years ahead of Lyndon Johnson's civil rights laws. Hoke is an aging out-of-work Jim Crow Negro nearly 20 years ahead of Black Panther Huey Newton. Newton, recall, demanded that "black" replace the N-word, the n-word and even "colored".* And try as it might, the script presents viewers with caricatures instead of developed characters the way a Pinter or a Chekhov or a Munro would manage. 

Play & character snapshots :  DMD wanders merrily along as a series of stitched-together scenes that are clearly from Ozzie-&-Harriet's America. It's lite and lively and glad for the most part, occasionally a bit of sad thrown in, hardly ever mad except at the start in the play's set-up scenes. A proud Negro uber-servant is pitted against a proud Jewish matriarch. It's a stylized clash of wills -- less Jack v. Giant than Jack v. Jacqueline. But fact is we're dealing with a retired elementary schoolmarm and her motor car driver during the Truman / Eisenhower years. (Their characters are, reportedly, based on Uhry's own grandmother and her driver.) So Uhry's understated approach to his characters was doubtless in keeping with those times, honest both culturally and thematically. Also, DMD was Uhry's first produced play following the years he toiled as a song lyricist sponsored by composer Frank Loesser (he of Broadway's Guys & Dolls fame). That probably explains his characters' bantering, easy-on-the-ear dialogue.

Audiences like what they see : I have no doubt audiences relate to Daisy and Hoke in part because they are both from cultural / racial minorities from a time back in the day when blackface comedies were all the rage at social fundraisers. Underdogs almost always attract fans and friends. Mostly, though, I would suggest it's because Daisy and Hoke's interactions are *quaint* in the manner of geriatric grams-&-gramps the world over. We needn't learn from them so much as just appreciate them in a sentimental way. We view them and their attitudes and their manners as throwbacks to an earlier time when life was simpler and basic in a skin-deep way but, tellingly, racist and bigoted in the flesh. So. If we just permit ourselves to stay put at the skin-deep stage we can allow ourselves to be charmed and amused. Not unlike the swoon that viewers the world over fall into over the upstairs / downstairs antics in the manor known as Downton Abbey. Still, as Daisy actor Vanessa Redgrave put it three years back during a Broadway remount of DMD with James Earl Jones, can Uhry's script -- almost in spite of itself -- make our hearts "open and release" in 2014?

ACT's production : Director Mario Crudo made key decisions in how to present DMD to Vancouver this year. Primarily he elected to let the mannered stereotypes of Jewish matron Daisy (Nicola Lipman) and Negro car driver Hoke (John Campbell) play themselves out "straight". Not one scintilla of love interest between them as done in the Bruce Beresford film version. Really not much of a break-down-the-racial-barriers cum intimate platonic relationship with each other, either. 

No. Crudo obviously decided his version would simply play out a story of people who work together in close personal proximity over years. He would direct them to be like caregiver-&-patient toward one another. Because even in so doing that still permits their relationship to expand from a "clinical" one to a personal and poignant friendship. [Digression : I relate. I have a handful of former work colleagues whom I "love". I will always cherish the times we had together -- the work, the laughs, the tears, the sharing of time and space over so many years. We stay in touch. We have lunches and dinners. We will not likely, however, invite one another to our kids' graduations or weddings.]

As Hoke, Mr. Campbell evinces the role a one-down black servant would likely have had toward this white older woman who is his charge. He reflects the times -- the culture, demographics, racial / sexual apartheid -- he grew up with instead of the Huey Newton / Lyndon Johnson epoch he grew into as a senior citizen. Quite unlike what Morgan Freeman did in the movie. E.g. while Hoke recognizes some de facto parallels between Daisy being a Jew and himself being black, his subservience to Daisy is never in doubt. He can kibbitz with her, tease her, challenge and argue with her, even feed her Thanksgiving pie at the nursing home at play's end, but he's still the hokey Hoke, her manservant. No hint of equality here. And Mr. Campbell executes this chosen characterization of Hoke admirably. 

