Monday, 11 August 2014

BLR summer furlough -- see you in October!

With the end of the major theatre season in Vancouver inching up on the horizon, BLR is taking advantage for a summer furlough that includes Tuscany cycling + hiking + general gad-abouting in September. Back soon!

-30-


Monday, 14 July 2014

Late WS script Cymbeline no tinkling chime

Familiar Bard tropes & then some : Lovers separated by angry parents. Kidnappings. Drug-induced near-death experience. A woman cross-dresser. Multiple mistaken identities. Scheming and machiavellian queen also cross-dressed. Claims of infidelity. Machismo wagers (in Italy, of course). Bedroom trickery. Intimations of cuckoldry. Murder plot. Intricate revenge schemes. An avuncular go-between. A road-trip out of kingly court into the nearby spooky woods. Battlemania -- this time between upstart Britain and Caesarian Rome. And in the end salvation for otherwise doomed antagonists.

Twisty-&-turny, this convoluted and fabulistic fairy-tale romance Cymbeline has its essence captured perhaps best by my late grandmother's wrinkled and wizen'd leather 1922 Funk & Wagnalls' College Standard Dictionary : "Idealistic [writing]...that does not bind itself to verisimilitude or reality, but gives scope to imagination and idealization [including] any extravagant story or series of romantic events or adventures." Extravagant story indeed, unstinted by the merest iota of reason, with an all's well that ends well feel despite the dead bodies.

Bard's last 2014 production that opened Sunday night finds seven actors who perform a swack of roles, 18 in all* in a tale that ships viewers out from London to Rome to Wales and back again to Britain's coast then once more to London for hoisted tankards and venison. At the 250-seat Douglas Campbell theatre over the course of three hours including intermission.

Plot quicky sum-up : The ingenue Princess Imogen (Rachel Cairns) has eloped with her childhood playmate Posthumus (Anton Lipovetsky). This infuriates her evil step-mom the queen (Shawn Macdonald) who wants her boy, King Cymbeline's psycho-boob of a step-son Cloten (also played by A.L.), to marry Imogen so he becomes king in due course. The king (Gerry Mackay) promptly banishes Posthumus, who sails off to Rome to lick his wounds. There he meets Iachimo (Bob Frazer) whose name similarity to Othello's Iago is no accident. Iachimo bets the gullible and proud Posthumus he can bed Imogen and will bring back proof. He pulls off the latter, but not the former, and Posthumus hears cuckold squawks in his head.

It's about Now! that the fairy-tale aspects of this late WS-script start to pile on with the king's early-20's sons who'd been kidnapped as babies helping to defeat the invading Caesarian Italians. They fight cheek-by-jowl alongside their kidnapper foster-Dad. Cross-dresser Imogen, now a traitorous soldier for Rome, gets reunited with Posthumus (her turncoat stint is blithely ignored). And finally the whole merry band repairs "back to London for hoisted tankards and venison" together, even the Iago-lite Iachimo. 

Well, "whole merry band" less the dastardly queen who's conveniently died (sans, shucks, any "Out damn spot!" soliloquy). Also less Cloten-the-clod whose head was chopped off by a step-brother along the way. (Curiously, Cloten was interred to the strains of WS's finest graveside prayer, the one that kicks off "Fear no more the heat o' the sun / Nor the furious winter's rages. / Thou thy worldly task has done..." Surely this was Billy Bard at his ironic best, still, no scholar has suggested such. More on this later.)

How it's structured : Director Anita Rochon makes some keen and clever decisions how to stage this phatasmagorical miasma : decisions that purists may squeam-&-scream at but the folks alongside the Howard Family Stage clapped and cheer'd and standing-o'd their hearts out over on opening night. 

Rochon says in her program notes that her production will ensure it "celebrates overt theatricality" -- check! As well, she says her read of the script is thus : "Transformation is at the heart of this play and it was important to me that we see these changes happen before our eyes" -- check!.  

Virtually all costume changes occur on-stage. When not playing their various roles and reciting lines, the actors for the most part sit mutely and motionless against the upstage back wall unless they're playing background music instruments.

Whole scenes from the original are excised and replaced with expository monologues by the cast. One change that puzzled, however, was the funeral poem piece noted above. In the original, WS wrote it strictly for Cloten and his headless corpse. Rochon has it recited for the Imogen / Fidele character during her sleep-of-the-dead piece in addition to it being for Cloten lying alongside. No question my claim of Shakespeare's irony, here, was vaporized by Rochon by so doing. Not a clanger, just an interesting footnote.

Rochon does not hesitate to have her players play to the audience seated so close, but for the most part she avoids outright slapstick pratfall-y antics i.e. "exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of common sense" as Wiki defines it. Rather more a series of sight gags and facial contortions purpose'd for gigglery. 

