Friday, 23 June 2017

Winter's Tale a chilling, warming snap on anger
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & 
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Regal jealousy that descends not unlike the onset, almost spontaneously, of a catatonic or schizoid fit. From charm and good cheer to extended bouts of rage, revenge, repulsion in an Augenblick as the Germans would say -- the blink of an eye. But finally through magic and Fate, reconciliation and restoration. Most academics lump this in as one of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Others call it a "problem play" -- unresolved tragic elements of hubris leading to mayhem and death -- but overall a cheery outcome. 

Leontes (Kevin MacDonald) is King of Sicilia. His boyhood chum Polixenes (Ian Butcher) is King of Bohemia that WS conveniently fronts on the Adriatic to provide the play a shoreline with desert behind. Bohemia has been visiting Sicily for nine months but is anxious to get back home. Sicily entreats him to hang on another week. No go. So Sicily asks his wife Hermione (Sereana Malani) to bid him stay. A coupla chipper & comely comments from her and Bohemia succumbs. He'll stay after all. Instantly Leontes rages : "Too hot! Too hot!" He flies into a frantic frenzy all because Polixenes denies his own offer of more hospitality but capitulates in a heartbeat to his wife's nudges. They must be canoodling and cuckholding him, Leontes immediately concludes. 

Shepherd (David M. Adams) and son Clown (Chris Cochrane) delight to find infant Perdita + a bag of gold.
Photo: David Blue  Image Design : Jason Keel
Thus is Leontes precisely positioned by WS to set all of his royal entrourage aflitter and aflight in his obsession : the hugely pregnant Hermione to prison; daughter born and left in the desert -- abandoned to the wolves and bears and ravens; Prince Mamillius (Parmiss Sehat) to die in grief at all the familial losses. It will be way down the line before bucolic, sensuous Bohemia reconciles with what Chamber of Commerce brochures call the classic, reasoned and civilized Greco-Roman enclave of Sicilia.

Plot twists & turns :  Shakespeare is well known for creating mad behaviour in his villains, normally among royalty or wannabe royalty. (Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth leap instantly to mind.) But what astonishes, quite, is the sustained vehemence and wanton rage attacks Leontes suffers from. Even when disabused of his reasons by Apollo's priestly oracle from Delphos whom he promised to abide by : "There is no truth at all i' the' oracle...This is mere falsehood," he spits contemptuously. He obviously had not learnt the ancient warning : "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad."

NYT critic Ben Brantley cleverly pointed out six months back that while Othello had the evil Iago to goad him on and inspire his murderous meltdown, Leontes "is his own undermining Iago". Hermiones' most favoured lady Paulina (Lois Anderson) labels him a tyrant for the deaths of his son the Prince and of Hermione, too, upon learning of Mamillius's passing. Only then does a spark of insight shine through Leonte's egotistical carapace : "Apollo's angry; and the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice."

Heidi Wilkinson & Frances Henry's puppet sheep are nearly as clever as the bear that ate Antigonus.
Photo : David Blue  Image Design : Jason Keel

From this point forward the play turns its eyes to the arcadian sheep pastures of Bohemia. Which turn starts, however, with a shipwreck followed by Antigonus being given the most-famous-of-all WS stage directions : Exit, chased by a bear. After this the stage action and dialogue become more lyrical, playful and sensuous.
Production values that shine through : As in years past, once again the magical music-making of Malcolm Dow is a treasure to hear. Electronic bass drone underneath, English handbells, chapel chimes, medieval chants, kazoo, baby's cries, &c. &c.

In sync were both the astonishing modernist masques for the choir, primarily, as well as a mix of rich tapestry silks for the royals and perfect lumpy burlap for the shepherd crowds by Carmen Alatorre.

Predictably, Vancouver movement-&-choreography wunderkind Tracey Power once again worked her stage magic. Good decision by Director Dean Paul Gibson to let her expand the chorus sequences as he did. The opening was sheer crisp delight to watch and hear.

Scenery designer Pam Johnson used five Ionic pillars to suggest the law-&-order conceit of Sicilia. They were moved about in various creative formations, then pushed right off stage altogether when Bohemia's sheep-shearing village scenes took over. 

All of this together produced a joy of sight and sound that enwrapped the action of the principals in a style that was all of crisp and grand and funky, too.

Acting pin-spots : Personally I am a huge fan of Shakespeare's women. I find their roles, generally, more compelling theatre than the villain men they play opposite. TWT in the end is Paulina's play, not Leontes' or Polixenes'. 

While Leontes decompensates into a psychotic fit, it is Paulina masterfully executed by Lois Anderson who has the play's best lines, no question. 

What better than this to her liege Leontes : "Thy tyranny / Together with thy jealousies / Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle / For girls of nine -- O think what they have done, / And then run mad indeed, stark mad : for all / Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it." My my my what stuff.

Lois Anderson as Paulina leads Perdita (Kaitlin Williams) and Chorus in triumphant cheer at play's end.Photo: David Blue  Image Design : Jason Keel
Anderson was matched by Laara Sadiq's interpretation of Camillo. Her execution was equally powerful stuff both in her anger and in her romantic heartedness toward the characters Leontes and Polixenes wished harm to.

