Saturday, 25 March 2017

Valley Song sings of hope & sweet sorrow
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)
Veronica reassures Grandpa Buks that the bright lights of the city are for her. Photo Credit David Cooper
Editor's note : As we are unable to attend this year's mounting, the following is a re-worked version of BLR's February, 2015 review of the play from its original Gateway Theatre production. The principal actors are the same, and most of the production team as well.

Quick background sketch :  In his mid-80's now, playwright Athol Fugard has created some three-dozen stage plays across the decades. He acts. He directs. He writes novels. He's big. He's a white of Boer descent. And he never lets himself stray too far from a self-imposed grip of guilt over that fact. 

From his earliest days script-writing in the 60's he assailed South Africa's colonialism with its nearly five decades of official apartheid . (Interestingly the correct pronunciation of the word speaks to its inherently nefarious purposes : apart-hate.) As well, only 9% of its population are white but control nearly 100% of power, money and wealth. What the late US Christian theologian Marcus Borg termed "the powers that be", Fugard in Afrikaans calls the "groot kokkedorre", the great bigwigs.  

As a result of his impudence and daring, he was under regular surveillance by the Buro vir Staatsveiligheid, the secret police -- the S.A. stasi to whom Western journalists applied the easy acronym of "BOSS" -- and regularly had to produce his plays abroad to avoid detention and imprisonment.

Post-Robben Island : the Mandela years :  Once Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress achieved power in 1994, Fugard stopped writing polemics so much and concentrated more on "personal memoir" type plays. Valley Song fits neatly into that category. Because in it but for a few references to "white" and "master", there are virtually no political out-takes whatever. 

One would hardly know his setting in the Great Karoo from rural Ireland or England or India. Dirt-farmers, peasants, feudal serfs wherever they were stuck were still what and where they always have been : stuck. But some of them at least seem to have developed a love, almost a lust, for the fecundity of Mother Earth despite, or perhaps even because of, their modest circumstances. 

Plot overview : Old -vs- new. Generational conflict. Tradition -vs- progress. Life working dirt -vs- life in the lights. We find Abraam Jonkers, a.k.a. Opa (David Adams), who struggles to keep granddaughter Veronica (Sereana Malani) in his local village and not let her pursue a singing career in Jo'berg, where she desperately wants to go. 

There's a third character. "Author". An artificial but workable interjection of a Fugard alter ego playwright into the script, also played by Adams. When Opa, Adams is stoop-ish and slops a knit tocque on his head and speaks Great Karoo Afrikaans vernacular. When Author, he's military erect and speaks in a crisp private school British mien.

Abraam ("Buks") lost his daughter Caroline twice : first when she ran away from Karoo, and secondly when she died in childbirth bringing Veronica to life. Years back he also lost his wife of 25 years Betty -- whom he talks to "up there" daily. Buks has been raising Veronica on his own since she was a toddler. Buks is proud. He enthuses mightily about his pumpkins and his walnuts and his beetroots and his Sneeuberge arrtappel (potatoes) and his carrots and his onions. To him the re-birth of these earthly fruits each year is a miracle. He worships the Spring rain as if it were holy water.

Veronica is a lyric soul. She sings spontaneously, putting the day's events to song as they happen, and is the joy of Opa's heart. But she has dreams. To be wreathed in shimmering green and trill to adoring crowds instead of taking hand-outs singing pedestrian ditties she's made up to passerby whites in the local town square. 

"I want adoration. I want romance. What is there here for me? I am bored. It's the same old story, nothing happens here," she urges Opa. He flips back "You are talking too fast! I can't understand what you say!" Referring to Mandela's election, Veronica pleads : "Isn't it supposed to be different now?" Opa scoffs : "I don't need other people to give me ideas !" When Opa extols the virtues of dirt and veggies and their earthy nurture as one's proper and fulfilling life work, Veronica explodes : "The ground gives us food but it takes our lives! You plant seeds and I dream dreams!"

Author warns Veronica : "I don't want you to be hurt by your dreams, the 'Big Dream' that doesn't come true. Dreams don't do well in this valley, pumpkins do." 

Production values : As I was unable to view the sets and lighting at this year's Pacific Theatre mount, I cannot comment on them.

 Acting pin-spots :  As Veronica, Sereana Milani peppers her role with quick hand-action and a powerful voice befitting teen-age passion. She is sheer delight to watch and hear. David Adams flips between Opa and Author splendidly, a mix of grandfatherly concern & temper & empathy aside Author's more removed and analytical bearing. While the script yields up mostly predictable lines and conflicts and resolutions, the actors' execution of them is charming.

Who gonna like : Valley Song is a self-conscious and reflective and apparently autobiographical period piece from South Africa in its early post-apartheid moments. One reviewer said it was less play than "tone poem". 