Cast highlights are, again, many : No question the show-stealer in Cymbeline is Anton Lipovetsky playing both the role of the knightly-but-naive Posthumus as well as his would-be nemesis Cloten (which I take to be English for the Yiddish klutz). Lipovetsky runs the risk of upstaging his comrades with all his eye-popping / toothy grin schticks, but that's what he was directed to do : play to his strengths. On balance his giddy boffo belligerence as Cloten was more convincing than his jilted loverboy riffs as Posthumus.

Next on my list of notable performances was Shawn Macdonald as both Cymbeline's second wife, the queen, as well as Belarius, the previously banished lord, now mountain-man of Wales. My notes scribbled stage-side say this : "Macdonald as the cross-dressing queen is a stereotypic Hollywood gay of yore -- all limp-wristed lisping mincing mannerisms -- but he exudes the perfect perfidy of this part." He added immensely to the audience's fun. His Belarius, by contrast, was fully robust and physical manliness-with-heart, showing off fine comic chops when calling out "Boys!" to have a strategic huddle with them. One would not be faulted in the least for thinking these were two altogether different actors playing the two roles. Hear-hear!

Rachel Cairns was an utterly different and more compleat and nuanced and vigorous femme as Imogen than she was as WS's slightly-wimpy daughter Judith in Equivocation. Her put-down of the sleazy paramour Iachimo was crisp. Her cross-dress to be the boy Fidele convinced. Her final scenes "when all was revealed" were touching in her restoration to be Posthumus' wife once again.

Bob Frazer as Iachimo was a first-rate cad and bully and machismo stud-character. Easy to dislike mightily. A sign of really good acting. Nice turns as one of Cloten's lords, steady and stately as Caius Lucius, too.

Absolutely no reservations whatever about any of the rest of the ensemble -- a crew that works in sync every moment. I'd say the Cymbeline folks are as tight a troupe as the summer's hands-down Bard overall winner, the cast of The Tempest.

Oh, the music, the music, the music : Benjamin Elliott outdoes himself in this production. Mandolin, guitar, conga drum, accordion, a funny oblong nail-box with metal pluck strings, voice choruses -- absolutely rich rich rich addition to this somewhat rambly and convoluted WS script. Nevermind a "picture". Music, too, can be worth 1,000 words. The drone-bits mimicking mournful bagpipes on the accordion during Iachimo's faux-rape scene as well as during Imogen's musical rendition of the funeral poem to the imprisoned Posthumus were simply inspired stagecraft. (Meanwhile Elliott's bit-part as French dandy was worthy of Spamalot.)

Oh the costumes, the costumes, the costumes and other production values : Never quite enough can probably be said about Mara Gottler's costume wizardry in Cymbeline. In her liner notes she makes reference to "a fencing-style uniform in various neutral shades for each actor" having this purpose : "The sparse iconic nature of the costumes will allow the audience to involve itself by supplying the details that underline the identity of each performer." Scarves, animal skins, vests both leather and velvet, swirling diaphanous capes for the royals -- all the add-on take-off switchabilly accoutrements for each part were simply perfect.

All this worked neatly with Pam Johnson's set that featured flip-flop Rome and Britain colour shields to help focus where the action was taking place. The battle scene with rich red Roman satin scarves-on / scarves off to be one side or the other in an instant was a sight. As well, fight director Nicholas Harrison's swordplay in Cymbeline is extensive and well-blocked, well-struck. 

A bit of self-parody or playing for laughs ? : Boiling down WS's myriad characters* to just seven by having the seven don-&-doff symbolic vestments on-stage on-signal is a feat of theatrical originality. By the end of the play the costume changes were seemingly hammed-up to be played for laughs as they occurred more frequently during the denouement / resolution sequences. Probably intended, not sure it was necessary. Just the change sequences qua change sequences worked well enough on their own.

Who gonna like : Cymbeline may be convoluted and complex and storied-out, but it does possess a fairy- and dream-like quality to it that is charming and endearing. As noted above, "...purists may squeam-&-scream...but the folks alongside the Howard Family Stage clapped and cheer'd and standing-o'd their hearts out...on opening night." More accessible fare than its ensemble partner Equivocation, Cymbeline lines up right snugly to The Tempest as what will be the 25th anniversary year's two most memorable productions.


*  *  *  *  *

Cymbeline.  By William Shakespeare (1609). In repertory with Equivocation at the Douglas Campbell Stage tent, Vanier Park, until September 17.

Production team. Directed by Anita Rochon. Scenery design : Pam Johnson. Costume desigh : Mara Gottler.  Lighting design : Alan Brodie.  Composer & Sound design : Benjamin Elliott.  Stage manager : Joanne P.B. Smith. Assistant stage manager : Samara Van Nostrand.  Apprentice Stage Manager : Jennifer Steward.  Fight director : Nicholas Harrison.  Apprentice director : Guy Fauchon.  Choreographer : Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.


