Sunday, 23 April 2017

Long Division is the curve of math made human
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)

Editor's note : As we will be unable to attend this week's show by Pi Theatre, the following is a redux version of BLR's November 18, 2016 review of the play from its original Gateway Theatre co-production. The principal actors and production team are the same.
N.B. See Addendum #2 at bottom for Peter Dickinson's update about what changes have been made to the script for this Vancouver remount. 

The Pi cast whose interactions form a clever, compelling & chilling Moebius strip of life.

From the footlights : You know the theory of "six degrees of separation". Roughly put, that total strangers who meet anywhere in the world will in short order discover some manner of common connection between them. 

SFU Professor Peter Dickinson's Long Division is analogous. A kind of Moebius strip of human experience -- that half-twisted connected loop you learned in Grade 5 science class -- such is what links the show's seven characters to a single tragic event that pulls them all together and tears them apart at the same time.

As the Pi Theatre Productions promo describes the show, "the three male and four female characters use number theory, geometry and logic to trace their connection to each other and to the moment that changed their lives." 

According to Mr. Dickinson's blog, the show involves over 80 converging cues that link the show's sound, lighting, stage activity and video/projections. In addition "there is the fact that movement in Long Division is operating both on the level of traditional theatre blocking and in relation to an additional choreographic score." 


Pi calls the show "a multimedia, physical theatre play about the mathematics of human connection". 

How it's all put together :  Physical theatre relies on the motions of the actors to demonstrate what they're talking about, and what they're also not saying. In the choreography of Lesley Telford, the actors intercross and dissect and bridge one another in rhythmic spiccato marches and jaunts to unmarked spots on a diminutive 15 x 5 meter stage surface. Their gesticulations are often like pinocchio marionettes done in syncopated jerkiness. 

Their actions are semaphores to reflect, I think, the angularity of the serial mathematical propositions being bandied about in the dialogue. Clearly the choreographic debt to Marcel Marceau's famed "art of silence" mime technique is also immense. For the actors, a lifetime of doing party charades would certainly warrant a 1, not a 0, in this binary universe of ours.


Sequentially the actors present their characters' stories through extended monologues while miming and intersecting with the others. Scads of mathematical theories are reviewed or mentioned. Dizzyingly so. Just like Grade 11 discovery math was, is and always will be to many. 

But in linear terms, much of the focus really boils down to the notion of probability. The "point" of play is perhaps best expressed by the character Lucy who speaks for millions of Canadians when she talks of our national lottery ticket mania : "It's a mix of risk and certainty," she says, "the fulfilling of expectations : even when you know what's going to happen, you're still surprised. It's never about beating the odds, it's about not succumbing to them" she says to end Act 1. 


What the show bring to the stage :  This script is ingenious, no question. A brainiac romp more different by far than any of the other 170-odd plays I've seen the past four years. The descriptors noted above in the Pi promotional notes are accurate. 

A humanities student mostly, I nevertheless had two favourite alt-subjects in high school : geometry and physics. Geometry for its postulates and theorems so like philosophy. Physics for its mix of space, time and energy -- also akin to philosophy. 


Fair enough. But over the course of the night the audience is introduced to three or more dozen mathematicians and their various propositions dealing with cardinal, ordinate, nominal numbers etc. etc. School principal Grace Ingram (Linda Quibell), herself an unsuccessful English teacher, says this about these nameless, faceless digits she's become accustomed to pushing to and fro as an education bureaucrat : "You can count with them and you can count on them." Hmnnn. An ex-education bureaucrat myself, back in '75 I remember the school district comptroller -- when directed to project the cost of teacher salary increases -- asked : "And just what would you like the number to look like, pray tell?"


Along the way primarily two contemporary social subjects are investigated : bullying and bigotry. Both of which lead to a calamitous and dreadful outcome at the local high school. 


Linkages are made to numbers and what they mean in certain religious and number theory and astrologic-type contexts, but in the end the appropriate algorithms and calculus play themselves out with a kind of inevitability. The seven interactive agents all become "an empty set that contains all there is, gathering all our hurts together".

Acting pin-spots : Crisp and keen performances by each and every actor on the snuggish Gateway Studio B stage, a house that seats just under 100 people. [The Annex venue of the current production would appear to hold an additional 50 or more.] 

