Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Guys and Dolls is an updated fable of old NYC's demi-monde 
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 : It takes a wee kind of courage in 2018 to mount a show with the title Guys and Dolls, as in "gangsters and molls". Probably no more or less these days than trying to sell Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew as relevant and timely social commentary.

But in the hands of Fighting Chance Productions, this award-winning 1950 Frank Loesser song-&-dance showcase overall delivers the goods sharply and smartly. Subtitled "A Musical Fable of Broadway", it's a soft-edge look at tough guy Damon Runyon's Depression-era NYC demi-monde with its slummy roving illegal crap shoots and hot boxes (burlesque & booze havens). Which were offset, often, by soul-saving do-gooders who love parades and cornets and tambourines and true confessions to Jesus. But fail to find many converts to their cause.



Sergeant Sarah Brown & troupe try to save the gamblers and wicked fellow travellers from themselves. They find it is quite a futile proposition. 
Photo credit Jennifer Surato.
At the time Brit theatre critic Kenneth Tynan called G&D America's second-best play, just behind Death of a Salesman. Myth, legend, fabrication -- G&D's New York hustlers and grifters and show folk get a grip from the opening chart "Fugue for Tinhorns" and don't let go. Meanwhile director Jennifer Suratos makes the FCP outing just that much more contemporary by casting a Sally Ann General and a slightly-corrupt police lieutenant as women, along with a couple of the die-hard gamblers who do double duty as men/women.  

How it's all put together : Fans of FCP know how Artistic Director Ryan Mooney's raison d'etre is to give the region's rising young drama school talents an outlet to show off their chops. G&D features four current Cap College theatre students plus five grads from its storied program. Their enthusiasm and talent augur well for fast and furious futures on the country's professional theatre stages.

Most folks, thanks to t.v. re-runs, have seen the 1955 movie version. (In it Frank Sinatra's "Luck Be A Lady" with its classic line "A lady doesn't wander all over the room / And blow on some other guy's dice" is perhaps his true signature song, Frank being Frank.) He played gambler Sky Masterson. Sky bets he can seduce Sally Ann Sergeant Sarah Brown away to Havana. She, meanwhile, is trying desperately to keep her Save-A-Soul Mission doors open but needs prospective converts to do that. "Tear up your poker deck of cards and play no more / Follow, follow the fold" she urges these Times Square sinners : be sheep, not hustlers! 

As counterpoint to Sky and Sarah, there's floating crap game perpetual organizer Nathan Detroit. He and burlesque headliner Miss Adelaide from the Hot Box Club (sic) have been engaged for 14 years, but he's too busy trying to find crap-shoot game sites to pay much mind. She has a perpetual psychosomatic cold he's so cool to the idea of settling down. Eventually these story lines intersect and, as one would expect to find happen, all's well that ends well.

Production values that hi-lite the script : This show, primarily, is all about the imaginative and engaging choreography by Rachel Grace Carlson, assisted by Amanda Lau. Two numbers particularly were simply superb in design and execution : the extended "Luck Be A Lady" routines, then the show's famous conversion sequence "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" led by Argel Monte De Ramos as the animated Nicely-Nicely Johnson. In both numbers there were strong hints of the kind of inspiration Valerie Easton brings to every show she touches. And that is high praise, well-deserved.

There ain't no more promising converts than a bunch of crap-shoot junkies who've bet $1,000 on their lost souls. 
Photo credit Jennifer Surato.
Costume maven Amara Anderson revealed not only imagination and insight into the worlds of burlesque meets gambling fools, dolls vs. guys. No, often it is said the show seems to feature the men. But Ms. Anderson re-boots and refreshes that app completely : both the Farmalettes denim bib shorts routine to kick things off and the "Take Back Your Mink" strip scene in the second act were just plain jaunty and fun while the men's duds were more stereotypical off-the-shelf throughout.

Chris Hall's spare -- nay, stingy -- set gave ample room for the choreography and the costuming to strut their stuff. But the visually dead air space left the eye feeling cheated, as if this were a church basement rendering rather than what one would expect from a Vancouver Waterfront Theatre show by this highly regarded theatre company. More curious than distracting, and certainly no reason to stay away, not at all.

Acting pin-spots : The team of Charlie Deagnon as crap-shoot hustler Nathan Detroit and his forlorn love of 14 years Mandy Rushton as Miss Adelaide gave the show the "chemistry" the script so often talks about. Aided strikingly by Colton Fyfe as the mouthy gangster Benny Southstreet and Mr. De Ramos as Nicely.

Lead Ranae Miller as Sarah Brown has strong soprano pipes and nimble feet, particularly in her "Marry The Man Today" duet dance with Miss Adelaide. While of rich voice, Scott McGowan as Sky Masterston was to this eye too rooted afoot and of somewhat modest, too-static gesticulation to keep apace with the others.

For her part, pole dancer Sari Rosofsky was a choice piece of work, particularly her futzy hand fiddles never mind her pole prowess. Johanna Goosen's Irish brogue as the cop Brannigan on opening night was tut-tut-y fun stuff.

