Thursday, 16 November 2017

Only Drunks : a few cliches, but timely truths too
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 : In 1991's Someday -- prequel to last night's remount of the 1996 show Only Drunks & Children Tell the Truth -- Grace goes back to her native band village at Otter Lake on Christmas Eve. This is where she was taken from during the infamous "60's scoop" by government welfare agencies. Social workers alleged that 1,000's of children on hundreds of reserves across this vast land were being neglected and/or abused and had to be rounded up like feral dogs to be saved from their family tormentors. (See Addendum for details.)

Back at her birthplace Grace meets her birth mother Anne and her blood sister Barb : she tells them her adoptive name is Janice Worth. She doesn't relate to Grace, lit.-or-fig., and the reunion is aborted after but an hour.  Thus the show's title -- Someday. Playwright Drew Hayden Taylor describes his follow-up 1996 script Only Drunks & Children Tell the Truth as designed to take Someday "a step further". Well, not quite. A giant step for sure it turns out.

Elder daughter Janice (Chelsea Rose Tucker) has anxious feelings about returning to her late mother's home at Otter Lake, three hours out of Toronto. Born there as Grace, she struggles to be worthy of her original name.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper

How the storyline plays out : As Only Drunks starts, Barb comes to Toronto.  She has brought along her boyfriend Rodney and his adopted brother Tonto. Both are characters straight off the Hobbema Reserve as imagined by Bill Kinsella. The three of them break into Janice's tony apartment to convince her to return to Otter Lake. They are agog at her digs : she has all the trappings one might expect from a hotshot entertainment industry lawyer including original art by indigenous painters Maxine Noel, Daphne Odjig and Roy Thomas on the walls. As she gazes out at Janice's view high atop Toronto's distinctive hotel de ville in Nathan Phillips Square, Barb quips : "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to put a land claim on it."

Barb tells her that a mere three days previously their mother Anne died. Janice/Grace needs to pay her her last respects, Barb insists. The funeral was well attended, but it didn't heal her pain altogether. "Nothing like seeing a bunch of overweight middle-age men in mismatched suits standing in a row," she mourns. Act 1 is mostly a bunch of manic antics over coffee about white people's conspiracy theories -vs- natives' wisdom of the elders. Tonto says the answer to the "How?" and the "Why?" that white people always ask is a simple "Why not...?" Janice finally agrees to make the trek.

Back at Otter Lake she confronts two stereotypical symbols of native life : (1) a magnified elaboration on Socrates' in vino veritas belief whilst swilling a noggin of booze with sister Barb, and (2) an awakening of sorts when her mother's birthday gift of a dreamcatcher is revealed. Mom wrote to Janice Grace that the dreamcatcher is designed so good dreams will float through its spaces and the morning sun will dry up any tears from bad dreams that get caught up in its webs.

Result ? Janice reaches through her veil of fears into her indigenous past. The prospect of a more genuine and permanent reconciliation between her two selves and her two cultures is held out by the time her hangover subsides at her mother's graveside.

Scriptique : Fact is Only Drunks was written fully six years after the 11-week standoff between Canadian troops and Mohawks at Oka, Quebec.
Patrick Cloutier, a 'Van Doo' perimeter sentry, and Anishinaabe Warrior Brad Larocque, a University of Saskatchewan economics student, facing off became one of Canada's most widely circulated images.
Photo & cutline credits : Wikipedia

Thus the quaint-catchiness of the Only Drunks sketches have to be taken as just that. And Taylor makes no apology for his approach. His website declares from the get-go : "Welcome to where theatre, humour, First Nations philosophy, literature and identity all walk hand in hand... Drew has spent the last two decades traveling the world about it from the Aboriginal perspective...he has managed to bridge the gap between cultures by tickling the funny bone."

So if the gibes on stage seem a tad glib or romanticized or the points-of-view time-stamped from days long-gone-by, fact is there is no one story, no one truth in any of this subject matter. And its themes transcend indigenous history : as an adoptive parent watching Only Drunks, I was smitten and awash in tears during Grace's final soliloquy. None of my response had anything to do with Canadian first peoples. So a Bullseye! from Taylor in a target he wasn't directly aiming at.

