Saturday, 7 January 2017

The (Post) Mistress sings of small-town Canada
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 are unable to attend this year's On Tour production, the following is a re-working of BLR's February, 2016 review of the play from its BMO Goldcorp stage presentation.

From the footlights : The (Post) Mistress brings to life Marie-Louise Painchaud ("hot bread"), postie-extraordinaire in the town of Lovely, ON. Lovely is near the copper mining mid-size city of Complexity an hour away at the northern tip of Lake Huron. Through what seem to be cosmic & heavenly juices in her veins, Marie-Louise absorbs all of Lovely's inhabitants' secrets just by holding the townsfolk's mail in her hand.

Subtitled "The Small-Town Musical of Sealed Secrets", the show is a single-actor piece that features a dozen songs with English, French and Cree lyrics. The layered stories of Lovely's residents are filtered through Marie-Louise's yeasty and risible imagination. Neither cabaret pastiche nor full-on musical, The (Post) Mistress engages musically what it might lack a bit by way of compelling dramatic arc. Still, anyone who's lived small-town rural life will remember how the expression "You've got mail!" once meant receiving an actual paper envelope with a 6-cent stamp on it. 

How it's put together : Accomplished dancer, performer and singer, Patricia Cano is Marie-Louise (though Cailin Stadnyk will do select performances). Cano has long accompanied playwright Tomson Highway as  singer/performer in the various cabaret shows he's traveled around the world. 

Brazilian guitarist and composer Carlos Bernardo is her long-time friend, meanwhile, and in 2008 she spent six months absorbing the Carioca sound scene in Rio with him. Thus cross-pollination being what it is with creative folk, quelle surprise Mistress features tango and bossa nova beats along with a couple of South American storyline detours. 

But also a host of Berlin cabaret stylings -- Highway once jokingly referring to himself as the Cree version of Kurt Weill -- as well as French cafe chanson and pop renderings to boot. 

What the show brings to the stage : For BC viewers this is a singular piece because of all the Central Canada native Cree, French-Canadian, and Metis influences that converge in the unique Lovely time and place way-&-gone back east.

With Western influences being a mix in recent years mostly of WASP, South Asian and oriental folk, to hear stories and tales that spring from post-contact native generations who mix and cohabit and populate with French immigrants and their descendent Quebecois is eye- and ear-opening in a rich and colourful way. 


Mistress may be called a "small-town musical" but really it's just a fleshed-out series of cabaret tunes starting with the Cree ballad "Taansi, Nimiss" (Welcome, sister!) that sets the stage for "songs we're going to sing". 


Eleven songs in all by the Highway / Cano collaboration that each tells a tale of love, loss and sizzling snatches of sex : "It was so hot in Rio de Janiero they wore nothing but dental floss to go shopping!" Cano sings of one such letter-writer's escapade. 


Letter after letter, story after story : widow Eva Pocket who hooked up, fatefully, with Marly Fitzsimmons from N'Awlins. Diane Gagnon who ran back to mom's in Lovely to escape her boring taxi dispatcher husband and the kids. He writes plaintive futile pleas for her to return. 


From a younger perspective there's eight-year-old Babette whose mom, madly estranged from her dad, has 100% forbidden Babette to see him out West. So Babette writes of her pain from a Grade 3 hand. She cries out as she gazes up at Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in the song "Oh Little Bear". Exquisite ache.


Acting pin-spot : Patricia Caro as Marie-Louise Painchaud is a one-woman force majeure. While her original forte was as a dancer and then a community theatre player, singing she added to her repertoire through her connection with Carlos Bernardo plus a sojourn a decade back to South Korea to study with a voice master. 

Luxuriant in size, beauty and presence, Caro's blocking, choreography and inspired dance footwork hopping atop and around the various stations and platforms at the Lovely post office were all quite exhilarating to behold. Whimsy and humour and controlled exaggeration informed every step, every pirouette, every pounce. Caro's vivre ballroom break-dance is reason enough to see this show.


On the songstress scale, Caro is an accomplished cabaret balladeer with a rich and resonant contralto though not always equal to the higher register notes. But her dusky smoky basement blues joint sound -- sexy and edgy both -- brings out the best from Highway's tunes and lyrics. That a majority of the house on opening night gave her a standing-o reveals the enthusiasm her performance attracted.

Production values of note : Director John Cooper and Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg grab top-spot honours for the rigour and inspiration they brought to Patricia Caro's Arts Club debut performance a year back. 

As well, Ted Roberts turned in yet another superb set, lighting and visual design performance. The current Canada Post m.o. banality of countless mailboxes -- but done here rising to the infinity of space in a sworl design -- was effective. 

Music accompaniment limited to piano and sax/flute was crisp and lively and just-right subtle, too.