The poignance of Ms. Malani, particularly, was stunning, even if her role was limited in characterization by virtue of the play's central and basically simple conflict of Gramps -vs- me. Acting students who need to see terrific individual scenes of delivery would learn much as they absorb Malani's intensity and body language even in such a predictable part. 

A well-executed performance for sure, this, that will appeal to thoughtful folks wanting some wee insight into the world of South Africa, old and new.

Particulars. Produced by The Gateway Theatre.  At Pacific Theatre, 12th @ Hemlock. Performances March 24-April 8th.  Schedules and tickets contact the Box Office @ 604.731.5518 -or- online @ the Pacific Theatre website.

Production crew. Written by Athol Fugard.  Directed by Gateway Theatre Artistic Director Jovanni Sy.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer Chengyan Boon.  Original Music and Sound Designer Cathy Nosaty.  

Actors :  David Adams.  Sereana Malani.

Songs For a New World haunt & honour our extreme 1st world good fortune
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Cast of SFANW reveals what the new world in Canada looks like in 2017.

From the footlights : First "the new world" of 1492 : Spain puts Columbus to sail and simultaneously expels all its Jews. In Canada and USA, indigenous native original migrants here in settlements from 10,000 years back face disease, war and cultural genocide. Centuries later would come Dvorak's New World symphony. Then Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The fall of the Berlin wall follows, and a mere decade later the so-called Arab Spring. Here we are, now, in yet another "new world order". The expression has indeed had many versions and iterations. And not all of them positive. 

In the hands of musicman Jason Robert Brown, Songs for a New World is a set of some 17 songs + a couple of "transitions" around the theme of change. Change in the sense of cataclysm -- change events after which one faces breathtaking circumstances : a whole new world of needs, demands, challenges for better or for worse.

In announcing SFANW to BLR back in February, Fabulist Theatre co-artistic producer Damon Jang wrote : "SFANW is...a collection of songs strung together by the central theme of life (being) about one moment, taking a step, and hopeful optimism toward a brighter future."

How it's all put together : Normally SFANW is performed by just four actors donning various persona throughout the show. Fabulist Theatre co-founders Mary Littlejohn and Damon Jang, however,  have created a clever "re-imagination" : "We have expanded the cast to 16, ranging in age from 11-62, making it immigrant-focused and reflecting our own diverse cultures and communities here in Canada and the United States. We have even made the only straight love duet between two men."

Fabulist embellishes on the concept : "SFANW is a rare kind of show, neither a musical nor a revue, but a song cycle exploring immigration, war, motherhood, poverty, and the singular moments that transform our lives." 

Four musical predecessors jump immediately to mind : Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel, Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim. Songs of purpose. Songs of protest. Songs of hurt. Songs of reconciliation. That the script is most often produced by college and community theatre groups connects it to other similar favourites such troupes regularly perform like Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat or Annie

What makes his show work : Not having seen a production of SFANW with but four actors playing all the roles, I have nothing to compare. But I can imagine. The choice to expand the cast and flesh out scenes with 11 additional actors and harmonies and costumes and staging was inspired. The choreography or "musical staging" as Damon Jang calls could not help but add visual depth and breadth to a spare, 4-person performance, no question.

Many of the songs highlight military moments. Taken together they are redolent of Buffy Ste. Marie's iconic "Universal Soldier" theme. The other leitmotif, understandably, involved invocations of The Almighty. In the world's most active conflicts today that have direct religious connections, another Canadian songster Danny Michel is brought to mind via his plaintive ironic ballad "If God's on your side / Who's on mine?" 

Tying it all together, Anne Meeson's eye for costumes brought this 20-year-old script into today's world with good visual effect. The projected images shot up on the overhead screen were adroit and ept -- everything from burning teepees in native villages to shots of Syrian refugees en masse to the recent women's protests where they sported pink pussy hats and stars-&-stripe burkas.  

Performance pin-spots : Generally, it is Act II where the musical numbers show off both Mr. Brown's and the cast's talents the best. The two males whose voices stood out the most were Aerhyn Lau and Frankie Cottrell (whose "King of the World" was superb), while Isabella Halladay and Cheryl Mullen were probably the strongest women's songsters. (Mullen's "Surabaya Santa" was some necessary comic relief interjected into the show by Mr. Brown : she was simply delightful as Mrs. Claus bidding ol' Nick good-bye from a lonely marriage.)

The tight PAL stage makes live music a disadvantage, in a way, because it is difficult to mute live instrument accompaniment particularly when limited budget would not permit mic'ing up the actors. That said, I was wholly impressed both with Angus Kellet's musical direction and his piano prowess, while for his part Will Friesen finessed his drum-set well : no irritating woodchopping, nicely subtle stuff.