Who gonna like : If you like Frank Loesser's clever music and lyrics. If Abe Burrows' witty dialogue is up your alley, e.g. Miss Adelaide to the dolt Nathan : "I kinda like it when you don't give me presents. It makes me feel like we're married already." If the notion of "guys" and "dolls" -- the Mars vs. Venus stuff put to music -- doesn't make you gag. If you subscribe to Albert Einstein's brilliant theory that "Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed."

Given your response to the above "if's", this show has spunk, sprightly dance, obvious talent both in voice and afoot. Yet another showcase of local up-&-comers from our universities that is cause for celebration and rejoicing. 

Particulars : Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.  Book by Abe Burrows (with Jo Swerling). Based on stories and characters by Damon Runyon.  Produced by Fighting Chance Productions. On at Granville Island's Waterfront Theatre until August 25th, 1412 Cartwright Street. Run-time two hours and twenty minutes. Tickets and schedule informationFCP website.

Production crew : Director Jennifer Suratos. Musical Director Marquis Byrd.  Choreographers Rachael Grace Carlson and Amanda Lau. Stage Manager Kelsey Torok.  Set and Lighting Designer Chris Hall. Costume Designer Amara Anderson.  
Assistant Director Emily Bordignon.  Assistant Stage Manager Sarissa Chew. 

Band : Marquis Byrd (Music Director / Piano). Jazz Palley (Bass). RJ Abella (Trumpet). Mithun Michael Bagchi (Drums). Ardeshir Puerkeramati (Reeds).

Performers : Charlie Deagnon (Nathan Detroit).  Argel Monte De Ramos (Nicely-Nicely Johnson).  Scott McGowan (Sky Masterson).  Ranae Miller (Sarah Brown).  Mandy Rushton (Miss Adelaide). 

Featured gangsters, gamblers, molls, cops and hustlers : Simon Abraham (Angie the Ox). Haley Allen (Dance Captain, Hot Box Club dancer, crapshooter). Thomas Chan (Calvin). Colton Fyfe (Benny Southstreet). Johanna Goosen (Brannigan). Jake Hildebrand (Harry the Horse). Caitlin Hill (Joey Biltmore, Hot Box Club dancer). Danica Kobayashi (Hot Box Club dancer). Kate Krynowsky (Agatha). Jason Lam (Rusty Charlie). Jennifer Long (Brannigan). Erin Matchette (General Matilda B. Cartwright). Vanessa Quarinto (Hot Box Club dancer / Havana dancer). Isidro Rodriquez (Big Jule). Sari Rosofsky (Hot Box Club dancer, crapshooter). Amanda Russel (Hot Box Club dancer). Stephen Street (Arvide Abernathy). 

Addendum : Director Jennifer Suratos' Notes -- from the program.

Chemistry. It's a word that comes up a number of times in Guys and Dolls. High roller Sky Masterson uses the terms to describe the spark he imagines at meeting the woman he loves. Straight-laced missionary Sarah Brown attempts to conduct a chemistry lesson of her own, after enjoying one too many Dulce de Leches. And it is chemistry, I believe, that is the reason behind the success of this Broadway classic.

Start with a couple of short stories by Damon Runyon, add an award-winning book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and ignite the flame with composer Frank Loesser, and the result is the Tony Award-winning Guys and Dolls. The spark continues with the iconic 1955 film adaptation starring Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine, and is reignited again and again with successful revivals on Broadway, in London's West End, and beyond.

It's easy to focus on the crapshooter in Guys and Dolls : they're quirky, charming, and a little bit dangerous. And while it could be seen as a show that mainly highlights the men, the gender balance is, in fact, equal. The story is infused with strong feamle characters, most notably with real-life Salvation Army Sergeant Rheba Crawford, the "Angel of Broadway", who was the inspiration behind Sarah Brown. I sought to further equalize the balance between men and women by hinting at other historical figures from the 1930's. Our Brannigan finds roots in Mary "Dead Shot" Shanley, the first policewoman in the NYPD to use a gun during an arrest. Our Joey Biltmore [Caitlin Hill] pays tribute to real-life mob bosses like Stephanie "Queenie" St. Clair, who ran a successful numbers racket in Harlem. Our female crapshooters are eminiscent of Bonnie Parker, of the infamous duo Bonnie and Clyde. Our Hot Box girls find inspiration in the bold, athletic pole dancers, who moved from circus sideshows to dance the hoochie coochie on main stages.

Sometimes, however, a doll is nothing without her guy. And while gambling is central to the storyline, love becomes the ultimate risk. When the stakes are this high, you need a bit of chemsitry and a lot of luck. As Sky says, "Life is one big crap game." Here's hoping you're not playing with loaded dice.

I have so enjoyed directing this iconic piece of musical theatre. I hope you enjoy it too.

-30-



Saturday, 21 July 2018

42nd Street is tippity-tap
fun for  tense & taut times
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 : The southeast corner of Times Square, New York City. Where 42nd Street meets Broadway. Where the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station form a colourful backdrop not only for live theatre houses but in years past also for "grindhouse" picture shows that played sextacular soft porn. "Where the underworld can meet the elite / Naughty, gawdy, bawdy, sporty 42nd Street!" according to the show's final musical stanza. 

