Wednesday, 20 May 2015

God and The Indian powerful, forceful & sad

Background update : Since last I saw Drew Hayden Taylor's God and the Indian at the Firehall Arts Centre (April, 2013) I have read Thomas King's utterly accessible personal research project about aboriginal folk in North America. The Inconvenient Indian reads like a "letter to whitey" about what life has been like for native cultures both N. & S. of 49 for the past 500 years. King, a descendent of the Central Valley native communities of the Maidu and Yokhut tribes near Sacramento, subtitles his book "A Curious Account of Native People in North America".

As well, I have done touch-&-go peeks at various chapters of the acclaimed novel The Orenda by Joseph Boyden that tells a violent tale from early 17th century aboriginal history in three 1st-person perspectives : a kidnapped Iroquois young woman, her Huron warrior captor and wannabe adoptive father, and a French Catholic priest sent to outposts near the Hudson's Bay region of North America expressly to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity, or die trying.

King cites the 1963 federally-commissioned investigation by UBC anthropologist Harry B. Hawthorn into the conditions faced in the mid-20th century by Canadian Indians (a term King champions for convenience sake over the Canadian preferred idiom "First Nations" and its USA counterpart "Native Americans"). In his report to the Liberal Government, Prof. Hawthorn's primary conclusion was that the difficulty facing Canadian Indians was their unsuccessful assimilation into the dominant Euro-Christian capitalist society that governs this country (sic). He blamed residential schools as a primary contributor to Indians' exclusion from mainstream Canadian life.

Redux info on Mr. Taylor's play :  The plot is simple. Rev. George King, an Anglican priest, has been promoted to Assistant Bishop in an urban diocese. The morning after the party celebrating his annunciation he stops at Timmy Ho's for a cuppajava. There he is spotted by a native panhandler and sex trade worker colloquially known as "Johnny Indian" who follows him back to his office. She confronts King and accuses him of being the teacher from St. Mark's Residential School who forced her to perform fellatio and raped her, repeatedly, when she was just 12. And then stroked her hair because it was so soft and beautiful....

Set in the year 2000, the play proceeds in the manner of an intervention, a kind of informal inquisition : Johnny (Lisa C. Ravensbergen) demands that King (Thomas Hauff) confess to the crimes she accuses him of. The dialogue flips back-&-forth between the two. King rhymes off institutional cant and stock denials of any personal complicity or guilt during his time at St. Mark's.

King : "I know it's in vogue to sue the Church for all sorts of wrongful actions, but there has to be some basis of truth and evidence involved. We're not handing out blank cheques or apologies to whoever walks in the door." Johnny : "I don't want any money. Or an apology. No -- acknowledgement -- that I'm me. Me! I'm Sammy's sister. I am my parents' child. I don't what to be a ghost anymore. I want to exist. To be seen. To be noticed. To be acknowledged. By you, and what you've done." King : "I'm afraid I can't do that."

To encourage a more complicit response from King, Johnny pulls a gun from her purse and whips it about violently. For the balance of the play we see Johnny agonize whether to commit suicide with the pistol and its one bullet she claims is left in its chamber, or to kill King. She agonizes : "There's nothing for me here!" No release, no peace either by suicide or assassination. 

A note from the Director : Indian is directed by Renae Morriseau, herself of native stock, who in 2013 said the play "...takes us on a journey of layered meaning where compassion, reconciliation and the boundaries placed upon forgiveness are explored and developed." In this year's notes she states : "Civilizing Aboriginal children through church doctrine didn't work. Teaching them English through incarcerated ideals broke spirits." 

Appropriately, in just 10 days the next episode in the story of Canada's First Nations Truth and Reconciliation Commission will commence in Ottawa (May 31-June 3) with a Reconciliation Walk and other commemorative activities. The Commission's work in large measure explored how the mandate of residential schools throughout their 140 year history -- the last school didn't close its doors until 1986 in B.C., 1996 nationally -- was to "save the child by killing the Indian".

For his part, Thomas King in The Inconvenient Indian tots up the damage of residential schools to their students : "Canada reckons their [residential school] numbers at about 150,000, so the tally for America would have been considerably higher. But for the children who did find themselves there, the schools were, in all ways, a death trap. Children were stripped of their cultures and their languages. Up to 50 percent of them lost their lives to disease, malnutrition, neglect and abuse -- 50 percent.~ One in two. If residential schools had been a virulent disease, they wold have been in the same category as smallpox and Ebola. By contrast, the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed millions worldwide, had a mortality rate of only 10 to 20 percent." [~Editor's note : This percentage is disputed. The TRC estimate based on current known records is approx. 4,000 student deaths, or 2.67%.]

King has noted the direct result of life in residential schools to its children. Extrapolation expands what the collateral damage has been. At approximately 20 years per generation, that is fully seven generations of Canadian Indians since 1850 who lost first-hand knowledge of what family life in villages "should" be like. How normal mother / father / sister / brother relationships might work on a day-to-day basis. What "community" looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes like when based on an organic homegrown ethos and culture flowing from self-government and self-determination (such as recently achieved by Tsawwassen First Nation just down the road from where I live). 



Production values repeat : As noted two years ago, the set and lighting design by Lauchlin Johnson are very effective for the intimate Firehall stage : Assistant Bishop King's office with backlit projections of a stark residential school bed awaiting innocent sleep that will not happen; large first-growth birch trees; an outsize King James Bible; crates of oranges (used to tempt the children to comply with the priests' demands for sexual favours). 


Costumes designed by Alex Danard capture well the disconnect between the "man of God" from the church hierarchy -vs- the "woman of spirit" who lives off the street. 

The soundscape of Morriseau and Marcos Amaya-Torres is a clever blend of hymnal backchords set to native tom-tom beats, ghostly whispers of the dead, plus the contrast of innocent children squealing in playtime delight and escape.

Character kudos : The 2015 production brings to the stage two remarkable talents in Ravensbergen (Johnny) and Hauff (King). Their engagement and embracement of their roles was chilling, amusing and profoundly sad all at once. 