Who gonna like : The words that sprang to mind watching this show were three : earnest & ingenious & charming. With newcomer talent alongside more seasoned performers -- coupled with the technical drawback of the singers not being mic'd  -- the show presents somewhat unevenly in vocal projection and confidence, particularly. 

The fact of Jason Robert Brown's ear for tuneful songs coupled with good blocking direction and choreography make this a pleasurable outing where Vancouver theatre fans can witness up-&-coming talent as they test out their chops. Not 100% slick & polished & expert, Fabulist Theatre's inaugural production nevertheless holds promise of an exciting future for cast and production team both. 

Particulars :  Produced by Fabulist Theatre [inaugural production]. Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  From March 23-April 1. At PAL Theatre, 8th Floor, 581 Cardero Streeet. Tickets $28 / $24 students & seniors. Tickets available @ Brown Paper Tickets.

Production team :  Directed by Mary Littlejohn and Damon Jang [Fabulist's co-founders].  Musical staging by Damon Jang.  Music Director Angus Kellett.  Stage Manager Jasmin Sandu.  Costume Designer Anne Meeson. 

Performers :  Frankie Cottrell,  Michael Czyz.  Allyson Fournier.  Isabella Halladay.  Maria Herrera. Damon Jang.  Rema Kibayi.  Aerhyn Lau.  Kate MacColl.  Cheryl Mullen.  Arta Negahbah.  Regi Nevada.  Charity Principe.  Shina Likasa.  Arielle Tuliao.  

Addendum #1 :  Jason Robert Brown plopped himself in New York City when he was just 20. He was determined to write Broadway musicals. But of course he had to do the preliminaries. So he took up saloon-singing, just like Billy Joel's iconic piano man. 

In an expansive look at Brown in his book Rebels With Applause : Broadway's Groundbreaking Musicals (1999), musical history explorer Scott Miller tells how Brown got to chatting up a gal who kept coming back time after time to take in his saloon schtick. Her name was Daisy Prince. Who just happened to be the daughter of Broadway director / producer / impressario Hal Prince. Talk about slipping the lines and sailing to a new world!

Ms. Prince helped Brown piece together the show over the course of a few years. Gradually a kind of theme emerged to link old tunes Brown had written with the new ones designed just for the embryonic show. It was first performed off-Broadway in 1995. 

When SFANW was released as a musical album by RCA Masterworks in 1997, the liner notes declared : "It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." Wiki cites a source that describes the play as "an abstract musical, a series of songs all connected by a theme : 'the moment of decision'."

Fabulist Theatre co-artistic producer told Postmedia's Shawn Connor this week : "There's one song called Just One Step that's usually done by a sort of over-the-top older Jewish lady. We had a few options to cast it traditionally. But the best person for the part turned out to be this woman named Charity Principe. She's Canadian with Filipino ancestry. We got to ask, Why can't this character be Filipino. There's no reason. That number in particular is a new way of doing it."

Addendum #2 : Personal reflections. Fifty years ago I became an emigre to this country with my first family : daughter 6 months old, son in the womb to arrive 6 months later. Years later, a second family included a new daughter, adopted from the Republic of Georgia in the ex-Soviet Union. Thus I know intimately on more than one level what a "new world" looks like and how heart-stopping it can be to go there. 

In my Canadian citizenship swearing-in group, meanwhile, there were 82 of us. From 23 (!) countries of birth -- almost one different country for every three seats. Of the 82, there were eight Caucasians, five of them from one family from Denmark. The rest were, to use the expression, "people of colour". At our family \ friend brunch celebrating afterward, among the six of us we discovered : two 2nd generation Canadians. One 1st generation Canadian. Three immigrants. We concluded this is a young and diverse country indeed.

Addendum #3 : Song-list, descriptors supplied by Fabulist Theatre program + Wiki.

Act I

"Opening Sequence: The New World".  The company sings of the evening's central theme: that even when everything seems stable and certain, there is "one moment" that can upend and change anyone's life. Set at various airports, various times.

"On the Deck..." – On the voyage to an undiscovered country on a boat in the Pacific Ocean.

"Just One Step" – Wife climbs out onto the window ledge of her 57th-story apartment in an attempt to get her neglectful husband Murray's attention.

"I'm Not Afraid of Anything" – A young woman reflects on the fears of the people she loves, and comes to realize how they have held her back. Backdrop insurgent-controlled territory, Somalia.

"The River Won't Flow" – The cast swap stories of woe and ill luck, concluding that for some, bad luck is just fate. DTES Vancouver.

"Stars and the Moon" – Recounting the stories of two poor suitors and the rich man she eventually marries, a woman comes to realize what she has sacrificed in exchange for wealth and comfort. A Shaughnessy mansion with a soldier in camou as foil.

