Sunday, 10 February 2019

Much Ado About Nothing rings out in classic, clever Classic Chic style
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)

Whether as in Billy Bard's time men play women or in 2019 women play men, certain tell-tale Shakespearean memes are an "evermore, evermore" proposition : Trickery. Knavery. Mistaken identity. Scheming. Masques and miscues. 

And whether done razzle-dazzle in an ersatz Frederico Fellini set (Bard, 2017) or stripped to the bare essentials as Classic Chic does in 2019, the storyline changes not : men are fickle souls, their prospective spouses victims of whim, instant jealousy and rage. Soldiers they may be, but their tough hides mask skin that is thin indeed. 

On view is the fourth production by this troupe of women whose tag-line is "Chicks bringing class to the classics." Now that slogan may not meet 3rd gen. feminist standards, but its tongue-in-cheekiness reflects why they are one of my local favourites. 

Director Rebecca Patterson's largely barefoot version at The Cultch Historic Theatre accomplishes lots with little : virtually no set at all other than scalloped floor-to-ceiling curtains and an Ikea coffee table. That's it. (So little not even a Set Designer credit in the program.)

Cousins Beatrice (Christina Wells Campbell) and Hero (Sereana Malanai) do a whirligig garden caper as the men who will chase them till the women catch them come home from war and have their eyes on a lasting peace. 
Photo credit from CC files
What strikes one instantly is how having such limited visuals to distract (amuse, engage, catch) the eye allows, nay, Demands! that the viewer pay particular attention to the dialogue and all its 17th century intrigue & playfulness. 

Parallel love stories unfold. Teen-age chums who survived on sarcastic spittle back and forth -- Benedick and Beatrice -- are now 20-somethings orbiting anew around one another. They still mock and tease and jibe back and forth ceaselessly. Until they run so fast away from one another they crash together on the roundabout. As BLR has noted previously of these two  characters, it is classic Liz Taylor meets Richard Burton stuff. 

Co-founders of Classic Chic, Christine Wells Campbell and Corina Akeson, are Beatrice and Benedick. What struck this viewer particularly in CC's version is how more-than-equal Beatrice is in wit and cunning and verbal swordplay to the macho and vain Benedick. (His Latin-root name was surely not chosen by that clever scamp BillyB by accident.) 

Don Pedro (Kayla Deorksen), dad Leonato (Barbara Pollard) and Claudio (Adele Noronha) conspire to get Benedick to believe the elusive Beatrice has the hots for him.
Photo credit from CC files
They have a "merry war" between them. He predicts that should he ever fall he will be "horribly in love". By play's end he says "I suffer love in spite of my heart." And Beatrice responds : "You and I are too wise to woo peaceably." They wind up dragged to the altar still hissing their charmed reluctance that presages a life of endless spicy dialogue.

The core of the plot, however, involves wartime buddy Claudio (Adele Noronha) who falls instantly arse-over-elbow for Beatrice's cousin Hero (Sereana Malani) upon returning from the wars with battalion chief Don Pedro (Kayla Deorksen). They are so smitten they are to be married in a heartbeat. But Don Pedro's bastard brother Don John (Sara Vickruck) is wracked by bile, poison and vengeance. Anything remotely happy he feels an obligation to spoil.

And spoil he does with malevolent chicanery and deceit : soon Claudio and Don Pedro think she's a cheap tramp. Her dad Leonato (Barbara Pollard) wishes her dead. But at the urging of the kindly Friar Francis (Bronwen Smith), her death is faked until Hero's trumped-up infidelity can be found out. Soon she is "redeemed" and resurrected just in time for her and her cousin to dance down the aisle with their men in a double wedding.

An interesting wee twist at show's end : Billy cuts it all quick with a messenger announcing how the treacherous Don John has been captured. Don Pedro moves instinctively to intercept his judas brother. Benedick restrains him : "Think not of him till tomorrow, I'll devise thee brave punishments for him." As the pipers pipe and the wedding parade proceeds to the wings, director Patterson's version, however, has Don Pedro and Don John share a substantial and forgiving hug downstage.

So. Two primary takeaways at least from this CC production. Beatrice is no flippant glib lighthead in the least -- as her part is often directed to be -- and revenge is not high virtue, rather forgiveness is.

Perhaps most fun schtick in Patterson's staging is having Benedick crawl up the aisles and across three rows of seats as he listens to Claudio, Don Pedro and Leonato scheme with a tale they know he hears hiding in the garden. They succeed :  albeit somewhat quizzically, he now is led to believe Beatrice actually loves him. Which is a classic factoid : it stands a 50% chance of being, or not being, true.

But equally fun is when Beatrice squirms squeezing and squinched under the Ikea bench in the garden while Hero and maidservant Ursula (CK Kaur) sit on it and blithely spin a tale about how crazy and bewitched Benedick has become for her in recent daze. Turnabout is fair play.