Two Hmnnnn...! script reservations. (1) The plot revelation at the end about Marie-Louise. Quite artificial and contrived and unnecessary to the stage magic. The mystery of her cosmic mind-reading would work better remaining a tease. (2) Preaching. Telling the audience straight-up "I hope people will learn to stop hurting each other and learn to laugh..." is flat-out patronizing despite its good intention. 

Who gonna like : This show is not the compleat stuff of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, but it has many comparable moments. Patricia Caro's vigour & enthusiasm & deft fancy dancework and singing prowess are a package of talent to leave viewers breathless. This is a show that brought out grins of enthusiasm and standing-o clappers from the seats a year back. No question it will appeal to cabaret lovers who are open to some poignant Canadian history lessons put-to-music. 

Particulars :  Book & Music by Tomson Highway.  On Tour by ACT's : at The BlueShore @ Cap College, January 7 [604.990.7810].  Surrey Arts Centre, Jan 11-21 [604.501.5566]. The ACT Arts Centre, Maple Ridge, January 22nd [604.476.2787]. Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, January 24-28 [604.927.6555]. Kay Meek Centre, West Vancouver, January 30-31 [604.981.6335]. Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Burnaby, February 2-3 [604.205.3000]. Clark Theatre, Mission, February 4th [1.877.299.1644].  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission.  Schedule information & tickets via http://artsclub.com or by phoning 604.687.1644 or contacting the On Tour venues directly.

Production team :  Director John Cooper.  Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.  Set, Lighting & Video Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Kirsten McGhie.  Musical Director Michael Creber.  Sound Designer Scott Zechner.  Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Apprentice Stage Manager Linzi Voth.

Performers (music) :  Michael Creber (Piano).  Chris Startup (Saxophone).

Performer (actors) : Patricia Cano (Marie-Louise Painchaud).  Cailin Stadnyk (Marile-Louise Painchaud -- select performances).

Addendum #1 : Musical highlights of the show :  Listening to Marie-Louise recite so many tales of marriages suffering loss, abandonment and bitterness, the words of the playwright from a 2015 interview are recalled pointedly (Highway at that time celebrating nearly 30 years with his life's love Raymond Lalonde, "the kindest man on the face of the earth") : 

"I always say I get treated better than the Queen. When I look at all these heterosexual men who have gone through these tortured marriages, with the hatred, the cruelty, the alimony payments, it's like a battle zone. I thank God every day that I'm not heterosexual. I thank God for that privilege."


To wit. In the song "Love I Know Is Here", Marie-Louise tells the tale of a couple who live 10 miles outside of Lovely and write charming letters to one another. Only at the end do we learn "How can you not be happy even if they are two men living together in sin?" Marie-Louise asks ironically, winking at the crowd. The song, likes its successor to end Act I, is wholly reminiscent of the Kurt Weill style.


And that would be the other Weill / Jacques Brel look-alike "The Window". It tells of Rosalind Johnson, originally from an innocent town called Kirkland who ventures to TO. There she meets sexy car mechanic Gus Cassidy. And despite a bloody violent end to their marriage, Rosalind spends the next 60 years still pining for "the man of 20-something standing in the window" where she first laid eyes on him moonlighting as a sexy, coy department store model.


One final song that deserves a shout-out. "When Last I Was in Buenos Aires, Argentina" kicks off Act II with the randiest, raunchiest number of the night. It's a saucy tango titillater that Marie-Louise acts out demonstratively, hornily. All about a lover's summer there with Ariel "of the dark eyes and the flaring nostrils" and his suppers of el spaghet with a Sriracha style sauce flown in from Paraguay. Needless to say the affair with Ariel was more than equal to his el spaghet once the jungle jiggery-pokery factored in.


Addendum #2 : Background on playwright Tomson Highway : Tomson Highway is the 11th of 12 Cree children from northern Manitoba. He was born in a tent on a snowbank, son of a caribou-hunting dad and a quilter mom. Highway unabashedly credits the Roman Catholic Guy Hill Indian Residential School in Clearwater, MB near The Pas with his becoming both tri-lingual and a piano-playing musician during his nine years there. Playwriting he took up when he turned 30-something, and cabaret-style shows are what he seems to favour most these days. The current show has also been produced in Cree, Kisageetin as well as in French, Zesty Gopher s'est fait ecraser par un frigo (that sings the song of a man & his wife & their fridge that's in transit to new digs).

Highway is outspoken on many fronts in ways that are often not politically correct. He does not, for example, subscribe to the liberal fuss over "appropriation of voice". In a September 30, 2013 interview with Maclean's magazine, he noted:

"I'm part of the first wave of native writers in this country and we had to be aware of political correctness; it was kind of forced upon us. For the next wave of native playwrights, they should be afforded the freedom to let their imaginations fly. And we all need to help them get there. If a black, Chinese lesbian ends up being cast as the chief of an Indian reserve, then that is the choice of the writer, director and producer and it's nobody else's business.