"She Cries" – A man describes the power the women seem to have over men.

"The Steam Train" – A teenager from a poor neighborhood in New York boasts of his future as a basketball star. The Bronx, various locations.

Act II

"The World Was Dancing" –  Tells the story of how a young man's father bought, then lost, a store, and how the experience influenced his decision to leave his fiancĂ©e for his gay lover. A party at Princeton University.

"Surabaya-Santa" – In a parody of the Kurt Weil torch song Surabaya Johnny, Mrs. Claus sings a scornful, teutonic kiss-off to her neglectful husband Nick. The North Pole.

"Christmas Lullaby" – A woman reacts with wonder and joy to the discovery of her pregnancy, comparing herself to The Virgin Mary. Lapu Lapu, Philippines.

"King of the World" -- A man demands that he be freed from prison and returned to his rightful place as a leader. A North Dakota prison.

"I'd Give It All for You" – A pair of former lovers reunite after attempting to live without each other. The men meet at an unnamed American airport.

"The Flagmaker, 1775" – Betsy Ross, whose husband and son fight in the Revolutionary War, sews the  flag she designed with anger and a bit of contempt while attempting to keep her hope alive and her house standing.

"Flying Home" – A soldier, who has died in battle, sings as his body is flown home to his mother and he crosses over to another life. Kandahar, Afghanistan. [Canadians killed 2001 - 2009 : 159. Wounded in battle : 615.  Non-battle injuries : 1,244.]

"Final Transition: The New World". A Canadian airport.

"Hear My Song".  The company, as if singing a lullaby to a child, express their hope that they have gained by experiencing hardship and how they have gained strength from each other. A Syrian refugee camp in Greece.


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Burkett's Daisy Theatre is a total slo-mo laff-hoot
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)
Esme Massengill was given the night off ON but will amuse Daisy fans in future shows no doubt.  
Alejandro Santiago photo.
From the footlights :  For the fourth time in recent years, Alberta-born Ronnie Burkett from TO brings his marionettes and puppetry silliness to The Cultch where he riffs off the audience to create hilarious vaudeville with strings & sticks & papier mache & exquisite rags of every thread imaginable.

My careworn 1943 leather Funk & Wagnall's defines vaudeville as "a miscellaneous theatrical entertainment consisting of...a series of short sketches, songs, dances, acrobatic feats, etc. having no dramatic connection." Can't imagine a better sum-up for Daisy.

Burkett's 2015 promotional material referred to him as "the renowned puppeteer provocateur", and that moniker still applies to him and the 40+ marionettes in his kit-bag, a dozen of which he breathes life and hilarity into each show.

How it's all put together : As seen also with the muppetry of Avenue Q, use of these animated dolls helps project and masquerade all the little neuroses that normally are squelched, by way of caution, in our brain's prefrontal cortex. 

But when we let them out for a walk through our thoughts, we do trouble about self-image. About secret lusts & urges & spatters of naughty thoughts. About love and loss and "sickness unto death" , about seeking the light and being liberated from darkness -- the whole dang metaphysical thang. 

Stock characters in Burkett's repertoire include what Urban Dictionary thinks might stand for "esteemed douche", Esme Massengill, pictured above. Regrettably, Esme was given the night off ON. But other favourites like good ol' Edna Rural from Turnip Corners, Alberta once more appeared in her cheap imported Sears housedress. Four new songs, a couple of new characters or old ones revisited -- my favourites being Woody the ventriloquist dummy and Ziggy who sweeps up the stage stardust -- and you have a night  that's rife with glee and empathy. 

As noted last time out, it's Burkett's manic, antic and endlesly mischievous brain that brings all these characters to life, gives them personalities crowds latch onto, makes them as real to big-kid audiences as ol' long-nose Pinocchio was to short-pant kids in grammar schools the world over.

What  makes the 2017 show shine : Constant gay references punctuate the performances and give rise to the characters' names that most often have sexual overtones. And Burkett's dialogues, for their part, are a constant double entendre barrage in that vein. [Not a show recommended for the sub-19 crowd.] But wysiwyg. His presence is without doubt commanding. Eighteen months back the NYT in a review declared "Mr. Burkett is a benevolent god : indelicate, a little poignant and kind of fantastic." Part Garrison Keillor, part Lily Tomlin, part the kids Macaulay Culkin / Anna Chlumsky from a quarter-century back, Burkett's verbal and emotional range is exceptionally broad. 