As Leonato, Pollard delivers a powerful performance, while Kayla Deorksen's Don Pedro was across the night a delight of facial gesticulation. Ever-expressive and slick in delivery, both Akeson and Campbell impressed their ample talents on the crowd. Sara Vickruck's twin turns as the craven and pusillanimous Don John -- plus her priceless delivery of constable Dogberry with his endless thesaurus of malapropisms -- were each notable for her precise and clipped projection. 

On the production side of the ledger, special mention to costume designer Sherry Randall's inspired choice of Nova Scotia sou-wester gear for Insp. Dogberry's night watch crew. As perfect as it was surprising!  For her part, CJ McGillivray chose "world music" numbers that were fresh, accessible and various in style. A more unique cover of The Animals' 1965 classic "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" [see Addendum] cannot exist anywhere. And what an understatement for the MAAN script to boot.
That I am an unapologetic and shameless fan of the Classic Chic clique is obvious. They always deliver their stuff with pizazz and punch and poignance. If Billy B. had men do women, these women do men even badder than him. This show I would go see again with neither tittle nor jot of hesitation. Brava! all.

Particulars :  Written by Bill. Adapted by Rebecca Patterson. Produced by the Classic Chic theatre troupe. Performed at The Cultch. Through February 16th, 2019.  Run-time two hours -plus- intermission. Tickets by phone 604.251.1363 -or- via the internet at the Cultch.  CC's website 

Production crew :  Director Rebecca Patterson.  Composer and Sound Designer CJ McGillivray.  Lighting Designer Jillian White.  Scenic Painter Omanie Elias.  Costume Designer Sherry Randall  Fight Director Rachel Scott.  Choreographer Lisa Goebel.  Stage Manager Ingrid Turk. Assistant Stage Manager Victoria Snashall. Technical Director Nicole Weissmuller.  

Performers :  Corina Akeson (Benedick, Verges).  Christina Wells Campbell (Beatrice, George Seacoal).  Kayla Deorksen (Don Pedro).  CK Kaur (Conrade; Balthasar; Ursula); Nancy Kerr (Antonio, Hugh Oatcake, Sexton).  Serena Malani (Hero, First Watchman).  Adele Noronha (Claudio).  Barbara Pollard (Leonato).  Bronwen Smith (Borachio, Friar Francis).  Victoria Snashall (Boy).  Sarah Vickruck (DonJohn, Dogberry).

Addendum :  Queried by BLR on the subject, Composer & Sound Designer CJ McGillivray had this to say about the musical backdrop to CC's version of MAAN :

These songs were our starting inspiration point for some of the music as they were sourced from Rebecca's immense collection of world music. I then sourced a mix of contemporary music across a broad range of cultures and contrasting genres to flesh out the overall sound design. 

Opening Number:
Ya Gle Bey by Dania Khatib
(a Lebanese singer)

Cover of Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood:
Lolole by Radio Tarifa
(a Spanish world music ensemble combining Flamenco, Arab-Andalusian, Arabian, Moorish and Mediterranean music.)

The Haunting Ballad:
Shir Ha’keshet by Alabina
(a French group that performs a mix of world music including Middle Eastern, Arabic, French, Hebrew and Spanish music)


Saturday, 9 February 2019

Yoga Play plays on heart, soul, money themes
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)

Anyone who has done a community centre class in yoga or pilates or yolates or spynga (spinning & yoga succotash) will find much to laugh about, self-consciously, in Yoga Play. Always in such classes there's a host of outfits made of spandex and lycra and cotton and nylon. Always in various colours atop variously shaped bodies in various states of fitness. Cut-off jeans and Belichek hoodies and worn-out Wigwam sox are nowhere, because who would dare be seen on the scene stitched out like that ?

But cult clothing is only part of the marketing magnetism that reaches powerfully into the pockets of devotees : then there's the mats; the water bottles; the gym bags; the headbands and on-&-on.

Newcomer COO Joan (Lois Anderson) challenges her hot-shot marketing Ivy Leaguers Fred (Derek Chan) and Raj (Chirag Naik) to come up with a marketing scheme to launch some new threads called Joyon. Both Fred and Raj hail from Delaware but rely on their ethnic roots for speedball comic effect.
Photo credit Tim Matheson
All this to serve the main master : a hydra with heads of hope and guilt and fear and belief and doubt and desire -- desire to be, as Dipika Guha puts it, more "authentic". I want a me that that I like better physically, and maybe a piece or two of personal peace in my noisy head and troubled heart. When the Buddha-pose hands-together valediction comes that closes each class -- "Namaste!" -- when we chime it back, reverently, I want to feel "truth" in that moment.

Yoga Play riffs on these social constructs that are central to our age. Its conceit or hook is to filter all of this through the lens of shamelessly grasping corporate greed and its bottom line, its shareholders, its price-to-earnings ratios, its marketing and public relations ploys.

When the pressure mounts, Joan tries to remember some yoga breathing techniques that she drags Raj and Fred into practicing with her as she threatens Raj with dismissal if he doesn't fake some authenticity and truth as a phoney guru. 
Photo credit Tim Matheson
But first, a wee history lesson. Vancouver's Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, went on Bloomberg TV, a business channel, in the Fall of 2013. At issue was the quality of luon, they key fabric in LL's yoga clothing line. People that year complained that the fabric soon became see-through. "It's really about the rubbing through the thighs -- some women's bodies just don't work for it," Wilson remarked with nary a wink or hint of irony. As the expression has it, fat-shaming, size XXL.