Delightful turns by all on stage, but particular shout-outs to the three funnest characters across the night, David M. Adams as the old Shepherd (Perdita's foster dad) and Chris Cochrane as Clown, his son. Ben Elliott's Autolycus goof was sheer treat to watch, though Director Gibson still alas! seems unable to resist some farty stage business. Cheap sight gag that cheapens the show.

Who gonna like : Winter's Tale appeals in part because unlike Lear, kingly royal rage attacks in this case don't kill off the entire family, just one. The fun of what here is Act 2 -- the Bohemian sheep fluffery, the whimsical wizardous bear by creators Heidi Wilkinson & Frances Henry, the daffodil songs, the romance between "Doricles" (Adam Eckhart) and Perdita (Kaitlin Williams) -- oh such juicy wonderment all.

Taken together -- the casting, the acting, the sets, the music, the costumes, the choreography, the puppets -- this is about as big a bang for a Bard buck as I've seen on the mainstage in the five years I've been reviewing their shows. 

Want some Othello-lite mixed with a splash of the whimsy of Merry Wives? You can't go wrong here!

Particulars :  Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Christopher Gaze Artistic Director. At the BMO MainStage tent, Vanier Park. Performances : 40 shows between now and its September 22nd close. Schedule & ticket information @  Run-time 2-hours, 45-minutes including intermission.

Production crew :  Director Dean Paul Gibson.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Composer / Sound Designer Malcolm Dow.  Puppet Design & Construction Heidi Wilkinson, Frances Henry.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Choreography Tracey Power.  Physical Theatre Choreographer Wendy Gorling.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Directing Apprentice Robinson Wilson.

Performers :  Lois Anderson (Paulina).  Ian Butcher (Polixenes).  Kevin MacDonald (Leontes).  Serena Malani (Hermione).  Parmiss Sehat (Mamillius).  Laara Sadiq (Camillo).  Amber Lewis (Emilia).  Ashley O'Connell (Rogero).  Andrew Wheeler (Antigonus).  Julien Galipeau (Cleomenes).  Amber Lewis (Dion).  David M. Adams (Shepherd).  Chris Cochrane (Clown, Shepherd's son).  Austin Eckert (Florizel).  Kaitlin Williams (Perdita).  Ben Elliott (Autolycus).  Amber Lewis (Dorcus).  Permiss Sehat (Mopsa).  Members of the Company (Sicilian lords, ladies, officials, guards, gaolers, mariners, bohemian shepherds and citizens).


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Much Ado is rich silly rom-com froth @ Bard
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & 
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Trickery. Knavery. Mistaken identity. Scheming. Masques and miscues. All elements of both live theatre and film-making. Such stuff informs the set, lit.-&-fig, for Bard on the Beach's premiere 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing.

The characters of Benedick and Beatrice are two of the Bard's favourite lovers. Their sarcastic thrusts & parries back & forth seem tailor-made for 20th Century Fox's Liz and her twice-to-be hubby Dick, he of Eddie Fisher cuckold fame back in the time of Cleopatra.

But eight-season Bard vet John Murphy mounts the current set not in Hollywood, rather in Frederico Fellini's world of 1950 Rome instead : all the Billy Bard characters Murphy directs are filmmakers, studio chiefs, actors and assorted hangers-on in a mock-up mime of Marcello Mastroianni's celluloid La Dolce Vita.

Benedick (Kevin MacDonald) spins filmmaker Don Pedro (Ian Butcher) an arty tale or two.
Photo : David Blue    Image Design : Jason Keel
How it's all put together : Meanwhile Wiki tells us that "nothing", in Shakespeare's time, was a near homonym for "noting", which meant to overhear plus gossip plus rumour as well as "to take note of". And so it is with MAAN : a mostly comic romance with hints of Iago-style evil as well as countless references to horns & cozening & chicanery that Shakespeare loved to tittle his Elizabethan fans with. To make "much ado" about romantic love that is nothing if not paradox. E.g. how prescient and wise that church vows mention "for better" only a wee breath away from "for worse".

So here we have Leonato (Andrew Wheeler) as a film studio head. His headstrong niece Beatrice (Amber Lewis) loves to snipe at the famous actor Benedick (Kevin MacDonald) who has arrived in town with filmmaker Don Pedro (Ian Butcher) and rising star Claudio (Julien Galipeau). Claudio is instantly smitten with Leonato's daughter Hero (Parmiss Sehat). But Don Pedro's sister Dona Johnna (Lara Sadiq) hates her brother and sheerly-for-sibling-spite sets chins to wagging with doubts about Hero's virginity. The Claudio-Hero nuptials collapse. A funeral ensues. At least for awhile. Lest it be Much Ado About Something.

Beatrice (Amber Lewis), Hero (Parmiss Sehat) & Margaret (Kaitlin Williams) share disbelief at what Hero's betrothed Claudio reveals as their wedding starts.  Photo : David Blue    Image Design : Jason Keel
Production values that shine through : Shakespeare's often "ambiguous gender" characterizations may have been borne of his all-male-only casts. Or he was 400 years ahead of current feminism. In MAAN, Beatrice constantly cries how she yearns to be a man and teach that gender a thing or two about toughness and taking charge.