"I don't particularly want to work with people who are scared, for whatever reason. And people who think that way [about appropriation of voice] are scared, they're chickens! I feel most comfortable with people who are brave and courageous. Who are politically incorrect, for goodness sake. I love politically incorrect. I mean, it's essential for art."


On the subject of residential schools, Highway told Huffington Post's Joshua Ostroff in late 2015 : "All we hear is the negative stuff, nobody's interested in the positive, the joy in (Guy Hill Indian Residential) school. I learned your language, for God's sake. Have you learned my language? No, so who's the privileged one and who is underprivileged?


"You may have heard stories from 7,000 witnesses in the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) process that were negative. But what you haven't heard are the 7,000 reports that were positive stories. There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn't have happened without that school."


Highway cites two primary influences on his artistry : his remote northern upbringing with his family on the Barren Lands Indian Reservation and on the "cosmology" of mainstream native thought. "The most privileged boys in Rosedale and Forest Hill are lucky if they get 20 metres of lakefront for two weeks every summer. We had 50 lakes for two months year; we had entire islands to ourselves, just us. It is unbelievably beautiful up there and nobody sees it but us because it's inaccessible. The older I get, the more I realize what a spectacular childhood it really was. My father was the king of this enormous domain; we grew up as princes of the north. This country has royalty, too," he asserted to Ostroff in December.


As for his spiritual underpinnings, in his Maclean's 2013 interview he declared : "I like to convey joy. I want to convey that our primary responsibility on planet Earth is to be joyful : to laugh and to laugh and to laugh. I do not believe what I was taught as a child by Roman Catholic missionaries that the reason to exist is to suffer and repent and that the more of that we did, the more deserving we became of happiness in the afterlife. I mean, depressing, or what? I'm of the opposite opinion : the way the my native culture works is that it teaches that we're here to laugh, that heaven and hell are both here on Earth and it's our choice to make it one or the other."

In a similar vein in a December 10, 2015 interview with Martin Morrow of torontoist.com, Highway related the following : "Highway agrees that writing about [women] has been a lifelong obsession; but it has nothing to do with modern social movements and everything to do with his ancestral beliefs. 'Pantheism, which is the basis of native mythology and cosmology, sees God in nature. And the centre of native cosmology, certainly in Cree culture, is feminine. So I write obsessively about that. For Highway, the root of our problems is monotheism, the belief in one God, particularly since that God is perceived to be male. 'It's a patriarchal superstructure and it leads to fascism : 'If you don't believe in my God, I'll kill you, I'll destroy you...' Why did [God] come alone? Where was his wife? Where was his girlfriend? And the answer to that question is that she was here all the time. Our father art in heaven, but our mother is here on this planet. And if we don't recognize that, and that we need to preserve this planet, we're doomed.'"
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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

And Bella Sang... catches 1912 DTES flavour

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)

A bit of local context : 1912 DTES & Chinatown, Vancouver. Four years before women's suffrage would become the law in B.C. Five years before B.C. would introduce wartime alcohol prohibition. A raw wild west resource-based economy run by men for men for better or for worse. Women and whisky quite the lifeblood here, cops and politicians often the most regular of patrons in the saloons and bawdy houses under their watch.

Following a Portland, OR initiative in 1908, Vancouver Police were the first in Canada four years later to decide they needed a couple of women constables to help out ministering to the city's "wayward girls and women". Referred to as the "women's protective division", their purpose more "morality enforcement" than busting chops. Enter Lurancy "Lou" Harris (Leanna Brodie) and Minnie Eakin Miller (Sarah Louise Turner). No uniforms, no guns, just little purses to carry their little badges worn atop their skirts and petticoats. Their beat? The beaches, taverns, dance halls, and gambling dives of Vancouver's Hogan's Alley where women were often prey for men, particularly come payday.

A century later on a micro level society sees some cosmetic changes to this familiar scenario, but still much for the contemporary eye to compare and relate to given 2016's news hi-lites of rampant RCMP and Canadian Forces sexism and harassment, not to mention what the Indigenous Women task force will, eventually, unearth about the missing and murdered in recent years from those communities.

From the footlights : This original 75-minute script by local playwright Sally Stubbs tells the imagined-tale of these two real life constables : Harris, 48, the wannabe-man-in-a-man's world, Miller, 34, the Christian-nurse-cop-spinster-do-gooder with a big rich heart from the Central Mission Rescue & Protection Society. Women doing men's work but at women's wages -- hired into the lowliest Constable 4 echelon for $20 a week -- and forcefully kept under the thumb of their male bosses. 

This is a long-forgotten, barely recorded episode in Vancouver Police Department's early 20th century life. Through a series of vignettes strung together mostly by the honky-tonk piano of Patrick Courtin. His plinky-plunk charts underscore the various scenes that sketch out how these women search for the what & how of their work, each with their own "why" at play.

The functional box-crates and skids of Brian Ball's set serve as desks, stools and jail cells. Sound effects props are engaged from upstage tables, while downstage the characters mime the various teacup clinks, handcuff noises, the regular swirl of booze being poured into glasses and slurped up.