Best lines by playwright Dickinson are reserved for Lucy Ganardi (Melissa Oei) whose character is an aspiring actress who to make ends meet has to sling beer for Jo Garofsky (Jennifer Lines) at her downtown bar. Lucy quite gets the math jones around probability and Moebius-style outcomes that are the central conceit of this script -- in the end we all wind up where we started -- but she believes striving for happiness is a better goal than mesmerizing over numbers in this curve of time we live in.


When the inevitable "Do you believe in god?" question arises amongst this casual assembly of agnostics, Islamics, gays and straights, I was put to mind of Stephen Hawking's response to the question : "I believe in the power that creates and expands the universe," he said. Amen. A physics / philosophy hook that resonates more with me, personally, than an extended and at times microscopic examination of integers and the true mathematical meaning of "zero". (Re-scripting this play through the lens of quantum physics would be a hoot!)

Who gonna like : As noted above, a "more different play" in Vancouver I've not seen (though I know the PuSH and Fringe festivals also offer much avant garde postmodern stuff that punches through the 4th wall and plops itself boldly into the audience's collective and often unsuspecting lap). 

There's a whiz-kid element to this canny and utterly idiosyncratic script that folks who, quote, "hate all things math" would likely find somewhat off-putting. Without question the two women in my family would be front-&-centre in that category. 


But for lovers of unique, inventive, and novel small-stage scripts and drama, as obviously do I, once again Pi Theatre Productions brings to the fore a show filled with zest and imagination galore -- not only in the acting but in the production originality of lights, set and math equation projections as well. A night I will remember many moons from now no question.

Particulars : Produced by Pi Theatre Productions originally in collaboration with Gateway Theatre (November 2016). Performed at Annex Theatre, 823 Sey6mour Stree, Vancouver. From April 26-30 [six performances]. Run-time 100 minutes including intermission.  Schedule & tickets for both evening and matinee shows by phone @ Pi office, 604.872.1861 or via Pi Theatre.

Creative Team : Playwright Peter Dickinson.  Director Richard Wolfe (Artistic Director Pi Theatre).  Assistant Director Keltie Forsyth.  Choreographer Lesley Telford.  Composer Owen Belton.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Connie Hosie.  Lighting Designer Jergus Oprsal.  Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt.  Production Manager Jayson Mclean.  Stage Manager Jethelo E. Cabilete.  Dramaturg DD Kugler.

Performers :  Anousha Alamian (Naathim Zaidi).  Jay Clift (Reid Hamilton).  Nicco Lorenzo Garcia (Paul Vinoray).  Jennifer Lines (Jo Garofsky).  Melissa Oei (Lucy Gunardi). Linda Quibell (Grace Ingram).  Kerry Sandomirsky (Alice Evans).

Addendum :  In his November blog, playwright Dickinson noted : "Three and a half weeks of rehearsal plus one workshop week on the script plus four odd years of writing and revising and dramaturging the original idea : all to get to this point. When you balance the run of the show (even including the remount at the Annex in April) against the length of time for its development, it seems an unfair equation. But I can live with the math."

And from the original program notes, further observations by Mr. Dickinson : "I didn't set out to write a play about math. But the story I wanted to tell -- about seven random strangers connected by tragedy -- seemed to demand it. Math became a way for my characters to abstract an event that was too painful to confront by other means. In the course of my research I discovered that, as the 'science of patterns', there is a reason why we often turn to math to account for the mysteries of our universe. I also discovered that our own relationship to the universe, and to each other, can only ever be additive : 0 + 1. Likewise in the theatre one can never go it alone...[folks were] willing to take a risk on a quirky play about how people divide into each other. If, for better or worse, theatre is partly a numbers game, I can only say that in my case those numbers have aligned in a very special way."

Addendum #2

SATURDAY, APRIL 22, 2017
Long Division x 2, from Peter Dickinson's blogsite

Since Tuesday I've been hanging out at Playwright's Theatre Centre along with the original cast and crew of Long Division as we prepare for a "refreshed remount" of the Pi Theatre show at the Annex on Seymour Street beginning next Wednesday. It is such a gift to be given the opportunity to revisit the work with this talented team. With a bit of distance from the first production at the Gateway in November, and in dialogue with director Richard Wolfe, I had made some cuts and tweaks to the script, which was distributed to everyone in March. In rehearsals we've been making some further adjustments, with a focus especially on smoothing out and making more organic the transitions between the choral scenes and individual characters' monologues.