As well it is his Brobdingnagian girth up on the marionettes' bridge above-stage that makes the Lilliputian puppets under his deft hand so vibrant. One set piece involves the aging songstress Clara Dribbles and her grand piano accompanist Ivor Tinkles. This trip Burkett yanked an unsuspecting chap named Erwin Selak out of the audience to do a topless Tinkles routine which he carried off with genial and indulgent good cheer. This as foil to Burkett's booming verbal rendition, accidental or no, of local favourite Alan Zinyk who recently starred in the Cultch's Elbow Room Cafe

No question it is Burkett's range of the stentorian and boisterous but also his faint and enfeebled voices -- the whole of it rattles and prattles on spontaneously and unceasingly and engagingly for more than an hour-&-a-half -- indeed a tour de force performance that nigh unto exhausted me even if some of the riffs weren't quite as compelling as the 2015 show produced. 

The ever-cuddly-but-melancholy narrator for the night is androgynous Schnitzel, a wispy elfin metamorph with a daisy growing out of its head. The puppets' stage manager, France, challenges her at the show's start with tongue firmly in cheek : "We're here for a couple of weeks, take the bus to Seattle. When you get to the border tell them 'I'm a fairy, I'm an artist' -- what could go wrong?" Later, referring of course to The Satanic Twitter S. of 49, Schnitzel declares : "I'm about to go hang out back stage in the dark with my eyes wide open, that's the way we have to live these days. But don't forget when we're turning out the lights, daisies grow in the dark."

Who gonna like : Compared to the fast-twitch phenomena of video and film and t.v. and Internet images, live theatre is inherently slo-mo by comparison as the review hed suggests. With the added punch of marionettes at-hand, Daisy is an evening's outing that lets the audience bask in irony and witty jibe and just plain funnin'. This is Burkett's 30th Anniversary season -- coincidentally the ON show was played on International Puppetry Day -- and he is breathtaking, lit.-&-fig., with a vigour & wit & irony & play that are quite a marvel to behold.

The last three visits to Vancouver were all sold-out shows, so you better act fast to become yet another convert and devotee. This is a unique and cheeky form of live stage entertainment that honours and propels the dissident and mutinous roots from which it hath so richly grown [see Addendum below].

Particulars :  Created & performed by Ronnie Burkett. At the Cultch Historic Theatre, Vennables at Victoria in EastVan, through April 9th. Run-time between 90-120 minutes depending on how responsive "the dark people" [audience] turn out to be. Intermission? No. And no re-admits if you leave to visit the WC.  Tickets & schedules : Box office phone 604.251.1363 or via The Cultch website.

Production team for the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes : Marionette, Costume & Set Design : Ronnie Burkett.  Music & Lyrics & Sound Design : John Alcorn.  Production Manager & Artistic Associate : Terri Gillis.  Stage Manager : Crystal Salverda  Associate Producer : John Lambert.  Costumes : Kim Crossley.  Puppet Builders Angela Talbot, Gemma James-Smith, Marcus Jamin, Jesse Byiers w/ Gil Garratt & Martin Herbert.  Shoes & Accessories : Robin Fisher and Camellia Koo.  Marionette Controls : Luman Coad.  Majordomos : Robbie Buttinsky & Daisy Padunkles [sic].

N.B. The Daisy Theatre was co-commissioned by the Luminato Festival (Toronto) and the Centre for the Art of Performance at UCLA (Los Angeles). It was produced in association with the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes (Toronto), with development support from the Canada Council for the Arts.  

2015 Addendum redux : Some interesting history around puppetry within the Soviet Union and the Czech Republic is provided by the website which features an essay "History of Radical Puppetry" by visual-&-performing artist K. Ruby whose e-mail handle is "wisefool." 

An edited squib of Ms. Ruby's essay is provided below that identifies the Czech "daisies" hook that Mr. Burkett lends to his production.

Under socialism Lenin had said, art would no longer serve the elite, "the upper 10,000 suffering from boredom and obesity," but the tense of millions of labouring people, "the flower of the country, its strength and future."

The design of mass festivals was not just a phenomenon but also an intentional and orchestrated design of the communist party, who were well aware of the power of visual metaphor. 

Early festivals were dominated by avant-garde artists, the futurists. But in the 20's and 30's "fine artists" were dissuaded and themes were simplified and made representational, carried out by the workers and unions themselves. Throughout the years before World War II, May Day and the Anniversary of the Revolution were events filled with elaborate and highly evocative street art, giant statuary, puppets of the evil imperialists designed to denigrate the bourgeois and celebrate the workers.

Indicative of the contradictions inherent to the Russian Revolutional Spirit, is the evolution of the party's relationship to the puppet character Petrouchka. Petrouchka was an underdog and popular hero, a working class trickster in conflict with authority, much like Punch -- a perfect revolutionary. The Red Petrouchka Collective started in 1927 and dozens of others sprang up in the following years. 

But of course Petrouchka's eternal problems with authority soon led the Soviet state to suppress the anarchic and rebellious Petrouchka in favour of a more benign version of the character, suitable only for children -- a parallel to the watering down of puppetry in the west for purposes of education and advertising.