For her part Nicola Lipman as Daisy is the reason to drop everything you're doing right this second and go order tickets. Hers is a nuanced and subtle depiction. She tut-tuts both Hoke and Boolie with sharp-minded zingers and matriarch petulance. But most impressive by far is her deteriorating physical posture even while her brain, despite advancing dementia, enjoys moments of lucidity to reveal the finely honed edge of yesteryear. The script wouldn't permit me to believe her claim to Hoke late in the piece that "You're my best friend...!". Only by dint of daily physical proximity. Boolie is Daisy's best friend and they both know it. This most-often-cited quote, not to forget, occurs in the midst of an Alzheimer's moment : at age 95 or so Daisy's addled mind makes her believe that she's a 5th Grade teacher again and late for school. Still, the moment works, if not the quote : her grasping of Hoke's heavy cardigan sweater to lend her support -- lit.-&-fig. -- is simply wonderful acting to behold. And her nursing home turn just moments later literally brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. 

As Boolie, Brian Linds projects a loving and loyal son whose frustration with Mom is ever mitigated by his wealth of feeling for her. Albeit Uhry's script wants us to focus on Daisy and Hoke, Mr. Linds steals an appropriate quantum of attention away from them by his solid performance.  Btw Mr. Linds also does the soundscape for the piece. Brilliant! A Don Shirley Trio knock-off with banjo riffs. Perfect hook among the sequences of short scenes.

Who gonna like : A large number of septugenarians in the seats on opening night clapped most vigorously. I suspect that cohort of theatregoers is the main target of ACT's production. But fans of the '90 flick will want to check out what live actors can do without all the expanse and wash of HD 35mm. film (or whatever the heck it is Hollywood uses these days). For myself I'd go again if only for Ms. Lipman's excellent execution and Mr. Linds' efforts in both his roles.

* Note : "Colored" is a word that is still employed by the century-old American social justice group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, known S of 49 as the "N-double-A-CP". And if one is "black" it's okay to call another black person "nigger" as a term of brotherhood. Same as if one is "gay" today -- particularly if also a LBGTQ social activist -- it's okay to refer to oneself as "queer". I make no judgement here. Just reporting the vicissitudes and paradox of street language in the context of ACT's DMD play revival.

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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Yin-yang buddies = The Odd Couple then & now

Plot quicky :  Since its launch in 1965, The Odd Couple's first act has been hailed by some critics as arguably the single-best scene of American comedy ever scripted for the stage. And maybe so. Even despite the considerable time-warp between that back-in-the-day moment and now.

Hot summer Friday night. New York City. Poker night at Oscar Madison's apartment where his mid-life bachelor gig plays out since his wife Blanche quit their marriage some six months back and escaped to California. The five players at the table take turns kvetching, snarling and growling about their lives, their wives, their fates and the crappy slow pace of the night's game. They scarf back leftovers out of Oscar's defrosted fridge -- whether aged cheese or mold doesn't particularly faze them. They fist their poker cards with gusto and throw chips and cards and commentary around as randomly as teenage burps or gas attacks.

Number six at the weekly table, Felix Ungar, is late, MIA. Unknown to his posse, his wife Frances has just drop-kicked him out of their house. When they learn this news, they fear he may be suicide-depressed. No wonder : he has just telegram'd his wife telling her that's what he is about to do. Divorce was typically a serious mid-life crisis for men back then -- marriage in the early 60's stood a 4:1 chance of succeeding. And both Oscar and Felix have failed the test. They are rejected husbands who work day-jobs, not lothario playboys of the Mad Men stripe who are serial cheaters. When Felix finally appears, his chums rally round to prevent a 12-storey fall from grace and the tale of Oscar-&-Felix and their upcoming life together under the same roof begins.

A Tale of Its Time :  I reckon no English-speaking North American can possibly not know of this iconic Neil Simon script. The original Broadway stage mount in '65 featured Walter Matthau and Art Carney. The 1968 movie paired Matthau with Jack Lemon. Then TOC morphed into a 70's t.v. sitcom starring Jack Klugman as Oscar and Tony Randall as Felix. To recap : both of Simon's characters are professional news writers, but that's about where the similarity ends. Oscar (Andrew McNee) is a highly-paid cigar-chomping sports gob whose preferred lifestyle is casual / messy / live-for-the-moment, not unlike many sports contests. He's often tardy with the alimony and child support payments because of his saloon skills and chronic poker losing streaks. Bosom buddy Felix (Robert Moloney), meanwhile, is a fuss-o-matic : a neat-freak finicky neurotic who writes straight news for CBS and likes life orderly, from kitchen utensils to emotions. So unlike the more cavalier Oscar, Felix is rattled to the core now that his right-tight world has fractured and splintered.