Choreographer Lesley Telford, who is busy with her own show at The Dance Centre (on through this evening), popped into the studio yesterday to help adjust a couple of the movement sequences. The changes were exactly what was needed and it was fantastic to see not just how on board the actors were with the new material, but also how quickly they were able to absorb it into their bodies. When we started this second go-round on Tuesday I think everyone was a bit trepidatious about how much of the original movement score they'd remembered. But with the aid of video documentation and each other's kinetic memories, and with a lot of counted repetitions, the sequences came back incredibly quickly to the actors, and watching them yesterday during our first complete run through you would have thought they'd been doing this continuously since November rather than having had a hiatus of four months.

Tickets for the show can be purchased here. I probably won't be blogging again about the process until after we open. In the meantime, here's a selfie I took the other day in front of one of the bus shelter posters advertising the play around the city. Linda Quibell, who plays Grace, commented yesterday that the image is a bit CSI-y. That's perhaps not a bad analogy given the mystery that has to be unravelled in the play...
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Friday, 21 April 2017

Parade a timely parade of music & bigotry
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)

The Fighting Chance cast belts out "The Old Red Hills of Home". 
Red dirt, red necks, red blood. It's all there.
From the footlights : Jason Robert Brown won both the 1999 Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Musical Score with his show Parade that had been a 1/2 dozen years in creation. The play's "book" -- storyline & non-sung dialogue -- was by Alfred Uhry (best known for Driving Miss Daisy). He snatched the selfsame Tony & Drama Desk awards for Parade that year, too.

There has been, alas, a wee disconnect between the play's award-winning essence and the warmth of critics' enthusiasm for the show in toto. And that is because of its historical subject matter : a contrived conviction for the alleged murderer of a teenage factory worker in Atlanta followed by rednecks lynching the Jewish suspect in 1915. Got to admit this isn't exactly the arc of tragic romance that a Romeo & Juliet or Titanic conjures up.

And meanwhile we live in an age with the rise of alt-right nativist / populist trends world-wide. Thus racism and anti-Semitism are crescendoing anew, orchestrated often by angry white men and women. With these challenges up close and personal, Fighting Chance Productions Artistic Director Ryan Mooney decided to live up to his theatre company's name and give Parade a fighting chance to capture Vancouver audiences. 

Happy to report that FCP's production is a venturesome & vigorous & slightly nervy night of musical theatre that is ambitious fare to digest, no question !

Quicky plot re-cap : As noted, the events dramatised here are matters of fact and historical record with the odd factoid and some post-truth nuances added for good measure. A Jewish chap from Brooklyn is cajoled by an uncle to oversee his Atlanta pencil factory. 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a worker there @ 10 cents per hour pay, is found murdered in the factory basement on April 26, Confederate Memorial Day.

The factory janitor, a black man named Jim Conley, turns state's evidence and helps convict Frank, as do some of Mary's girl co-workers. Frank's wife Lucille pleads with Georgia's governor to commute Leo's death sentence. When the governor does so, an angry mob breaks into the detention farm where he's being held, drags Frank out and kills him in the town of Marieta. A big tree at the corner of Roswell St. and Frey's Gin Road is used to do the deed. (A bit of  delicious accidental symbolism here, that corner a century later is a couple short blocks east of the local Kentucky Fried Chicken stand.)

Sean Anthony and Jagen Johnson in one of the show's myriad tense interrogation scenes.
How it's all put together : Act 1 commences with a rousing Rebel ballad extolling memories of "The Old Red Hills of Home". I found the song a guilty pleasure, not unlike the thrill I still get hearing Robbie Robertson's The Band do "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down". A guilty pleasure because all things Dixie and what they represent are, were and always will be anathema to me (including that romantic con-job of history Gone With The Wind.)

From "Old Red Hills" the show proceeds through the arrest, interrogation, trial and conviction phase facing the hapless Leo. Act 2 turns our attention away from the entire gaggle of co-conspirators and focuses instead on Leo's wife Lucille who tries, successfully, to champion her husband's case with Governor Jack Slaton. 

Before the climactic lynching, Leo and Lucille have a picnic on his jail cell floor singing a charming duet "All The Wasted Time" -- how only by living through these tragic events have they learned that they actually love one another. After the lynching, the locals and one or two rag-tag Dixie veterans, now in their 80's, rock-&-sway proudly if brokenly on Peachtree Street to celebrate yet another Confederate Soldiers Memorial parade. 