Cast. Anousha Alamian as Pisario / Philario / a Roman captain.  Rachel Cairns as Imogen.  Bob Frazer as Iachimo / General Caius Lucius / a Lord.  Anton Livopetsky as Posthumus / Cloten /  Arviragus.  Shawn Macdonald as Queen / Belarius.  Gerry Mackay as Cymbeline / a gaoler.  Benjamin Elliott as Cornelius / Guiderius / a Frenchman / a lord.

* In my 2,461 page The Annotated Shakespeare edited by A. L. Rowse, the Dramatis Personae for Cymbeline number 24 individual roles -plus- an un-numbered gaggle of "Lords, Ladies, Roman Senators, Tribunes, a Soothsayer, a Dutchman, a Spaniard, Musicians, Officers, Captains, Soldiers, Messengers and other attendants" as well as "Apparitions". For Bard on the Beach in 2014 to reduce all this to a Troupe of Seven says a lot about what theatre in 2014 needs to do to wrest folks from their t.v.'s & Netflix & social media devices to come watch real sanguine breathing drama at work & play !


-30-

Friday, 11 July 2014

Equivocation tells tales of "truthiness" then & now

Equivocation : the word :  What does it mean to equivocate? Here's a prime example all parents of teenagers will recognize. Mom : "Have you done your homework, Amanda?" Amanda : "I've done all I need to do, Mom!" So. If the homework was two pages of math problems, Amanda may have done one problem, one page, all of the assignment or none of it whatever. But she has not lied. She has told her Mom that she has done all she, in her mind, feels she needs to do. That's equivocation. 

Flashback : It would be hard to imagine that playwright Bill Cain was not intimately aware of David Pownall's brilliant script Master Class from 30 years back. That chilling and unsettling story pitted famous Russian composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich against a ranting and sardonic Josef Stalin and his chief cultural agit-prop commissar, the terrifying Andrei Zhdanov. They accuse the composers of writing "romantic" and "reactionary" music that is decidedly un-Soviet. The two bully and threaten P & S mercilessly, demanding they conform to party-line. Stalin plays frisbee with their fragile 78 rpms.

Analogously, Bill Cain imagines a middle-age Shakespeare who has been the darling of the Elizabethan Court who's now been thrust into James I's reign during the early Jacobean era. It's been just a couple of years since the Protestant Scottish king was installed on the English throne. (Mr. Cain appears to be among the scholars who have argued that Shakespeare -- who claimed to be "just a writer" with no church affiliation -- was a Catholic sympathizer at least or even a christened crypto-convert.) Meanwhile in 1603 Guy Fawkes and some fellow travelers were accused of masterminding The Gunpowder Plot [TGP] -- an alleged conspiracy by Catholics to blow up the House of Lords using 36 barrels of gunpowder on a day Britain's Protestant king was to be present. (The bombing didn't happen, obviously.)

Enter the Zhdanov clone, Sir Robert Cecil, King James' commissar  after achieving high office during the just-ended Elizabeth I reign as well. He wants WS to write the "official version" about the unproven allegations surrounding TGP. Agit-prop for the king. A shill. A whitewash. Make the king look good. A 1605 version of post-9/11 George Bush. The Decider. The Enemy Killer. Which will make Shakespeare the king's pet playwright in the bargain. Cecil hands WS a draft plot written, he says, by the king himself.

(F.Y.I. In the program WS's name is spelled "Shagspeare".  Reason? That rendering was a common alternate at the time, same as "Blaxton" is a common re-spelling of "Blackstone".)

The Bard is sore troubled. Playwrights don't deal in current events, he protests, they deal in stories. "How can there be anything 'true' about a play?" his daughter Judith demands. Shakespeare's chief protagonist Richard Burbage agrees. "We hold mirrors up, nothing more!" to which Judith adds : "If you told people the truth, they'd run to the exits." But the Bard insists : "I'd like to leave behind at least one play that was true." Cautioned anew how treasonous this may turn out in the end, he quips ruefully : "I want to tell the truth, I just don't want to die from it."

The plot thickens : Under pressure, Shakespeare starts the task of investigating the facts behind TGP. He discovers the confessors had been subjected to horrific torture. What if I determine TGP was all an elaborate hoax to isolate and demonize England's Catholics? James and Cecil might just be looking for ways to further marginalize them, he muses. Hmnn, what if I write up this "truth" instead of the "official version"? Go along like a good loyal servant and you lose not only your integrity, your voice, your fierce independence. But be true to yourself and what about your favoured court status and fat paycheques that come with it? Worse, what about your head mounted on a pike?

Still, WS decides he will tell a "weighted" or "nuanced" or "two-sided" version of TGP. Some in his troupe think this is a death wish. And then the menacing Cecil apparently gets his hands on a leaked copy of the revisionist script. Garbage, he insists, unworthy of performance before the king. "Write the play!" he thunders repeatedly at the Bard. So back to the drawing board : resist and rebel and you lose your head, quite likely.