Other familiar tropes of the Bard present themselves, too. Lear's suffocating snit at daughter Cordelia had fatal consequences family-wide : all died. So Leonato's rant after her canceled wedding ceremony is nowhere near equal. Still, instantly he forsakes Hero over murmers of her "foul, tainted flesh" fed him by Claudio. And says with all the force of Lear, though, happily, not the same result : "Hence, let her die!" This is where suspending disbelief comes in handy with WS.

For his part, W. H. Auden in a 1946 lecture is reported to have said of Benedick and Beatrice : "They are the characters of Shakespeare we'd most like to sit next to at dinner." Hmnnn. For me it would be identical to the choice of sitting next to Frank and Claire Underwood of House of Cards fame : to her, assuredly, to him not as eagerly so.  Beatrice's smart put-downs & quips remind me of facing nightly dinner table conversations with a Phi Beta Kappa mom + three National Honor Society older sisters at home in the 50's.

The fun WS intended is grasped by Director Murphy and his choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg admirably. Playful blocking on an imagined movie sound stage -- minimalist scenery and props but maximum pirouettes and playground whirligig as the cast moves the stage stuff whimsically & spontaneously & purposefully all about. Costumes by Christine Reimer were striking : black-&-white like a Fellini movie of yore until the prospect of love, marriage and sex take more serious hold in the script. Then lots of sporty colours on jaunty casual bistro-type threads.

Acting pin-spots :  This show is about Beatrice and Benedick.  Amber Lewis as Beatrice quite grabbed the limelight as between the two with her waspish gibes and taunts throughout. But Kevin MacDonald as Benedick had his own charming zingers, too : "Thou and I are too wise to love peaceably," he suggests at the end. A portent, not doubt, of their future.

The "early Iago" treachery of Dona Johnna is rightly, I think, given almost flip treatment by the director. (Have to say I did find Laara Sadiq somewhat shrill and shouty and not altogether easy on the ears.)

As Leonato's brother Antonio, David M. Adams had numerous choice moments, while Ashley O'Connell's Constable Dogberry was precisely the malapropist delight WS designed. His repeated "He called me an ass!" protestations to Leonato were choice.

Playing Margaret, Kaitlin Williams' cheeky ironic call-out & flirtation with Benedick in Act 2 was choice & cheery character control + delivery. Brava! for an utterly fun bit. 

David M. Adams (Antonio) leads the troupe in a bit of Hey! Nonny, nonny shots at men's inherent peccadilloes & shortcomings that was fun indeed.     Photo : David Blue   Image Design : Jason Keel
Who gonna like : One critic I read gushed that MAAN is his favourite of all favourite Billy Bard scripts. Personally I find Merry Wives more consistently funny and without the faux-Iago piece that interjects an anger & solemnity into the silly goings-on that others, too, might find a bit jarring and off-stride.

But the casting of this show was smart and mostly spot-on. That,  coupled with choreography that is catchy, there's a spare minimalist set of klieg lights, muffled boom mic and garden trellis the main features. With all the projected movie posters behind, it's visually another Winner! for Bard.  MAAN lives up to its title for sure, and it drew vigorous and deserved applause, cheers & whistles at its blustery, Juneuary ON tonight.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Christopher Gaze Artistic Director. At the BMO mainstage tent, Vanier Park. Performances : 65 shows between now and September 23rd closing night. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.orgRun-time 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director John Murphy. Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director  Josh Reynolds.  Composer / Sound Designer Murray Price.  Projection Designer Corwin Ferguson.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill. Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Directing Apprentice Nicole Anthony.  Directing Apprentice Toby Berner.

Performers :  David M. Adams (Antonio / Seacoal).  Lois Anderson (Ursula, Sexton : June 1 - Aug. 6).  Ian Butcher (Don Pedro).  Chris Cochrane (Verges, Friar, Messenger, Gravekeeper).  Austin Eckert (Hugh Oatcake, Page).  Ben Elliott (Borachio, musician).  Julian Galipeau (Claudio).  Amber Lewis (Beatrice).  Jennifer Lines (Ursula, Sexton : August 8 - Sept. 23).  Kevin MacDonald (Bennedick).  Serana Malani (Conrade).  Ashley O'Connell (Dogberry).  Laara Sadiq (Dona Johnna).  Parmiss Sehat (Hero).  Andrew Wheeler (Leonato).  Kaitlin Williams (Margaret). 


Thursday, 8 June 2017

The Game of Love and Chance = fun nonsense
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night 
& those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Is it possible for two people to fall in love in spite of the fact they purposely set out to deceive & manipulate one another from the get-go? This is the conceit of Pierre de Marivaux's 1730 commedia dell'arte bit of flimflam being rekindled by the United Players. PdM's style became known as maurivaudage -- one that "signifies a flirtatious bantering tone". Comedy of manners is a related term : style-&-panache triumph over substance.  

With dad Orgon's permission, the about-to-be betrothed Sylvia switches character with her feisty servant Lisette in order to better observe her dad's choice of hubby for her, Dorante, in action. Dad knows -- but she doesn't -- that he has done the same, for the same reason, with his harlequinesque manservant Arlequino. Dorante is introduced as Arlequino's valet "Bourgignon". So it's snobs trying to act like servants and servants having to fake being their sophisticated mistresses & masters.