Do these objectionable relics who champion racism and overt anti-Semitism permit the audience -- regardless -- to get a buzz off Mr. Brown's often catchy tunes?  That, indeed, is the question critics for 20 years have been divided on.

What the show brings to the stage :  In a January, 2014 piece in The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody observed that the genre of classical musicals is built "on the tension between artifice and authenticity". In Parade, a kind of dramatic decoupling occurs because Act 1 is most of the show's "authenticity", focusing as it does on the gross miscarriage of justice that history confirms happened here. Act 2 is the show's "artifice", where the love story between Leo (Riley Sandbeck) and Lucille (Advah Soudak) blooms, flowers and then is plucked dead a nanosecond later.

Still, if the audience indulges itself what Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 called "a willing suspension of disbelief" to this head-on collision between authenticity and artifice, there is considerable theatric enjoyment to be had in FCP's production of Parade.


Will Tippery and Kaila Kask have a spot of fun before all the Parade pathos begins in earnest.
What the production team has to say :  In the words of FCP Artistic Director Ryan Mooney, "Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry have crafted an incredible piece of musical theatre that may not have you tapping your toes, but will certainly have you shaking your heads...Parade plays in my favourite place -- the grey area of life, that blurry section between black and white where choices aren't as simple as good & evil. I hope that you too will look for that grey area in your life. It's a much more interesting place to live."

For her part music Director Clare Wyatt notes that Jason Robert Brown wrote "The Old Red Hills of Home" and presented it to Alfred Uhry for consideration. "Upon hearing it, Uhry was moved to tears. An Atlantan himself, he recognized the struggle of the southern people, and was touched by the fact that the song, written by a Jewish man who had never seen Georgia in his life, so graciously captured their passion and patriotism [sic]."

Production values that shine : It is Director Ryan Mooney's grasp of the fact that the cognitive and artistic dissonance at the heart of Parade cannot be sidestepped or minimized. Magnetic music by Jason Robert Brown that is part gospel, part anthem, part spiritual, part pop-rock cannot upstage the horrific historic events being portrayed. Nor vice-versa. 

This is not a night of Dr. Feelgood, or even the sweet-sour that a West Side Story brings into play. The character of Leo Frank does not particularly endear. He is reserved, belittling of the Georgia rubes he works with and is judged by, longs for his people back in Brooklyn whom he considers of superior stock to the hoi polloi around him. His relations with Lucille are distant and ambiguous, at least until Act 2. 

But as events S. of 49 demonstrate so clearly today, crowd incitement ("Lock her up!"), fake news and biased coverage (CNN, MSNBC, Fox), visceral self-righteous bombast (the Oval Office occupant, his spokesman Spicer, the bellicose Berkeley campus crowds) are now once again the troubling and tumescent cultural trend.

What Mr. Mooney has done is capture the flavour of all this admirably especially at the end of Act 1 and again to kick off Act 2 when Adrianna Ravalli's choreography of all the perjuring bigots who found their convenient scapegoat in Mr. Frank is danced out with sardonic flare.

Oops! One absolute clanger : I am a dual citizen : 10th generation American whose forefather was the original settler of Boston, MA. I am also an emigre here who when I travel do so on a Canadian passport. Trust me, FCP, there is Absolutely no way! that the parade-watchers on any April 26th Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta, Georgia would be waving paper Stars-&-Stripes flags. Are you kidding? Maybe the odd one in evidence. By someone from "away". But it would be the Dixie Flag / Southern cross that would be pre-eminent. This wee glitch needs fixing up right smartly! 

Acting pin-spots : A few characters stand out particularly. Advah Soudack as Lucille revealed quiet power in action and robust power in song, a voice compelling to hear even if her Southern accent was inconsistent. (She was alone in that endeavour. My rule as director : all fake accents, or none.)

JP McLean as the scoop-driven journalist Britt Craig driven by the Extra! Extra! read-all-about-it! notoriety he gets is wonderfully egregious.

Mary Phagan's boyfriend Frankie Epps played by Will Tippery was one of the choicest and most powerful voices of the night. Sean Anthony's prosecutor and future governor Hugh Dorsey was all Atticus Finch-in-reverse, even less likeable than O.J.Simpson's dream-team defence. 

As Leo Frank, Riley Sandbeck brought his own idiosyncratic gosh-why-me Woody Allen-esque spin to the role, but had just the right passion and pathos when he needed it too.