This is playback to the Dirty 30's, well before the #metoo epoch Hollywood is now shaming us through. When the notion of a small town girl who makes it on Broadway was a throbbing romantic leitmotif in the American exceptionalist myth. Precisely the kind of myth that many folks in these distempered times will find just what their therapist ordered. And precisely what TUTS delivers with pizazz and style and panache at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park.

Mashing it up in rehearsal of "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me", the chorus girls rehearse their song-&-dance while fading diva Dorothy frets.
Photo credit Lindsay Elliott

How it's all put together : Allentown, Pennsylvania -- in the heart of what is now America's industrial rust belt -- is where Peggy Sawyer (Paige Fraser) hails from. She's trekked 90 miles east to the Big Apple in high hopes to be a chorus girl in the show Pretty Lady whose lead is the dimming luminary Dorothy Brock (Janet Gigliotti). A juvenile performer in the show, Billy Lawlor (Blake Sartin) spots Peggy and is smitten with heart throbs. 

Billy's dance chums help convince director Julian Marsh (Andrew Cownden) to give Peggy a chorus line shot. All's good to start, but during rehearsal Peggy crashes into Dorothy who -- as if taking the actors' invocation literally -- will break-a-leg when she plops unceremoniously onto the stage. Julian promptly fires Peggy. Until -- miraculously, mythically! -- he has an epiphany and is talked into dragging her, embarrassed and deflated, from slinking back to Allentown. 

Surprise surprise, Peggy gets the nod to be Dorothy's replacement with just 36 hours to go before Pretty Lady opens : "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" Julian cheers her with the show's most-quoted line : she's near beswarmed with doubts she can learn six songs, 10 dances and 25 pages of dialogue in a day-&-a-half and has a wee breakdown. But then rises, refreshed, and blooms to save the day, save the show, save 100 peoples' ability to make their rent.

Alone on stage after Peggy's roaring success, Julian sings to himself, smugly : "Come and meet those dancing feet / On the avenue I'm taking you to...42nd Street!" as only the janitor's clean-up floor lamp is lit.

No end of tippity-tap and flashy costumes when the popular glitzy tune "We're In The Money" makes its appearance.
Photo credit Lindsay Elliott
Production values that describe the show : 42nd Street is a play-within-a-play built around the Pretty Lady show in rehearsal-mode but not actually doing it. It's a staged remake of the 1933 Warner Brothers film that first found its way onto the Broadway boards in 1980 where it turned out some 3,486 shows during a hearty 8 1/2 year run. 

One could almost call it a jukebox musical because it steals numbers from the back catalogues of both Warren and Dubin (13 here in all) to pump up the original four from the old movie. (The show's most famous chart, "Lullaby of Broadway", won an Oscar in '36 for Best Original Song. But from the utterly unrelated film called "Gold Diggers of 1935".)

A major distraction the night through : Malkin Bowl's c.13 X 15 metre stage -- i.m.o. -- is too deep by half, too wide by a third -- even for such a big-number musical production as this. 

Despite terrific guidance of cast and crew elsewhere, Director Robert McQueen somehow misread how to make the Bowl stage "work". Ideally it would enhance Choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt's exceptional footwork and blocking and dance routines of her company (e.g. her riding-the-train and suitcase travel sequences with all the opera chairs were inspired and enchanting).  

But. Much of that exciting action regrettably occurred behind the faux proscenium arch pictured above, i.e. halfway back to the stage rear exit doors. To compare, think of ACT's Granville Island stage : with judicious use of side-stage curtain legs and tighter downstage traveller scrims, the cavernous Malkin platform could have been made much more cozy, intimate and involving for the audience.

Over-&-above the excellent choreography created by Ms. Hunt, Christina Sinosich's costumes were nonpareil for their variety in pattern and colour, even the rehearsal togs. The production costumes for their part were full-on prismatic in brilliance and glitter, just a delight to see. To need binoculars to appreciate all this splendiferous rainbow and twinkle, however, just shouldn't be.

Acting pin-spots : Following his excellent turn this past spring playing the Emcee for RCMT's Cabaret, Andrew Cownden as the imperious director Julian Marsh in this piece was its devilish and delightful driving force. 

He was aided neatly by Lucy McNulty who created a consistent witty sorority-Mom as cast whip Maggie Jones. Colin Humphrey's choreography dance captain Andy Lee was just the right mix : impish, lithe and cheeky. 

As the fading diva Dorothy Brock, Janet Gigliotti's contralto was rich and sensuous. Her protege Paige Fraser as Peggy Sawyer had fast and fancy footwork well in command. 

Strong performances from the rest of the cast, and a particular Huzzah! to the young Ensemble who executed Ms. Hunt's curlicue dance designs not only with cheery eagerness but also skill and finesse. Without a doubt each of them has a future on Canadian musical theatre stages should they wish it.

Who gonna like : It is almost impossible not to like a TUTS production at Malkin Bowl in Vancouver's Stanley Park sanctuary on a summer's evening. 