Arlequino (Matt Loop) & Rebecca Husain (Lisette) clearly delight in the task of acting like their upper class bosses.  Nancy Caldwell photo.
When Dorante ultimately reveals his noble DNA to Sylvia, thinking she is a servant girl, Sylvia being headstrong decides to test how genuine his love for her actually is. Will he risk his inheritance to marry her thinking she is of lesser pedigree ? What fun teasing the lovelorn Dorante she will have. Not hard to see where all this might lead.

How it's all put together :  This is pre-revolutionary France, not to forget. Fifty years on one imagines Dickens' Madame Defarge knitting up orders for Robespierre to march all of the characters, aristos and servantry both, straight to the Place de la Concorde to part company with their heads. But in 1730 the more innocent funnery is whether characters from underclass downstairs can find true love with someone from upstairs. Will passion triumph over reason, sacre bleu ?

Dad Orgon (Peter Robbins) dishes out no end of his considered fatherly advice to his daughter Sylvia (Elizabeth Willow).  Nancy Caldwell photo.

Identity, class, character, love everlasting, love-on-a-hunch -or- just plain idle foolishness? These are the cultural strains being played out in silly metier by Monsieur Marivaux. Director Brian Parkinson has elected to use Canadian Nicolas Billon's script translation. He notes, "We've set it in Canada in the 1920's, in the milieu of the French, so the French names make sense in that setting, and to a current day audience, the social issues have more relevance coming from the 1920's than they might from the 1730's."  

Production values that shine through :  While immensely popular among the hoi-polloi in France in pre-Revolution times, the philosopher Voltaire for his part was a constant harp and critic of Marivaux. Charles Spencer in The Telegraph a dozen years ago noted : "His plays about love, deception and the mysterious promptings of the human heart are seen as excessively precious, a view shared by Voltaire, who famously lampooned the Gallic gab of marivaudage as the art of 'weighing flies' eggs on scales made from a spider's web'." Arch and a bit pretentious in its reach, Voltaire's mixed metaphor is nevertheless a sentiment many might share today.

Wiki tells us the original script was a 3-act romantic comedy. Yipes. Rightly, brightly and wisely so, M. Billon in his translation has chopped probably 60% of the original and condensed the catchy foolishness to some 80 minutes in one act (whose opening exposition and final resolution could, however, still benefit from a bit of further diet and shaping). 

All that said, there is charm and tease and titillation in the show that are helped and enhanced by designer Sandy Margaret's stylish ersatz Mount Royal apartment replete with silver gramophone, granite floors bordered with polished oak effects plus period settees, armchairs and fashionable light fixtures. Costuming by Linda Begg fit the times nicely -- Arlequino's argyle particularly a choice nod to the harlequin history in theatre at play here.

Dorante (Callum Gunn) thinks Arlequino (Matt Loop) might be having just a bit too much fun playing aristocrat.   Nancy Caldwell photo.
Acting pin-spots :  In the original and earlier English translations, the role of Lisette (Rebecca Husain) is given immense prominence. In the Billon script, she has less air-time than Sylvia (Elizabeth Willow), but her Julia Louise Dreyfuss take-off opposite the prat-falling slapsticky Arlequino (Matt Loop) provided the show's most risible and enjoyable moments. As Dorante / Bourgignon, Callum Gunn brings into play some of the crispest, freshest dictional enunciation heard on local boards this side of Bard chief Christopher Gaze. 

Who gonna like : For a Colorado production in the Fall of '16, a certain critic Bill Wheeler noted : "The Game of Love is a belly laugher timed at 2.5 hours, including two (2) intermissions. It takes that long partly because of all the pauses required to let the laughter die down." Be thankful this isn't that

The dramatic irony / discrepancy-of-awareness schtick -- the audience & certain characters know all along the deceipts being played out that most of the players aren't aware of -- is one that is fun but not gripping or sustaining over the long haul. 

Still and all, these various reservations aside, the United Players production offers up some physical comedy & dialoguic double entendre that over the course of its one act will bring forth belly laughs and moments of glee -- even if, like Shakespeare's Shrew, the social / gender / class milieux of the script is hopelessly out-of-time. Worth a go for sure for an evening's divertissement from the usual inner-&-outer weather -plus- the bonus of a drive home in the dusky daylight of late June.

Particulars :  Produced by United Players of Vancouver.  At the Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street, Vancouver.  Until June 25. Tickets & schedule information 604.224.8007 x.2  CLICK HERE  for on-line tix.  Run-time two hours including intermission. 

Production team :  Director Brian Parkinson.  UPV Artistic Director Andree Karas.  Assistant Director Barbara Ellison.  Set Designer Sandy Margaret.  Lighting Designer Darryl Strahan.  Technical Director Michael Methot.  Costume Designer / Properties Designer Linda Begg.  Sound Designer Sean Anthony.  Stage Manager Jessica Hildebrand.  Production Manager John Harris.

Performers : Simon Garez (Mario).  Callum Gunn (Dorante).  Rebecca Husain (Lisette).  Matt Loop (Arlequino).  Peter Robbins (Orgon).  Elizabeth Willow (Sylvia). 