Undisputed leaders of puppetry in Europe, the Czech puppeteers also had a tradition of radical puppetry. When the Czech language was banned by the Austrian Hungarian empire in the 19th century, puppeteers continued to perform in the Czech language as an act of defiance. 

During Nazi occupation, Czech puppeteers organized illegal underground performances in homes and basements with anti-fascist themes, called "daisies". Karel Capek, who wrote the famous anti-technology play RUR and coined the word robot, wrote anti-fascist prose pieces for the puppeteers. 

Josef Skupa, a famous popular puppeteer known for his leading character Spejbl, did wartime tours of adult puppet plays with subtle allegorical points imperceptible to the censor. In the concentration camps, Czech women made puppet shows from scraps of nothing to keep up their morale. Eventually the Nazis suppressed all Czech puppetry and over 100 skilled puppeteers died under torture in the camps.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

12th Night by WGT seniors funs up the Bard
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)
Ageless comic Bernard Cuffling plays co-conspirator Sir Andrew Aguecheek bibulously.
Javier Sotres photo
From the footlights :  Many critics and academics have fussed too hard over the centuries to make too much out of Shakespeare's risible Twelfth Night. All Billy Bard was trying to do was give the clever patrons and the cheap-seat rabble at The Globe lots of shenanigans to tittle-&-guffaw at.

12th Night is like a St. Paddy's Day party on speed -- scads of goofy people playing games in outfits-&-frocks sewn not just of thread but silly costumes of thought and deed as well.

Mistaken identities, disguises, gender-swaps, romantic fantasies, cozening capers, songs, drunk scenes, gay sashaying, omg what a swill of good cheer!

Indeed, the servant Fabian captures Shakespeare's intent in the ironic summative observation : "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."

Quicky take on BB's plot : Middle-age Duke Orsino of Illyria (Terence Kelly) is lovesick over 20-something Countess Lady Olivia (Annable Kershaw). His footman is actually a woman, Viola (Eileen Barrett) who is masquerading in men's get-up using the alt-name "Cesario". Fake Cesario (i.e. real Viola) is smitten by the Duke's charms. But the Duke orders that s/he plead to Olivia his hots over her. "Cesario" does so so engagingly in drag that Olivia falls utterly arse-over-teakettle in love with "him", forget the pesky annoying Duke.

This initial act of cross-dressing sets in motion all of the play's hijinks. Admits Viola ("Cesario") to herself : "Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness, Wherein the pregnant enemy does much."

Meanwhile Olivia's calculating steward Malvolio (Steve James) has sweaty-palmed dreams of becoming Olivia's husband and thus instantly nouveau riche. Olivia's waiting woman Maria (Marlee Walchuk), however, despises him. She conspires with Olivia's dipsomaniac uncle Sir Toby Belch (Dave Campbell) and his accomplice Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Bernard Cuffling) to pull off some serious knackery & skullduggery against Malvolio. Along the way mischievously aided-&-abetted by sous-servant Fabian (David C. Jones). And not for a second to discount Olivia's servant / clown / wise fool Feste (Vince Metcalfe) who the entire night threads all the script's silliness together with his giddy mischief.

Malvolio falls for their mad scheme, makes a complete donkey of himself to Olivia who for his antics is promptly sentenced to the dreaded dungeon deep downstairs.

All along thought drowned-at-sea, Viola's twin brother Sebastian (Hrothgar Mathews) magically appears at show's end, so all the swooners wind up bedding their desired mates. Except poor ol' Malvolio : he's sprung from prison with only his wounded pride in-hand.

What the show brings to the stage : Most of us Vancouverites get our power-shots of Shakespeare, obviously, through the perennial wonderment that Vanier Park's Bard on the Beach circus tents produce.

In the diminutive horseshoe or "thrust stage" of the 1,500 square foot PAL black box theatre -- max. seating for 150 souls -- Western Gold Theatre's production of 12th Night takes on whole new dimensions, lit.-&-fig., being transacted so up-close-&-personal, almost in your lap. 

The performance is, technically, a staged reading preceded by only four (4!) days of hands-on rehearsal time for the actors. Except for Countess Olivia's fanciful dress and that of Maria her woman in waiting, costuming is functional / symbolic. The Glenn MacDonald set is spare and suggestive -- conceived and contrived in a day, he told me proudly -- but altogether effective in its simplicity and exploitation by the cast, particularly the garden benches. What of necessity at the end of the day must produce the show's spunk are three qualities primarily : casting choices; blocking; dialogue timing. In four words WGT's accomplishment is nothing shy of Nearly incandescent, breathtaking hilarity ! 