The yin-yang personality clash set up by Simon survives mostly because we are parachuted, wholesale, back into the early 60's -- pre-VietNam; pre-Woodstock; pre-Steinem's Ms. magazine and the advances of feminism since. Too, the play features two long-time male buddies who're thrust together by chance, not design. Were they man-&-wife there would be no play. Sexual politics ain't yuk-yuk. Particularly today. But two age-old chums from Ike's time who play poker together? They can riff and natter and scold one another like frat-rats because comic incompatibility works when played out at this level. Indeed, Neil Simon's gift to the stage throughout his storied career has always been to find scads of punchy laugh-lines right in the midst of existential fear, heartache, and the uncertainties that pounce when dreams go awry. No better vehicle than this frozen-in-aspic script to prove the point.

WYSIWYG :  Director John Murphy does what he often does with timepiece material. He madcaps the action with lots of slapstick blocking and choreography. Wildly contorted individual facial gestures, hyped-up coughs, Keystone cop chases, 3 Stooges pratfalls -- they're all part and parcel of the current ACT re-mount. Murphy does take liberties with his casting : the poker bunch, ostensibly all in their 40's, include a couple of sexagenarians whose ages belie Simon's dialogue. But no matter to the 2014 audience eye. Because the fact is many groups of friends nowadays, both men's and women's, include 2-3 generations all playing well together in the same sandbox : age differences matter way less now than they did to our folks. The NYC cop in the poker bunch, Murray, was played by Joel Wirkkunen who gave the most robust and witty turn of the group. But Josh Drebit's Speed as the ever-impatient card sharp was a mere 1/2 kph behind in comic delivery. Great body language in the card table routines from each of the older two, too -- Alec Willows as Roy, Oscar's long-suffering accountant, and Cavan Cunningham as the penny-pinching and henpecked Vinnie.

Murphy's slapstick approach coupled with direction to his cast to hyper-ventilate Simon's dialogue saves TOC from its fundamental irrelevance in today's uber-caffeinated-nanosecond-attention-span culture. Because who cannot laugh when Oscar tells the ever-agitated Felix early on : "You have a low threshold for composure. You're the only man in the world with clenched hair." But Simon also manages to make his characters empathetic, as well as comic, such as when Oscar confesses he's lonely living alone. He invites Felix to move in to his 8-room apartment : "I love you almost as much as you do," he says. "I'm proposing to you."

Felix agrees. And before the night is over he has antisceptick'd the entire pizza-box Chinese take-out carton gerbil-cage apartment. Director Murphy does this cleverly, having the poker bunch act as Felix's proxies to complete the task. Scene 2 opens on the next poker night with the set in full-Felix fashion : the table is decked out with coasters to prevent watermarks; oversize serviettes for all; BLT sandwiches on crustless pumpernickel; ashtrays emptied after each ash is flicked. But when Roy smells Lysol and ammonia on the playing cards, the group exits en masse stage left in a snit over F.U.'s fastidious buzz-kill of their Friday fun. Still, it's what Oscar sees as the "wimp factor" vis-a-vis wife Frances that drives him the most crazy. He puzzles at Felix rhetorically : "In a world full of roommates why do I choose the tin man?"

The second act looks promising for the odd couple. Oscar arranges a soiree with two British sisters, the Pigeons, who live in the same building. Felix, master chef, plans the meal, a London broil. But when widow Gwendolyn (Sasa Brown) and divorcee Cecily (Kate Dion-Richard) arrive, he goes nearly catatonic and can hardly talk due to first-date jitters. Only when Oscar repairs to the kitchen to fetch drinks does Felix warm up, showing the girls pix of his family. Felix whimpers "Divorce, it's a terrible thing." Cecily, with a perfect Liverpool lilt, quips back : "It can be if you don't have the right solicitor!" Immediately, however, she realizes Felix is in "unmanly" tearful pain. Soon there's a 3-way crying jag as they all swoon over their imperfect but lost marriages. In a heartbeat both of them love "poor, sweet, tortured" Felix.