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Hand of God is puppet silliness writ way large 

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)

Tyrone's shock of red hair reveals his inner me to Sunday schoolers Jason & Jennifer.  David Cooper photo.
From the footlights : What could possibly go wrong with a "puppet ministry" for Sunday schoolers conducted by a middle-age widow in a cheery, chipper Texas church basement? Enter the demon child Tyrone, a hand-held sock puppet that is the creation of the widow's teenage son Jason. Tyrone quickly establishes how he is Jason's alter ego, a frothing, foul-mouthed priapic presence demanding his allotted time on earth.

Jason's dad died six months back from a food-fed heart attack brought on by countless moons of marital misery. Both Jason and mom Margery use the puppet piece as a way to act out their not-very-deeply masqued anxieties and impulses. Death does that to peoples' psyches, and playwright Robert Askins pulls all the right churchy strings taking us there with a delicious mix of hilarity spiked with faux-horror bits.

As oft-noted, obviously, this show can't help but be seen as a nod toward Avenue Q via an extended romp on The Exorcist set too. Oh, sure, big themes such as guilt and hypocrisy and choice-vs-chance and the gap between thought-&-deed, about love, hate, fear, loyalty and loss are looked at, but not at the expense of the acid-tipped comedy Askins intends here the more.

Son Jason and puppet maven Mom Margery share a scary distracted driving moment.  David Cooper photo.

How it's all put together :  By his own admission, the script is based on Askins' experiences as a teenager in the suburban Texas town of Cypress (akin to suppress; repress). A believer in The Jesus Story through Grade 10, Askins, like Jason, does a 180 pirouette and dives into the sulphurous streams of Satan's realm after Dad dies youngish and he blames both God and Mom for his loss. "Sympathy for the Devil" will dance gustily-&-gleefully in your head in short order. It did in mine at least. But if you're of newer vintage than I, you'll no doubt recognize AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" as the show's recessional anthem.

As the puppetteers practice at practicing their skit, Jason's character Tyrone starts popping off about Jason's budding attraction toward Jessica. She's genuinely into the puppetry schtick, while a moody & sulky Timothy attends under duress : mom dumps him there enroute to her AA meeting. The fun of it all is watching Jason flip from his flesh-&-blood mama's boy contralto into Tyrone's Mike Tyson-meets-Anthony Hopkins growly riffs. It is this primary difference from the Avenue Q modality of the actor "being" their puppets that makes Hand to God just that much goofier still. 

Production values that shine through :  Obviously playwright Askins wants audiences to explore their own aggressive, sexually-charged tendencies that are normally squelched in polite company. Until we get to act them out thanks to some silly sox and related role-plays that conspire so we drop our normal personae and play out The Other that lurks in our soul, too. 

The play's promotional materials pose the quasi-metaphysical question whether we are born innocent in a state of grace and then flail-&-fail in an inevitable fall after a wee bite of apple. Or are we fundamentally corrupt and mediocre souls who only occasionally manage to rise from the muck and mire. Frankly neither, i.m.o. We just is what we is, say I : it's DNA, culture, a fat bit of chance, and then how we respond to all that bedevils us. But whether we blame God, blame Satan, blame the Church or just curse Fate when our lives go sideways, they're all just stories we're stickin' to.  

The Devil is in dreams & details. Scary propositions both.  David Cooper photo.
Set designer Brian Ball earns kudos for his church basement rendition replete with mac-tac exit door translucent stick-ons, praise Jesus posters and such. I could smell the must and mothballs of my home church back in the Midwest. Effective dramatic lighting by Jeff Harrison that accompanied James Coomber's electro-pop organ backdrop throughout. Meanwhile the BMO proscenium set was squished to the size of my old fave the G.I. Revue stage. Bravo! 

Acting pin-spots :  As Jason / Tyrone, Oliver Castillo left everyone in the house breathless with his constant role & voice switches with the devil affixed to his right arm. While occasionally the voice-flips overlapped, generally speaking a tour de force outing as complex as it was no doubt exhausting. As Mother Margery Stevens, Bard favourite Jennifer Lines' tempestuous, sexy, guilt-riven, shouty outing was her most expressive and compelling performance yet on Vancouver boards. Her seduction of the horny teen Timothy (Mike Gill) was even better than the football coach's wife Cloris Leachman doing Timothy Bottoms in that old classic The Last Picture Show. The Texan accents were a bit spotty-&-irregular tonite, as was the odd timing of some of the blood-spurty gore. But such are wee quibbles. 

Who gonna like : Hand of God will play best to folks who have not had a dose or two of Avenue Q first, I would say. The puppet-pornucopia bit works best as a surprise antic. It doesn't entertain as much when it's a been there, done that experience that comes off as derivative. Still, Hand of God is nothing if not a robust and raw and raucous riot of aggression and violent sexual urges let loose as comedy. Pinnochio has come a long way, baby, and if profanity and sacrilege are your thing, you won't want to miss the ride on this bucking bronco of a script that finds a loveable Satan who spit right smartly in my lapsed-Baptist eye. 

Particulars :  Script by Playwright Robert Askins. Produced by the Arts Club Theatre.  At the Goldcorp Stage, BMO Theatre Stage, 1st Avenue at Columbia. On until June 25, 2017. Run-time 110 minutes, including 20 minute intermission. Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning ACBO @ 604.687.1644.  