In her script, meanwhile, Guha centres the action around a company called JoJomon that also manufactures what the buzzword merchants call "athleisure" clothing. They, too, have had a public relations implosion when their former COO named Brad was quoted widely saying "It was the size of women's thighs that were making the Kayala fabric transparent, not the fabric itself." Scripted 3-4 years after real-life Wilson's gaffe, make-believe Brad's comment was perhaps just artistic coincidence. At worst, faux-plagiarism. Whatever : it is what it is.

The purpose of Yoga Play is more "play" as in riffing and laughing at ourselves over life's myriad ironies than "play" as a dramatic event to be taken seriously. It is satire, slapstick, silliness run riot with a wee hint that a "piece of peace" can be had, too. With a couple of throwaway shout-outs for feminism along the way.

Albeit the cast is four men and two women, it is the women who do the heavy lifting most of the night. As the new JoJomon COO, Joan (Lois Anderson) is an MBA whiz-kid with a head that buzzes from data overload, growth schemes, and hypoventilation that brings on fainting and panic attacks.

Early on we learn of a BBC expose that the Bangladeshi factories used to manufacture its new miracle fabric Joyon are a sea of child labourers, girls aged 9-12 who are little more than slaves. 

Product chief Fred (Derek Chan) screeches to JoJomon's brand rep in Dhaka, Lucy, that "BBC has proof that a lot of those women are twelve, did they look twelve to you? Lucy?!?".  Her response made the whole house feel guilty even as we laughed : "I mean, every one here is quite small...and they cover their heads, a lot of them!"

Soon Joan and her other product marketer Raj (Chirak Naik) are off to L.A. to find a genuine yoga person to become JoJomon's public face. They find 25-year-old Romola (Christine Quintana) who is all effervescence and chipper confidence but just doesn't click with Joan. As Joan stomps out of her studio, Romola loses her cool and spits out "Namaste! you bitch" as the crowd roars.

Shortly the play takes a turn -- a slow, painfully slow turn -- as Guha sends her troupe to India to find a real Yoga master. They find one, a 15-year ascetic bivouac'd on a mountaintop. Turns out he's a Yankee pilgrim from Santa Monica formerly known as Bernard Brown (Shawn Macdonald).

Raj, all Hindu DNA but fetched up in Delaware, is frog-marched into the "real" Yoga master role instead, while Fred feeds him pidgin Hindi. It's all quite a mish-mash of antic nonsense. Best line of the night comes from Raj : "Is there a special place in Hell for those who appropriate their own culture?" he asks rhetorically. "Authenticity" and "truth" for JoJomon are threadbare, it turns out. Regardless, their stocks shoot up. Joan can b-r-e-a-t-h-e ! at last.

Lois Anderson dives headlong into her role as Joan with rapid-fire neurosis at the ready. As Raj, Chirag Naik demonstrates an ever-more-skilled comic presence each Vancouver stage outing, while Christine Quintana as the wannabe enlightened yoga entrepreneur from L.A. was sheer hoot. Shawn Macdonald's video clip of JoJomon president John Dale came close to stealing the show. Throughout, all the cast's footwork and verbal shenanigans were richly supported by Chengyan Boon's lighting and screen projections : his work certainly helped bring together the otherwise almost-too-wide Gateway proscenium stage for this production. 

This mix of corporate promotion of  yoga "class", lit. & fig., blends ironically with people's genuine desire to be more nimble and fit physically and spiritually. It's a paradox that plays itself out through well-threaded gag lines and byplay. While not standing-o fare and a middle that sags, athleisure types of every persuasion will surely jiggle their giggle over Yoga Play.

Particulars :  Produced by Gateway Theatre, Jovanni Sy, outgoing Artistic Director. On at Richmond's Gateway Theatre in Minoru Park next to RGH. Runs until February 16, 2019Tickets & schedule information by phoning Gateway at 604.270.1812 or on-line @  www.gatewaytheatre.comShow-time 125 minutes, one intermission.

Production team :  Director Jovanni Sy.  Set Designer Sophie Tang.  Costume Designer Amy McDougall.  Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler.  Lighting / Video Designer Chengyan Boon.  Yoga Consultant Scheherazaad Cooper. Technical Director Mac Macleod. Technical Director Theodore Sherman. Production Manager Joseph Chung. Stage Manager Susan Miyagishima. Assistant Costume Designer Melissa McCowell. Assistant Sound Designer Sara Rickrack. Production Assistant Madelaine Walker. Props Master Carol Macdonald.  Assistant Stage Manager Koh Lauren Quan. Wig Designer Marie Le Bihan.

Performers :  Lois Anderson (Joan). Harundi V. Bakshi (Guruji). Derek Chan (Fred).  Shawn Macdonald (John Dale / Bernard Brown).  Chirag Naik (Raj).  Christine Quintana (Romola).  