Of all the cast, meanwhile, perhaps my favourite on the night was Ricardo Cunha Pequenino. The program claims this is "his first public musical performance since performing Grease The Musical in high school." Pshaw! say I. Great voice, delightful natural stage moves & swagger, shades of one of my favourites, a potential Leon Bibb in-the-making if he works humbly-hard at his craft. 

Who gonna like : Clearly Fighting Chance Productions did not anticipate the election of such a self-satirizing Apprentice President when they chose their current season scripts a year back. What luck for them! The themes and leitmotifs presented by Parade are 100% timely fare in these scatterbrained moments of time playing out day-after-day around the globe.

The dramatic headache the musical presents is minimized by FCP's delivery of a production that plays on myriad levels of foreshadowing and irony. Not least of which its production at the Jewish Community Centre's Norman Rothstein Theatre. 

While structurally and cognitively a bit of a challenge, Parade is clearly a script-for-the-times that is capably and admirably executed here by a swack of upcoming Vancouver performers whose names will no doubt be familiar to us all in short order. Brava! Bravo! all. A night that will stick with me for some time.

Particulars : Presented by Fighting Chance Productions.  At the Norman Rothstein Theatre, Jewish Community Centre, 41st Avenue @ Oak Street. From April 14 - April 29, 2017.  Run-time two hours, 30 minutes including one intermission.  Tickets via www.fightingchanceproductions.ca.

Production crew :  Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  Book by Alfred Uhry.  Co-conceived & Directed on Broadway [1998] by Harold Prince.  Director Ryan Mooney.  Music Director Clare Wyatt.  Choreographer Adriana Ravalli.  Stage Manager & Prop Master Jessica Hildebrand.  Assistant Director Henry Beasley.  Costume Designer Breeze Dampsy.  Lighting Designer Randy Charlston.  Set Designer Tim Driscoll.  Sound Designer Peter Young.  Assistant Stage Managers Emma Hoogeveen, Amber Scott, Max Rejouis.  Second Sound Ziggy Schutz.  Dance Captains Colton Fyfe, Lucinda Sim.

The Band :  Music Director Clare Wyatt.  Drums Sam MacKinnon.  Violin Katie Stewart. Bass Sydney Tough.

Performers :  Riley Sandbeck (Leo Frank).  Advah Soudak (Lucille Frank)  William Tippery (Frankie Epps). JP McLean (Britt Craig).  Sean Anthony (Hugh Dorsey).  Kayla Kask (Mary Phagan).  Tristin Wayte (Mrs. Phagan).  Raymond Hatton (Luther Rosser).  Ricardo Cunha Pequino (Jim Conley / Riley).  Jagen Johnson (Newt Lee).  Steve Mulligan (Tom Watson).  Peter Slade (Judge Roan / Mr. Peavy / Old Confederate Soldier).  Steve Oben (Governor Slaton).  Alina Quarin (Iola Stover).  Tiana Swan (Minola McKnight / Angela).  Christine Reinfort (Sally Slaton).  Colton Fyfe (Young Confederate Soldier / Detective JN Starnes / Ensemble).  Kaden Chad (Officer Ivey / Ensemble).  Karliana Dewolff, Debbie Kagy, Lucinda Sim, Keri Smith (Female Ensemble).

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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Mom's The Word 3 couples the riotous & poignant
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)

Launching grown kids is nothing a bit of wine-&-weed can't cure for these Vancouver moms. 
Emily Cooper photo. 
From the footlights : Five clever and assertive actor playwrights do a biographical mise en scene for the third time of their lives as Vancouver Moms. As previously, the show's a skitchy vaudeville format with fun the chief focus. The original MTW in 1993 dealt with the women as new moms facing existential challenges such as dancing in the supermarket checkout while clutching a kid with poopy nappies.

Ten years later it was the moms and their kids facing teen-age-hood and all those attendant horrors in MTW#2. Now they're back for the world premiere of Round 3 : the kids are either bounding out the front door seeking self-actualization -or- boomeranging back home aghast at the void before them. 

MTW3 is part wise-crack funny-making, part poignant assessment of life's second half. It includes responding to a hubby's early onset Alzheimer's [Jill Daum is wife of Spirit of the West frontman John Mann]; serial pained reflections on a divorce both bloody & bitter; dealing with a son who, sadly, is a millennial version of a Peter Pan Lost Boy. No question life is often more raw than ribald or side-stiching funny. But life, too, that for these moms is always heart-rending, earthy, affecting.