What the show brings to the stage : The singing reference was apparently borrowed from a Calgary police tale about a violent woman repeatedly jailed -- what emergency folk refer to as a "frequent flyer" -- who despite her tendency to assault her captors could be quieted by singing. 

In this case the bellicose barkeep Bella (Beatrice Zeilinger) was able to be calmed by Minnie when she struck up the tune "You Great Big Beautiful Gal". 

Simon Webb plays three male characters, the feckless and spiteful Constable Fields, the women's boss. Also Alderman Daniel Crane who lusts after the 14-year-old Chinese prostitute "Mai Ji" (Agnes Tong) whose parents knew her as Maggie Fraser. Webb's turn as the low-grade nasty pimp and hustler Connor O'Rourke was superbly repulsive.

Production values : While the show lacks the visual wizardry of Arts Club's 2014 show Helen Lawrence set in 1948, Bella tells its 1912 tale with simple functional staging ideal for small rooms. Director Sarah Rodgers and her assistant Ian Harmon mix their characters' contrasts well, each of Turner and Webb providing the evening's most compelling performances. 

The choreography of set changes, frequent as they were, was a bit belaboured and fussy at times, but lighting (Kyla Gardiner) and costumes (Barbara Clayton) played off one another magnetically. That the backstory took place originally right outside Firehall Arts Centre's doors came through convincingly & emotionally thanks to their skilled by-play.

Who gonna like :  Coffee house theatre fans will enjoy the simple and uncomplex artistry of Bella that could be performed easily on a stage 1/2 the size of Firehall's with equal effect. Folks who're born and raised in Vancouver will find this snatch of DTES / Chinatown history intriguing. The feminist issues raised in the script are almost as timely and poignant a century hence as they were back then. Back when male chauvinist tendencies in North American society were just that more open, obvious and obnoxious than they are in the New World Order of Trumputin politics now before us. Local history by local talent is what Bella delivers -- the final 10 minutes of the show particularly pull all its pieces together poignantly and touchingly.

Particulars : Produced by And Bella Collective in association with the Firehall Arts Centre. Playwright Sally Stubbs.  Performances January 4-14. Tickets and schedule through Firehall Arts Centre firehallartscentre.ca.  Run-time 75 minutes, no intermission.

Production crew : Sarah Rodgers, Ian Harmon (Directors).  Patrick Courtin (Pianist). Barbara Clayden (Costume Designer).  Brian Ball (Set Designer). Kyla Gardiner (Lighting Designer).  Breanne Harmon (Stage Manager).  

Peformers : Leanna Brodie.  Agnes Tong.  Sarah Louise Turner.  Simon Webb.  Beatrice Zeilinger. 


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Thursday, 8 December 2016

Poppins is peppery salty sugary seasonal stuff

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 :  Three years before her death in 1996, British producer Cameron Mackintosh (Phantom of the Opera) had to talk P.L. Travers into the rights to do a "rescue script". To rescue the characters of Mary Poppins from Walt Disney's fantasyland film version. Apprently Dick Van Dyke drove Travers to absolute distraction he was so bubble-gummy. And Julie Andrews? Not in the least the "plain, vain and incorruptible" Poppins from Travers' semi-autobiographical UK books. Uncle Walt made her as sweet and loveable as she would be again the next year in both My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music

Travers was so hostile to Disney's artistic team for MP she didn't even get an invite to the film's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood in August of '64. Wiki rightly identifies the movie an "American musical phantasy comedy". Travers left the Grauman in tears. At age 93 she finally agreed to grant Mackintosh script access rights, but on one condition : no Americans or Disney alumnae to be involved in its makeover!

How it all got put together :  The project languished. Because Mackintosh knew there'd be no sense in trying to deny stage patrons some of the world's best known sing-along-songs such as "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" or "Chim Chim Cher-ee" or "A Spoonful of Sugar". So he just sat on it. After Travers' passing, Mackintosh engaged Julian Fellowes (later of Downton Abbey fame) to re-do the Disney book. He then rang up British duo Stiles and Drewe to play around with the original tunes plus add one or two of their own, the most notable their anthem "Anything Can Happen". [The song reflects what Jr. Banks, son Michael (Glen Gordon), says about his favourite nanny : "Mary always tells us anything is possible if we could only get out of our own way."]

In this 3rd re-mount of Poppins in three years, Director Bill Millerd knew better than to start completely afresh given the mountain of good press ACT garnered before. Fully two-thirds of the original team are back : a whole swack of the same actors, ensemble, orchestra and production crew. Throw in a few newbies and this year's Poppins once more pops a cork with bubbly joyous escapist froth just right for The Season.