Thursday, 31 January 2019

The Matchmaker is Hello, Dolly's pre-music script 
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)

New York City erupted from a mere 1.2 million souls in 1880 up to 3.4 million by 1900. That salient fact underlies Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. A time Mark Twain referred to as "the gilded age". Hustlers. Schemers. Connivers. They all abound. Enter the enterprising and clever widow Dolly Gallagher Levi, self-appointed marriage arranger from Yonkers, Westchester County -- NYC's so-called "6th borough". 

Dolly meets up with the gentrifying widower Horace Vandergelder (his name parses literally as "a timekeeper who's awash in wealth"). Horace is worth a hefty stash, no question, but he's looking for a last fling at love in all the wrong places. So he contracts with Dolly to find him a dolly of his own. She thinks her very name answers that question right smartly. But she will need all the myriad bluffs and feints of a card shark to get her man who has eyes set on another catch. Fact is his heart is about as cheap as his wallet in this quest.

Add in a couple of scheming shop stewards from Heer Vandergelder's department store who are young and horny and steal away from work for a dirty week-end adventure. And some tarts who mistake them for 
nouveau riche young men on the make. And then the boss catches them after a madcap Keystone Cops caper. Oh. Not to leave out some cross-dressing. All-in-all no end of screens and masques and mistaken identities. 

This is the stuff of  Matchmaker. Pure goofy farce that is a rich and resonant cacophony of classic theatre riffs. Forms re-imagined by Wilder in 1954 to reflect the foibles of a wild and crazy late-19th century moment when the USA was robust-&-daring-&-hopeful. Pre-Norman Rockwell's comfy couch sentimental version, no question. And certainly not the out-of-sync Brave New World we find ourselves stuck in today. A "gilded age" quite like no other.

Wannabe opera diva Miss Flora Van Huysen (Nora McLellan) exuberates in front of all the mismatched characters who have recombobulated in The Matchmaker now on show at The Stanley. Somehow all the right folks end up in the right arms at the end of this timepiece drama about moneylender and class.
Photo credit David Cooper
Some of the pizazz and energy of USA's late 19th century zeitgeist caught folks' imaginations when Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart teamed up to make merry music of The Matchmaker in their 1964 hit Hello, Dolly (Louis Armstrong's gravelly version of its theme song is 100% earworm).

So can the resurrected stage script "low-brow farce" that birthed Dolly still do the magic tricks Thornton Wilder wanted from it in 2019?  Wilder wanted to transcend the art form, make the show more carnival than traditional comic slapstick. Invite the audience into the characters' hearts and minds partly through their soliloquies -- that common Shakespearean tactic that always pierces the fourth wall between stage and audience.

No critic I've read from performances over the years nails an obvious leitmotif of Wilder that comes through those soliloquies. Money. Power. Social and economic disequilibrium that are always at the heart of "free enterprise", whether of the North American variety or Chinese or South Asian or Middle Eastern.

In The Matchmaker those themes emit most often from the dipsomaniac Irish drifter Malachi Stack (Scott Bellis) who is a go-fer for Vandergelder : "Being employed is like being in love -- you know that someone's thinking about you all the time!" -and- "He's no friend, just an employer that I'm trying out for a few days." Laugh-lines that but thinly masque some serious social commentary.

Common knowledge that the first act in many mysteries and spoofs is often filled with plot and character exposition that can be a bit laborious. E'en so with Mr. Wilder's script. But so it must be to position all the moving parts so the Rube Goldberg contraption that results can spin and buzz and cavort with riotous vaudeville precision come Act 2.

Directed by ACT's resident Artistic Director Ashlie Corcoran, the show evinces her pedigree in large-scale tales (14 actors in this) as well as opera with its requisite hyperventilations. Some of her blocking sequences and choreography and stage business gesticulations for the cast are simply superb, the Horace / Malachi spinnerama to kick off Act 2 a prime example. And the cast's pantomime'd train and carriage meanders across the stage during scene changes were utterly clever laugh moments.

This gang is richly appointed, to a person, large parts and bit parts all. Funny to think of a farce having actual "clown" parts for "comic relief", but both Mr. Bellis's eye-popping impishness and Nora McLellan's operatic histrionics as Aunt Flora were near show-stealers.

"She chased him so long he finally caught her!" is how The Matchmaker comes to a close with Nicola Lipman as Dolly and Ric Read as Horace Vandergelder, who in the process finds himself gelded as both patriarch and oligarch.  Photo credit David Cooper
Ric Read gives Horace a nifty contemporary turn to Ebenezer Scrooge, while his chief clerk Cornelius Hackl by Tyrone Savage sustains a risible naive energy the night through. As the pawky, crafty manipulator Dolly, Nicola Lipman for her part was unfaltering and steadfast. She reminded this viewer of a Hollywood trinity always enjoyed over the years : a bit of Carole Burnett, Audrey Meadows and Jean Stapleton all-in-one.

Possibly the "first star of the game" award, however, has to be handed out to set and costume designer Drew Facey. Stylized baroque wrought iron archways softened by floral bursts floor-to-ceiling -- perhaps the most ambitious and artful schematic scene yet seen from him whose Jessie Award prominence year after year testifies to what a unique and special talent Vancouver is proud to claim here.