Johnny's crook-finger j'accuse! point-point-point at the litho of Jesus and the children and then rat-a-tat-tat back repeatedly at Rev. King was as compelling as her crippled leg, wounded hobble and fractured soul.

Hauff's staccato ejaculative bursts of dialogue were painful and pathetic, e.g. "I am not a monster!" he insists, such lines punctuated by regular face-scratching, eye-squints and hands clasped in mock-confessional arrogant pleas for Johnny's absolution.

Tears literally came to my eyes from the exchange when he reads the Anglican litany of apology to First Nations from 1993 : "We failed you, we failed ourselves, we failed God!" he protests. To which Johnny responds plaintively : "Those are words read wonderfully for the news, but I was there...!" Words don't heal actions. 

Who gonna like : God and the Indian is just one lens on the myriad unresolved issues between Canada's first peoples and the dominant Euro-capitalist society that imposed itself on their aboriginal world, violent and desperate though it, too, may have been on its own, pre-contact.

The play, staged in the midst of Vancouver's DTES with its ongoing history of missing murdered native women, is powerful and forceful and persuasive on a visceral level how much human damage can be inflicted over the centuries that is only just now being admitted to and apologized for, for whatever that might be worth.*

*Background note #1 : 
"Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, 'to kill the Indian in the child.' Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country."
 -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper, official Government of Canada apology, June 11, 2008  

Background note #2 :  From University of Manitoba prĂ©cis highlighting its Leah Carritt Collection on the Brandon Indian Residential School (1936) :


The Canadian parliament administrated the enculturation of Indigenous peoples across Canada with compulsory attendance for children aged 6 to 15 and Christian based curriculum which forbade traditional knowledge and languages. This process of enculturation has been largely referred to as “Killing the Indian, saving the child”. Due to major under-funding from churches and the federal government, the upkeep and subsistence of the residential school depended on the forced labor of students. The compulsory residential school system lasted until 1948 and official closings of residential schools occurred into the 1990s. Residential schools varied in their corporal treatment towards the students, which has culminated in mixed emotions about individual experiences, though overwhelmingly the residential school program has been condemned by Indigenous people and regretted by portions of the Canadian government. The first official state apology to Indigenous peoples over the abuses incurred at residential schools was made in 1998, followed by an open inquiry into individual and community experience through a Truth and Reconciliation program beginning in 2006.

Background note #3 : From the University of British Columbia's Indigenous Foundation website :


The residential school system is viewed by much of the Canadian public as part of a distant past, disassociated from today’s events. In many ways, this is a misconception. The last residential school [in BC] did not close its doors until 1986. Many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of today’s Aboriginal communities are residential school survivors. There is, in addition, an intergenerational effect: many descendents of residential school survivors share the same burdens as their ancestors even if they did not attend the schools themselves. These include transmitted personal trauma and compromised family systems, as well as the loss in Aboriginal communities of language, culture, and the teaching of tradition from one generation to another.

According to the Manitoba Justice Institute, residential schools laid the foundation for the epidemic we see today of domestic abuse and violence against Aboriginal women and children. Generations of children have grown up without a nurturing family life. As adults, many of them lack adequate parenting skills and, have only experienced abuse, in turn abuse their children and family members. This high incidence of domestic violence among Aboriginal families results in many broken homes, perpetuation the cycle of abuse and dysfunction over generations.


Many observers have argued that the sense of worthlessness that was instilled in students by the residential school system contributed to extremely low self-esteem. This has manifested itself in self-abuse, resulting in high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide. Among First Nations people aged 10 to 44, suicide and self-inflicted injury is the number one cause of death, responsible for almost 40 percent of mortalities. First Nations women attempt suicide eight times more often than other Canadian women, and First Nations men attempt suicide five times more often than other Canadian men. Some communities experience what have been called suicide epidemics.



Note on the playwright : Drew Hayden Taylor billboards himself as "the blue-eyed Ojibway". Originally from Curve Lake First Nations in central Ontario decades back, Taylor considers humour his primary metier as playwright, essayist and speaker promoting aboriginal issues and causes. Asked at Opening Night in 2013 by this reviewer why he deviated from his usual humour to write God and the Indian, he replied : "As a challenge. A friend asked whether I had it in me to write something serious, so I decided to tackle the most serious subject involving Canadian aboriginal people that I could think of. Residential schools. That's it." 

Particulars :  A Firehall Arts Centre production in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts. 80 minutes' duration, no intermission. On through May 30th at the Centre on the corner of East Cordova and Gore. Tickets and schedules via firehallartscentre.ca or by phoning 604.689.0926.

Production crew :  Written by Drew Hayden Taylor.  Directed by Renae Morriseau.  Set & Lighting Design by Lauchlin Johnson.  Costume Design by Alex Danard.  Stage Managers Emma Hammond and Jillian Perry.  Assistant Stage Manager Victoria Ip.  Sound by Renae Morriseau & Marcos Amaya-Torres. Native Earth Performing Arts Artistic Director Ryan Cunningham. 

Performers :  Thomas Hauff.  Lisa C. Ravensbergen.

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Thursday, 14 May 2015

J. Caesar rips with venom & scheming & betrayal

Backdrop considerations : Perhaps some personal bias springs from all the hype about the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the next, and first woman, U.S. President. Filtered for me through Helen Mirren's absolutely spell-binding interpretation of Elizabeth I in the British 4-hour mini-series from 2005 I watched last night. (An even more powerful interpretation than Glenda Jackson's superb 1972 rendition of Bess for Oz public television.) Coupled with the fact of five strong women who so impacted my life growing up, from a suffragette grandmother who was 50 before women got the vote in 1920 through my Phi Beta Kappa mother and my older sisters who are feminist intellects. Not to forget other modern women powerhouses on the international stage either : Golda Meir. Margaret Thatcher. Indira Gandhi. Benazir Bhutto. Angela Merkel. Aung San Suu Kiy.