Understudy in the part from the previous shows Kayla James is this year's Mary.  A few years back Harper Collins did a re-issue of the original 1934 Travers book, one of eight Travers would write over the next 50 years -- into her late 80's -- always distilling and refining her character Miss P.  In that re-issue Mackintosh wrote the introduction. "Mary Poppins," he said, "is, and always will be, unique : stern, dependable, businesslike, magical and yet eternally loveable." Ms. James proves the truth of his descriptor in each pirouette, each hand gesture, each smile and knowing look. 

What the show brings to the stage :  The 40-odd folk who comprise the acting troupe, production team and musicians are a true ensemble fantastique. And the bottom line for Poppins is as healthy & robust as it is because each of the show's individual contributors bequest way more than 100% of what they are asked to give. 

First observation of note is ACT's complete engagement of the entire Stanley stage including the north and south wings. Alison Green's set design is, once more, a mix of whimsy, function and resourcefulness blending creative scenes of home and park and London's chimney'd rooftops.

Craig Alfredson's projections -- most notably the birds and the rain and the stars -- criss-crossed Green's scrims artfully. And yet those two individual's efforts would not have worked as well as they did without Sheila White's assembly of costumes for the myriad characters the Ensemble and actors portray. A richer display of period threads -- these representing Victoria's England -- I have never seen on a Vancouver stage.

But what are costumes without talented bodies executing inventive and crackerjack stage work underneath? It is here that Choreographer Valerie Easton gives Vancouver entertainment value equal to and better than what Big City fans quite take for granted back East. Four numbers jump out with their dance precision that quite astonish : Jolly Holiday, A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercal, and Step in Time, the magical tap-dance by the chimneysweeps. My oh my such creativity both in conception and on the boards.

Acting pin-spots : Aside from Kayla James' terrific Mary turn-out as noted above, 3rd-time-around Bert by Scott Walters proves even vintage single-malt can improve with further age. His character is a charm of emotional breadth, wit, and pure comedy. The two principals are equal champions in this show.

MP veteran Bobby Callahan plays the character Robertson Ay -- butler, squire, gofetchit -- with a zing of slapstick spontaneity that stole the audience's heart. Some of the funniest slapschtick I've ever witnessed in Vancouver, quite frankly.

And no need to change what I wrote about her in 2013 : "Susan Anderson as Mrs. Brill [the Banks' housekeeper] and the Bird Woman in the park huckstering two-pence breadcrumb bags was non-pareil. The comic timing of her panic! disapproval! and sheer aghastness! at the Banks' madhouse was split-second each line, each moment. As Bird Woman her turn was pure zen."

Who gonna like :  To this eye, Mary Poppins stands a likelihood of becoming ACT's Christmastime ace-in-the-hole for local audiences. Many have become jaundiced about the commercialism and faux-religiosity connected with The Season. This is Singing' In The Rain style stuff, neither Santaland nor Bethlehem nor Jerusalem. The fun is seeing the mix of talents -- acting and production and music -- that make this a night out at the theatre that will grab you by the heart and make you sing your way home.

Particulars : On thru January 1st at ACT's Stanley stage, Granville @ 11th. Week-nights @ 7:30, Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission. Tickets $29 and up by phone to ACBO @ 604.687.1644 or by visiting ACT on-line @ www.artsclub.com. Derived from the Walt Disney film and Cameron Mackintosh production. Based on the stories / novels of Pamela Lyndon Travers. Original music & lyrics by Richard & Robert Sherman. Book by Julian Fellowes.  Additional music & lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe.
Production team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Co-Mjusical Directors Ken Cormier & Bruce Kellett.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Costume Designer Sheila White.  Assistant Costume Designer Connie Hosie.  Sound Designer Chris Daniels.  Projection Designer Craig Alfredson.  Magic Consultant Chris Stolz.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Anne Taylor.  Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.

L'orchestre : Nick Apivor Drums / Percussion.  Henry Christian Trumpet.  Ken Cormier Keyboard.  Angus Kellett Keyboard.  Bruce Kellett Keyboard.  Sue Round Cello.

Principal actors :  Kayla James (Mary Poppins).  Susan Anderson (Mrs. Brill / Bird Woman).  Glen Gordon (Michael Banks).  Elizabeth Irving (Jane Banks).  Caitriona Murphy (Winnifred Banks).  Milo Shandel (George Banks).  Scott Walters (Bert).  Katey Wright (Miss Andrew / Mrs. Corry).

Ensemble / supporting actors :  Scott Augustine (Neleus / Ensemble).  Keiran Bohay (Ensemble).  Sierra Brewerton (Annie / Ensemble).  Bobby Callahan (Robertson Ay / Sweep / Von Hussler / Ensemble).  Jarret Cody (Northbrook / Poseidon / Sweep / Ensemble).  Julio Fuentes (Ensemble).  Shannon Hanbury (Annie / Ensemble).  Nathan Kay (Policeman / Ensemble).  Anna Kuman (Katie Nanna / Ensemble).  Brianne Loop (Fanny / Ensemble).  Jennie Neumann (Miss Lark / Ensemble).  Michael Querin (Admiral Boom / Ensemble).  