Folks wanting a flavour of farce traditions as filtered through the 1950's eye of the gentle, ironic social balladeer Thornton Wilder will be inclined to stand and clap as most did on opening night. And just as Billy Bard's Taming of the Shrew remains ever-popular fare despite its hopeless antiquarian attitudes around women and their domestic "role", same with The Matchmaker. A compleat performance overall, this is a show whose second act could be put on a YouTube loop set on Repeat for days on end. 

Particulars :  Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.  On until February 24, 2019.  Run-time 130 minutes plus intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.  

Production team :  Ashlie Corcoran, Director.  Mishelle Cuttler, Composer and Sound Designer. Drew Facey, Set & Costume Designer.  John Webber, Lighting Designer.  Shelley Stewart Hunt, Choreographer.  Pamela Jakobs, Stage Manager.  Genevieve Fleming, Assistant Director. Angela Beaulieu, Assistant Stage Manager.  Adam Henderson, Dialect Coach.  Sara Vickruck, Assistant Sound Designer.  Karen Ydenberg, Production Dramaturg.

Performers :  Georgia Beaty (Minnie Fay).  Scott Bellis (Malachi Stack).  Daniel Doheny (Barnaby Tucker). Julie Leung (Ermengarde).  Nicola Lipman (Mrs. Dolly Levi).  Nora McLellan (Miss Flora Van Huysen).  Nadeem Phillip (Ambrose Kemper).  Tom Pickett (Joe Scanlon / Rudolph).  Ric Reid (Horace Vandergelder).  Jason Sakaki (August).  Tyrone Savage (Cornelius Hackl).  Munish Sharma (Cabman).  Deborah Williams (Cook / Gertrude). Naomi Wright (Mrs. Irene Molloy).  


Sunday, 20 January 2019

Mrs. Krishnan's Party is like none you've ever seen
(heard, smelled or tasted)
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)

Ever have a hankering to be right in the middle of a riotous Indian party? That's what awaits you at the Culture Lab where you've been invited to Zina Krishnan's little shop in New Zealand to join in celebrating Onam. It's a Hindu harvest festival that champions the circle of life, death and rebirth. Typically Zina and architect son Apu spend the time reflecting on the death of family patriarch Gobi who 20 years back was killed during a night-time burglary in the shop's larder. 

No quiet reflective seance this year, however. Zina's university boarder James (Justin Rogers) is a wannabe DJ and partyboy with a flair. He dresses up as King Mahabali --  patron saint of Onam -- and invites the whole neighbourhood (us, the audience) to Mrs. Krishnan's "dairy", as Kiwis call corner convenience stores. At first a bit hesitant at our Surprise!, Zina shortly immerses herself (and us) in prepping the biggest Onam feast imaginable.

Mrs. Krishnan (Kalyani Nagarjan) is shocked to find the back room of her corner store filled with partygoers (the audience), all bedecked with garlands and flowers by her boarder "DJ Jimmy" (Justin Rogers).It won't take her long to get into the flavour(s) of it all, however, with a little help from the dozens of ticket-buying invited guests crowding into her space. 
Photo credit : Indian Ink Theatre Company / Ankita Singh
Seventy-five minutes of remixed Indian hip-hoppy music, laughter, improvisation and spicy South Asian food are what's on this Cultch menu.  Brought to Vancouver by the Kiwi troupe Indian Ink Theatre Company, here's what their website says about them :

Indian Ink Theatre Company is one of New Zealand’s most successful theatre companies with a reputation for “total theatre which offers humanity and psychological insight in a package of good plain laughs, luminous performances and brilliant staging” (Dominion Post, NZ).

For almost two decades Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis have pursued their idea of the ‘Serious Laugh’- opening mouths with laughter in order to slip something serious in along with a love of mask and story. The company blends western theatrical traditions with eastern flavours and has been critically acclaimed for its use of live music, heightened theatricality, humour, pathos and great storytelling.

The dramatic hook of the piece is that both "DJ Jimmy" and Mrs. Krishnan have challenges they're facing : she is thinking of selling off the "dairy" and heading back to India, while he confronts some personal demons of his own. But not so much, not now, not before we set up to celebrate Onam and Apu coming home, thanks.

Mrs. Krishnan takes a wee bite of her kitchen creation of traditional dhal while "DJ Jimmy" watches in horror at what it all is going to taste like because of a special spice he inadvertently added to the mix. 
Photo credit : Indian Ink Theatre Company / Ankita Singh

And while Jimmy and Zina engage in charming banter, they engage the audience, too : first by asking folks to distribute colourful garlands and scarves and balloons; then by having to respond to questions about where they're from -- single, married, been-to-India type questions. Next with a bit of spontaneous and fun browbeating by Mrs. Krishnan -- feeding an Onam meal to 100 neighbours ain't easy! -- we join in to help out in the kitchen; offer up a bit of spontaneous shout-outs and chitty-chat; answer one of the actor's ubiquitous cellphones that keep tootling off. 