Production team :  Director Stephen Drover.  Set Designer Brian Ball.  LCostume Designer Ines Ortner.  Lighting Designer Jeff Harrison.  Sound Designer James Coomber.  Puppet Designer & Coach Jeny Cassady.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Liz King.  Apprentice Stage Manager Koh McRadu.

Performers :  Oliver Castillo (Jason; Tyrone).  Mike Gill (Timothy).  Julie Leung (Jessica).  Jennifer Lines (Margery).  Shekhar Paleja (Pastor Greg).  

Friday, 26 May 2017

Outside Mullingar a fable that stretches our hearts
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)

An Irish tale of two generations starring Ron Reed, John Emmet Tracy, Rebecca deBoer, & Erla Faye Forsyth.
Kayla Heselwood photo.
From the footlights :  Farm life in the Irish Midlands circa Y2K times. Life-long neighbours Rosemary Muldoon and Anthony Reilly are both spinsterish, he 42, she 35. Rosemary suppresses an abiding attraction for Anthony since they were kids despite the fact he knocked her down & broke her crown when she was but six. 

For his part Anthony not only hates the aching drudge of farming chores but comes off a bit daft as well. He's fagged and bored by each day's routines, though he performs his labours & burdens dutifully to keep the 120-year-old family place marginally sustainable. What he loves most, however, is hearing his fields talk to him. "Da" threatens to disinherit the unmarried, childless Anthony and offer the farm up to his American nephew Adam instead.

In the dim, blue murk of rain the talk is mostly melancholy stuff of loves lost, despond & death -- the yin opposite Irish-jigs-&-beer that are the country's defining yang. Sentiment being sentiment, however, we sense a happy ending in the making from this John Patrick Shanley script (remember his Moonstruck with Nick Cage & Cher?)

How it's all put together : The set-up toggles between a quick-tongued and belligerent Rose (Rebecca deBoer) swapping chit-chat while puffing her pipe out under the barn eaves with the dour, closed-off Anthony (John Emmet Tracy). "People don't appeal to me that much," he tells her. She flips back "That's normal. Who likes people? Nobody." A wee taste of Harold Pinter re-born a Celt in such exchanges. It is clear Rose & Anthony's trek to each other's heart will be more goat track than evergreen lane strewn with petals.

Tentative, skeptical life-long relations simmer slowly between farmers Rose & Anthony.
Kayla Heselwood photo.
Meanwhile in the farmhouse kitchen aging dad Tony (Ron Reed) muses over tea with Rebecca's mama Aoife (pron. EEfa) played by Erla Faye Forsyth. Given they just buried her husband Christopher,  it's obvious the measuring tape of life is nearing its final few millimetres for both of them, too. They ponder -- with wit-&-wonder (some call it blarney) -- just how soon their own life stories will continue only in someone's memory. A land-locked strip of disputed land threatens in any event to scuttle Tony's sell-the-farm plans.

When Rebecca learns of the potential disinheritance to the American relation wanting to find a wife on the Emerald Isle, she pounces. She seethes, storms, unleashes a torrent of sarcasm to match the near-constant rain around them. 

How does a happy ending emerge from such as this? Because it's the only alternative rom-com narratives ever offer up. And fitting divertissement in the chaotic, cynical times that confront us regardless of Mr. Shanley's benign but somewhat contrived script & characters. 

Tobacco in the rain for Rosemary is better than tea & sympathy inside. 
Kayla Heselwood photo.
Production values that shine through :  "For a moment, through the spell of storytelling, I had a home. I was Irish. And then the moment faded. That's how it is with writers. We keep getting evicted from our own imaginations. We are wanderers, dreaming, and then our dreams become real and push us out." So wrote 60-something poet cum playwright Shanley about Outside Mullingar in a New York Times squib in 2014.

At times I thought I was knee-deep in the world of fable and was put to mind of Zuangzi's famous butterfly dream and the riddle he posed : "Now I do not know if I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly or whether now I am a butterfly dreaming I am a man."

Shanley strives to tell a tale built on the lilt and lyrics of bucolic farm life in Ireland. He relies on stuff of life lived there as well as certain stage stereotypes. It is a fictional invention whose actors under director Angela Konrad drive the storyline inexorably forward to its self-obvious conclusion. 

Assisting mightily was the timepiece farmhouse kitchen set by Carolyn Rapanos that was choice and earthy. But it was the faux board-&-batten translucent barn wall lit up first with rain and thunderstorms, then a firmament of fake stars followed by bursts of sunlight as imagined and executed by Lauchlin Johnston that stole the show for visual effect and mood.

In Konrad's program Note, thus : "Even if we have never been to Ireland, our souls know this place. The fabled land casts a spell even while the commonness of the kitchen calls us us home."

Acting pin-spots : As noted above, the actors drive this script, not vice-versa as is often the case. Most of the dialogue is just that, the cast hived off into two's to tell their tales. Humour, irony, pathos, memory, the need for connectedness, the fear of intimacy, family feuds and forgiveness, a swack of "cracked" people looking up and wondering why-&-wherefore -- it's all there in a metaphorical Irish stew that is spicy and tasty and designed to please one's taste for poetic schmaltz.