Lots to sort through : Cain's script covers a wide range of settings, plots and subplots and characters. He brings in the Bard's acting troupe, a "co-operative venture" whose members own shares. They're a rumbustious lot given to squabbling and nattering. They speak contemporary street lingo when not reciting scripted play lines. The lingo is quick and familiar, e.g. in talking about the first-draft TGP script, one actor complains "It's a four-act build-up to a blow-up that doesn't happen!" to which another replies : "Sounds like my marriage!" Rehearsing, the group starts off with snatches from King Lear, first, then later do the same with some fresh Macbeth Shakespeare had started to pen as escape from the migraine the TGP project was inducing. Ultimately Macbeth becomes the alternate script Shakespeare and his gang present to James over Cecil's vehement opposition. 

Then there's Judith, Shakespeare's daughter, twin to WS's late son Hamnet whose death when the Bard was in his 30's he apparently never got over. To the point he was incapable, it seems, of having even one iota of love left over for Judith. Judith is her dad's intellectual tease, a sad but ironic maiden who does his laundry and surreptitiously critiques his scripts, old and new. 

Finally there are the imprisoned and tortured co-conspirators whom Shakespeare, quite improbably, has been given access to by Cecil to interview before they are hanged, disemboweled, drawn, quartered and their dismembered bodies displayed around the city. [Ahh religion, ahh politics, ahh forgiveness.] 

Layers past point to layers present : These countless layers at play reach from the sublime to wretched ordinary. Religious dissonance and conspiracy. Bard of Avon's jealous and sniping actors. Internal political rivalries and conspiracies. Terrorism. Torture. Bloodlust. 

How to survive? Learn the fine art of equivocation, that's how. When James asks Cecil if torture has been employed on TGP's alleged conspirators, Cecil responds : "We are a country of laws, Majesty." James concludes : "So there is no torture." [One cannot help but hear Kevin Spacey from House of Cards doing Cecil.] Sort of like a B-side version of Bush/Cheney on Saddam Hussein's WMD. Hans Blix couldn't find the WMD stockpile, but those desert water pipes just might be rocket launchers. So Operation Iraqi Freedom is launched. And was a mighty Mission Accomplished to boot, the world was told, scant months later. 

Where oh where does the truth lie? Everywhere. Except in equivocation. That's when truth bobs, weaves and dodges.

The company of actors : Just six actors play nearly a dozen roles in the piece, switching instantly from royalty & confidants to Shakespeare's players as themselves as well as their Lear and Macbeth parts, then flipping to the doomed conspirators and lawyers in the courts and back again. In so doing all of this Cain presents not only an extremely intriguing inside look at how drama was probably put together by WS and his troupe but also paints a tribute to public theatre as a medium -- means for people to discern and process certain human truths that "reality bites" make too hard to digest sometimes. (Cain founded and for seven years was artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company.)

Cast highlights : There is so much acting to simply adore in this performance. Comic scene-stealer Anton Lipovetsky as both troupe actor Richard Sharpe and as King James was impish as the latter and full of impetuous braggadocio as the former. Sheer delight from start to finish. 

Anousha Alamian fair-boggled this viewer's mind with his nanosecond switches in character between Cecil, cast with a deformed leg, and the part of Nate in the troupe -- often in mid-pirouette. 

As "Shagspeare" Bob Frazer turns in a robust and rounded and vigorous and rich WS for sure. Cain is to be praised for presenting such a characterization to bring the "man" alive imaginatively instead of only his writing which is what we historically are limited to.

Upon reflecting and re-reflecting on the night, meanwhile, I come back repeatedly to Gerry Mackay as both the troupe's Richard Burbage and as the accused Catholic co-conspirator Father Henry Garnet. His booming voice, his passion in both roles, his pleading for insight from WS, his teachings on equivocation -- answer a dishonest man's question with truth from your heart, not a "yes" or a "no", answer the question-behind-the-question -- his was just tour de force delivery. Bravo.

Production values : Director Michael Shamata staged and blocked and "business'd" his people imaginatively indeed on the surround mise en scene at the Howard Family Stage whose set by designer Kevin McAllister was simple with its courtly banquet table and leather armchair. Nancy Bryant's costumes were compelling : period pantaloons and collars, kingly ermines, sweaty linens, distressed leathers. Nice!

So, what else? : Playwright Bill Cain's script has been called "overweening", as well as "exhaustive and exhausting". I am inclined to critique it as overambitious; repetitive on theme (the "truth"-vs-"story" comparison again and again); repetitive and a bit trite on dialogue (too many references to "We are all fools, we are all noble. There is no way to run from yourself" and/or "We are all broken in the end"), and, finally, maybe a bit too cute in spots : the Bard laments that the Anglican scheme of Christianity mounted by Henry VIII did away with Purgatory. He misses it because Purgatory is "somewhere for people who won't make Heaven on the first try. You know, sex before marriage, sex outside of marriage, sex everywhere except in marriage."