Production values that shine : Full disclosure : WGT's Artistic Director Anna Hagan and I have been theatre friends for more than 40 years going back to White Rock summer repertory in the 70's. So I am never 100% unjaundiced as I gaze upon her work. But on all three counts -- casting choices, blocking & dialogue timing -- as director of this show she has positively outdone any previous work she has produced at PAL.

The eleven cast are too numerous to hi-lite even in a typically long-winded BLR review. But suffice to say what Hagan accomplished most of all, to this eye and ear, was evincing the sheer comic glitter and twinkle that Billy Bard intended. The central, not supporting, roles played by Belch & Aguecheek & Feste & Maria & Fabian brought out a luminosity and lustre and acuteness from this BB script never enjoyed before quite so dramatically, pun intended, by this critic. 

Acting pin-spots : As oft-noted in previous BLR reviews, there's probably not a single line uttered on stage -- ever -- by Bernard Cuffling that I don't simply find myself in stitches over. Twinned with Dave Campbell as Belch and Marlee Walchuk as Maria -- who act as foils for the singularly jocund and witty Vince Metcalfe as Feste -- there is mirth and comic good cheer enough to counter Feste's final show-closing song that is so so so Vancouver : "When that I was and a little tiny boy / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain / A foolish thing was but a toy / For the rain it raineth every day."

Two other particularly notable casting selections and performances by Steve James as Malvolio (from the Latin : "bad noises") and Annabel Kershaw as Countess Olivia. But strong stuff from each and every one on stage this night, no question. An admitted non-Shakespeare aficionado, my buddy Tony allowed as how he was utterly engaged & amused & charmed by WGT's production.

Who gonna like : As noted elsewhere, regular Shakespeare fans of course will find this WGT script-in-hand rendering a hoot. [I remarked to the four women fans front-row stage left that they were almost as much a giggle to watch in their enjoyment and clapping and sing-along with Feste as the show itself...].

Go have fun! at all these antics which are made even more hilarious by the fact that it is septuagenarians who gamely let their acting jones and their theatrical hormones flow freely and emphatically here.  

It bears repeating : breathtaking hilarity that is nearly incandescent !

Particulars : A staged reading in Western Gold Theatre's Studio Series.  At PAL Theatre, 581 Cardero Street.  From March 10-19, 12 shows Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Thursday, Saturday & Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets via WGT website -or- through the ticket agency on-line Brown Paper Tickets or by phone to box office @ 604.363.5734.

Production team :  Director  Anna Hagan.  Set Designer Glenn MacDonald.  Sound TaV / Chris Allan.  Stage Manager Tanya Mathivanan.  Assistant Stage Manager Samantha Pawliuk.  Photographer Javier Sotres.

Performers :  Eileen Barrett (Viola / Cesario).  Paul Batten (Antonio).  Dave Campbell (Sir Toby Belch).  Bernard Cuffling (Sir Andrew Aguecheek).  Steve James (Malvolio).  David C. Jones (Valentine / Fabian / Captain Officer / Priest). Terence Kelly (Duke Orsino).  Annabel Kershaw (Countess Olivia).  Hrothgar Mathews (Sebastian).  Vince Metcalfe (Feste).  Marlee Walchuk (Maria). 


Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Pipeline Project entertains about Big Oil
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : In what was clearly a clairvoyant moment, Canadian environmentalist Naomi Klein in her 2014 book This Changes Everything made the following observation : "The environmental crisis -- if conceived sufficiently broadly -- neither trumps [sic] nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes : it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency."

Since then -- as ITSAZOO Productions' The Pipeline Project points out so compellingly -- North America has discovered how profound the expression Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose is. In USA that country's frosh president smugly issued an executive order to approve the Keystone pipeline that predecessor Obama during his dying days in office had just vetoed. In Canada our prime minister Trudeau-fils approved the proposed $7.4 billion Kinder-Morgan twinning project that stretches from Edmonton to Burred Inlet. Video clips of those two announcements kick off this show and literally set the stage for the balance of the play.

How it's all put together : Gateway's Studio B black box room is set in theatre-in-the-round for the play. The TPP script was derived from research reporting on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline previously done by Vancouver Observer. VO's reports were then compiled & extracted into the eponymous book Extract

Three writer/actors conspired over three years on the TPP script : ITSZAOO's co-artistic producer Sebastien Archibald, N'lakap'amux native Kevin Loring, and Musqueam native Quelemia Sparrow. Their goal, the program notes tell us, was to write "A provocative and comedic foray into a firestorm of debate."

Under the capable and insightful direction of Chelsea Haberlin and John Cooper, the troupe delivers cleverly and crisply. Polemic is the word that best describes TPP. The writers take to heart the bumper sticker quote wrongly attributed to Gandhi : "Be the change you want to see in the world." 