Speaking of charm, this reviewer found Ron Reed as the Reilly patriarch Tony at the absolute pinnacle of his character-acting prowess, but Erla Faye Forsyth as Mama Aoife nipped niftily at his heels in chasing down Shanley's dialogue delights.

But of course the gist of the play is on the unrequited would-be, wannabe lovers. Act 2 is just them pursuing grace after their folks have bequeathed each of them their patch of mortal coil. Undiminished kudos to both Mr. Tracy as Anthony and Ms. DeBoer as Rosemary for gesticulation, stage business and dialogue dynamics that they obviously possess inherently but were magnified so creatively and imaginatively under the guiding hand of Director Konrad. 

Who gonna like : Outside Mullingar is a rom-com, no doubt, but less a drama than a tone poem, a paean to the idylls and charms of an imagined bucolic inland isle. There are kindred pockets geographically here in B.C., no question, but not the heritage component and idiosyncratic stereotypes European olde sodde provides.

These characters created by playwright Shanley work their way into our hearts because they breathe : genuine hopes and pain and loss and bewilderment are central to each of them. Which is way more than can be said for 95% of t.v. or cinema fare these days. For a momentary embrace of such emotions and values, Outside Mullingar is precisely the ticket you need to punch.

Particulars.  At Pacific Theatre, 12th @ Hemlock. Performances until June 10th.  Schedules and tickets contact the Box Office @ 604.731.5518 -or- online @ the Pacific Theatre website.

Production crew. Written by John Patrick Stanley.  Directed by Angela Konrad.  Set Designer Carolyn Rapanos.  Costume Designer Sabrina Evertt.  Lighting Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Sound Designer Julie Casselman.  Properties Manager Jenny Jantsch.  Stage Manager Linzi Both.  Assistant Stage Manager Jess Garden.  Dialect Coach Adam Lane Bergquist. 

Actors :  Rebecca DeBoer (Rosemary).  Erla Faye Forsyth (Aoife).  Ron Reed (Tony).  John Emmet Tracy (Anthony). 


Thursday, 18 May 2017

Million Dollar Quartet rocks a concert of Wow!
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)

Jonas Shandel (Johnny Cash), Steven Greenfield (Jerry Lee Lewis), Kale Penny (Carl Perkins)
and Erik Fraser Gow (Elvis Presley) are the lyric crazy showboaters front-&-centre in M$Q.          
David Cooper photo.
From the footlights : M$Q starts here : a jukebox musical about Sun Records. Which was a boutique recording label owned by Sam Phillips in Memphis. Phillips had Carl Perkins as a mainstay recording artist. On December 4, 1956 Phillips had arranged to have Perkins meet another rising young talent from cotton-pickin' country, Jerry Lee Lewis. Oh yeah. And a couple other of Sun Records musicians were expected to wander by just for hellry -- Elvis Presley & Johnny Cash.

And they did. But they didn't spend the afternoon jamming all their greatest hits the way this Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux script does. Reportedly they mostly strummed-&-hummed-&-keyboarded a bunch of folk tunes and church-inspired gospel spirituals. 

But a folk / gospel re-do of that remarkable pre-Xmas '56 afternoon wouldn't put butts in Y2K live theatre seats, Escott and Mutrux knew. So not surprisingly what M$Q brings is a night of spirited rockin' shout-outs of the Hit Parade chart-toppers that everyone who loved that epoch will hoot-&-holler-&-standing-to. 

Mid-50's rockamania is what Million Dollar Quartet is all about.
               David Cooper photo.
How it's all put together : The show kicks off with the company rousing the crowd with Perkin's iconic Blue Suede Shoes that Elvis "stole" from him and made famous in '56 : I was in Grade 6, had a pair of Buster Brown b.s.s.'s my older sisters insisted Mom buy for me -- and Yes! everyone took great delight to step on 'em. 

Next come a host of hits between explanatory monologues spliced in by Phillips (Graham Coffeng) that tie together the Sun Records' mottled story + the history of how he met & nurtured these lads one-on-one, song-by-song. Also some requisite Aw shucks! nitter-natter and wee-jealousy fits between ongoing feast of guitar, piano, bass and drum riffs the Sun Studio group puts out. 

But no question it's the cuts themselves chosen by Mutrux-&-Escott that steal the night : Folsom Prison Blues; Long Tall Sally; Great Balls of Fire; Hound Dog; Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On! -plus- Elvis's ostensible girl friend named Dyanne (Lauren Jackson) doing Peggy Lee's torch song Fever as well as pop singer Gale Storm's cover of I Hear You Knockin' to add some welcome sex appeal.

Steven Greenfield as Jerry Lee Lewis is the antic centrepiece in much of M$Q's music tribute.  
David Cooper photo.
What the show brings to the stage :  It's the selection of songs that explains the who / what / why / where / when & how of these unassuming ultra-gifted fellows fetched up in Dixie's fly-over-America. How they came to show off all the juice-&-joy-&-jam that set the rock-n-roll stage.