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Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Day Before Christmas is a chummy tale 

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 :  Why does Christmas generate such angst annoyance dyspepsia among families? For a host of reasons it sometimes seems there's a profound sense of loss in our 1st World privileged enclave here. As if Norman Rockwell not only died but took all his illusory paintings to the grave with him.

In the hands of playwrights Stacey Kaser and Alison Kelly, the best way to deal with the avoidance / avoidance syndrome lots of people suffer around The Season is a situation comedy 2016 style. In the manner of Roseanne Barr doing a remake of the Brady Bunch through today's iPad lenses. 

WYSIWYG : Kaser & Kelly have collaborated previously. Conversations With My Mother played at the Gateway two seasons back. For her part Kelly is best known locally for the Mom's the Word series. TDBC falls squarely into those camps. Situational wit based on scenes redolent of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon stories. Reflected back through a gilded convex mirror, the kind Nana used to have over her fireplace.

Some shows start v-e-r-y slowly, then get more clippety-clop in a couple of scenes. TDBC starts off with one of the best opening scenes seen on local stages -- a quicky rollback of the set in hazed lighting from its later Christmas Eve chaos -- instantly! we're back to the relative calm of November 1st. From there the scene trudges somewhat dutifully & predictably through the next 50 minutes (and days...) of exposition until we finally get to the set-up for Act 2's various climactic antics.

Quicky plot sum-up : Mom Alex (Jennifer Clement) is a workaholic caterer who loves Christmas decoration themes for both her clients and for her family. This year's homegrown theme is, basically, Zhivago. Dad Alan (Andrew Wheeler) is an affable doofus. Their children are 17 and 14 : Brodie (Julie Leung) and Max (Daren Dyhengco). 

Dad whinges about Alex's catering workload, particularly during The Season. How can she possibly pull off her catering contracts and "do Christmas" at home too in her usual perfectionist Martha Stewart style. Fact is the rest of the family isn't so keen on all of Mom's ad hoc theme trappings anyway. 

Add into the mix a Christmas Eve wedding Brodie is bridesmaid for. An old high school heartthrob now a Hollywood star named Reid. Some YouTube shenanigans capturing Alex's catered rap party for and with Reid. Brother Keith estranged from his wife Susan who FaceTimes ad nauseam from Disneyland. He and his daughters will miss all the Zhivago prettery, too. More Alex fret over loss-of-tradition and stress about changing landscapes. Son Max, meanwhile, who after an innocent invite from her Muslim parents, schemes to spend Christmas with his new girlfriend Raji at Whistler. Lie about this and sneak off despite Mom's vehement prohibition? Whatever. Oh. And then there's Clifford, the new dog Dad has rescued : 70 pounds of puppy always at full gallop. 

Themes and values that drive the show : As the above suggests, this is lite fare that nevertheless pokes at serious family issues in today's world. Work life -vs- home life. Communication dodges and misfires. Just precisely where does the truth lie? Loyalties split between friends and family. The weight of traditions -vs- the urges to just let now happen regardless of the calendar nagging at us about The Season.

The fact it is two female playwrights who put the script together is of note. Because whether it's a Mars / Venus dichotomy or just a patriarchal hangover, reality is most men don't bake shortbread, let alone fruit cake. Buy the bird, mastermind the stuffing or even do the gravy. Decide on and decorate the house from the endless boxes of seasonal tackle and chattels that are shunt off to the attic, mercifully, for the other 11 months of the year. A mom's revenge on "Christmas cheer" is pretty well what The Day Before Christmas is all about.

Production & acting pin-spots : A sustained and consistent turn by ACT veteran  Jennifer Clement, no question. She was utterly convincing as the conflicted and demanding and loving and preoccupied Mom. As husband Alan, Andrew Wheeler was engaging in his naive charm. When post-YouTube he flipped into righteous rage mode as the script demanded, the abruptness and seeming finality of his ultimatum came as a surprise. Leung and Dyhengco for their parts were convincing in their sister/brother hissy-fits and teenager Whatever... attitudes. 

Director Chelsea Haberlin provided her team with canny and adept blocking on the stage with its 3-side horseshoe seating. Good staging of the chaos and tumult the unseen Clifford brought to the scene. Once again Drew Facey demonstrates his remarkable talents conceiving and executing dramatic sets (see Brothel #9 November 20 review). A very classy suburban executive home brought to life here. Itai Erdal's lighting sequences were slick & witty, while Matthew MacDonald-Bain's soundscape -- particularly the snare drum / string bass sequence as dramatic tension built -- was compelling. 

Who gonna like : A lot of energy and talent were put into this script by writers Kaser and Kelly. Issues : too much Act I exposition.  Too many coincidences to fuel the plot line. Too much Keith on FaceTime. But as heard from a number of folks at show's end, the Act 2 energy and pointedness and pace made the evening's Christmas biography realistic in spades. Fact is there is no "perfect Christmas". Alex maintains "Spontaneity has to be planned!" Others couldn't disagree more.