Playing themselves, Loring and Sparrow form a tag-team to challenge Archibald to somehow overcome his place at the pinnacle of an imagined world pyramid. This hilarious graphic projected above the stage shows that on top are White Men. Immediately below is a stratum of "Other First World Assholes". Followed by "Everybody Else", who reside just above "Developing Nations / Dictatorships". As Archibald wryly notes : "First there was David Suzuki guilt. Then came Al Gore guilt. Now I suffer from first nations guilt!"

What the script brings to the stage : Indeed it is the Canadian native community aspect of TPP that provides much of the show's punch. Albeit themselves first immigrants to Canada starting some 10,000 years ago, the country's 633 identified aboriginal communities continue to challenge Ottawa to respect their centuries-old connection to the land, rivers, sky and oceans. "Canada doesn't exist. It's an assertion made in 1867. We still haven't signed off on it," Sparrow contends without a trace of irony. No flinch from her when goaded by Archibald about the origin of her BC driver's license, Canadian passport and Musqueam status Indian card.

A sub-set leitmotif is not explored in any depth but is an important aspect of TPP too -- particularly in light of the currrent controversy surrounding acclaimed author Joseph Boyden. It involves what is known as "blood quantum". Boyden relies on family oral history to assert Ojibwe/Nepmuc ancestry. No written record exists to support his avowel, unfortunately. Meanwhile for his part, Loring's father was a white truck driver, his mother native. Sparrow's mom is of Scottish, Irish, English roots, her dad native. (Barrack Obama is called "black" though he really is only 1/2 black : Mama Obama, using son's words, was "white as cow's milk" and originally from UK roots --it's just that his dad's Kenyan DNA gave him his skin.) 

So how to reconcile all these various forces at play here in the context of Big Oil, that is what TPP sets out to do, and does so wittily and engagingly.

Production values that add to the show :  TPP is cleverly blocked and staged and visually struck. Giant oil spurt graphics form screens north and south above the stage. On them the countless projections are shot that graphically underscore the show's scrappy and pugnacious points about how we are killing off Earth. Important notable Supreme Court decisions from the Gitskan We'Suwet'En aboriginal title ruling to the more recent oral history support in the Ts'ilqhot'in case; shots of Standing Rock Sioux opposed to Keystone in North Dakota; native presenters at National Energy Board hearings showing aerial evidence of how tar sands development have destroyed vast sections of the Athabasca Delta in Alberta. 

The actors engage audience members from moment one. Ironically, Archibald pointed to me and suggested, with a wink, that I might be a White Guy who would pay women far less than I would a man to do the same work. (Ironic indeed because in 1981 I negotiated "equal pay for work of equal value" provisions so school secretaries would get the same hourly rate as the janitors who sweep around their desks.) When not nudge-nudge, wink-winking with the audience, the actors do the same with one another to tease out further aspects of the ongoing oil imbroglio.

ITSAZOO identifies four key mission values : Immersion. Risk, Fun. Community. In part they achieve this by having the second "act" of the show become a town hall meeting headed up by an environmentalist speaker interviewed by Ms. Haberlin followed by inputs from the audience. In polemic theatre this is not just intriguing but almost necessary stuff to tailgate on the messaging of their earlier performance.

Who gonna like : We all depend on oil. No question. But as the recent Trudeau & Trump decisions display, the need for the world to transition from non-renewable hydrocarbon reliance to WWS (wind, water, solar) sources instead remains a constant challenge. Tax advantages both corporately and personally would go far here.

Little did the writers know how timely their dramatization of Extract would turn out to be in 2017. For insights into how major the consequences are in this debate, The Pipeline Project opens doors of perception. 

The show just might make you wonder whether this country's reliance on resource extraction -- coupled with its C- rating worldwide as a marketplace innovator -- mean Canada underneath its "kinder, gentler" facade is really just a cultural & capitalist dinosaur on an ineluctable slide toward extinction. Or not.

But also, importantly, to have some theatrical fun + visual and audial delight along the way.

Particulars : Written by Sebastien Archibald, Kevin Loring and Quelemia Sparrow. Produced by ITSAZOO Productions and Savage Society in association with Gateway Theatre and Neworld Theatre. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin with John Cooper.  On through March 18, Studio B, Gateway Theatre, Richmond. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission and "Talk Forward" 2nd act. Tickets and schedule information by phone at 604.270.1812 or via

Production team :  Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Associate Director John Cooper.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting & Projection Designer Conor Moore.  Sound Designer Troy Slocum.  Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty.  Stage Manager Lois Dawson.  Puppeteer Coach Shizuka Kai.  Technical Director Joel Grinke.

Peformers : Sebastien Archibald.  Kevin Loring.  Quelemia Sparrow.