Put all of them together and they form my personal prism through which I view Tracey Power's second all-women production currently in repertory opposite Miss Shakespeare -- this one J. Caesar.  Given that prism effect, I come away somewhat less ga-ga than many reviewers on the "political" end of professional theatre. "Ga-ga" is just that. A kind of fawning as I see it. But that is altogether different from the awe and wonder I feel in my gut at her vision and talents. Twice now in two nights I have clapped and huzzah'd with vigour and admiration. Power's theatre company Escape Artists' achievement in these pieces is notable less for its gender aspect, I submit, than for the sheer power and force of creativity and stage action regardless.

In J. CaesarShakespeare's Julius Caesar is re-set 300 years in the future with virtually all the world's men gone.  Women, reborn as tribal warriors, are 100% in charge. There is nothing that suggests to me how such a dramatic conceit is provocatively brave or daring, as many seem to feel. WS used all men in his shows. Such was the law and custom of the time, more than just the proverbial patriarchal "rule of thumb". So an all-femme cast in 2015 performing these heretofore beefy roles as women who are "hard twist" like steer-rope is a concept, if anything, possibly quite overdue i.m.o. 

The current show : The 1599 WS original featured 34 individual characters plus assorted "senators, citizens, guards, attendants &c." in a 5-act, 18-scene play that ran up to three hours and more. Under Power's pen and scalpel, the result in J. Caesar  is a 1-act, nearly-continuous-scene 90-minute affair featuring seven actors and, somewhat bemusingly, the soundboard techie hi-lited some 15 feet up thru slats in the stage's backwall.

As noted by the esteemed Elizabethan scholar A. L. (Leslie) Rowse, the original WS manuscript has always been curious from the get-go because its namesake disappears half-way through the show. And the balance is a set-up, what to make of the various co-conspirators, most notably Brutus. Despite Mark Anthony's famous sardonic potboiler of a eulogy, Rowse tells us "We are assured that Brutus was an honest...man in the conspiracy against Caesar : he was the only one moved by what he considered to be the public interest, as against the others, who were moved by envy or spleen or personal resentment." Hmnnn. The "public interest". And how did all that work out? No different in J. Caesar than in the original Julius, no gender or temporal difference in outcomes : chaos, multiple suicides, a full-scale civil war. Seems Lord Of The Flies is the stuff of humans when tribal instincts take hold -- then, now, 300 years on. 

Now to cut nearly 50% from a Shakespeare script could easily be a fool's errand. But not in the scultping hands of Tracey Power and Escape Artists. 

Fact is Julius Caesar is no one's favourite WS play because it is relentless in its negative energy. From Caesar's calculating public humility -vs- private hubris to the shrill egomania of co-assassins Cassius and Casca to the multiple suicides that end the March madness, there is precious little to cheer or marvel about other than The Bard's ever-priceless verse. And Escape Artists pull it off admirably.

What works here : Three elements primarily make this production remarkable and memorable. (1) James MacDonald's staging and the jiu-jitsu choreography of Paul Gelineau. (2) Steve Charles' world-beat percussive and concussive soundscape of hip-hop riffs and rich electro-twang. (3) Caroline Cave as Brutus with her constant verve and voice that is both supple and stentorian and rife with consistent if slightly misguided passion for her cause.

The challenge not always equal'd by the cast in all instants is to project Shakespeare's lines rather than shout and shriek them to show the urgency, panic, and self-righteous scheming that is the substance of his script. Having said that, when it came to WS's most famous lines and speeches in this play, the cast generally is to be congratulated for not overplaying or "announcing" them, which is an obvious tendency with improperly coached actors.

As Caesar, Amanda Lisman brings the same focus and force-field dynamic she gave to Judith in Miss Shakespeare. Casca played by Pippa Mackie was a cacophonous mix of jealous opportunist and wide-eyed naif delightfully struck. Erin Moon earns a shout-out for her Portia portrayal particularly -- it was visceral -- but also her steady Calpurnia. In all, solid performances by the entire troupe.

Who gonna like : This show is aimed more for diehard WS fans than the whimsical "saucy musical" Miss Shakespeare. Lovers of WS's patented rhythms and rhymes and cadences and metaphors will leave well-bethumped with his immortal words. As noted, the jiu jitsu fight and warrior sequences were breathtaking, lit.& fig., aided cleverly by the rave downbeats and crowd-echo shouts and murmurs. Escape Artists offer viewers both aspects of their company's name in marvelous measure.

Particulars : Created and produced by The Escape Artists in association with Kay Meek Centre. Performed by The Escape Artists troupe in repertory with another play, Miss Shakespeare. Remaining shows of J. Caesar scheduled for May 15, 16 and 17 @ Performance Works on Granville Island kitty-corner from the Granville Island Hotel. Tickets and schedules available at www.ticketstonight.ca. [Both shows move to West Vancouver's Kay Meek Centre May 21-29. Tickets & schedules there by phone at 604.981.6335 or via www.kaymeekcentre.com.]


Production Crew : Director James MacDonald.  Musical Director Steve Charles.  Fight Choreographer Paul Gelineau. Assistant Fight Director Ryan Bolton. Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Set & Costume Design Cory Sincennes.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Producer Barbara Tomasic.  Production Manager Leah Foreman.  Costume Assistant Stephanie Kong.  Costume Assistant Stacie Steadman.  Venue Technician Daniel Tessy.  Program Designer Stu Power.  Publicist Sammie Gough.  Photographer Emily Cooper.

Performers :  Caroline Cave.  Medina Hahn.  Amanda Lisman.  Pippa Mackie.  Susinn McFarlen.  Erin Moon.  Tracey Power.


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Friday, 8 May 2015

Miss Shakespeare is no "miss" -- a palpable hit !

Backdrop info :  The Judith Shakespeare imagined by 38-year-old creator Tracey Power in her self-described "saucy new musical" bears no known resemblance to William Shakespeare's younger daughter, she the surviving twin of brother Hamnet who died at age 11 from flu or scarlet fever or plague. The Judith of official record was another 17th century working class mom who for a time slung pints at a local pub called, symbolically, The Cage. 

