Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Avenue Q re-mount milks script for mirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Educating Rita tells a touching tale of yore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Feisty and fulsome fare = ACT's Blue Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

4000 Miles probes matters of the heart

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

Script overview : 4000 Miles puts me to mind of T.S. Eliot's 1917 assessment of  the human condition in his Essay on Hamlet

"...[T]he ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. [He] falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet, these are always forming new wholes."

Life, for most of us, is a series of rather mundane day-to-day activities punctuated by the odd "significant event" : a DUI conviction; loss of our job; cataclysmic illness; the suicide of a loved one, those sorts of events.

4000 Miles is not, in Eliot's lens, "poetry" by a long shot. But it does succeed in sparking our interest in two of its four characters. A 91-year-old ex-Communist fellow traveler and her 21-year-old wide-eyed ingenue of a grandson who's cycled to Greenwich Village from Seattle. He shows up unannounced at Granny's at 3 a.m. His biking companion is absent, somewhat spookily. Mom Jane is mad at him -- he's been incommunicado since Minneapolis, no cell-phone, thanks, I'm a greenie. Girl friend Bec in Manhattan is aloof and distant and spinning toward break-off. 

Mundane? Absolutely. Still, one hopes the play will explore "the gap" -- that wondrous space where truth lies between the words, between the generations, between the neediness of a newby adult and the wise perspectives of the wizen'd family matriarch who mentors him.

On surface, this is cliche stuff for sure. No "forming new wholes" here, rather a stereotypical Jewish bubbeh playing off her neurotic and spoilt grandson, and he her. But as both Lao Tzu and musician John Cage have taught us, maybe we'll learn from the silences that give notes their meaning, or the dark that reveals the purpose of the moon as Tom Robbins mused. Perhaps this will be a play that lacks dramatic arc but compensates for it in some Pinter-esque scenes of commonplace jabber set off by sighs and pregnant silences. 

Caveat emptor : Perhaps, I suggested. Well, it turns out not so much. While very capably directed by Vancouver favourite Roy Surette, this 2011 script by Yale MFA grad Amy Herzog is a two-person character study. No sense mincing words. As grandma Vera (Latin root : truth), Vancouver stage maven Nicky Cavendish has laser-perfect comic timing. 

Famous across the land for her Shirley Valentine and It's Snowing on Saltspring pedigree, Cavendish is reason alone to head to the Stanley Theatre just to watch her bust her chops on this role, far and away Herzog's most capable character in the piece (based, she freely admits, on her own bubbeh).

Grandson Leo (Nathan Barrett) commands the majority of lines, perhaps, but as a character his is nearly 100% a caricature of a person instead due to Herzog's depiction. While one might have expected a charming "growing up / growing old" dynamism to unfold, instead we get an extremely capable and competent and engaging Nathan Barrett playing out a neo-hippy role that is one-dimensional throughout : a 21-year-old narcissist who is not only self-absorbed, he utterly lacks insight; a rationalizer; a blamer; an "I'm the way I am because of..." other people who annoy me, events I think control and offend me, anything but because "I choose to be this way because I'm an out-&-out schlub". 

E.g. this is a schlub whose cycling partner and long-time friend Micah gets killed in Kansas and Leo doesn't even bother to make it to his funeral in Minnesota. He cycles on, in his own space lit.& fig. A brother of an adopted Chinese sister, Lilly, he has serious sexual urgings toward her that he acted on while under peyote's grasp but later dismisses. She's a sister, sure but she doesn't share my DNA markings so I'm free to wonder during a curious Skype moment with her why she might be in therapy over my lust for her. A night club hustler who brings home a Chinese party-girl because she reminds him of his sister. This Leo is no lion. Er is kein mensch is how it might be said in Yiddish. And he's pretty well 98% cub, still, by play's end.

Don't get scared off !  Now if all this sounds like advocacy to not go see 4000 Milesthat is far from my intent. The Herzog script is rich in its depiction of Vera who sports a host of delicious idiosyncracies : she's at war with her neighbour Ginny but they call each other nightly to check in; she believes in community, but forgives men and their flawed role in it "because men do things out of stupidity more than anything else, not maliciousness"; she loves grandson Leo desperately even as she chides him : "You should listen to yourself because you really sound very stupid, you really do!" Cavendish commands the stage with every pat of Leo's laundry, every tap of her barefoot toes, every kick at some bag or shoe carelessly left in her way by the millennials underfoot. Watching her work is a seminar in classic character immersion and you can't help but love her and want to take her home.

Meanwhile go see Leo to provide yourself a check-list of nearly every quality you don't want your children or grandchildren to wind up with. Because still it is a clever schtick of all those "qualities" that Mr. Barrett delivers, after a shaky opening scene, with wonderful control : he leaps and pirhouettes and hand-flutters and races about and cross-legs himself on Granny's couch or floor with utter and convincing buy-in. To come away disliking this persona as much as I did speaks volumes of the character's (possibly unintended) success.

Other production values :  Set and costume designer Barbra Matis deserves well-earned kudos for her dress-up of granny Vera -- straight from Jones Tent & Awning. Her set is redolent of mothballs and mold -- befitting a 1960's rent-controlled NYC apartment -- replete with crocheted patchwork afghan, worn velvet rocker and ottoman, pedestal dining table and great wall phone with a 5-meter springy cord.

Lighting designer Conor Moore provides terrific illumination, spot-on "pensioner" 40-watt table lamps plus back-lit floor-to-ceiling curtain'd windows.

My only kvetch with sound designer Peter Cerone is his choice of an up-tempo and chirpy version of Bob Dylan doing Like A Rolling Stone to open the show, rather than the more edgy existential original. He should have taken the recording from a scratchy vinyl version off the landmark "Highway 61 Re-Visited" album i.m.o. Fun to hear all those other "commie" cuts from back-in-the-day, though.

One directorial glitch : Not only in Roy Surette's direction here, but in a majority of main-stage productions in Vancouver I discern a tendency on the part of directors / actors to put undue emphasis on swear words. Not sure why. Here's a generic example : if in irritation a character's scripted line is "Would you just get the fuck out of my face ferchrissakes?", it likely as not will come out as "Would you just get the fuck out of my face ferchrissakes?" Except for Ms. Cavendish, actors Barrett (Leo), Ella Simon (Bec) and Agnes Tong (Amanda) are each guilty of this minor syntactical niggle. Please. Let the ear render speech as it's sung on the street, folks. 

Who gonna like :  My 21-year-old daughter who joined me loved Nicky Cavendish because she reminded her of her own late Nana who was also 70 years her senior, same as Vera and Leo. And she didn't "like" Leo much, but she thought his acting was first-rate. The majority of seniors in the crowd hooted and clapped and cheered at all the comic Vera lines and clearly marvel'd at the Cavendish performance. Lots of standing-o folks at the end. 


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!


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 !