Suffice to say the London broil burns to a crisp in the kitchen. A fire bell sounds, as if to signal the set's kitchen oven is on fire. But No!, truth is the hazer ACT was using to generate faux-smoke shorted out, smoked up a storm and set off the Stanley theatre alarm for real. The play resumed after a 14-minute delay as firefighters from two streets north re-set the alarm panel. [Well handled, ACT team!]

Back to script: The incinerated London broil forces the party to move to the Pigeons' apartment, but Felix demurs out of shyness and guilt over his ex-, Frances. Oscar both implodes and explodes over the botched date. Their ensuing hunt-&-chase around the apartment with Oscar threatening to kill his buddy was vintage. Even mid-chase Felix manages to straighten the dining table chairs and scoop up some paper litter off the floor. He's promptly sent packing but winds up, of course, bedding down with the Pigeons in their upstairs roost -- irony and fun being Simon's signature traits. 

N.B. The Pigeon sisters were very welcome comic relief within this comic romp. Relief because up till then the show had been as if plastered with For Men Only stickers given all the poker motif among a bunch of grunty post-WWII men. When the Pigeons descended, these two birds delighted at every move : they sat almost in each other's laps, finished each other's sentences, sported complementary 60's dresses, had matching red and blond bouffie hairdo's and shared a swack of Liverpool giggles. Pure fun !  

Production values :  David Roberts' set was a nice cut at 1965 Manhattan chic. Ceiling arches. Pale blues and pinks on the walls,  inset applique flower accents, scalloped furniture throughout, and a chrome floorstand ashtray to covet even for a non-smoker. Barbara Clayden's costumes were perfect for the times, even slobby Oscar's What Not To Wear blue/brown sport coat and pant mix. Marsha Sibthorpe's lighting was spot-on, particularly the solar eclipse blue lighting during scene changes by the poker bunch. And last but not least, sound designer Murray Price underscored the antics with some tight jazz quartet charts matching progressive sounds one would surely have heard at Birdland in the 60's.

Who gonna like : This is a period piece, as noted. Some may find the trip down memory lane a chance to smile and smirk, sentimentally, at the mores of a distant era. Others may find the dialogue too dated and man-centric for their liking, now, nearly 50 years hence. Still, Andrew McNee as Oscar brings a nuanced interpretation to his mostly macho role, and Robert Moloney does some fine excruciations as the tightly-wound Felix. Neil Simon is a master of the genre. His lines and timing provide much to amuse in a performance bursting with energy and wit. 

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Thursday, 23 January 2014

A Brimful of Asha is pure Canadiana


A Brimful of Asha is a lively, witty and clever verbal memoir. Written by Ravi Jains, it is an extended conversation between his real-life mom Asha and Ravi himself. In 1974 she was an immigrant from the Indian sub-continent; a half-decade later along comes her cheeky Indo-Canadian second son. Now in his mid-30's, Ravi directs himself and his never-before-actress mom in the piece. The show takes place at a Toronto kitchen table, a shiny Ikea knock-off. Via yak-yak between mom-&-son, the show recounts his folks' manipulations to arrange a marriage for Ravi on a trip he made to India in 2007 to conduct a theatre workshop. He was footloose and fancy free then at age 27. A recent theatre arts specialty grad, he'd set his effervescent personality to the challenge of launching a theatre company in TO prior to his brief India gig. Marriage was without a doubt the last thing on his mind.

Now it's no great secret that arranged marriages for countless decades were de rigeur in India. Whether they were parents (plus grandparents, aunts, uncles &c) of boys or girls, families worked at match-ups, often using newspaper ads and resumes called bio/data to pre-screen prospects and their DNA pedigree. But also, out of superstition, to screen their place of birth, day of birth, and time-of-birth to triangulate just the right match. That the wealth of the prospective family might factor in to all this, oh perish the thought...