Production values that shine through : To not start with Brian Kenney's set would be just wrong. The back-scrim projections of downtown TO contrasted with the Otter Lake woods were spot-on. Janice's swank condo furniture & paintings were delightfully contrasted with the tatty overstuffed chairs and Furniture Barn kitchen setting back home, too. Lighting by Jonathon Kim worked some magic, and Cheyenne Mabberley's outfits for the group were plain funk. (Buffy Ste. Marie's recessional to the show was, I think, "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" -- utterly smart.)

Acting pin-spots : Never having seen Chelsea Rose Tucker previously -nor- the work of Director Calumpa C. Bobb, all I can say is My, my. Together what a team! Tucker's footwork amidst the three visitors from Otter Lake in her apartment was exceptional blocking & execution. And without exaggeration I must say, too, that the drinking / drunk / hangover sequences of Tucker and Ashley Chartrand that carried much of Act 2 were the most realistic such I perhaps have ever witnessed (on stage...). For their part, Messrs. Houle and Cound as the class clown / party-boy cut-up -&- faux medicine man, respectively, pulled off each of their roles convincingly, too. 

Who gonna like : Given the views in the Scriptique section above, I was fully prepared to come away concluding that this show met expectations that had been set a bar or two lower than normal for BLR. How presumptuous and borderline arrogant of me.

This show is tightly cast. Tightly directed : blocked, set, lit, prop'd, stage-business'd -- all of it. No question personal life experience drew muffled sobs from me others might not. But Taylor's humour underscoring all the completely relevant Reconciliation matters that will be before Canadians for decades hence was a treat. This is Go to! stuff for people whose hearts want to beat faster and almost burst at certain moments.

Particulars : Written by Drew Hayden Taylor.  Produced by Firehall Arts Centre, Artistic Director Donna Spencer.  At the Firehall Arts Centre, Gore @ Cordova. Until December 2nd.  Run-time 95 minutes in two acts, one intermission between.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phone, 604.689.0926

Production crew :  Director Calumpa C. Bobb.  Set Designer Brian Kenney.  Costume Designer Cheyenne Mabberley. Lighting Designer Jonathon Kim.  Stage Manager Jillian Perry.

Performers :  Ashley Chartrand (Barb).  Chris Cound (Tonto).  Braiden Houle (Rodney).  Chelsea Rose Tucker (Grace \ Janice).

Addendum to Only Drunks :  Matters not whether it's Tacoma's Rachel Dolezal who, en masque, had worked her way up and through talent and hard work was named chief of the region's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter.  In 2015 she was outed as 100% Caucasian and promptly, quite unceremoniously, dismissed. 

Or consider the fate of famed Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden : over the years he has averred, variously, to having at least a spot of Nipmuc, Mi'kmaq, Ojibway and/or Metis DNA. 

Both of these highly publicized personalities point in the same direction, viz. that the subject of blood quantum is cropping up more and more these days. What percentage of one's blood is traceable to a particular racial group? Both slaveholders in America and Hitler's Nazis subscribed to the "just one drop" test : just one drop even generations back on either mother or father's side would find one labeled as Negro or Jew. In the end in today's world to which group does / must / should / can one "belong" is no easy question to answer.

Such a question was central to the OD script as noted in the review. Grace was a victim of government's "60's scoop" that was culturally parallel to the residential school farrago. (Worth remembering in that context that residential school conscription had begun before Canada even became a country in 1867, and did not ring its final bell until 1996, nearly 30 years after I emigrated here. )

The site notes that the "60's scoop" exercise was, bluntly put, "the mass removal of Aboriginal children into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands." Country-wide the program is estimated to have resulted in as many as 20,000 youngsters either fostered or adopted out to both Canadian and American white families. Thus what we like to think of as our "liberal, enlightened, kinder, gentler Canada" ain't necessarily so.


Sunday, 12 November 2017

Taken At Midnight relives Nazi horrorshow 

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 Jewish lawyer, prosecutor Hans Litten, subpoenas and cross-examines Adolf Hitler in 1931. It's in a criminal trial involving four brownshirts from the paramilitary street-thug batallion known as the Sturmabteilung (SA). The four have been arraigned for a murder committed during one of the Nazi's agitprop-cum-Bierstein nites. Through canny cross-examination, the 27-year-old prosecutor gets Hitler to reveal the link between his National Socialist party and Ernst Rohm's homegrown mafioso. In revenge two years later, Litten is arrested and becomes known as Hitler's personal prisoner. After four years of "protective custody" -- read torture -- he suicides in Dachau. 