Co-writer / director Justin Lewis was on hand Sunday afternoon for a talkback. He calls the show "immersion" theatre. Because the audience is immersed in and an integral part of the dramatic action. Its purpose is connectedness, involvement & engagement to amuse and entertain, yes, but also share a bit of Indian mythos and history -- to tell a tale of "seeing the characters deal with pain and loss" even as they chop onions and fill up an industrial rice cooker. Not to mention the spilled rice, water, flower petals and DJ dancing that all find a way to bring the stage floor into the action, too.

Eight of the audience sit 'round the kitchen table that also serves as Zina's traditional dance platform, ultimately. The rest are in rows of "Inner Circle" seats that line both sides of the Cultch Lab black box room. None are safe from in-your-face questions from Zina, chummy high-fives from Jimmy or barked-out "orders" from the two of them to help make the party go. 

As Zina Krishnan -- with a masque of ginormous false teeth and false glasses -- Kalyani Nagarajan is a wholly engaging presence whose intense eyes and provocative voice will linger in memory for many joyous moments to come. Justin Rogers as James -- a magician in real life -- pulls off some acting magic as he befriends everyone who enters the theatre, calls them by name, seats them with playful gibes and welcomes.

Enchanting. Captivating. Enticing. Inventive. Ingenious. The list could go on. Oh yes : and the dhal was scrumptious for those with a palate for Indian spice. (Ever been fed, on-stage, at the end of a show before? I didn't think so.)

If theatre-in-the-round took giant steps to break down the traditional fourth wall, immersion theatre is baptismal involvement on a whole new break-the-plane level for sure.

Just a delight to share this space and this time with 100 BFF strangers and these ever-so-clever actors with an ever-so-clever script of learned lines spiced up with improv. Just. Plain. Fun : Do. Not. Miss.

Particulars :  Produced by Indian Ink Theatre of New Zealand [Artistic Directors Justin Lewis & Jacob Rajan] in collaboration with The Cultch.  At the Culture Lab. 1895 Venables.  On thru February 3, 2019. Run-time some 75 minutes, no intermission. Box office 604.251.1363 -or- via the internet at the Cultch.

Production team :  Playwrights Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan.  Director Justin Lewis.  Set & Poperties Designer John Verryt.  Costume Designer Fiona Nichols.  Lighting Designer Jane Hakaraia.  Sound Designer Liam Kelly.  Dramaturge Murray Edmond.  Production & Stage Manager D. Andrew Potvin.  

Performers : Kalyani Nagarajan (Zina Krishnan).  Justin Rogers (James, a.k.a. DJ Jimmy


Sunday, 13 January 2019

Blind Date is crowd-sourced comic titillation
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)

Rebecca Northan is an award-winning improv actor, writer, producer.  She tells how the conceit for Blind Date arrived in her head with a Thunk! one night a decade back. How real-life blind dates are awkward & tricky. So why not fake one on stage in front of an audience?

Canvass the show-goers ahead-of-time. Find someone willing to be pulled out of the audience and "do" a blind date with you -- what she calls "spontaneous theatre" -- without rehearsal or any pre-show clues about how it will all play out. (A few stage directions are provided behind-the-scenes to Volunteer to ensure some intentional humorous bits scripted by Northan aren't overlooked, but not many.)

Tess Degenstein is one of three improv artists to play Mimi, a clown who's been stood up from a pre-arranged blind date at a French cafe. Solution? Commandeer another cafe patron and thus have your blind date, spontaneously, just with them instead of goof-who-stood-you-up. A new blind date up close and personal. On stage before a live audience. 
Photo credit : Little Blue Lemon Productions

Northan won TO's version of a Jessie for her doing her own Mimi in 2016. She insists the stage actor opposite is not a "plant", just a volunteer. "There is only truth, breathing, profound listening coupled with open-heartedness and a playful spirit." Toronto's NOW called it a "...single clown act [that] is the perfect marriage of theatre and comedy", while the NY Daily News chortled "Couples therapy should be so much fun."

The key to making it work theatrically is for Mimi to take charge and tease out of her stage-date real and honest answers but control the timing and the drift of the subject matter and the characters'  crescendos. The goal is laughing-with not laughing-at to accompany even any serious, intimate bits of her date's life story that might come out. 

Mimi's challenge is how to creatively mingle anything / everything she hears with her own improv'd comic strip of life, too. Volunteer's challenge is to not try to be an actor and completely fake his presence on stage by being too artsy or cute. Meanwhile to also suppress some of his real self and just play along as if he's a 20-something single on the hustle. (N.B. Asked on Saturday in the lobby if I would consider being the day's Volunteer, I hid behind my critic's notepad and told Lili Beaudoin "Not if my life depended on it...!")

To emphasize how the show must remain just make believe badinage, Northan includes three reminders. 

(1) The fake clown nose. No aging lothario is going to get horny gazing at this protuberance.  

(2) The faux French accent of "Mimi from Avignon" : this persona lets Mimi be forgiven instantly because "bullshit" and "asshole" are cute coming from her lips. Or even any tongue-in-cheek put-downs that may spring forth : "Surrey has a lot of men -- a lot of bright ones in bulk!" Ali Froggatt ad-lib'd Saturday. 