How it's all put together :  The show's model is "The Ed Sullivan Show" meets "Laugh-In" meets "This Hour Has 22 Minutes". Some skits, lots of autobiographical joke-swapping, a coupla tunes lip-synched, even a game show thrown in for hellry.

The five playwright actors -- Jill Daum, Alison Kelly, Robin Nichol, Barbara Pollard and Deborah Williams -- are certain they've provided their kids roots but they aren't 100% sure how well the wings will fly for their little beasties. Now they kvetch about their children's partners, surreptitiously spy on them "out there", sneak into their new digs to check out what secrets lie behind closed doors.


Rain is sometimes outer weather, sometimes inner, and an umbrella can be a parachute, too.
Emily Cooper photo

What the show brings to the stage : Through humour and pathos and the endless variety of the human condition and experience we exit the theatre having laughed and cried and done some self-reflective thinking, too.  Far too many quotable quotes to rhyme off -- from complaints about a dry vagina to claims of "unabashed glee" that the kids have left home. 

Best perhaps from Alison aghast at seeing her middle age spread under her house-painting stained sweat suit gear in a store window : "I can no longer pull off shabby chic, now I'm shabby shit!" or perhaps Deborah Williams' threat that hubby Bruce is "one fuck-up away from a piteous non-negotiable death". In all, a tonne of one-liners designed to make us chortle and widdle : divorcee Barbara Pollard's perpetual hornies requited at last in the local rec centre hot tub surely one of the best bits. 

But no small quantum of serious commentary in all this as well. While her monologues struck me as a bit overextended, Jill Daum's learning to cope with husband John's Alzheimer decline was nevertheless touching stuff. Still, she caught it all best with a single one-liner late in the show. As she drew a chalk line on the stage deck she lamented & brought forth my tears : "When you become the caregiver, you are no longer the lover." Oh my. Such is life, such is love. 

Deborah's frank admission of suicide ideation, meanwhile, also struck a nerve in me, hard, just like the opening scene of The Big Chill did back in the day. When suicide is part of your life story, particularly more than once, references to it can't help but hurt even when she tries funnin' with the subject.

Production values that enhance :  Pam Johnson's U-Haul cardboard box set draped in muslin worked exceedingly well, the boxes servings as fridge, dishwasher, skype screen, ex-husband's imagined body to stab. Some may think it a bit of a trite statement about both kids and wannabe empty-nesters who are perpetually on the move, lit.-&-fig, but it worked to this eye.

The stage business and blocking of these 30-year friends by Director Wayne Harrison worked well indeed, with the imaginary 4th wall broken through constantly. Harrison -- who has worked on all the MTW shows, including international mounts -- deserves kudos for his timing and over-all pace of the show despite some longish monologue moments. 

Freshman projection designer Kate De Lorme earns a shout-out for her clever use of techno shots thrown up to enhance the stage action and contemporize the proceedings. The skydive GoPro shot of Robin Nichol was priceless.

Pete Seeger first told us how little boxes entrap us all -- but they also mobilize and liberate.
Emily Cooper photo
Acting pin-spots : In Act 1 particularly the majority of spicy choice lines were given over both to Ms. Williams and Ms. Pollard -- the former whinging on about husband Bruce, the latter grousing ad nauseam about her ex-hubby and his trophy girl friend in the Bahamas. In Act 2 Alison Kelly doing her mary-jane puff-in and gigglery was pure hoot.

Who gonna like : Someone once called parenting "a lifetime exercise in little feats" [sic]. Godknows those little feets / feats all add up their mileage over the decades. As a dad with two generations of children -- 25 years apart -- I related warmly, sentimentally, but also viscerally to all the cleverly-wrought shenanigans being aped and yakked over by this talented bunch.

Director Harrison notes that decades back they started as "a group of Vancouver women, mothers all, who did Saturday morning 'writing therapy' to fathom their lives as parents, partners, and, yes, sexual beings, and how to recover from the pain caused by treading bare-footed on a Lego brick." 

The context has morphed -- they now tread on beer bottle caps and roach clips -- but the theme of Momism has not changed much from Philip Wylie's 1942 blockbuster Generation of Vipers. Moms are moms, they change not much. They love, they hate, they hurt, they embrace, they cheer, they love some more and ever more again.

For a dexterous and quick-witted evening's trip down memory lane -- and a peep around the corner of what life's next lurch down the road might look like for you -- MTW3 is a lively local version of "All My Children" that is a whole swack more fun than any t.v. soap opera could ever be.  