A couple of months before The Bard's demise in 1616, Judith married a local philandering vintner named Thomas Quiney. At about the same time it became known that a previous mistress and her baby had recently died in childbirth. Outraged and humiliated, on his deathbed WS cut Quiney out of his will. Subsequently Thomas and Judith had three boys, the first of whom they named Shakespeare. He died in infancy at age one. The other two boys were also taken by flu or scarlet fever or plague years later, dying some months apart when each was in their late teens.

So the Judith of history is not Tracey Power's Judith in the least. Power's creation is a pre-nuptial feisty woman who's fierce in her wish of release from The Cage that imprisons her in order to do live theatre just like Dad. Power's Judith is imagined as a playwright with talent equal to Billy Bard's, but suppressed by local laws and customs. (Women were forbidden to act on public stage in Elizabethan / Jacobean times.)

Power's aim in the script : Power's point driving her forward is how contemporary theatre customs continue to reflect significant gender inequity. So she set out to create her own current legacy : an all-woman cast exploring the world of her imagined Judith leading a troupe of "ballsy" rebels to produce an underground stage production. 

She states in her Playwright's Notes : "...What inspired me to write a play with all women? Was it political? Truthfully, I just fell in love with a story, and I wanted to tell it. The questions have been on my mind, though, as recent job studies show that there is a 70/30 division of men and women in the arts...In 400 years (since WS passed) is 30% enough?"*

Should readers surmise Power is a didactic feminist shill, fear not. The show's narrator (Susinn McFarlen) sets the ironic tone of the piece right up front in the opener : "Here in The Cage we believe / That making theatre is like making a child. / If you want to be truly successful / You need more than just a penis."

Still, mefears the freakishly talented Power is a wee coy on the subject of gender politics as a motivator. No question it is huge despite her wit and comedy and musical wraps. From the get-go the chorus speaks as if to an audience of women only : "Come see what you're missing, the passion of life, see what you're pissing away -- don't piss it away!" followed by this further pinch from Isabel (Power): "If it's passion you seek, it doesn't come to those who are weak." This leitmotif message is what Power and The Escape Artists are shouting out -- engagingly rather than deafeningly -- to all their sisters in the arts across the land.

Storyline is clever : Judith (Amanda Lisman) says this about what she wants from life and her pedigreed bloodline : "Give me dreams that smolder!" And so the plot unfolds. The only way out of her distaff dilemma is through it, she concludes. She convinces five of her friends including elder sister Susanna (Caroline Cave) to join her in rehearsing and performing a play. At first, they think, for themselves alone in Quiney's pub basement. Just for the self-actualization thrill in a man's world. But then comes the "ballsy" part : they decide to go public, in drag, as men just to see if they can get away with it.

Along the way we get snippets of the lives of these women : the forever miscarrying Katherine (Medina Hahn). Margaret Moore (Erin Moon) whose husband is a righteous starch in the church but perpetually un-starched in bed. The bastard orphan Hannah Storley (Pippa Mackie) who's life is a quest for her real self. As narrator, McFarlen ghosts the late Will and has jousting good arguments with Judith. Using contempo vernacular, she accuses WS of "theft of voice" with his King's Men players who dress up 12-year-old boys to play women's roles : "You write about us as if you know who we are!" she goads him. Act One ends with a Les Mis kind of chorus called "The Littlest Soldier" where Judith's actors announce they're going to go public "wearing the balls of men" instead of hiding perpetually in the shrouds of The Cage.

Act Two limns with charm and irony in the various songs as the women prepare to come out "acting like gentlemen". They laugh that maybe they should put cucumbers or turnips or squash down their trousers : "If the shape looks right the illusion is real!" they chortle, admonishing one another to "Keep your pizzle in your pants!" Shortly sister Susanna announces she must quit the troupe because she's afraid of being unmasqued and ruining her doctor husband's reputation and career : "Purity and spotlessness / Susanna must live up to this / Give me the strength to obey." 

In response Judith proclaims "The life I saved was my own, here's my voice, here I am, forgive my form, forget my face, here I am!" And with that the troupe doffs their men's costumes to reveal and celebrate their woman-ness in their cotton skivvies. "Grandfather would be very confused by it all!" niece Bess announces as they all join in a final chorus of "Come see what you're missing, the passion of life, see what you're pissing away -- don't piss it away!" 

Production values aplenty : Power and her co-founder of The Escape Artists theatre Steve Charles have produced a remarkably tuneful script. The numerous songs mostly poke fun at men's peccadilloes then and now rather than treat them with undue sardonic spin. Accompanied by piano and string bass, the mood is more honkey-tonk than hard-edged blues. 

Director James MacDonald and Power put together some excellent footwork in the characters' blocking and choreography : all the cast were well-coached to project their expressions full throttle and hold nothing back physically in their moves. The moody underground set with its distressed furniture and matching Jacobean outfits plus some toga-like sequences were visually rich and lit delightfully as well.

Acting kudos deserved : As Judith, Lisman was in command throughout, with eye twinkles and flashes and grimaces and triumphal smiles perfectly delivered underneath her power crown of red hair. Caroline Cave as her sister Susanna turned in a bravura! performance that was rich in every nuance reflecting her personal conflicts between obligations to both sis & hubby. As narrator, Susinn McFarlen was superb with a resonant rounded pitch of voice that enhanced her ironic byplay with Judith. Tremendous contributions from each of the rest of the cast : their facial expressions and physical interplay throughout were a delight. Singers they are, each and every one, and they clearly enjoyed belting out the solos and choruses.

Who gonna like : Faithful readers will know by now my infatuation with small-stage productions that are up close & personal. The 25 X 25 foot Performance Works stage was perfect! for this show, thrusting the music and dance and thematic riffs right into the audience's lap. The 100+ in attendance ON cheered gustily and easily wanted more. There is no doubt Tracey Power is on an arc of personal and artistic development that will propel her far and fast in contemporary theatre. She and her posse are a force of positive energy audiences will thrill to for years to come. 