From Elvis's hip-swivel style to Lewis's manic gymnastic keyboarding to Cash's raw jailhouse stuff. On to Bo Diddley to Chuck Berry to Little Richard to Roy Orbison to the heartbreaking Feb. 3, 1959 Clear Lake, Iowa plane crash martyr squadron of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper J. P. Richardson and 
all the "Bye, Bye Miss American Pie \ The day the music died" wannabes who've entertained us ever since.  

Suffice to remind readers of the famous Sir Paul McCartney tribute to what Sun Records brought the world : "If there had never been a Carl Perkins there would never have been the Beatles."

Not much purpose in detailing how Phillips had to sell Elvis's Sun Records contract to RCA in New York to stay afloat financially. Or how Johnny's expiring Sun contract & crescendoing hits would catapult him from humble Memphis to Columbia Records in Nashville. How crushed Sam Phillips (Graham Coffeng) was at the news. [The script tends toward tedious on this topic.] Here's a peek at what makes the show sparkle.

Production values that shine through :  At the hands of veterans, Ted Roberts' Sun Studio set with Gerald King's rock concert lighting make every square inch of the Stanley's 75-foot proscenium explode with colour and vibrancy. Add the musical staging by Valerie Easton's invariably deft and creative hand. She moves the lads up down over-&-around the set and one another -- not to mention atop their pet instruments as well. What you get are visual effects that are grabby and sure and constant.

Acting pin-spots :  The challenge for any director in staging the Escott/Mutrux book is to find actors who approximate the characters whose youthful, brash & ambitious souls they are trying to imitate in song. 

Jerry Lee Lewis (Steven Greenfield) was colloquially known as "Killer", famous for jumping all over his piano, sitting and standing on it, kicking the keys with his feet, playing them behind his back. "The motherthumpiest piano player you ever did see!" he chortles. Greenfield must have watched countless YouTube out-takes to master the act as he does. (His malignant, anarchist carrot-top hair was pure hoot to watch doing its thing trying to keep up with his gyroantics.)

As Johnny Cash -- "The Man in Black" -- Jonas Shandel evinces all the baritone/bass nuances from the range of gospel, folk, country & rock influences Cash was so good at delivering. He also convinced us, sort of, about his torn Christian soul troubling itself whether all of this irreverent shin-dig stuff was perhaps the Devil's doing. 

Elvis's uptempo style was often known as "hillbilly bop". And though EP hated the nickname of the day "Elvis the Pelvis", Erik Fraser Gow pulled off many of his moves remarkably well. (His pompadour hairpiece was less a good match.)

For his part Carl Perkins (Kale Penny) was known for his blues vamp touches. Phillips calls him the Father of Rockabilly. Loved his gabardine slacks. Kind of matched his Sun Studio stage persona at times.

From my perspective, meanwhile, Lauren Jackson as Elvis' squeeze Dyanne came close to stealing the limelight from the wildly effervescent Greenfield as Lewis and from Shandel who was "closest to the real thing" in his cut at Cash. Jackson maintained her perky, snappy, chipper personality throughout and had rich pipes to boot. Pure engaging charm in her crisp red dress atop timely petticoats six feet across.

Who gonna like : Greg Lake of the band EL&P once said "The human voice is a matter of the expression of passion in the understanding of the human condition." Synonyms for passion include such feelings as zeal, rage, craving, anger, hunger, yearning, gusto, frenzy, and zest. These are the qualities of early rock-&-roll that struck deep into our hearts and souls back then, do now. Powerful but simple stuff, not cynical in the least.

Got rhythm? Got a jones for genuine rock tunes? Want just plain fun music to cheer you and make you clap loudly and whistle and cheer? No question at all : Best bang for the buck in sheer fun, sport-&- amusement since ACT's Black-&-Gold Revue from 30 years back.

I usually don't gush-gush, but this is a Do! Not! Miss! musical stage event in Vancouver for folks who love this heart-pumping music, folks who now and then hanker for the simpler more innocent times that once were and won't likely come this way again.

N.B. Addendum : Special note must be made of Todd Biffard's turn as the show's sessional drummer. Late small-club jazz impresario Ted McCann used to aver there are two kinds of drummers in bands : those who are wood-choppers and those who finesse the skins instead. "Drummer!" was the first word I wrote on my notepad as the show opened. Without a doubt Mr. Biffard is the best I have ever seen or heard in a Vancouver stage musical. Finesse? Completely exquisitely so. A large part of my Wow! from this musical feast.

Particulars :  Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.  On until July 9.  Run-time 90 minutes plus intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.  Original concept & direction Floyd Mutrux.  Book by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux.

Production team :  Bill Millerd, Director.  Zachary Stevenson, Musical Director.  Valerie Easton, Musical Staging.  Ted Roberts, Set Designer.  Barbara Clayden, Costume Designer.  Gerald King, Lighting Designer.  Caryn Feher, Stage Manager.  Ronaye Haynes, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Mathew J. Baker (Brother Jay, based on Carl's brother Clayton, on bass).  Jonas Shandel (Johnny Cash).  Lauren Jackson (Dyanne E. Girlfriend).  Todd Biffard (W. S. 'Fluke' Holland) on drums.  Steven Greenfield (Jerry Lee Lewis).  Kale Penny (Carl Perkins).  Graham Coffeng (Sam Phillips).  Erik Fraser Gow (Elvis Presley).