The extensive kvetches noted above about overall staging to the contrary notwithstanding, 42nd Street is good ol' song-&-dance tap-estry from a long bygone age. 

A different show called That’s Entertainment! provides an apt expression for this TUTS performance, no question, even if the storyline is contrived and mushy and USA-trite.

Still, as noted, the show's choreography and costumes coupled with the cast's zest-&-gusto-&-zing make for an altogether cheery night in the city that fans of musical big-show comedy can't help but find funny and fun.  

Particulars : Produced by Theatre Under the Stars. Performances until August 17, every other night in tandem with Cinderella.  At Malkin Bowl, Stanley Park. 
Tickets & schedule information via tuts.ca or by phone 604.631.2877 from 9-5, Monday thru Sunday.

Production crew : Music by Harry Warrens.  Lyrics by Al Dubin.  Book by Michael Stewart and Michael Bramble, based on the final chapters of the novel by Bradford Ropes.  Director Robert McQueen.  Choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt.  Music Director/Conductor Christopher King.  Set Designer Brian Ball.  Costume Designer Christina Sinosich.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Properties Designer Heidi Wilkinson.  Stage Manager Collette Berg.  Assistant Director Lucy McNulty.  Assistant Choreographer Colin Humphrey.  Assistant Stage Manager Victoria Porter.  Assistant Stage Manager Cat Main.  Choreography Intern Matisse Quaglia.  Dance Captain Colin Humphrey.

Orchestra :  Piano / Rehearsal Pianist Arielle Ballance.  Bass Monica Sumulong.  Drums Colin Parker.  Reed 1 Lawrence Woodall.  Reed 2 Kevin Wool.  Reed 3 Julie Holden.  Reed 4 Zach Mozel.  Reed 5 Miranda Wheeler.  Horn Malcolm Francis.  Trumpet 1 Lindsay Goldberg.  Trumpet 2 Jonathan Kury.  Trumpet 3 Alex Song.  Alternate Trumpet Justin Kury.  Trombone Andrew Radke.  Trombone Angus Lam.

Cast : Jolene Bernardino (Ann Reilly).  Andrew Cownden (Julian Marsh).  Matthias Falvai (Pat Denning).  Tyler Q. Felbel (Abner Dillon).  Paige Fraser (Peggy Sawyer).  Janet Gigliotti (Dorothy Brock).  Colin Humphrey (Andy Lee).  Lucy McNulty (Maggie Jones).  Michelle Morris (Mac).  Blake Sartin (Billy Lawlor).  Joscelyne Tamburri (Lorraine Flemming).  Julia Ulrich (Phyllis Dale).  Understudies : Dylan Floyde (Male).  Julia Ullrich (Female).

Ensemble :  Charlene Bayer, Sylvi Booth, Sarah Cantuba, Justin Daniels, Alexandra Ewert, Elliott Flockhart, Dylan Floyde, Kyra Leroux, Michael Murphy, Tiana Pazdirek, Jaime Piercy, Rachel Scheibel, Melissa Sciarretta, David Underhill, Marco Walker-Ng, Emma Wiehe.

Songs (alpha order)
42nd Street 
About a Quarter to Nine
Dames
Getting Out of Town
Go Into Your Dance
I Know Now
Lullaby of Broadway
Shadow Waltz
Shuffle Off to Buffalo
There's a Sunny Side to Ev'ry Situation
We're in the Money
Young and Healthy
You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me
-30-

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Beauty Queen of Leenane is either wholly sardonic or a sorry sum of rural Irish affairs
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 : For perspective, it doesn't hurt to know that in an October 2004 overview by pilot-theatre.com of English/Irish l'enfant terrible playwright Martin McDonagh, McDonagh remarks of his own work : "It's brilliant, and if you don't like it -- you're wrong!" (McDonagh's most recent reach in that direction was his movie script of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.) 

Meanwhile he set his early plays in Galway in northwest Eire, where his parents originally hailed from. Grim, harrowing, claustrophobic, violent, his works are redolent of Mamet, Scorsese, and James Dickey (he of "Deliverance" pedigree). Designed to be wholly in-your-face, McDonagh claims his examination of the human condition is self-explanatory : his reliance on sardonic, warring family characters merely reveals and exposes the dark underbody of rural Ireland. Interestingly, though, the town of Leenane in Connemara is a place he only visited on summer holidays, he never lived there. His roots are in Camberwell, a district south of London reportedly home "to some of London's most elegant and well-preserved Georgian houses" according to Wiki. 

It is said his first play The Beauty Queen of Leenane took him just eight days to write. He was but 27. It is the first in a late-90's blitz of scripts known as The Galway Trilogy. Its third offering The Lonesome West was produced by Pacific Theatre in November 2017. Whereas the latter features two brothers in a Freudian war of wills after they kill their father, Beauty Queen finds 70-year-old mother Mag (rhymes with "nag") who is being ministered to by her 40-year-old spinster daughter who betimes is given to emotional implosion and sadism.