Particulars : Produced by The Escape Artists in association with Musical Theatre Works and Kay Meek Centre. Book & lyrics by Tracey Power. Music co-written with Steve Charles. Performed by The Escape Artists troupe in repertory with another play, J. Caesar. Appearing May 9, 10, 12, 14 and 17 at Performance Works on Granville Island contiguous to the Granville Island Hotel. Tickets and schedules available at www.ticketstonight.ca. [Moving to West Vancouver's Kay Meek Centre May 21-29. Tickets and schedules there by phone at 604.981.6335 or via www.kaymeekcentre.com.]

Production Crew : Director James MacDonald.  Musical Director Steve Charles.  Choreographer Tracey Power.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Set/Lighting Designer Cory Sincennes.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Producer Barbara Tomasic.  Production Manager Leah Foreman. Quiney's Wig Christine Hackman.  Pianist Bonnie Northgraves.  Costume Assistant Stephanie Kong.  Costume Assistant Stacie Steadman.  Venue Technician Daniel Tessy.  Costume Assistant Mickey Powers.  Program Designer Stu Power.  Publicist Sammie Gough.  Photographer Emily Cooper.

Performers :  Caroline Cave.  Medina Hahn.  Amanda Lisman.  Pippa Mackie.  Susinn McFarlen.  Erin Moon.  Tracey Power.

* Addendum :  Statistics from North America and Britain reveal the gender-representation imbalance in professional theatre. Women currently comprise the majority of university theatre graduates in all disciplines. Women consume some 60% of seats at professional theatre festivals like Bard on the Beach. Yet only some 20% of produced plays in Canada are written by women, though 50% of the Playwright Guild's membership are women.

[N.B. BLR is indebted to Marsha Lederman of the Globe and Mail for the above metrics culled from her excellent full-page feature on the subject Saturday, May 2nd, subtitled "Women, long underrepresented in the industry, are beginning to push back".]


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Thursday, 7 May 2015

In The Heights hits hi-notes in rap-time rhythms

Backdrop to the show : North American audiences never tire, it seems, of sentimentalizing the dross of life in the 'hood, wherever it may be. Our immigrant roots and first neighbourhoods, however modest, almost always appear rosier and more charming in the convex distortions of a rearview mirror than they were on the ground, at the time. And particularly so if we but put our memories to music -- original or covers -- then throw in some song-&-dance. Add a dream or two and a bit of new world luck to the score and we jump to our feet in applause.

New York City is particularly ripe for these kinds of pickings (West Side Story; Rent; Avenue Q), and aren't we lucky it is? Because the Y2K birthing of In The Heights set in the Washington Heights Latino barrio of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Cubans is a lively salsa and rap-infused concoction of youthful idealists searching their souls that makes you want to grab some rum and bust a few moves with them on the Stanley stage parquet.

The trajectory of Heights is quite something. It was conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda in his sophomore year (!) at Wesleyan College in 1999. And in but eight short years it had moved through college theatre workshops to an off-Broadway gig and finally to the klieg lights of Times Square & the mecca of Broadway itself. There it was nominated for 13 Tony awards and won four for its music and dance originality. Also a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Not a shabby landing for a sophomore theatre script launched on a home-made rocket I'd say.

A wee knock to tip Heights off its zenith might be the storyline or "book" by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Quaint and sentimental to a fault it is. As if Hudes was writing not about his own Gen X experiences in the Heights as gentrification and high rents set in, but about his Boomer-era parents' experiences as immigrants instead. Will Usnavi (pron. oos-NAH-vee) and his adopted Cuban nana Abuela Claudia get their wish of him taking her back to a sandy paradise in his Dominican birthplace? Will hairdresser Vanessa find the money to move to West Village? How about the only non-Latino in the bunch, Benny, will he and Nina live happily-ever-after even though her Papa Kevin seems utterly unwilling to accept a bronceado into their Caribbean cultural embrace? 

No question, there is definitely a 1950's feel about all of this that seems slightly superficial in the dread realities of the post-9/11 epoch we live in -- e.g. that day cured me forever of even one more minute of Sarah Jessica Parker's Sex In The City that was uber-popular at the time. I just couldn't take its silly and vapid contrivances anymore in light of Twin Towers. But I digress.

Heights is so clever and snazzy a piece that the show despite its schmaltz sends folks away more than just mildly entertained. The sold-out house on opening night gave it a wildly enthusiastic standing-o to boot, not just the pro forma kind we've come to expect of local crowds.

Acting highlights galore : The narrative thread is carried in an ongoing rap monologue by said Usnavi (named by his arriving immigrant parents after a passing ship that had "U.S. Navy" stenciled on its hull). Luc Roderique carries that role with eagerness and verve as the proprietor of his late parents' bodega (corner convenience store & deli). The rap rhythms he rhymes off mix joyfully with the non-stop break-dance hip-hop choreo of his 13 brothers and sisters up down over-&-around the Stanley stage, particularly in Act 1. Normally I am not a fan of rap-krap due to the painfully tortured rhyme schemes most rap writers wring out with witless abandon. But I was singularly impressed with lyricist Miranda's creativity in this respect for the Usnavi part. Quite listenable street poetry even for a junior geezer like me.

Usnavi's "apprentice associate" at the bodega is a high school hustler named Sonny (Caleb Di Pomponio) who sports an ironic ball cap with the logo Suburbs emblazoned on it. He is an equal mix of schmooze and moves and chipper charm that are a hoot to watch. As Usnavi's girlfriend-in-the-making, Elena Juatco playing Vanessa is perhaps the most consistently in-character and nuanced performer on stage : great pouts and upstage hand gestures when all eyes are on the downstage troupe. Music show veteran Sharon Crandall as Abuela Claudia was equally terrific in the arthritic slow-mo she was blocked to perform, but her singing brings chills to the spine and the odd tear to the eye. Chris Sams plays Benny with a delightful mix of bravado and humility opposite Kate Blackburn's Nina. His earnest heart captures Nina's Stanford brains in a touching lovers' story.