Still, there are poignant moments of acting and theme development both. In the scene where WS is in prison cradling the tortured and broken conspirator Thomas Wintour (Lipovetsky), who tells him : "The problem (with this country) began when even people like you began calling a killer of his wives a head of church." Instantly my mind generalized and jumped to Israel / Palestine; Iraq; Egypt; Syria; Nigeria. Power politics. Religion. Money. Revenge. Tribalism. Same old same old.

Or take this exchange between Cecil and WS near  play's end :


"Truth is not a game!", Cecil insists.

"Of course truth is a game -- it's the lies that are not a game!" the Bard retorts.


Further on theme. Cain told LA Times interviewer Reed Johnson in November, 2009 that "Shakespeare did very well, very very well. He became a rich man writing for a corrupt government. And I began to wonder about the moral dilemma of that." 

Later in the same interview, pointing to his home and native land, Cain continued : "It struck me very much that the politics of the United States is a position of radical division. And what we are trying to do now, as Shakespeare tries to do in the play, is to write a new soul into the country."

Whether any people or country can "write a new soul" for themselves is the stuff of lifetimes, of generations, of the millennia across the universe. 

Who gonna like : Equivocation -- without a word of a lie... -- is aimed by the playwright to please serious Shakespeare aficionados, not Shakespeare newbies. The breadth and scope of the interwoven motifs and original script dialogue are so complex that probably only those who know WS fairly intimately will derive the full measure of pleasure the cost of a ticket would justify. While the acting, as noted, is indeed superb for the most part, there's a likelihood of intellectual and theatrical vertigo for folks who might be just slightly initiated into Bard lore.

*  *  *  *  *

Equivocation. By Bill Cain. Co-produced with Belfry Theatre, Victoria, BC. In repertory with Cymbeline at the Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park, until September 19.

Production team. Directed by Michael Shamata. Scenery design : Kevin McAllister. Costume design : Nancy Bryant. Lighting design : Alan Brodie. Composer & Sound design : Tobin Stokes. Stage manager : Jennifer Swan. Assistant stage manager : Ben Cheung. Fight director : Nicholas Harrison. Assistant director : Katrina Darychuk.

Cast. Anousha Alamian as Nate / Sir Robert Cecil.  Rachel Cairns as Judith.  Bob Frazer as Shagspeare.  Anton Lipovetskey as Sharpe / King James.  Shawn MacDonald as Armin / Sir Edward Coke.  Gerry Mackay as Richard Burbage / Father Henry Garnet.

-30-



Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Red Rock Diner jives & jams big time!

Here's what it's about : RRD is not a "play" but a rock-&-roll musical revue that by and large is an excellently-executed song-&-dance jive-jam of 50's rock-&-pop. 

Local R-&-R d.j. giant Red Robinson is the hook in this reprise of the 1997 Dean Regan original creation. Robinson is the only d.j. on earth, we're told, to introduce to live audiences over the course of a decade or more each of Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Beatles. He put Vancouver on the rock map long before the largely-unknown backwater of YVR was discovered and bought out. Now you don't learn much about Red in RRD.* Mostly he's a bit of a wise-ass radio personality on CKWX linking together some 20 pop hits and another couple dozen song-snippets on the night. And unlike ACT's Helen Lawrence this spring, you don't learn much about Vancouver from back in the day, either. 

But boy-oh-boy do you get energy and flashdance and great musical chops from RRD's performers as directed and choreographed by Valerie Easton and music'd by Steven Greenfield.

A bit of background on context : As a late WarGen kid growing up in the 50's USA midwest, I thought the music from that era aimed at us generally sucked. Not Sinatra and the Rat Pack group and their carryover of big band 40's sounds. No. But these, the likes of Bobby Vee. Bobby Vinton. Frankie Avalon. Ricky Nelson. Eddie Fisher. Pat Boone. To a person, to me, they were all Wonder Bread white. Hard to categorize any of their stuff as "rock-&-roll" I sniffed at the time.

There were exceptions. Some sourdough & rye with crust, no question. Elvis. And while "Jailhouse Rock" might have been a bit too raunchy and crunchy for us northern Republican Baptists, his cover of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" was choice. [I actually owned a pair of b.s.s. in Grade 8 in '58 along with saddle shoes and penny loafers.] Other notables : The Everly Brothers. Buddy Holly. Richie Valens. The Big Bopper. Bobby Darin. (Little Richard? A whack-o orbiting his own planet, we Milwaukee suburbanites thought.) But at least these people rocked -- and we rolled along joyously with them in the back of Dad's Ford convertible.

Some of the sketchier ballads from that time, i.m.o., included "Little Star" with its obnoxious & maudlin "There you arrrrrrreee,  little starrrrr..."closing line. "Teenager in Love". "Venus" -- "Oh Veeeeenus, make my dreams come true!" [At least to that lyric we body-press'd our girlfriends with their flannel poodle skirts at the weekly sock hop. Hope springs eternal...] But thin, v-e-r-y thin musically, this stuff. To me and my Ford buddies anyway.