Gestapo chief of political prisoners Dr. Conrad (Brian Hinson) holds up committal papers for the son of Irmgard Litten (Suzanne Ritstic) whose son Hans, 27, had the audacity to cross-examine Hitler in a criminal case involving the SA hit squad who killed opponents of the Nazi juggernaut.
Photo credit : Nancy Caldwell, UPV
Taken At Midnight focuses mostly on Litten's mother Irmgard (Suzanne Ristic) who with steadfast and stoic determination beseeches an unctuous bureaucrat Dr. Conrad (Brian Hinson) to find and release her son (Sean Anthony). She pleads grimly, vainly, how in the dying days of Oskar von Hindenburg's doomed Weimar Republic Hans was only "doing his duty" -- his Pflicht -- to uphold the established law of the day. Dr. Conrad feigns sympathy -- his phony sincerity the more chilling given his rank as a Gestapo officer in the fiendish Schutzstaffel. (Tellingly Conrad is the only character playwright Michael Hayhurst gives no first name to : he is a role, not a person.)

What the show brings to the stage Europe's myriad war memorials often focus on individual souls whose efforts to oppose or just keep out-of-sight of Hitler and his henchmen make the horrors of the Nazi diabolika that much more personal. Thus the around-the-block lineups at the Anne Frank house on the Prinzengracht canal in Amsterdam. One hopeful Jewish teenager in hiding brought the nearly incomprehensible scope of Hitler's nightmare down to a scale the mind can manage. This play is just another such example : the dehumanization of Hans Litten and his prison-mates made personal, each one as one.

Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe commemorating the Holocaust casts haunting shadows. Located two scant blocks east of the site of Hitler's bunker where he suicided, April 30, 1945. (The bunker was dynamited and the debris buried in on itself by the Communist government of East Germany. But its commemorative explanatory billboard in the re-united Germany is now an obligatory stopover for tourists.)
Photo credit : Sam Lockhart, 2017 (Nikon P50)
Production values that shine through :  Immediate mention must be made of Set Designer Allyson Fournier's effective set. In the middle is bleacher-like scaffolding reminiscent of both Hitler's scream-speech podiums in Bavaria adorned with swastika bunting  as well as resembling a hangman's gallows.  Downstage left is the tatty living room that Irmgard rents to have persistent access to Dr. Conrad's office, which anchors the downstage right 25% of the stage.

Kate Pierre's costumes are honest to the times, though the fittings on the SA / SS guards could have been a bit more crisp and thus menacing in their efficient sadism. Between them, meanwhile, Kanon Hewitt's soundscape of eery cave winds rising-&-dying was matched by Lighting Director Michael Methot's quick-spots and backlight. Together they created a truly spooky mood to heighten the menace permeating the action.

Scriptique :  Long have I advocated that any prospective drama script needs to be subjected to the "radio play" litmus test before being block-&-staged. That way the dramatic tensions between characters are subjected to a listener's imagination and analysis for dialogue cleverness, speech length, cadence, inflection and such. 

The Hayhurst script would, alas, likely earn but a B- / C on that account : its essential didacticism aside, Irmgard's sermonettes addressed a bit-too-regularly to the audience needed surgical reduction and bypass sutures. The show's 135 minutes'  duration was 15-too-long by half.

A final fateful meeting at Dachau between son Hans (Sean Anthony) and mother Irmgard (Suzanne Ristic). Release for him will not come from a walk out the prison gates. He takes other measures.
Photo credit : Nancy Caldwell, UPV
Acting pin-spots :  The above critique to the contrary notwithstanding, Suzanne Ristic's Frau Litten turn was heart-rending, fully-focus'd, an utterly profound mother's living lament for her son the system stole from her and now tortures. 

The dialogues she shared with her cowardly, rationalizing and capitulating husband Fritz (Douglas Abel) were stellar for both actors.

As well the scenes with Dr. Conrad were altogether believable, particularly the late-scene explosions between them : she the overwrought Mutti, he the domineering put-down patriarch so central throughout history.

Sean Anthony as son Hans was compelling in his commitment to rooting out where truth lies even under torture.