Production values aplenty : Directed by ACT's Artistic Director Bill Millerd, Heights finds veteran set designer Ted Roberts at one of his many career heights as well. Every centimetre of the Stanley stage was an eye-catching look at what a Brooklyn Heights corner would likely be. From Usnavi's bodega to the hairdressing salon of Daniella (Irene Karas Loeper) to Rosario's Limo office of Kevin (Francisco Trujillo) and Camila (Caitriona Murphy) to Abuela's apartment and the hang-out steps beside it, this is a set to write home about. Early on Sonny tells Usnavi "You stuck to this corner like a streetlight!" In the end Usnavi agrees : "This corner is my destiny / It's had the best of me / This whole time I'm home." The Ted Roberts set makes it all happen.

Choroegrapher and Assistant Director Lisa Stevens does some very imaginative staging and blocking with the troupe as noted above. Particularly in the first act, with Julia Harnett as Carla having perhaps the crispest moves. The celebration of Abuela's 96 G's of lottery winnings was simply superb. The second act, meanwhile, is given over by Miranda and Hudes primarily to a series of ballads and love songs and elegiac eulogies, so considerably less enthusiasm was felt after intermission on the choreography plane save and except the Carnaval del Barrio sequence during the July 4th NYC blackout. 

Carmen Alatorre's costumes were stitch-perfect for each character in their various roles : translucent flimsies for the gals' night club dance sequences; break-dance duds for the guys throughout; more traditional wear for the adults. Only Usnavi's omnipresent naugahyde scally cap struck this eye as a bit odd and off, not sure why.

Musical director Ken Cormier tuned up his band with his customary pizazz and sizzle and perfection, instrument for instrument, note for note. Henry Christian's trumpet stood out crisply but unobtrusively, as did Graham Boyle's drumming. Ed Henderson's guitar riffs during the "Alabanza" song for Abuela were heart-rending. 

Who gonna like : As already pointed out, the ON audience hooted and clapped and cheered on their feet when the "Home!" number chorused at show's end. What makes Heights unique -- in the way the puppets made Avenue Q unique -- are the extended rap monologues and break-dance choreography which are so unlike the straightforward sing-along stuff we are more often accustomed to from Andrew Lloyd Webber et alThis is a fizzy and frothy and sexy salsa evening of energy and enthusiasm by 20 performers that provides some insight, too, of what makes "community" in the heart of a mega-city among people who make friends and neighbours "family". Perfect Spring fare on ACT's mainstage.

Particulars : Conceived -plus- music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes.  At the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street at 12th Avenue through June 7th.  Run-time 2 1/2 hours including intermission.  Go to www.artsclub.com or phone 604.687.1644 for schedule and ticket information.  

Production crew :  Director Bill Millerd.  Choreographer / Assistant Director Lisa Stevens.  Musical Director / Keyboards Ken Cormier.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Sound Designer Andy Horka.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tessa Gunn.

Performers :  Actors : Michael Antonakos.  Kate Blackburn.  Sharon Crandall.  Michael Culp.  Caleb Di Pomponio.  Julio Fuentes.  Julia Harnett.  Elena Juatco.  Irene Karas Loeper.  Alexandra MacLean.  Caitriona Murphy.  Luc Roderique.  Chris Sams.  Francisco Trujillo.  Musicians :  Graham Boyle.  Henry Christian.  Ken Cormier.  Michael Creber.  Ed Henderson.  Sasha Niechoda.  Andrew Poirier. 

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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Midsummer a hoot even in French !

Background notes to solstice :  Saint Eligius (d. CE 659) is said to have warned early French Christians against "dancing, leaping or diabolical chants" on the summer solstice. Pagans built huge bonfires on Midsummer Night to drive away the evil spirits thought to roam freely about the fringes of the night when darkness took hold during its inexorable march toward winter. Shakespeare considered the Midsummer Night magical, as his play with its multiple revelries and goblins and faeries attests. And just a short while before The Bard's time one John Mirk of Shropshire noted ruefully : "At first, men and women came to church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long. In the process of time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery and gluttony turning the good, holy devotion into sin." The veil between good and evil is never so gossamer as on this particular night, he suggests.

A script & plot quicky : Clearly playwright David Greig had the morose Mr. Mirk's mischievous merrymakers in mind when he scripted the show he named Midsummer (A Play With Songs). What else could he have been thinking when in an Edinburgh wine bar he paired a hard-drinking adulteress divorce lawyer named Helena with an ex-wannabe rocker and once-upon-a-time high school year book editor who's now a petty bumbling crook named Bob. Both of these "likely candidates" are in their mid-30's, and they join fast and furious for a lost Midsummer Night week-end once Helena's married boyfriend stands her up. Wysiwyg : drunken revelry, a lengthy toss in the hay with a talking Elmo as witness, lots of vomit in a maid-of-honour dress, a bit of Japanese rope bondage, plus $15,000 stuffed into a tattered plastic shopping bag from the sale of a stolen pink Mazda convertible with Big Tiny Tam Callaghan in hot pursuit of Bob to get the dough before knocking him off. (Bob has other way-more-fun ideas how to spread Tam's criminal profits around Edinburgh.) If this isn't zany enough, what say we think about a life together after it all....

Oh. And a musical, too, you say. Well, not so much. More like a schmoozicle, a refreshing lollipop of a summer script even when performed in French by theatre L'Seizieme to this reviewer who knows not one word of French beyond bon jour. The music is incidental, lit. & fig. As the play's title suggests, more a play with songs that hi-lite the stage activity and dialogue.