Daughter Maureen (Kirsten Slenning) stands above her bitter and controlling mother Mag (Tanja Dixon-Warren) : their expressions betray all the lilt and joy of their Leenane life together.
Photo credit : Derek Fu 

How it's all put together : Daughter Maureen is the youngest of three sisters. She was released from a "nut house" [sic] in London after a mental breakdown a couple decades back only on the condition her mother become her legal guardian and she, by extension, her mother's keeper. Disconnected from the comforting cheats of urban centres, Leenane is a town that Fr. Welsh in Lonesome West lamented : "Seems God has no jurisdiction in this town. I'd have to murder half me feckin' relatives to live here!"

Boring repetitive day-to-day routines. Constant rehearsal of personal grievances and spite. Slights and interferences that smack of will and intention. Jealous that her virgin daughter might at last go on a date with a local construction worker home from London named Pato Dooley, Mag declares "Young girls should not be out gallivanting with fellas...!" Maureen shrills : "Arsing me around, eh? Interfering with my life again? Isn't it enough I've had to be on beck and call for you every day for the past twenty year? Is it one evening out you begrudge me?"

What the script brings to the stage : McDonagh's rural Irish milieu and the constant cabin fever people suffer there are often equated to the social realism of alienated UK urban young men known as "kitchen sink drama". Perhaps the link is made here because in Beauty Queen mother Mag has a particularly disgusting daily habit of emptying her bedpan contents into the kitchen sink. Their hovel thus reeks of urine. No wonder dreams founder here. 

T.v. has replaced social gatherings, people rattle about in their heads in dismal mutual isolation. Small acts of cruelty seem the characters' only escape. Except that Pato longs to take Maureen to USA with him. Despite his failure to launch their first night together, he still considers her the beauty queen of Leenane. To Boston he's headed. Home of the Kennedy brothers, a cheap paint-by-numbers litho of whom graces the farmhouse entrance wall. But when Mag destroys Pato's plaintive invitation in the fireplace, the play's ineluctable climax is foretold. 

Redux observation. Englishman McDonagh is privileged, no doubt, obviously well-heeled and well-schooled. When he appeared to slag his parents' countrymen by showing them up as belligerent hicks, London polite society went strange. They ostracized him. Vilified him. Called him nasty names and disparaged his talent.

In last November's review of the sibling script The Lonesome West I observed as follows about McDonagh's Leenane : 

"No question, this is a brand of rural Eire that's nowhere identifiable on Trip Advisor, Yelp or AirBnb sites. It has none of the charm of the Irish Rovers chumminess we for decades have associated with the place. Which is precisely why, of course, playwright McDonagh was persona non grata among the liberal London intelligentsia. For their part, the homegrown Galway folk roar'd their butts off according to writer Sean O'Hagan that he reported in his Guardian interviews with McDonagh. Today's locals weren't buying the bucolic blighted cheery peasantry doing jigs and singing gustily while flailing guitars and mandolins. They saw winks of truth from McDonagh and guffawed mightily in their Thanks be!"

Production values that contributed to the show : Jericho's typical thrust stage facing its 20 X 20 set is perfect for the single farmhouse scene on display. A side-view midway along was most intriguing. Pure functional Sally Ann recyclables with spindle rocker, chrome / Formica kitchen set and cylinder woodburning heater. Javier Sotres' sound design with pounding rain squalls punctuated by squawky a.m. radio of old Irish favourites set precisely the right tones. Regrettably the auditorium blower above the centre top row all but drowned out much of the early dialogue. Efforts to get it turned off made by various audience members obviously failed.

Acting pin-spots : Each character had moments that not only convinced but compelled. While Kirsten Slenning betrayed a daughter gone mad, lit. & fig., her precise diction was never projected forcibly or loudly enough to allow full appreciation of her acting talent. Mom Mag by Tanja Dixon-Warren was projection personified, by contrast, exuding a quiet and persistent malevolence toward daughter Maureen that quite chilled.

As Pato Dooley, Ashley O'Connell's soliloquy to start Act 2 -- a reading of the letter he wrote to Maureen asking her to join him in Boston -- was utterly poignant and gripping.

Younger brother Ray (Francis Winter) came into his own in the play's final scenes : his "Feck! Feck! Feck! Feck! Feck! Feck! Feck!" frustration at Maureen's tardy arrival to be handed Pato's letter was foreshadowing for certain, particularly when he added the quatrain of "I don't want to be here, I don't want to be here, I don't want to be here, I don't want to be here...!"

Together the individual acting parts when broken out were perhaps greater than the whole, but taken together created many fine moments. 

Who gonna like : Small-stage psychodrama has always been a favourite of mine. Others who prefer less visceral stuff will be waved off by McDonagh's harsh cut at Leenane's self-exiled pathetics -- a different kind of "basket of deplorables" but no less so. Director Kathleen Duborg hand-picked capable performers all, but the sound deficits noted above interfered and detracted from a very well-intentioned effort.

Still and all, that Martin McDonagh is said to have stitched this script together in just eight hours as a first effort may be an apocryphal tale or outright fake news. But believing it makes the evening's outing quite worth the effort to see such talent afoot.