(3) A downstage time-out box with a barstool : if anything happening on stage has Volunteer confused or if they have a question or if they're uncomfortable or just at a loss for words, off they go to the time-out box to sort it out by breaking out-of-character. And an imaginary time-out box in the audience for Volunteer's wife to pipe in when she wants to.

Neither "Robert" on Saturday afternoon (50-ish looking) or "Bob" on Sunday afternoon (more 65-ish) revealed any tricky info that their Mimi had to masque over or manoeuvre around. But no worry. Repeatedly they were told how Mimi-&-Co's primary objective is to "take very good care of you and make sure you have a good time and to make sure you have a pleasant ride home". A lot of pumping up their tires with the audience encouraged to cheer them on. 

Two alternative endings are provided by playwright Northan depending on the style and personality of any show's Volunteer. Mimi told Robert there's "a peephole in your eye, a lot of wit, a little sarcasm", and with that she propelled the story forward five years to after they're married. The scene that then pushed forth erupted with hilarity.  

Comments overheard from each day included "I've never laughed so hard in my life!" -and- "This is nothing like I've ever seen before anywhere!" When Centaur Theatre performed it they described it as a "fast and funny fusion of clown, improvisation and social experiment". 

And that it is. In spades. As in Ace-of-spades in the game of hearts. Perfectly controlled spontaneous nonsense that charms. For all ages of folk who either remember -- or can imagine -- the fraught panic a blind date can bring forth and want to laugh their pants wet watching one play out spontaneously in front of them. 

Particulars :  Spontaneous Theatre's creation by Rebecca Northan.   Produced by Arts Club Theatre for its Winter, 2019 On Tour chatauqua through February 3rd. 

Venues, dates & phone ticket office contact numbers :

Surrey, Surrey Arts Centre, January 9-19.  604.501.5566

Coquitlam, Evergreen Cultural Centre, January 22-26.  604.927.6555

New Westminster, Anvil Centre, January 29.  604.521.5050

Chilliwack, Chilliwack Cultural Centre, January 30.  604.391.7469.

Maple Ridge, The ACT Arts Centre,  January 31 & February 1.  604.476.2787

Burnaby, Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, February 2-3.  604.205.3000 

Creative team :  Producer Rebecca Northan.  Associate Producer Marcie Januska. Associate Producer Christopher Oldfield. Stage Manager & Sound Improviser Meredith Johnson. 

Performers :  Lili Beaudoin (Scenographer/Mimi)  Tess Degenstein (Scenographer/Mimi).  Ali Froggatt (Scenographer/Mimi).  Jeff Gladstone (Scenographer). 

Joni's classic discs spin fun in Circle Game
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)

N.B. The following is an updated redux of BLR's May, 2017 review of this show that I am unable to attend this year. Only two of the actors / performers have changed, but the production team is identical thus the show's inherent excellence and creativity will no doubt reoccur without missing a beat.

Joni Mitchell has always challenged us from the get-go of her professional career to re-imagine ourselves and our messages. Thus the winking irony of "Big Yellow Taxi", for example, on 2-3 levels. Such seems, too, to have been a kernel of the thought behind co-creators Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman for their unique show Circle Game : Re-imagining the Music of Joni Mitchell that opened last night and runs at the Firehall through February 9, 2019.

Six musicians, 18 instruments, 28 Mitchell songs, over 100 minutes of millennial out-takes on Mitchell's singular music and lyrics. Begs the question what a cigarette-smoking flower child of the hippie 60's with her acoustic guitar and odd free-form chord-licks has to tell contemporary audiences raised on hip-hop / electro-pop and Facebook.

Mitchell's "Circle Game" ["We're captive on the carousel of time"] was and will always be a popular theme among Boomers. But, again, what's the hook today? The intent of Re-Imagining is just that : to try to wrest from Mitchell's music and her lyrics a way to cycle back to 60's and 70's themes -- eco-angst, feminist-&-personal liberation, love-&-loss, the joys of village and the magnetism of community -- in a way that contemporary audiences can relate to. 

Huge social concerns back in the day to Mitchell's generation, many of these issues were pushed aside as Boomers became co-opted by the pursuit of personal wealth, family, security. 
More recently the "pussy power" protest march in Washington, DC and elsewhere after the inauguration of the current Occupant of the White House is a sign of renewed, if belated, political interest by progressives emerging from the Millennial ranks. 

And thus the hook of her music. In a 1994 Mojo interview, Mitchell observed without false modesty or irony : "What I realize now is that songs like 'Circle Game' and 'Big Yellow Taxi' have become almost nursery rhymes, they've become part of the culture."  Quite so.

Newcomer this time out Samantha Bourque belts out a classic while returnees Adriana Ravalli and David Z. Cohen rock the beat along with her. 
Photo credit : Stephen Rutherford

Firehall's supplied photos reveal once more how "every picture tells a story". In design Circle Game is a cabaret show / garage band / college theatre buddies jam session. There is no true dramatic narrative thread or arc or plot, rather a series of musical snippets and stanzas and whole songs mostly from Mitchell's early oeuvre that are stitched together to please eye & ear & mind. Fully two hours of visual and audial juice that endear and excite.