What makes Greig's play (music by Gordon McIntyre) more than just a tuneful re-run of When Harry Met Sally that collides in the middle distance with Beautiful Losers ?  Because let's face it : 30-somethings adrift in an alienating and neurotic world -- mostly of their own idiosyncratic rendering -- is hardly new stage territory for North American audiences. Why would a 2015 crowd care whether these two misfits find a "happily ever after" ending of the kind Puck magically conjured for Shakespeare's criss-crossed lovers Helena and Demetrius? The show's director, Metteur en Scene Phillipe Lambert, is why. He draws every possible ounce of energy & wit & comic clout out of the show's two actors Isabelle Blais and Pierre-Luc Brilliant. And as a result the absurdity of their Midsummer Night week-end romp sucks us into its goofy and almost believable charm. 

Plot & dialogue cues : Booze creates bedmates. A time-honoured tradition over the centuries. Followed by hangovers, toilet bowl monologues, regret, and fond memories from people "dazed and dumbfounded from lost sleep". (N.B. These lyrics helpfully provided by an upstage scrim that scrolled the English being spoken and sung in French by Helena and Bob.) Telling each other they'll never see each other again, they chirp : "Give me tonight, give me a drink, then in the morning take it all away." And when morning comes they sing a hangover duet to one another : "If my hangover were a film it would be Greek with Czech subtitles", Bob moans. 

Interspliced with these scenes is Helena's sister's morning-after wedding that 6-time maid-of-honour Helena, the wretch, manages to miss. She hisses hussily at the locked chapel doors : "It's an internet date / I give 'em a year!" M. Brilliant does a very clever turn as Helena's nephew Brendan who's a bit o.c. and freaks when Aunty's vomity mess outside the church splashes on him. "Love breaks your heart / But basically that's what you want!" is the ballad of boffo bitterness Helena and Bob sing at each other three times during the show. And not to be forgotten is the hungover Bob's chitty-chat with his still-erect penis  from the night's gambol : "Bob, you and I are not young men anymore. Add our ages together and we're 70. I'm fed up with being in different beds in different places. Our adventuring days, they may be over." Then there's the show's theme that Bob sings at the end to his now-college-age soccer player son Aidan whom he'd abandoned as a teen-age dad : "We all come from the past and we are going towards the future. This is it, this is what happens. You are where you came from and you go where you go."

Production values : Not quite enough, probably, can be said for the tour de force performance Isabelle Blais gives as Helena. This is sheer raw talent afoot with eyes and facial expressions and singing voice which combined are wholly engaging and exciting, vomity scenes et al. Eminently capable on the guitar, she brings her mic'd up ukulele to an even deeper level of subtlety. As Bob (pron. "Bub", mostly a bit of a doofus-like "Boob"), Pierre-Luc Brilliant is largely the understated goof of wannabe \ has-been his part calls for. But not to be fooled : his Ha! routine during the mimed Japanese bondage scene coupled with his Nephew Brendan meltdown and his clever finger licks on guitar throughout the show betray a large and generous talent. 

Who gonna like : Gotta say it. While a francophile but no francophone, I and any other English mono-linguists were at a distinct disadvantage on opening night, the show's French production premiere in Vancouver (following mounts in Montreal and a tour across the land). Because this script is all about badinage, action and messages both wrapped up in lyrics -- sort of slam poetry meets two stand-up comics meets duets sung and spoken in riffs of dialogue and echo. These features are central, considerably moreso than the blocking and stage business and casual choreography. And with all the night-clubby haze effect, the scrolled English lyrics were at times hard to read. Still, the energy and antics of Ms. Blais and Mr. Brilliant overcame my francodeaf ear deficit. Probably 10 minutes too long at 100 minutes with no intermission, Midsummer is nevertheless some choice boutique small-stage acting writ large. 

Particulars : Written by David Greig. Music by Gordon McIntyre. Translation by Olivier Choiniere. A La Manufacture production with artistic direction from La Licorne presented by Theatre L'Seizieme at the Studio 16 stage, 1555 West 7th Avenue, through May 2nd, 8 p.m.  Go to http://seizieme.ca for tickets -- site has English or Francais options --  or phone 604.736.2616. English subtitles Thursday & Saturday for this performance. 

Production crew : Director Phillipe Lambert.  Assistant to the Director Jean Gaudreau.  Costumes & accessories Josee Bergeron-Proulx.  Lighting Andre Rioux.  Musical arrangements Pierre-Luc Brilliant.

Performers : Isabelle Blais.  Pierre-Luc Brilliant.


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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Stationary is sassy & fresh & chirpy...!

Flashback memory : In Tennessee Ernie Ford's only pop chart mega-hit, 16 Tons from 1955, he moans that a shift of hard labour gets you nothing but "another day older and deeper in debt".

As a 20-something, she's too young to remember TEF and his hokey cowboy ditty, but Christine Quintana's script of Stationary re-tells this tale nonetheless. This time out it's about desk-stuck Millennials. And the fun of it all is that while they push paper and tap keyboards with their left hands, their right hands are never far from a musical instrument, their feet and voices just a grace note away from song-&-dance. A perfect metaphor for peoples' left-brain drudge work -vs- their right-brain creative juices.

Backdrop to the script : "Stationary". That's what the Millennials feel is their lot in life. Particularly in Vancouver, Quintana suggests. High student debt loads, an extremely competitive and tight job market, little if any prospect of owning real estate while their parents are still alive -- this is the recession-era life she writes about in lyrics put to music by her friend and UBC Theatre School classmate Mishelle Cuttler. Imagine Avenue Q without the puppetry and you're pretty close.

The current mount by Delinquent Theatre is its third in three years. On the eve of its 2012 launch, Quintana tweeted both pointedly and poignantly : "Instead of naming the tabs of my spreadsheet 'budget' and 'actuals', they say 'DREAMS' and 'REAL LIFE'." And it is this challenge she throws out anew for 2015 audiences : how to keep hope and enthusiasm alive while plodding through the day-to-day rituals of life tied to a desk. New? No. But a genuinely fresh and sassy look at an old theme with tres clever music to boot.