Particulars : Produced by Ensemble Theatre Company.  [In repertory with Dark Road and A Few Good Men]. Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  On until August 15.  Tickets & schedule from the company website www.ensembletheatrecompany.ca.  Run-time 120 minutes, including intermission.  

Production team : Script by Martin McDonagh. Director Kathleen Duborg.  Assistant Director Shelby Bushnell.  Scenic Design Stephanie Wong.  Lighting Designer Patrick J. Smith.  Costume Designer Julie White.  Sound Designer Javier Sotres.  Stage Manager Samantha Paras. Fight Director Richard Meen.  Vocal Coach Erin Ormond.  Dialect Coach Brian C. Parkinson.  Assistant Stage Manager Li Zhou.  Props Josina de Bree.

Performers :  Tanja Dixon-Warren (Mag Folan).  Ashley O'Connell (Pato Dooley).  Kirsten Slenning (Maureen Folan). Francis Winter (Ray Dooley).  

Addendum :  Ensemble Theatre Company, in its sixth Vancouver summer repertory season, describes itself thus : "Vancouver-based Ensemble Theatre Company is dedicated to producing accessible and relevant theatre. The company sees theatre as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on current issues, and takes artistically innovative approaches to classics as well as mounting challenging modern and contemporary plays. The non-profit arts organization is devoted to nurturing both artists and audiences, creating a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas and dialogue."
-30-






Saturday, 14 July 2018

Lysistrata resurrects 2,400 year old au courant grievances v. men
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 : The conceit of Lysistrata by the ancient Greek Aristophanes is simple. No more sex, men, until your arms of war go limp. Then we can all lie back and have a bit of peace just for the fun of it. Aristophanes was enjoying some pre-feminist political snickers here. Based on the Peloponnesian war that had been dragging on interminably. If the war tumesced much longer, he mused, soon the women of Athens and Sparta would have no men to roll in the hay with for years to come. So the feisty femme Lysistrata proposes why not stage a pre-emptive sex strike now when the soldiers come home on furlough all hot and horny?

Jennifer Lines, Quelemia Sparrow and Marci T. House have a giggle over plans to boycott the bedroom. "The war is over, if you want it!" they tell their men. 
Photo credit : David Cooper

How it's all put together : About her award-winning direction of Pericles for Bard in 2016, I said this : "Director Lois Anderson conspires with a variety of muses and consultants in concert with the show's creative design team to conceive and fabricate a fantasitcal version of the script." She and co-adaptor Jennifer Wise turned their efforts to that same task in 2018 with Aristophanes whose works preceded Shakespeare by two thousand years.

At present there's not an Iraq war triggered by phony WMD's to use as the launching pad for Lysistrata and its timeless jibes at men, their peccadilloes and erect pomposities -- we who occasion so much terror worldwide. But identity and gender politics never cease to pop up dramatic possibilities.

So Ms's Anderson & Wise gave their Lysistrata a unique hook : the play's staging has to appear as if it is a spontaneous and improvisational mounting of the Greek script by Bard's women actors. They say they're "on strike against Hamlet, apparently he's a snivelling bore". Hamlet is the piece they've been rehearsing for weeks and is about to open. But they learn that the patriarchal and privileged types who run politics want to convert Vanier Park into a major container port. They decide that Lysistrata will be a terrific protest statement showing strong-minded women at work rather than present a dithery Dane who can't decide whether he wants to be or not to be.

Quelemia Sparrow, Ming Hudson and Jennifer Lines do a spontaneous rehearsal of their protest performance of Lysistrata.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson 
To pull off being an impromptu and unrehearsed show, the program notes tell us, costume designer Barbara Clayden and set designer Drew Facey "...have chosen to work only with things you'd legitimately find at the Bard site : cardboard boxes, water bottles, a Sharpie, a curtain, old cans of paint, steel wool, the actor's street clothes, and a few unexpected discoveries..." like 38 discarded toilet paper tubes painted gold for the magistrate's headgear; errant broom heads for the soldiers' helmet brushes; mops for wigs;  countless beer can tops stitched in a row for jewel'd belts.

The play's the thing : The show is really three plays within one. The Hamlet troupe that morphs into the Lysistrata cast, then there's the Bard ensemble qua Christopher Gaze employees for the summer who come to grief with the VPD over some graffiti tagging and other Vanier Park vandalism when off-duty from their Lysistrata show rehearsals.

Along the way there are hilarious dialogue moments, no question. In denying their Greek husbands sex they promise not to perform "a head-butt followed by a reverse Spartan leg-wrap" or the favourite "lion and cheese-grater" manoeuvre.  

Lysistrata (Luisa Jojic) cajoles the women. We must stick together like birds of a feather, she demands. "If the swallows start squabbling and start wandering away from their nest they will be called the biggest sluts that ever lived". Still miffed that her feminist Hamlet has been knackered, Colleen Wheeler snarks : "This is the stupidest play I've ever seen. Do you realize you've just called swallows 'sluts'?" Laughs over that for 1/2 minute or more.