I recall the redoubtable Oprah Winfrey addressing the issue of family at Christmastime. One trenchant observation struck me that I now recycle :

"Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you'll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses."

The Kaser/Kelly/Haberlin team serves up a chummy, familiar and at times edgy version of The Season. There is much to relate to here and have a lot of fun with -- as well as much to reflect upon around expectations -- no question. Because without expectations there'd be no Santa Claus.
 
Particulars :  A new play developed by the Arts Club Theatre Company. Written by Stacey Kaser & Alison Kelly.  On stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, 162 West 1st Avenue. On thru December 24.,  Schedules & tickets by phone @ 604.687.1644 or via artsclub.com.  Run-time 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission.

Production crew :  Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting Designer Itai Erdal.  Sound Designer Matthew MacDonald-Bain.  Projection Designer Joel Grinke.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.

Performers :  Jennifer Clement (Alex).  Daren Dyhengco (Max).  Jay Hindle (Keith).  Nicholas Lea (Reid).  Julie Leung (Brodie).  Curtis Tweedie (Dirk).  Andrew Wheeler (Alan).


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Sunday, 27 November 2016

EastVan Panto Red Riding Hood seasonal silliness

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)

Refresher on panto's :  For the 4th year running, Theatre Replacement teams with the Cultch to do its annual EastVan Panto at the York on The Drive. You know the drill by now : the British tradition of pantomime is family entertainment that's a blend of music, dance, slapstick, robust audience participation, all about cheering the heroes, booing the villains -plus- some sing-along-y tunes, local political satire, and cross-dressing actors (always a prime key to revelry designed to lighten winter's dark). As well, panto's are based ever-so-loosely on a fairy tale -- this year two of them -- to give the seasonal show a storyline the kids down front can relate to. 

Set on home turf this year : The 'hood for Miss Hood is right outside the York Theatre on the bike path along Adanac St. starting up at the WISE Hall heading down toward the DTES. Grammy got a funky 3rd floor suite in Jim Green's Woodward's high-rise atop the late \ great $1.49 Day department store site. The skyline-famous W has been brought down to earth : it sits ceremoniously next to my favourite Gastown brewski drop-in The Cambie Hotel. Playwright and comic Mark Chavez teams with Director Anita Rochor to join the city's champion theatre rocker Veda Hille to create this year's silly seasonal organized chaos for all ages.

Stars of the first three York pantos Dawn Petten and Allan Zinyk move aside in 2016 for character actor Andrew McNee as the The Big Bad Wolf [TBBW] opposite Rachel Aberle as Red. Theatre Replacement co-founder James Long joins Chirag Naik as one of Red's co-Dads, but mostly carves out the cross-dresser role as Red's delightful, droll and lippy Grammy.

How it's all put together : Each of Brother Grimm's Little Red Riding Hood yarn and Englishman James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps' Three Little Pigs nursery rhyme feature a wolf as the carnivorous villain. So playwright Chavez & Co. decided, cleverly, to include both stories in their panto. The show spoofs Vancouver's smuggish bicycling community, the nexus of the DTES swap-meet / petty crime cultures & both Red and iPhone's Siri in their search for who their real selves are as seen through these fairy stories.

A cute aspect of the script is the riff on Johnny Valentine's infamous kids book about gay parents banned back in the day from Surrey school libraries called One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad -- until the Supreme Court of Canada struck down such silly censorship nonsense.* In the panto Red is the daughter of such a union. When the husbands mistakenly leave daughter behind as they head off to Daddy Daughter Gym Day, Red tests their prohibition that she is too young to have "crosswalk privileges" in Grandview-Woodlands that is her home and native land. 

Huh! she snits. I'll show youAnd promptly heads out on her shiny Schwinn to take Grammy a basket of farmer's market goodies plus some super hot sauce. But of course she needs the help of Siri and some fleshy folks, too, to get her there. "Who knows what danger lurks in the hearts of men?" the Shadow asked folks on radio in the Dirty 30's. And men wolves worst of all. Red learns this and more on her journey.

What the show brings to the stage : The strengths of Hood are many. One can probably never really overdose on Laura Zerebeski's scenic fly's depicting downtown Hastings Street or the innards of Red's home; or Grammy's flat; or the "Vancouver special" house placards; or the scrim showing us Wolf's tummy. Great visual fun all of this!

Match that with Costume Designer Marina Szijarto's ingenious and artful characters (among them JJ Bean coffee cup; Japadog; sushi; pizza slice &c. that occupy Wolf's stomach). Not to mention her delightful 3 pigs with their corpulent and rotund tushes. And what about the wildly ironic Grammy burlesque with the walker she needs to support her bosom.