On a slightly lighter note, Richard Hersley's description and blocked antics imitating Hitler were worth the ticket price alone : "He's an overwrought eunuch with a drinking problem, a novelty moustache and a pimp haircut, the Austrian transvestite." Terrific mocking in-character performance consistently delivered the night long by Hersley.

Who gonna like :  The 1984-ish insidiousness of the Nazi bureaucratic police regime is gripping material indeed in a world where USA president D. J. Trump gleefully hugs  Putin and makes no apology how he embraces both Putin's style-&-substance.

Indeed, the line that is probably truest to-day world-wide would have to be Irmgard's observation : "Fanaticism : so easy to spot in someone else, impossible to detect in yourself." (As suggested supra, USA's current president fails profoundly on both sides of that equation.)

If you liked Master Class by David Pownall, Taken At Midnight is another venture into a parallel universe of such chilling historic fiction and facts. It provides what millennial pub-crawlers might describe as a Jaegerbomb : snap-to side effects that hit you and are both buzzy and a bit stupefying.

Particulars : Written by Mark Hayhurst.  Produced by The United Players of Vancouver.  Directed by Michael Fera. Artistic Director Andree Karass. At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street. On through November 26th. Run-time 150 minutes (two acts), including intermission. Tickets & schedule information 604.224.8007, ext 2 or

Production team : Director Michael Fera. Executive Producer Andree Karas.  Producer Linda Begg. Technical Director / Lighting Michael Methot .  Set Designer Allyson Fournier.  Costume Designer Kate Pierre.  Sound Designer Kanon Hewitt.  Stage Manager Jasmin Sandhu.  Assistant Stage Manager LAnna Nebolsina.  Fight Directors Michael Kovac, Ryan Bolton McNeill.

Performers : Douglas Abel (Fritz Litton).  Jake Anthony (SA / SS guard).  Sean Anthony (Hans Litten).  John Harris (Lord Clifford Allen).  Richard Hersley (Erich Mühsam).  Brian Hinson (Dr. Conrad).  Michael Kahn (Carl von Ossietzky)).  Michael Lang (SA \ SS guard; Hotelier; Hitler).  Suzanne Ristic (Irmgard Litten).  Max Smith (Gustav Hammerman / Jr. Gestapo).   

Addendum : Quotable quotes from Taken At Midnight

Irmgard : If you don't have patience, you'll never hold them accountable.

Dr. Conrad : Your son is not 'under arrest', he is in 'protective custody'.

Dr. Conrad : Your son is a fool, not a criminal.

Irmgard : I don't feel anguish : I feel hatred and proud.  Fritz : If you weren't so naive as he is, you would see what is really going on.

Hans (to Hitler at the 1931 trial) : What is the purpose of these brownshirts?  Hitler : They are the party's sports section. They give classes in self-defence.  Hans : What do they teach, "Jew"-jitsui?

Irmgard : Perfect fear casts out love.

Irmgard (to Lord Allan) : I'm still reasonable, but I am desperate.

Hans & Musham, debating why Hitler murders Ernst Rohm plus the top SA commanders on the "Night of the Long Knives" : It is the narcissism of small differences. They are liquidating their own supporters in order to not be accused of favouritism. 

Irmgard to Dr. Conrad whom she meets casually in the Tiergarten : I wander the streets of Berlin and I look for irony in the peoples' faces.

Irmgard on why she is so persistent about Hans : Men cannot stand to see a child in pain. They say we have instinct over reason. Men think before they act. They work out the odds. The women just fight on.

Irmgard : This is what happens to people when you seek Destiny with a capital D and take personal destiny out of their own hands.

Irmgard : I prayed for the outside world to intervene -- or at least take notice.

Irmgard : Those who do the dirty work are always verbose.

Irmgard : I''ve never felt more powerful and soiled. 

Irmgard : When you are cynical the world seems much worse than it is.

Irmgard. Yes, there is something contemptible about the defeated.


Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Smart People proves IQ is hardly everything

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 : Biological determinism [b.d.] is the belief that traits are hardwired in one's racial DNA. Thus social environment, nutrition, educational opportunity and/or financial comfort have zero roles to play : one is superior or inferior by accident of birth. Revisiting this age-old b.d. / b.s. notion is the conceit that underscores Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond.