Quelemia Sparrow and Louisa Jojic conspire how to thwart the old men guarding the money at the Acropolis that funds the Sparta / Athens war. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson 
A pastiche of performances : When the play sticks to its slapstick moments a la Monty Python or its Christmas panto mode bringing audience members on to the stage to join the fun, this creative piece is pure hoot to watch. Even the interjections by Musqueam native Quelemia Sparrow about the park's indigenous history back 10,000 years and more is made into a running joke. Every time the cops refer to "Vanier Park" she interjects that its Coast Salish traditional name is "Snauq!" instead. The riffs and sight-gags back-&-forth on this bit grabbed countless laughs.

In the second act some live music is introduced. A ballad about how Greek women would knit coats for others to wear instead of beating ploughshares into swords was rich & subtle. Redolent of Chris Martin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ann Mortifee all in a piece. Nice work indeed by composer Mishelle Cuttler and performers.

But then the play started to change focus from its largely comic lens. More straight Aristophanes dialogue than satire and snigger. From panto and Pythonesque silliness the audience was asked to jump-shift to a lengthy, utterly serious side trip extolling native reverence for the land and the sea that consumed the final 15-20 minutes of the show. Dramatically this failed for me. But I may have been alone : a nearly 100% unanimous standing ovation greeted the cast when the lights were doused.

Acting pin-spots : Much silliness and risible performances from the cast. Colleen Wheeler protesting the cancellation of her Hamlet role : she repeatedly reports for duty in her all-black shroud to emote and shout and finally spit out her "to be" lines in the faces of front row patrons. Marci T. House as one of the hunchy old men and as chief magistrate. Ming Hudson fretting "I'll never work at Bard again!" thanks to the Hamlet troupe's bit of spontaneous anarchy at play here telling Mr. Gaze to pound sand. The 3-men, 3-women nude wrestling match : no question the show's slapstick highlight what with all those nylon mammaries and gonads being slung about at random and then the geezers dropping fitfully but embracingly in a dog pile. The deadpan ambiguously gay cop Sebastien Archibald who ultimately warms to this bunch and weeps. Just plain fun one and all.

Who gonna like : This ambitious and inventive script is a wholesale reimagining of the Aristophanes original. Personally I had doubts the hook of a container dock protest would work as a no-sex-for-you gambit. And the costuming / staging bit of "the lethal one-eyed pool snake" for the Greek soldiers suffering from long-term sex denial carried on quite quite quite too long. 

But fans of this troupe -- most of whom are also doing Timon of Athens -- will cheer the energy and imagination and dedication they all put into creating this homegrown mini-spectacle. The standing-o the crew got at show's end took a bit to rise up but ultimately did with appreciative vigour in their claps and cheers.


Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 18 shows between now and the September 13th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.org. Run-time 120 minutes with intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Lois Anderson. Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Musical Director / Sound Designer/Composer Mishelle Cuttler. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Indigenous Consultant Quelemia Sparrow. Stage Manager Joanne P. B. Smith. Assistant Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart. Apprentice Stage Manager Zoe Bellis.  Directing Apprentice Joel Wirkkunen.  Costume Design Apprentice Hannah Case.  

Performance Ensemble :  Sebastien Archibald. Sharon Crandall. Michelle Fisk. Marci T. House. Ming Hudson. Luisa Jojic. Jennifer Lines. Joel D. Montgrand. Adele Noronha. Quelemia Sparrow. Colleen Wheeler. 

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Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Truth, yes, but no chance of reconciliation in Timon 
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 : A few decades back Vancouver's Howe Street was infamous for its penny mining stock instant millionaires. Along with a hefty cohort of swindlers at play, too. Many of them ultimately found their beds at B.C. Pen far less snuggly than their long-lost cribs at the Four Seasons. Tales of endless riotous evenings at the Cave and Isy's and the Georgia during the good times were duly reported by Jack Wasserman. All of this and more makes Timon of Athens an excellent script choice for Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival.

Whether parable or morality play or outright tragedy, Timon causes us to reflect on what true friendship looks like when the party's over. Timon is a classic "high flyer". He loves Gatsby-esque parties with lavish tables, wines worth their talent, and hob-nobbing with local artists and poets who see themselves as up-&-comers. They ask for loans, Timon digs deep. Expensive baubles he truckles on others. In truth, of course, they're but sycophants and lickspittles and spongers who when Timon's luck and money go Poof! they do, too.

Isidore (Adele Noronha) and Timon (Colleen Wheeler) yuk and suk it up gaily during Timon's heady days as a mover & shaker on the big city scene. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

How it's all put together : From the get-go, Director Meg Roe gives Billy Bard's Jacobean ear a really hard twist by casting the chief 10 roles all as women. And whether male or female, most in Vancouver know today's maths by heart : in the average household folks owe $1.70 in debt servicing for every $1 of disposable income they have. Worse still, the cost of housing alone now eats up over 80% of after-tax earnings here -- no question we live atop an inverted pyramid financially. 

When her tipsy pyramid crashes, Timon (Colleen Wheeler) beseeches her friends to bail her out with generosity equal to what she's effused on them over the years. They demur, defer, and depart right smartly. So she throws one last party for them. A feast of hot water in bowls on charger plates under silver domes. After a splashdown table-smash of epic proportion, she then hies herself off to the wilderness to become a hermit for the rest of her days. Even refuses to return triumphant to the Big Smoke despite discovering gold -- by the handful -- while digging for roots to eat.