The first three numbers, interleafed, are "Free Man In Paris", "Help Me" and "Both Sides Now", all of which reflect the ever-recurrent Mitchell themes of personal freedom -vs- commitment -vs- life's illusions / heartbreaks. Is there a better lyric on the subject of freedom than the feisty young independent souls who find themselves "unfettered and alive"? I think not.

Functional hanging-spots for the show's myriad instruments, overstuffed armchairs and piano furniture align the 30-foot deep, 65-foot proscenium. Perpendicular performance platforms mid-stage, strings of Xmas lights, even the requisite faux-Victorian / Tiffany glass lampshade so popular back in the day. The swack of Persian-cum-paisley throw rugs are just like I remember them circa Kalamazoo, 1968. Set designer Carolyn Rapanos must have consulted countless family photograph albums to create such verisimilitude.

Considerable imagination by lighting designer Ian Schimpf to re-create ("re-imagine") what the 60's-70's youthful digs and garage hang-outs would produce by way of rheostat controls. Longtime Arts Club sound designer Geoff Hollingshead brings his rock experiences from staging Buddy : The Buddy Holly Story into effective use in Circle Game, no question. The mixes of electric and acoustic and electrified acoustic pick-up guitar were choice.

Second newcomer for the show Benjamin Millman does some mean bottle blowing to one of the cuts. 
Photo credit : Stephen Rutherford

Particular numbers stand out. Ravalli and Cohen's duet of "Case of You" with a guitar perched horizontally across their knees almost made me forget Dianna Krall's signature version from her album Live in Paris. 

Scott Perrie's lengthy moody version of "Free Man in Paris" to start Act 2 was by itself reason to go see this show. The duet mix of "The River" with "Both Sides Now" was transcendent. 

And the trio cut of "Big Yellow Taxi" with all the harmonized atonal riffs to make it 2019-y was the 3rd major hi-lite of the night for me two years back. 

For their parts directors & creators Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman are utterly synergistic in their creativity. Cohen's brilliance deconstructing and reconstructing Mitchell's musical lines was matched every step of the way, lit.& fig., by Kuman's blocking and choreography and stage business. 

While a couple of numbers struck my ear as longish, by and large this was seldom-witnessed dramatic inspiration. Mostly in how a-sequential the music was -- how un-hitched & re-hitched & repeated & hinted-at & revived contrapuntally Mitchell's music and lyrics became over the night. 

As noted up top, Mitchell has produced "nursery rhymes" for nigh unto 50 years. While maybe not a Leonard Cohen versifier, she brings her painter's eye to her musician's ear and the results are often just stunning. The skill of Andrew Cohen to pick her music apart verse-by-verse and song-by-song and stitch it all back together in a whole new whimsical tapestry is to marvel at. 

The talent on display at Firehall's production, many of them in the early stages of their professional careers, will no doubt add you to the standing-o squad that surrounded me two years back. This show will thrill folks for all the talent they see & hear & feel & clap to. 

It all sings sweetly of age-old themes and anxieties and hopes. I'd go again in a heartbeat.

Particulars : Co-creators, conspirators, directors (and spouses) : Andrew Cohen & Anna Kuman.  Produced by the Firehall Arts Centre.  At the FAC, Gore @ Cordova.  On until February 9th.  Run-time 90 minutes including intermission.  Tickets and schedule info @ Firehall or FACBO 604.689.0926.

Production team : Directors Andrew Cohen & Anna Kuman.  Musical Director & Arranger Andrew Cohen.  Set Designer Carolyn Rapanos.  Costume Designer Jessie Van Rijn.  Lighting Designer Ian Schimpf.  Sound Designer Geoff Hollingshead. 

Performers / musicians :  Samantha Bourque Kimmy Choi.  David Z. Cohen.  Benjamin Millman.  Scott Perrie.  Adriana Ravalli.

Venues, dates & phone ticket office contact numbers for the joint venture Firehall Theatre / Arts Club Theatre on tour shows:

North Vancouver, The BlueShore @ CapU, February 14.  604.990.7810

West Vancouver, Kay Meek Arts Centre, February 15-16.  604.981.6335

Mission, Clarke Theatre, February 17.  604.629.8849

Surrey, Surrey Arts Centre, February 20 - March 2.  604.501.5566

Coquitlam, Evergreen Cultural Centre, March 5-9.  604.927.6555

New Westminster, Anvil Centre, March 12.  604.521.5050

Chilliwack, Chilliwack Cultural Centre, March 14.  604.391.7469.

Maple Ridge, The ACT Arts Centre,  March 15.  604.476.2787

Burnaby, Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, March 16-17.  604.205.3000 

Nanaimo, Port Theatre, March 22.  250.754.8550

Duncan, Cowichan Performing Arts Centre, March 23.  250.748.7529

Courtenay, Sid Williams Theatre, March 26.  250.338.2430, ext. 1