No, it wasn't until Roy Orbison's iconic "Crying" and another, "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King in the Kennedy 60's, that ballads for teen-age ears were at last evolving, we hoped, into a wee bit of nuance and substance, away from AM radio's cotton candy we'd been force-fed for years.

Well, whatever I might have thought about that music back then, I can tell you this : RRD turns those three songs I "hated" back in the day and makes them a delight to watch and hear in 2014 as part of pop music's varied history from that time. And it ends, appropriately, with the Roy and Ben numbers to signal the next chapter of rock's emerging identity.

"Action" works in lieu of plot : In its two hours, two acts we first find young DJ Red spinning discs in the CKWX broadcast booth for his 7-Up sponsored Teen Canteen after-school show while the cast of high schoolers jive it up to the tunes he plays. Second act features Red doing a dance and talent show at King Ed High on Grad Night, 1957. 

There is no fleshed-out story-line or narrative arc -- just 12 wizardly antic souls singing and strumming and tooting and dancing their hearts out. 

RRD amounts to a serial review of songs from those times with verbal and visual Vancouver reference points thrown in casually, almost willy-nilly, such as a note about homes selling for $15,000 in Kitsilano that year or call-ins about a Robinson radio prank over whales allegedly beached at English Bay. Billboard ads flash above the set that feature the Vancouver Mounties and White Spot. '57 Fords and Buicks. Trev Deeley Harleys. Texaco Sky Chief Supreme. Doublemint.

To some, the lack of "what-ness" that stage plays usually provide detracts from the evening's success. Not to tonight's crowd, not in the least. There was hollerin' and clappin' and cheerin' and stompin' and laughin' from the cheap seats up top to front row downstage centre and throughout all 20 rows between. The G.I. stage is the perfect venue for this production (just as it was for Regan's excellent Black and Gold Revue a couple decades or more ago that I went to four times...!). 

Cast highlights : This was first rate work by the troupe. But there were three primary standouts : as Johnny B, the Red Rock Diner soda jerk, Colin Sheen for me nearly stole the show single-handedly (double-foot-edly...?) with his dance and choreography and stage business moves. Faster more subtler feet in red sneaks I don't believe I have witnessed on a Vancouver stage in years. And the boy can sing, oh can he sing. His cut at Johnny Ray's "Cry" brought down the house.

Vying with Sheen for top dance moves (and an absolutely wild! hula hoop display) is Anna Kuman as Connie. She makes her crinolines bob-&-bounce and weave-&-warp with breathtaking speed and variety. And she can belt out tunes with gusto as well as croon sweetly with Robyn Wallis as Venus.

Zachary Stevenson is well-known to ACT audiences for his regular redux as Buddy Holly. He transports his signature leg-hop / knee-lift / guitar-banging stretch-out routine to his role here as Val, where he also adds some clever sax riffs to his customary 6-string prowess and big big voice. 

Of the five instrumentalists, clearly Brett Ziegler on sax was the crowd favourite in his hefty but light animation throughout the night. He sings lustily and with good cheer, too. (And does a mean chime.) Overall, leader Steven Greenfield's hand-picked mates earn the kudo of being truly a band, not just accomplished players. 

Production values prominent : Ted Roberts' excellent set of checkerboard flooring, chrome red-stool and diner counter, Ward's Music storefront, and the twin two-storey perches for Red's d.j. booth plus a dress shoppe opposite were clever, as were the warm lighting and timely spots on stage. 

Costume designer Darryl Milot captured to a thread the range of clothes sported back then from over-bright pedal-pushers to Fonzi leathers to Converse canvas. 

Andrew Tugwell's sound design filled every corner of the house with richness and clarity. 

But it is Valerie Easton's blocking, her customary choreographic excellence that captures the zeitgest so perfectly, her stage business such as Johnny B's chrome polishing and counter-cloth routines -- these are what make this revue sparkle in spite of its lite storyline. Her involvement of a dozen of the audience up on stage in Act 2 with the troupe and ensemble was inspired and gleeful goofiness that had the house hooting. [My wife's participation in that schtick was lots of fun for all to watch...!]

Who gonna like : To be exposed to so many snatches and whole cuts of songs from both the ditzy stuff of the 50's as well as its full-on rock songs serves to remind WarGen's and Boomers how far we've traversed from the carefree kick-the-can Howdy Doody 1950's. And as they did tonight, when folks exit to a Granville Island summer evening awash in moonglow and a moment's lingering nostalgia for those happy days of yore, they know why they came. So if "Do the Hucklebuck" and "Chantilly Lace" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Wake Up Little Susie" compel you to shake your booty, this one's for you. 

* In recognition of his early promotion of the emerging phenomenon known as rock-&-roll, Red Robinson was the sole Canadian inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1995 along with a slew of Yanks. 

Regrettably, I think, there's a bit of "brag factor" at work in Dean Regan's scripted lines for Red's character in RRD that detracts from the show just a smidgeon. E.g. to have met and emcee'd the likes of Elvis and Buddy Holly and the Beatles does not make them "friends" except in the most casual or flippant sense of the word possible. Bad descriptor used more than once. But that's a mere quibble aimed at creator Regan more than at the venerable and charming Red Robinson himself who was in the house Monday night. 