Timon's assistants Flaminius (Ming Hudson) and Flavius (Moya O'Connell) share a final bit of Instagram mirth just before their mistress's house is rent asunder, literally, by Timon who now rages at her former, fickle fair-weather friends. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson


What the show brings to the stage : There are four elements in a typical Shakespeare drama that resurface constantly : foreshadowing; hyperbole; shameless scheming; wrath that is rung down clamourously. 

In Timon, that last aspect is heightened once her friends scorn her collectively and offer up but a few hundred quid to soften her bankruptcy. Director Roe puts it thus : "It is difficult to pin down its themes. Working on it, I've been wondering about redemption, greed, agency, capitalism, friendship, altruism, generosity, societal obligation, nihilism, money...about the rotten systems at work in Timon's world. I think of Timon as a parable, but I'll leave you to fill in the moral at the end. In my opinion that is the most difficult part."

Clutching her last grasp of filthy lucre dug out of a wilderness cave, Timon (Colleen Wheeler) lets the world know exactly what she thinks of about honesty, fidelity and friendship when money comes into the picture.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

Production values that enhance the script :  In the 50's the staging conceived for this performance would be called avant garde. Experimental. Unorthodox. All this it surely is on many levels. Starting with the all-women principals. Who are outfitted in contemporary yacht club lounge get-ups. Acting on Drew Facey's functional, elegant warehouse-loft set that morphs, violently, into a dirt-filled cave. These scenes join an electro-rapture of cacophony in the final anarchistic moments while lights crackle ominously atop simulated gunshots.

Add to all that, this : in its original the script is five acts in eleven scenes. Almost precisely the length of an uncut Macbeth. This troupe's Timon is done in but one continuous act, its scenes linked intimately, all executed in but 90 minutes -vs- the 150-minute run-time across the Bard campus portico for Macbeth. Original? Twenty-eight named characters plus ensemble, just twelve actors here (in 15 truncated roles).

Star production performance is without doubt the Facey set of square'd patchwork floorboards and support joists in Timon's home that Ms. Wheeler systematically rips up and throws aside in piles ringside. This wild scenario creates the cave that ultimately becomes Timon's chosen sarcophagus. [I was exhausted watching her huck all this weighty lumber to-&-fro, no question, while she ranted, raved and sobbed vociferously throughout.]

Acting pin-spots : No question Colleen Wheeler executes a profound and compelling and thunderously well-wrought Timon. Not unlike Lear, this is another of Shakespeare's seemingly bi-polar tragic characters who don't "fall" so much as "switch" from a decent, normal, copascetic adult into a wrathful, vengeful monster-god. Her soliloquies in the final chapter of the cave scenes could, however, have been sliced up a bit further -- there's a drag factor at play. Doing so would result in little loss to the script's focus on the horrible hypocrisies that infect people when the love of money transcends almost all other drivers and values in their lives.

As Timon's ever-loyal servant Flavius, Moya O'Connell was to this eye flawless : crisp efficiency, empathy run riot, loyalty-from-love her driving ethos. 

How not to like Apemantus (Marci T. House) who from Moment 1 questions Timon's Big City modus operandi : "What purpose these feasts, pomps and vain glories?" She calls out the Rich Housewives syndrome that Timon surrounds herself with as phony and cruel and exploitive. Curious how many critics call her role cynical when in fact it is these grasping charlatans who are the true cynics in the piece.

Who gonna like : In this adaptation of the Bard by Director Roe, cast and crew, perhaps the above question is better framed this way. If you are a Shakespeare traditionalist. If you want far more original Bard than adaptation. If wholesale gender-switches don't, as a rule, appeal to you. Well then this will not be your preferred outing to Bard in 2018.

If, on the other hand, you think you might be up for a clenching -- nay, accosting -- theatre experience, this is your Summer '18 toke for sure. It is excitement writ large in originality and chutzpah and braveness that will linger in memory for years to come. 

And all the layers of leitmotif themes Meg Roe itemizes above jump out not just convincingly but hauntingly. "Are we done in? What of this House?" Flaminius demands of Flavius at show's end. Who can possibly predict in a world such as we find ourselves. 

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 33 shows between now and the September 9th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.org. Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Meg Roe. Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Sound Designer/Composer Alessandro Juliani. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Choreographer Amanda Testini. Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Stage Manager Joanne P. B. Smith. Assistant Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart. Apprentice Stage Manager Zoe Bellis.  Directing Apprentice Cherissa Richards. 


Performers :  Patti Allan (Sempronius).  Sebastien Archibald (Help 2).  Kate Besworth (Painter).  Michelle Fisk (Lucius).  Marci T. House (Apemantus).  Ming Hudson (Flaminius).  Jennifer Lines (Poet).  Joel D. Montgrand (Help 1).  Adele Noronha (Isidore).  Moya O'Connell (Flavius).  Quelemia Sparrow (Ventidius).  Colleen Wheeler (Timon). 


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