First produced in 2014, it is set during Barack Obama's heady run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008 and ends with his inauguration in January, 2009. Four eggheads -- well, three -plus- an actor -- all are Harvard-educated. They are a mix of races and gender who swap a ton of yakkety-yak about social construct biases. Along the way they quip and gibe and snipe, wittily and risibly, often enough by soliloquy to an off-stage listener. And, of course, in doing so each reveals their own soft shell.

How it's all put together : No question the smart people of Smart People would likely not have found themselves 500 miles south during the racial mayhem in Charlottesville, Virginia this past summer. One is an African-American surgical intern at Harvard Medical named Jackson Moore (Kwesi Ameyaw). His set-off is a caucasian neuropsychiatrist named, archly, Brian White (Aaron Craven) who is trying to prove clinically that racial bias is DNA-innate. Ginny Yang (Tricia Collins) is a Chinese-Japanese American psychology professor who counsels troubled Asian women struggling with their cultural shackles. Finally there is African American Valerie Johnston (Katrina Reynolds). She is trying to score stage roles after recently getting her MFA in acting. 

The show starts with each of the four revealing bits of their personalities and the frustrations they feel in their chosen career cocoons. Ginny and Brian meet at a stereotypically liberal-minded Harvard affair : a gathering of "the committee for the study of minority matriculation, recruitment and retention". Before the sober session starts they flirt. Then ultimately fling.

Surgeon intern Jackson (Kwesi Ameyaw) treats up-&-coming actor Valerie (Katrina Reynolds) in a scene revealing the biases that come from within a social-ethnic group, never mind all the mindsets that assault from without.
How does actor Valerie meet wannabe surgeon Jackson? When he's putting in slavish hours at the med school clinic. She shows up looking for stitches after getting slightly sliced by some theatric scenery she smacks into. Showing her cultural colours, she assumes that being black he's an RN not an MD. Through such short scenes and monologues the show presents viewers a pirouette around issues near and dear to Ms. Diamond's heart. The characters' biases and existential beliefs betray some clumsy footwork, no question. Finally the plot contorts somewhat awkwardly into a squaredance that finds the four at dinner together. Footwork steps aside for a riposte of spice & vinegar.  

Scriptural values : I suspect playwright Diamond had no idea the levels of irony her script would play upon as she was writing it (see the two Addendums). It is the ultimate irony of Smart People, in 2017, that whether racism is DNA-rooted or culturally-tattooed from life experience is fundamentally an irrelevant question. 

Clever, sure, that Ms. Diamond's character Dr. Brian White from Harvard feels himself ultimately treated like a "nigger" because his b.d. data-grab about DNA-based white racism is rejected by his professorial colleagues and along with it his tenure-track bid in the Year of Obama. That was then, this is now, so it's not the irony I mean. 

The parallel, analogously, is climate change : whether from anthropogenic causes or God-on-a-rant or simply a new "is" like the Ice Age of yore, climate change is the current is and it's not changing soon. 

So the parallel is the 90% white NFL crowds booing the 70% black players on their favourite teams when they kneel or lock arms during the USA national anthem -- and then cheering them wildly when they score touchdowns. Irony promptly puffs up to paradox in such scenarios.

Acting & production pin-spots : In this vigorous outing by all it would be a mug's game to single out any performer of the four as singularly more stunning than any other. In their own idiosyncratic ways each contributed to a collection of acting parts that perhaps exceeded the dramatic whole that playwright Diamond was seeking. I.e. the characters' arguments and tightly-designed peccadilloes were more compelling, individually, than any kind of completeness in character development. That said the part of Dr. Jackson Moore as interpreted by Kwesi Ameyaw came closest to a person you might want to know. 

The only reservation about the production itself would be a couple of scenes by director Mackay that were curiously staged : (1) the first locker room scene between White and Moore where they stood glued to the floor at opposite ends of the bench, and (2) the two bar scenes between White and Yang where they both suffered rigor mortis across a table too-fat by half. A 6th piece of furniture on the spare set to make those scenes more intimate and a lot more sexy byplay with the wineglasses wouldn't have been off-sides.