P.S. Tonight's performance -- just another drippy Tuesday in Raincouver -- was nearly a full-house. I conclude tix are evaporating quickly despite our soggy clime ! 

Particulars : Presented by Arts Club Theatre, Granville Island Stage. Run extended 2 weeks to May 20th due to ticket demand. Tickets via www.artsclub.com or by phone to ACBO @ 604.687.1644.  Run-time 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Production team : Director Wayne Harrison.  Set & Costume Designer Pam Johnson. Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Sound & Projection Designer Kate De Lorme.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistnat Stage Manager April Starr Land,.

Playwrights / performers : Jill Daum. Alison Kelly. Robin Nichol. Barbara Pollard. Deborah Williams. 
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Friday, 31 March 2017

The Train Driver seeks solace & redemption
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)
Train driver Roelf (Paul Herbert) and gravedigger Simon (Pasi Clayton Gunguwo) read the news report of a woman who suicided by jumping in front of Roelf's train outside Cape Town. She and her infant's bodies were never claimed at the district morgue.
Photo by Nancy Caldwell
From the footlights : Two actors, one primary voice. An Afrikaans train driver, traumatized by a black woman with an infant strapped to her back who jumped onto the tracks in front of him. The train driver Roelf Visagie is beset with grief and guilt. He finally stumbles across a black squatter's camp where nameless folk are buried in hopes of finding her grave. There he encounters lone gravedigger Simon Hanabe. Roelf tries desperately to disencumber his soul to Simon about what part of the collective guilt as a South African white he suffers over its apartheid past. Not to mention his personal guilt as the driver of the death train.

How the play came to be :  The play by Athol Fugard stemmed from a 2000 newspaper report he read in the Cape Town weekly Mail and Standard about a woman and her three children whom she herded onto the tracks so all would die. Fugard was subsequently interviewed in Cape Town by Celia Duggar of the New York Times in March, 2010 about his play The Train Driver set to premiere there. The article was titiled, aptly, "Driving Out Apartheid's Ghost".  (N.B. As noted in BLR's review of Valley Song, the correct Afrikaans pronunciation of the word apartheid says it all about the intent of South Africa's racist political policy : apart-hate.)

Fugard told the Times "I cannot fathom a darkness so deep that a human being can finally say 'There is no hope'."  The play was written, he said, as a symbolic, metaphorical act of "claiming" the memory of the desperate woman from the Cape Town squatter's camp who suicided 10 years earlier, one Pumla Lolwana. But all his plays in fact aim "to claim people," he said, "to not allow them to pass on into oblivion, trying to bear witness." (Simon's second job is to protect the "sleeping" from packs of feral dogs who are ravenous and want to eat their remains. These, the nameless ones never claimed from the morgue, not even mamas who had babies in tow.)  

To affirm his artistic intents Fugard shared with the Times a letter sent him by an American theatric friend from L.A., Stephen Sacks. Sachs wrote to Fugard that his oeuvre represents "a life long internal struggle" about being of Boer heritage during the apart-hate years. "White guilt," Sachs said, "white shame. Digging up the bones of the nameless black dead. Trying to make sense of it. Give it meaning." He meant it endearingly, not laying on guilt or sarcasm.

What the show brings to the stage :  Empathy can result from the act of stepping into another's shoes and walking their journey a bit. But probably not possible, say, for Auschwitz survivors to do vis-a-vis their Nazi deathcamp guards. Analogously, playwright Fugard is betimes assailed by critics for focusing so much on white S.A. guilt rather than shining more light on the plight and the experience of the country's blacks. Not a "theft of voice" issue in the least. Rather a bio-racial impossibility. 

Thus the show that results. Focused more on Roelf's agonies than Simon's repression. There is more dramatic monologue and soliloquy by Roelf than actual dialogue with Simon, but enough of both to make it all work. Train driver Visagie -- its Latin loosely meaning "look at us" -- tries ardently, anxiously to get his soul closer to guru Adyashanti's timeless challenge : "No more battle against yourself. No more battle with life. No more battle with others. No more battle with God."

But expiation and atonement don't ever come easily. Roelf (Paul Herbert) is possessed by the death of the woman he calls Red Doek. That name he's given this unknown woman because of the red scarf he spotted her wearing just before the locomotive crushed her and her infant babe strapped to her back. That image continues to haunt and plague and obsess him, keep him up night after night, give him tremors and wicked painful dreams. His dreams cause him to terrorize his family at Christmastime shortly after Red Doek's horrific death. Mom locks the kids behind her bedroom door. 