Choreographer Tracey Power once more lives up to her name with some excellent bits featuring bicycle handles and single-front wheels dancing together; the vegematic bike-set commuters on Gregor's green lanes; the swappers scamming one another (tube-a-lube for a steam clock, anyone...?) on the streets of DTES.

Acting pin-spots : Anyone who doesn't fall on their keister laughing and rollicking in just about any Andrew McNee role on Vancouver stages needs to seek help. As both narrator Holiday Claus but particularly as TBBW McNee is a delight of exaggerated nonsense.

James Long as Grammy -- but also the more stuttered role as 2-Dad -- reveals a subtlety of comic nuance much appreciated. I have not seen his skills before. I shall seek them out again.

Chirag Naik continues to grow his craft with every outing and betrays a liketty-split sense of comic timing. For her part, Rachel Aberle can always be trusted to bring solid acting prowess to support her roles.  

Production values of note : Coupla take-aways from Sunday's show. Visually this production, as noted above, is an ocular feast both on the set side of the ledger and on costumes. Stupendous! 

Musically Veda Hille punches up cleverly each time out, no question, though I think this year not as aggressively as in previous years. Still, with her imaginative takes on everything from "Break My Stride" by Matthew Wilder to "Hungry Like the Wolf" by Duran Duran to "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, Beyonce stuff, even Johnny Cash, Hille shows once more the encompassing breadth of her musical jones.

Who gonna like : The script overall had its moments of pure risibility but not quite as many adult / local political yukkisms I would have preferred. (No serial real estate quips. [Really? In 2016...?] One direct Gregor snigger, one oblique. A single Christie Clark reference -- to private school for her kid. [Who knew? Who cares?] A Georgia viaduct reference considered funny this many years since Hogan's Alley disappeared and Jimi Hendrix died?)

For kids, one hopes their parents schooled them in these two intertwining stories involving the TBBW character, else no question they'd be utterly lost on the storylines. We wondered on the way home : do Millennial parents even read these fairy tales to their kids anymore given the social media wasteland that's the norm of daily fare? Hard to know.

But. But. The above are grunts and grumps from a septuagenarian drama critic. Take them as that.

Meanwhile the visuals and the compleat choreography and the staging and acting prowess -- by not only the principals but the Studio 58 performers doing support cast roles -- all executed cleverly and effervescently. The result : this without reservation is Go to theatre! for families wanting joyful time together sharing the goofy charades and pantomimes of characters writ large in brilliant colour and voice. 

We loved being amidst all these little 2-legged critters yelling "Behind you!" and "Yes it is!" and "No it isn't!" and "Boooooo!" every time TBBW shows his fangs. Such fun no Netflix account can ever provide. Make this a Can't miss! tradition for your family for sure.

Particulars :  Produced by Replacement Theatre [Producer Corbin Murdoch] in collaboration with The Cultch.  At the York Theatre,  639 Commercial Drive, right next to Nick's old-time Italian pastapizzariaOn thru December 31st. Run-time some 100 minutes with intermission. Box office 604.251.1363 -or- via the internet at the Cultch.

Production team :  Playwright Mark Chavez.  Director Anita Rochon.  Musical Director, Composer Veda Hille.  Choreographer Tracey Power.  Set & Poperties Designer Marshall McLahen.  Costume Designer & Sock Puppets Marina Szijarto.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Scenic Illustrator Laura Zerebeski.  Stage Manager Jan Hodgson.  Assistant Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn.  

Orchestra :  Veda Hille.  Barry Mirochnick.

Performers : Rachel Aberle.  James Long.  Andrew McNee.  Chirac Naik.  With Elizabeth Barrett.  Mason Temple.  Stephanie Wong. 

Panto Kids :  (Three per show, rotating.)  Era Bothe.  Maya Dance-Thomson.  Lola Dance-Thomson.  Yuki Enns.  Fumiko Enns.  Maxine Kassis.  Olive Knowles.  Quillan Koehn.  Nasja MacRae.  Felix MacDuff.  Nora Pontin.  Hazel Pontin.  Kiyo Roth.  Matteo Sallusti.  Cooper Thompson.

Addendum :  Scenic Illustrator Laura Zerebeski's jaw-dropping and brilliant visuals are described in the show program thus :

"Laura paints urban landscapes and personifies buildings to they look like the people who live in them. Her style combines surrealism and expressionism which is the result of a few decades of naive certainty followed by disillusionment and at least one fresh start after she left a corporate career to pursue art full time. She takes familiar urban scenes and re-imagines them with a bright mix of caricature and idealism. Laura believes that art should communicate a universal experience, which is somewhere between 'joyful' and 'resilient', and some days we all need a reminder of what that looks like."

Addendum #2 : With reference to Surrey School Board's banning the book One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad at the insistence of the majority of trustees and supported by the district bureaucracy, I am put to mind of a favourite Mark Twain quote : "First the Lord made idiots. That was just for practice. Then he made school boards." Proof positive evidence right here.

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