Who gonna like :  Smart People is witty, crafty canny stuff. Even moreso than Lydia Diamond imagined as noted above. It is dexterously delivered here by the Mitch-&-Murray crew who take full advantage of Studio 16's black box venue done theatre-in-the-round -- just-right simple staging in David Roberts' set for the complex ideas around race and culture and bigotry being bandied back-&-forth. Fans of small theatre spaces with scripts designed for mental impact are the target here. If that's you, you'll find much to please you in this show no question !

Particulars : Canadian Premiere produced by mitchandmurrayproductions. On until November 18, 2017. At the Studio 16 stage, 1555 West 7th Avenue, Vancouver. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission.  Tickets & schedules through

Production team : Director David Mackay.  Set Designer David Roberts.  Lighting & Sound Designer Chengyan Boon. Co-producer Anna Marie Deluise. Stage Manager Jennifer Wilson. Communications Kate Issac. Associate Producer Kwesi Ameyaw. Technical Director Colin Carruthers.

Performers : Kwesi Ameyaw (Jackson).  Tricia Collins (Ginny).  Aaron Craven (Brian).  Katrina Reynolds (Valerie).

Addendum #1 : The playwright's view of her own script was itself a "tell" when she was interviewed this past Spring by Nelson Pressley of The Washington Post. Ms. Diamond said the play took eight years to write, starting in 2006 : "I wanted to write a play about race. I had always done this interesting dance of acknowledging that my aesthetic is the dynamic of race, class, sex and gender...It took eight years because while I was writing it Obama ran and won, and the way we talked about race changed dramatically."  With Obama's election many pundits called America "post-racial". A check with Urban Dictionary today was useful here : "an utterly imaginary and fictional term, much like 'pixie dust' because there is no such thing".

As if to prove UD's point, Ms. Diamond's "changed dramatically" comment last April was made just six weeks after Mr. Obama did his exit, stage left, and thanks to the USA's Electoral College deus ex machina, Donald J. Trump swooped down on the right flank for the country's 45th try at the president role. Diamond's "dramatically changed" remark also came just four months before the "Unite the Right!" clash in Charlottesville, Virginia alluded to above. Lest we forget that clash involved dozens of white supremicists sporting KKK-style torches shouting bigoted epithets such as "The Jews will not replace us!" It resulted in the death of a #blacklivesmatter advocate there protesting the alt-right racist venom being spit out. Another 19 protestors were injured when a car driven by a white man was purposely throttled to plow headlong into them. Such is the way today's terrorists the world over are fond of murdering and maiming infidels (when, alas, they can't pick up a semi-automatic rifle at the local Saturday swap meet instead ). 

Kurt Vonnegut's protagonist Billy Pilgrim probably said it best -- resignedly -- in the iconic masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five : "So it goes."

Addendum #2 : Coincidentally in today's on-line version of UK's The Guardian was a piece by Gary Younge titled "My travels in white America : a land of anxiety, division and pockets of pain".  He describes his journey over the Summer of '17 from Maine to Mississippi visiting only white communities. 

Younge, himself black, writes : 

White Americans make up a majority of the country. Compared with other races, they may enjoy an immense concentration of wealth and power. But these privileges are nonetheless underpinned by considerable anxiety. Their health is failing (white people’s life expectancy has stalled or dipped in recent years), their wages are stagnating (adjusting for inflation, they are just 10% higher now than they were 44 years ago) and class fluidity is drying up (the prospects of poor white Americans breaking through class barriers is worse now than it has been for a long time). Out-traded by China (in 2016 the trade deficit with the country was $347bn); soon to be outnumbered at home (within a generation white people will be a minority); and outmanoeuvred on the battlefields of the Arab world and beyond (neither of the wars launched in response to 9/11 have ended in victory), these vulnerabilities are felt at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters are in the streets over police brutality, football players are taking a knee and the movement to bring legal status to large numbers of undocumented people grows. White Americans feel more pessimistic about their future than any other group. Almost two-thirds of white working-class people think the country has changed for the worse since the 50s...

If there’s one thing that 200 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation did for African Americans, it was to temper their investment in the myth that the US is a meritocracy. The notion that if you worked hard and kept your nose clean, you would get on was always stymied by the grim realities of racial barriers. “America was never America to me,” wrote the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes in 1935’s Let America Be America Again. “There’s never been equality for me / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’.”
But, for many white Americans, the expectation that each year would be better than the next and each generation healthier and wealthier provided the core for optimism. However, with those assumptions being eroded, the mood is now more reminiscent of a post-colonial country. People are looking back for a sense of hope. Ask Trump voters when they would like to go back to if they wanted to make America great again and they will give you a date. Jeff Baxter wants to go back to the glow of the 60s, Ted to the 80s, others to the 50s and beyond.