Gravedigger Simon Hanabe (Pasi Clayton Gunguwo) fears for Roelf's safety as the lone white in the desperate squatters' shantytown cum graveyard. Teen-age gangs from the tin-&-paper shacks next door will surely cause trouble, he frets. Still he is a kindly chap and provides a sounding board for Roelf's doleful cries and protests to bounce off of. Vintage stuff. Trying to plea bargain his people's sordid and shameful past Athol Fugard has been doing -- prolifically -- since 1956 : The Train Driver is his 35th play script.

Acting pin-spots : Background reading about The Train Driver from productions elsewhere did not prepare me sufficiently. I got considerably more from the UPV tonight than I had anticipated would be up for offer. 

What no review or Fugard interview prepared me for was the anger train driver Roelf Visagi felt at his nameless victims. He storms into the Shukuma burial ground outside Port Elizabeth once he learns from the district mortician that his victims were buried there just a month before.

He is hyperventiling : "I want to swear at her and let her know she is a piece of black shit. So her ghost will hear me, so she'll know how she has fucked up my life, the selfish black bitchHelp me!" he demands of the threatened and bemused gravedigger. Director Adam Henderson in his notes makes a seemingly paradoxical observation that may be true here : "It is hard not to despise someone you know you have wronged. I think we struggle (even if unconsciously) with this dissonance between our self-image and our history."

Reolf then collapses on the sandy, rocky burial turf and emits agonized cries that go on & on & on & on. His performance in this, right at my feet, was more convincing & true-to-life despair than I believe I have ever witnessed on any Vancouver stage in 40 years. By the end of the play, meanwhile, he has softened and mellowed and is beginning to embrace Adyshanti's challenge. Simply superb, sustained character acting by Mr. Herbert, a previous Jessie nominee.

For his part, Mr. Gunguwo's two most priceless moments were his giddy description of catching the beeg fish with his two dogs when he was a kid. Also the lullaby his mama sang to him "Toola, mama, toola, toola mama...!" that he sings to soothe Reolf's tortured and confused and wondering self along with its accompanying voodoo-esque dance.

A word or two on the production : Three minor bickers with the show. (1) My customary kvetch that Vancouver actors shout-out and and overemphasize swear words. Gosh, if only they'd effen learn this [instead of effen learn this...]. (2) While just 75 minutes of dramatic action in the entire play, inexplicably there was a 15 minute intermission some 50 minutes along into the piece. The break should be axed to preserve the dramatic arc & energy Fugard intended. (3) Why the choice to have most of Simon's final two-minute soliloquy done by recorded play-back while he stands mute on an overturned bucket. This made no dramatic sense to me -- it was gimmicky & distracting. 

Still, mere quibbles each and every point raised here.
Director Henderson's casting choices and staging of his 2-man troupe were otherwise keenly done.

Who gonna like : When the esteemed Mr. Fugard told the NYT his entire career was intended to crescendo and climax with this script, he was spot on. The Train Driver projects powerful pain that attempts to extinguish itself at first through rant and rage but, ultimately, finds a bit of redemption. Redemption that starts through the recognition of what sheer untempered futility looks like in the few final seconds you stare at it face-to-face. And to acknowledge your role in creating that life-ending futility and hopelessness that you at last recognize. 

These are gripping, moving moments of small-stage theatre that are rich & compelling and find Fugard, no question, at his finest.

Particulars :  Written by Athol Fugard.  Produced by The United Players of Vancouver. At their home venue the Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  From March 24-April 16.  Tickets & schedule information via 604.224.8007, Ext 2 or CLICK HERERun-time 90 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

Production team :  Director Adam Henderson.  Set Designer John R. Taylor.  Properties Designer and Producer Linda Begg.  Technical Director and Lighting Designer Michael Methot.  Sound Designer Zakk Harris.  Costume Designer Catherine E. Carr.  Stage Manager Maria Denholme.  Technical Manager Ryan Yee.  Assistant Director Alan Brodie.  Sound Assistant Aya Yuhura. United Players of Vancouver Artistic Director Andree Karass.

Performers : Pasi Clayton Gunguwo (Simon Hanabe, gravedigger).   Paul Herbert (Reolf Visagie, seeker).


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