On stage Ravi's half of the dialogue consists of his riffing off memory-bits of his parents' pre-nup ambushes of him as he traveled across India, ambushes ad nauseam until he'd had it right up to the brim and over the top.

For her part Asha (her name means "hope" in Hindi) sits stoically at the table and responds to Ravi's gripes. She's no slouch or pushover. Basically she accuses her talented theatrical offspring of being Golden Globe Hopeless! in each of the Son category, the Man-Card category, the Marriage category, and the Common Sense category. These exchanges they pull off with such love and risible gusto, however -- smart-aleck 1st-gen son fends off mom's insistent but impish zingers -- that the crowd giggles almost incessantly throughout the show's 90 minutes.

This is not a typical stage play. This is staged spontaneity. Everyone is greeted with a hand-shake as they enter by both Ravi and Asha. They are invited on to the stage to enjoy a samosa (I scarf'd down two and was offered more). Ravi and Asha go up and down the aisles greeting folks with obvious pleasure. It's as if everyone's being invited to an outsize family reunion. 

No question, any pretext of a proscenium arch or 4th wall separating cast from audience goes poof. When Ravi introduces his mom at the start and she gets a big Woo-hoo! from the crowd, Ravi ad libs that she got a bigger welcome than he did. Well, she retorts, "The play is called A Brimful of Asha, not A Brimful of Ravi!" Even more huzzah's from the crowd. Throughout they invite the audience to shout-out their support for one character's version of "the truth" or the other's. Lots of laughs and claps for clever one-liners plus interjections of Oh no! and similar gasps and guffaws mark the progress of the night. E.g. when Ravi recalls his rules for marriage, number two is "I won't marry just anyone" to which Asha responds in a nano-second: "That's the stupidest rule I ever heard of." Uproar! throughout the room.

Mom explains she's desperate to hold on to her old country values. 
Ravi protests that he wants "love", not a "match". And he wants to do it in his own event-time mode, not mom and dad's clock-time mode. That in India everyone wants to know why Ravi is not yet married bothers him not one bit. His aunt, meanwhile, puts it this way : "Ravi, what's the matter with you? Just get married, get it over with, we'll have a party, it'll all work out!" At another point a relative chides : "Can we just sign the papers, break out the love juice and get on with it?" In exasperation Ravi tells his mom : "You and Papa should just consider me dead!" and Asha fires back : "We can't consider you dead until you're married!" Dare I say mostly the women did the laughing at that one?

Playwright Jains' devices of "scripted improv" and meet-&-greet the patrons is clever and effective. Mom and son disagreeing vigorously, yes, but both agreeing about the cultural gaps that occur between generations of immigrants. She admits she's hooked-back to the old country with its values. He, of course, champions the break-out urges of kids born in this exciting new world countless longitudes to the West. No doubt this all works in part because show-goers are often immigrant or 1st-2nd generation newbies here themselves. They can't help but relate to these culture clashes, particularly when they're wrapped up in Asha and Ravi's kitchen table patois. (Said patois included various soliloquies by Ravi in Hinglish to replicate the remembered family discussions : his dialogue tickled the ears with precisely the intended funnery.) But we know love is not all smirks and giggles. There are also shouts & murmurs, hints & allegations, tears of pain & cries of rage that round out this scene : family matters, all in all, good, bad and ugly.

So on the one hand the show is redolent of Ground Hog Day in its re-telling of the same basic tale time and time again. A 2-hander play with a 1-joke storyline, arguably. Gotta say there's a whiff of monotony to the mom-&-son exhanges, ultimately -- the show's perhaps 7-10 minutes wordy-ish -- and mom's lines are a bit monochromatic in tone and hard to hear on occasion. That she had never acted before this play helps explain it, for sure. So those are cheap-seat quibbles at best. Fact is both Asha and Ravi are wholly engaging, endearing, and heart-warming with big genuine smiles and laughs. They present as family, and they welcome the audience to join them as new-found cousins at this reunion. You will be charmed at both the dramatic wordplay and cultural exposure you enjoy. And the samosas are de-lish!


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