Saturday, 4 November 2017

Lonesome West is killer good satirical 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 :  Two middle-age west Ireland brothers are trapped living together in Dad's farmhouse in Leenane. They are returning from Dad's funeral with the local priest in tow. In short order we learn that their father has in fact not been killed accidentally when elder son trips with the family shotgun. No, dad was executed in the farmhouse kitchen after he snarks that his son's hair looks like it was combed by a drunken child. Younger brother colludes in the accidental-shooting fake news story in exchange for extorting from him his half-share of Dad's inheritance. There are only two options here : the soap opera All My Children on crack cocaine -or- slapstick sardonic parody. Well, yes!

How it's all put together : Brit / Irish playwright Martin McDonagh was considered the scaramouch of live theatre in the mid-90's when he exploded onto the London stage. His career launched with a trilogy based in Leenane, Ireland (near Galway). Lonesome West is the third and final piece in the tryptich that in each case finds high-strung overwrought hyper-magnified family members battling with one another. Whether it's words or fists or knives or shotguns, they assault one another endlessly for no higher purpose than to be one-up. If beyond raw fear we have three fundamental emotions -- mad, sad, glad -- this is mad writ large. Its cognitive coverup is the word "anger" : that's the term we use to excuse how we choose to behave.

Older bro Coleman (Kenton Klassen) loves to torment and fisticuff with Valene (John Voth) in the riotous send-up of contemporary Irish rural life in Lonesome West now in its final week at Pacific Theatre.
In this chapter the dynamic tension involves the Catholic church and its paradoxical values : specifically, murder can be excused by God through confession and sought-for-forgiveness; for its part when there's a suicide, God condemns the killer to eternal damnation automatically. But that theme takes a back seat for certain to all the profane antics of the centrepiece characters, brothers Coleman (Kenton Klassen) and Valene Connor (John Voth). 

For contrast with them is a young priest recently assigned to the parish, Father Roderick Welsh (Sebastien Archibald) whom they forever call "Walsh" from sheer stubborn stupidity : the silly name-game provides countless comic moments throughout. Joining in is a young lady named Mary Kelleher (Paige Louter) whose charming Irish nickname is "Girleen", meaning "little girl". She's her bootlegger Dad's delivery gal of poteen, a back-40 Irish whisky served up in pint flagons. She's got a wee crush on Fr. Welsh, while he suffers from constant doubt about his faith and its tenets from the fact his parish seems to be the murder \ suicide capital of Europe. "Seems God has no jurisdiction in this town," he moans. He mainlines poteen to soothe his troubled soul and wails "I'd have to murder half me feckin' relatives to live here!"

What the show brings to the stage : McDonagh achieves his purposes admirably : he offends true believers and safe-space-seekers alike. The feckin' eff-word infects every phrase and clause and sentence and exclamation. (And unlike most Vancouver players, this crew to a person gives it its throwaway use as an adjective, no undue juvenile emphasis in the least : Hurrah!) If it isn't Valene's fecking McCoy's crisps he and Coleman fight over, it's the new orange stove Val bought for 300 pounds plus his collection of dozens of mantle-size Catholic figurines. These he bets will hedge any throw of the dice with God for a spot in Heaven. The time is the mid-80's, and bandwidth is in no danger of invading Leenane any time soon : the brothers get inspiration from t.v.'s Hill Street Blues -- it's their main connect to the world outside their hardscrabble patch that is less pasture than prison.

The show on surface is Fr. Welsh's attempt to get the warring Connor brethren to reconcile their decades of built-up grievances and associated scar tissue. Sarcasm is their preferred method of chatting when they aren't in actual fisticuffs or raising weapons at one another : "Your sex appeal wouldn't bring the phlegm out of a dead frog!" Val taunts Coleman who has claimed the teen Girleen rubbed his private parts and gave him free hooch. "You're just a virgin fecking gay boy!" Coleman flips back. 