As a member of the BC Entertainment Walk of Fame (outside the Orpheum), the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame, and -- my favourite -- the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Red Robinson has a pedigree that is huge and genuine : his contribution to the music and entertainment scene now spans some six decades here in Greater Vancouver. That's a Wow! factor well-earned indeed.


-30-

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Roe's Tempest kicks up a storm of superlatives

Nothing messy here, just glorious : Bard's 2014 production of The Tempest is what she terms a "re-creation" by director Meg Roe of her 2008 version -- one she characterized as achieving a "messy and glorious result". She muses in the program Director's Notes what this outing may have in store : "Am I any closer to the moment of release Prospero encounters? A deserted island contains the perfect recipe for freedom : a few fairies, a couple of tears, guts and a darn good storm. The very thing to send us all into something new. Into ourselves."

Well, Ms. Roe, you definitely sent this viewer into "something new" with this production. Its superlatives will forever rain down on Bard's 25th Anniversary season. Breathtaking. Spellbinding. Visually stunning. Musically charming. The adjectives could crescendo into a symphony. 

Fact is I was a bureaucrat gearing up for an impending province-wide strike most of 2008 and thus didn't see the earlier show. But there is no question Meg Roe's staging of The Tempest in 2014 is as close to perfection as contemporary productions of William Shakespeare can get. You have until September 18 to treat yourself to this rich and sumptuous feast of creativity, imagination and just outright magic that dances across the Bard mainstage for two delicious hours.

Okay, now that I've damned the show with faint praise, lol, let's take a collective breath and stitch together some of the knots that hold this whole cloth together so seamlessly. 

Quicky plot & character review :  An island near Bermuda occupied by three people. The deposed Duke of Milan Prospero, his daughter Miranda plus the unnatural son of a witch, a "savage and deformed slave" named Caliban. Caliban dreams & schemes his master dead. Set adrift in a rowboat a dozen years earlier by his usurper brother Antonio, Prospero and 3-year-old Miranda were expected to perish. They didn't. And now Prospero has divined that the King of Naples Alonso and his court plus Antonio are due to sail by the island where, unbeknownst to them, he and Miranda live. A journeyman sorcerer, Prospero causes the ship to wreck and its inhabitants to be dumped unceremoniously but safely onto his island thanks to the sprite Ariel, his "airy spirit". He wants to rectify the coup de tat and familial grievances he has harboured all these years. Miranda says she's never seen him so belligerent and fierce. During the ensuing actions, King Alonso's son Prince Ferdinand meets Miranda and they fall instantly in love. Will Prospero prevail over the past via pride & punishment -or- find a future for his family through forgiveness ? Yes.

Scholar's cut at it : For his part, Shakespeare expert F. E. Halliday back in 1952 cited The Tempest as a perfect example of WS's "wild, irregular genius". The play is categorized as a "romance" -- not a comedy, not a tragedy, not a tragicomedy -- but something of all three, something more subtle and sublime. Halliday calls Billy Bard a renegade playwright who over the years has inspired whole movements of artists to fight back "against the rule and cult of reason : liberty, variety and emotion set against the restraint, unity and reason" that characterize continental Europe's true believers. To that cross-pond clique, classical conceits were evermore favoured as reflecting their more "cultured" enclaves. Not so much, for them, the rough-cut environs that country-boy Shakespeare brought to life in Elizabethan England much to the delight of his beer-swilling fans. Well, in The Tempest it's gallons of wine that tittle the folks, not beer, but the effect is the same : hilarity; spontaneity; wild dreams and visions; fun-fun-fun in the Vanier sun and creeping dusk. "Liberty, variety and emotion" run rampant in this script.

Production values abound : It's probably not often that choreography, blocking, and actors' stage business get the primary nod for excellence in reviews other than in old Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly stuff. But in Meg Roe's hands through choreographer Rob Kitsos these are the production values that jump out at viewers lit.-&-fig. 

The same stage that I found somewhat wanting a week ago in AMND tonight was transformed by Roe and Kitsos' daring and inventive use of every level, every rounded corner, every square centimetre of the seashell-like set -- up, down, over & around -- plus its myriad steps up-&-downstage, its front pony wall, its centre-stage trapdoor, the auditorium aisle from on high.

The opening shipwreck sequence was as clever and fresh staging as I have ever witnessed. The ship's crew and passengers mime a rolling, roiling, rocking deck about to splinter with just a long thick rope to act as the ship's rail. The footwork reflecting each wave's pitch and toss of the dozen or so bodies behind the rail was superb as was the actors' flapping canvas of a sail, not to mention the "swill sisters" and their omnipresent wine glasses and twirls. 