Co-founder of Delinquent, Quintana describes her troupe's mandate as one "that brings socially relevant theatre to modern audiences, and creates and disperses new Canadian theatre. We like to make theatre that is elegant, subversive, intellectual and ruthless. We believe in good theatre and good times." Stationary delivers Delinquent's mission statement well indeed in their current run at the Cultch.

The show's plotline : Nine young people work for a company called Northern Light Communications. Not as Mad Men knock-offs, for sure. NLC's primary work is to sell contracts to companies for print-ad placements in periodicals -- hardly creative, mostly mechanical and repetitive exercises in phone sales. True "day job" stuff. Notionally Stationary sets up some dramatic tension : who will get the assistant manager position and the dubious chance to work as subordinate to Anna (Mishelle Cuttler), a snoopy neurasthenic nincompoop who talks in contemporary office psycho-babble. Mel (Meaghan Chenosky) describes Anna as "expertly passive with a dose of low self-esteem". 

Along the way pet jealousies & snivelry play out, office romance gives rise to a flirtsy song or two, conspiracies are chewed over how the deskers might get even with Anna who utters numerous gems like "I wasn't looking to open a dialogue, but I always appreciate your feedback." (Aside : As I reflect on nearly 45 years spent mostly in human resource bureaucracies, all this sings a very familiar tune indeed. Whining and whinging graduate to complaints, then to overt criticism, and finally to grievances [whose root comes from "grieve" and "grievous" -- as in "grievous bodily harm".] That Millennials are not free from this familiar workplace algorithm is comforting to me in an ironic and mildly cynical way.)

75 minutes of wit await : As the lights come up, the workers traipse in to NLC on a Monday morning led by Britta (Claire Hesselgrave) who is nursing a monstrous hangover and announces she's "one day closer to death". On her heels is the newby kid Aiden (Anton Lipovetsky) who says their jobs encourage "The kind of getting-by you learn to fake." Together the group choruses : "Keep calm and stay in line, tell yourself you're doin' fine" [though Britta chimes in she needs to "stop to puke and cry" on occasion].

From their simulated sales calls, the cast flips into song-&-dance mode playing a variety of instruments including ukulele, piano, violin, cello, electric bass, faux synthesizer, glockenspiel, trombone, trumpet, tambourine et al. Adding a contempo-indie voice, the Mr. Schmooze salesman character Brad (Brian Cochrane) performs a couple of sets of rap lyrics he wrote to Aiden's accompanying breathy mic-beats. 

Cuttler does a turn in the song "Sorry -- 8-year-old me" that is touching : she sings of always being an in-charge gal and head of her class at UBC's Sauder School of Business who forever had lunch alone. "I'm the friendly neighbourhood bitch next door, the boys club should have room for me," she laments. 

Mild-mannered receptionist Lizzie (Christine Quintana) tells Aiden, whom she's smitten by, that the weekly stationery order is the hi-lite of her week. She enjoys a wee epiphany at the end : "Why is it we try to protect ourselves from the fact that life is shitty sometimes?", while Britta proclaims "All that's ever coming is weight-gain and death!"

The show's closer is a kind of millennial anthem or coda to the night's showcase of contemporary angst and edge : "Tomorrow never comes too soon / Tomorrow you're my best friend!" the troupe sings ensemble, instrument solos galore. "Tomorrow I can start over, but it might turn out the same!" Aiden frets, adding "I'm too old to just let go, too young for regret." It's a surge of triumphant madcap laughing sorrow, like drunks playing Ha! Then out they march on Friday night, single file, solo, set to start their same old sales calls all over again come Monday mourning. 

Production values aplenty : Stationary is a chirpy, chipper, and sassy mini-musical that grabs. Kudos to playwright / lyricist Quintana and music score composer Cuttler for a clever contemporary cut at how life looks to today's Echo Boomers. 

Chief acting nod clearly goes to Claire Hesselgrave (Britta), the wasp-tongued redhead complainer non-pareil whose singing pipes are on a par with both Quintana's and Cuttler's, too -- though all musical the performers turned in fine sounds -- but whose sheer zest for her role claimed the night's top honours (followed closely by Lipovetsky and Cochrane).

Kayla Dunbar's choreography was nifty and tight for the diminutive and personal Cultch Historic stage. Lauchlin Johnston's set of office cubicles and fluorescent overheads was spot-on, the characters' spy-hop antics a delight.

Oh yes. BLR's customary kvetch.  Actors : you need not do Shout-outs! each time you utter the F-word or the S-word or the B-word. No one I know would say something like : "Who cares, it doesn't make any fucking difference!" They would say "Who cares, it doesn't make any fucking difference!" Minor boeuf for sure, but an irritant in this production same as I find it in most I see.  

Who gonna like : There are laughs and smiles and the odd tear galore to come from this original score and script. While contemporary workplace existential angst as a theme is not new in the least, fact is the struggles Millennials face in the marketplaces of work and home life and personal accomplishment are different from what we their parents faced. This show is fresh and witty and charming and worth every minute. 

Particulars : Produced by Delinquent Theatre (Vancouver) in presentation with The Cultch at its Historic Theatre site on Venables. Through May 2nd. Run-time 75 minutes sans intermission. Contact www.thecultch.com or phone 604.251.1363 for performance schedules and tickets.

Performance crew : Book & Lyrics by Christine Quintana.  Music by Mishelle Cuttler.  Rap Lyrics by Brian Cochrane.  Associate Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Original Director Laura McLean (co-founder of Delinquent Theatre).  Stage Manager Dani Fecko.  Choreography by Kayla Dunbar.  Musical Direction by Mishelle Cuttler.  Music Supervisor Sean Bayntun.  Percussion Consultant Sam MacKinnon.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Kaitlin Williams.  Lighting Designer Darren Boquist. 

Performers :  Meaghan Chenosky.  Brian Cochrane.  Mishelle Cuttler.  Claire Hesselgrave.  Anton Lipovetsky.  Christine Quintana.  Alex Hauka.  Molly MacKinnon.  Arlen Kristian Tom. 


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