The choreography never waned or worsened one iota throughout, with Ariel's moves and those of her sister sprites perhaps the most engaging, along with Calaban's simian knuckle-&-knee-dragging, his hops and drops. And of course the sisterly hand-slap twirly dance-gig BFF routine by Stephana and Trincula that one sees teen gals often do got much deserved huzzahs and handclaps each time they pulled it off.

The actors exceeded all expectation : There is not a weak performance in the lot. This is a team of inspired individuals who click spontaneously with each rehearsed move. 

As Prospero, Allan Morgan grows into his part wonderfully as the evening plays on, a bit stiffy at first, more contoured and nuanced as the scenes rolled by. I was confused why his blocking was so stock-still most of the night, until the end. Only when he was "liberated" did he jangle in his walk. Nice touch well executed.

As Miranda his daughter, Lili Beaudoin smit me. Roe had her bounding up and down the stage risers like a typical teen-ager at a party. Her grasp and delivery of WS's always-tricky dialogue was crisp and easy on the ear. She was just charming.

I have to expect that Jennifer Lines as Ariel will get the largest share of kudos because she is note-perfect in every respect. Her breathy, knock-kneed, finger-pointy stabs at creating her fairy persona were altogether compelling and convincing. And man does she have the pipes. Her singing was just stunning.

As anticipated of him each time out, Todd Thomson knows how to deliver WS's dialogue to people more accustomed to t.v. drabble.
As Caliban, Thomson wraps his voice and his passions around each noun, verb and adjective he grabs hold of. And as noted above, his baboonish crawl-walking was consistency of movement that's a sight to behold.

No question Naomi Wright as the dipsomaniac Stephana and Luisa Jojic as sister-swiller Trincula were the comic show-stealers of the night. Oh Roe & Kitsos had fun with them and the actors with their direction & inspiration. Public drunkenness is not really p.c. these days, but they killed all such bias with their inspired antics. Their Shh-hhh-hhh!! scene with Caliban when conspiring to rob and kill Prospero was simply superb. And Trincula's 4-leg bit with Caliban under the blanket was tres clever, dirty and hilarious all at once.

As Miranda's love, Daniel Doheny as Ferdinand was a convincing young buck whom Cupid strikes spot-on with a golden-tipped arrowhead. His swooning over Miranda reminded me of some high school moments that now live fondly where they belong. Great in-the-moment "I'm in love!" acting. 

Solid performances from the whole repertory troupe. But as usual I find myself charmed by Bernard Cuffling, this time out as Gonzalo, counselor to King Alonso. For his part, Alonso (Scott Bellis) was convincing in his grief and kingly sniping at Gonzalo. Sebastian by Andrew McNee and Antonio by Ian Butcher did precisely what Shakespeare wanted them to do -- be their duplicitous and thugly selves. [Regrettably, I overlooked Ian Butcher last week in my AMND review where he was a delightful duplicitous and thugly Oberon.] 

Back to Mr. Cuffling's cut at Gonzalo. Gonzalo is the conscience of the play. He may be a lugubrious ol' communist in his old age, but he's the one who stocked Prospero's exile rowboat with vittles, clothes and the magic and empowering sorcerer's books. It is his tears-in-his-beard speech which Ariel relates touchingly to Prospero that turns Prospero's heart away from vengeance and toward redemption. And as he always does, Mr. Cuffling nails this role. His hug with Prospero at the end was choice.

And now for the support stuff : I could go on for pages about Christine Reimer's costumes. Absolutely stunning, brilliantly colourful, courtly and scruffy both. Prospero's sorcerer's cape of turquoise-green-gold stripes was heavenly, as were Ariel's peacock wings in the diss-Alonso sequence. But the Sprites' costumes and the silly sisters' get-ups stole the night for me.

Scenic designer Pam Johnson teamed with lighting designer Gerald King to populate the bare, tiered set with a great mix of rock outcroppings, reflection pool, and vortex-lighting during the trapdoor sequence that were ace. Classic, the spots on Prospero during his final soliloquies. Really focus'd me on his quiet reflections. The wedding scene that filled the stage north-to-south with textured cloths and fronds and silver confetti was unforgettably rich in sight & feel. And hilarious how a once-again-irritated Prospero had the actors disappear it all in a finger-snap.

Many many viewers at half-time remarked on Alessandro Juliani's original music and sound design. As well they should have. From cacophonic storm shrieks to hints of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sad Songs in parts, nice nice execution by Mark Beaty and his quartet of youthful and talented partners.

Who gonna like : Since mounting BLR 2+ years and some 50 or so plays back I cannot remember a Vancouver performance I have enthused about as much as I do this one. Which is why I have rattled on even more, probably, than I usually do. 

So I will end with what I said at the start : "There is no question Meg Roe's staging of The Tempest in 2014 is as close to perfection as contemporary productions of William Shakespeare can get. You have until September 18 to treat yourself to this rich and sumptuous feast of creativity, imagination and just outright magic that dances across the Bard mainstage for two delicious hours."

-30-