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 shine through : Director Evan Frayne has done a positively inspired job with this cast. The first word I wrote down when the dialogue sprung off the alley-stage floor was Cadence! Mr. Frayne coached his team perfectly and precisely in that respect -- words tumble out of the characters' mouths and trip over one another exactly as life plays out at a typical kitchen table.

Costumes by Kaitlin Williams were completely appropriate to the times and circumstances. And for its part the playlist background music selected by Matthew Macdonald-Bain & Curtis Tweedie ranged from classic Irish folk charts to Shayne McGowan doing "That Woman Got Me Drinking" to Patrick Fitzgerald's punk anthem "Safety Pin In My Heart" to the closer "Alternative Ulster" by Stiff Little Fingers -- all clever-&-fun stuff crisply chosen. Sandy Margaret's functional farmhouse lit by Phil Miguel worked well indeed -- the orange stove was a smokin' good bit of stage property.

Acting pin-spots : As the Dysfunction Brothers, Klassen and Voth were exceptional : terrific Irish brogues, wild crescendos and trills of dialogue with a few mellow almost sotte voce moments. Their protracted "I'm sorry" scenes are hilarity beyond words and worth the price of admission by themselves. They're sorry for just about everything except killing Dad -- and in the end they're just about in the same farrago of frailty and fault-finding that kick-started the action. 

I gotta confess -- one tiny tear from this garrulous goofy script when Sebastien Archibald delivered his heartfelt feckin' soliloquy. From centre stage he recited in low-rheostat light the letter he wrote to the brothers pleading for their reconciliation just before he left town for good. As Girleen Paige Louter -- Ireland trained in theatre -- was a perfect mix of teen teaser tough and soft sentimental wannabe girl friend. In all, one of the best-knit casts I've seen in the past year (praise I also heaped on Happy Place last month). How lucky I am to have been so engaged by each person in this taut troupe of talent.

Who gonna like : This is Euro-Christian stuff writ large. Analogous to observations about the ever-so-Yankee script Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson I made a couple days back, if you don't know much about Ireland or Catholicism and/or the Irish Rovers' sentimental take on their red-hair green-eye white skin homeland, much of what is being bandied about by Fr. Welsh, the brothers and Girleen probably wouldn't resonate much. Certainly most of the script's raw biting humour would likely fall flat on its arse.

But to the Pacific Theatre house this afternoon the entire proceeding was pure hoot & wincing hilarity from the get-go. Reason being that no-one on stage -- or in the audience -- was guilty for even a nanosecond of taking themselves or the cussing or the violence or the ruminations on what the Vatican might stand for in real life seriously. Neither tittle nor jot of sermonizing preachment in this piece (though some morality considerations maybe to kick about in a zen moment). 

The fun comes down to the fact that life's contradictions and ironies and paradoxes are its spice, after all. This is a tight tight show not to be missed now in its final week.

Particulars : Written by Martin McDonagh.  Produced by Cave Canem in association with Pacific Theatre.  At the Pacific Theatre stage in the Chalmers church basement, 12th & Hemlock. On until November 11th.  Tickets and schedule information via or by phone @ 604.731.5518.  Run-time 120 minutes including a 15-minute intermission 45 minutes into the piece.

Production team :  Director Evan Frayne.  Set Designer Sandy Margaret.  Lighting Designer Phil Miguel.  Sound Designers Matthew Macdonald-Bain-&-Curtis Tweedie.  Costume Designer Kaitlin Williams.  Stage Manager Shelby Bushell.  Assistant Stage Manager Madelaine Walker.  Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Dialect Coach Adam Henderson.

Performers :  Sebastien Archibald (Father Welsh).  Kenton Klassen (Coleman Connor).  Paige Louter (Girleen Kelleher).  John Both (Valene Connor).


Friday, 3 November 2017

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson takes irony to new levels in a world beset by populist notions

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 : America's 7th President was a vibrant swaggering war hero but also a slaveowner -- dozens & dozens under his thumb. As well he masterminded the diaspora of virtually all Southern native indians : some 4,000 died on his infamous Trail of Tears march. And this is a man worthy of a musical show?

Entertainment Weekly's Simon Vozick-Levinson in 2010 had some choice words to describe what he saw : "This is a manic somersault through early 19th-century American history... Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is weird, all right, but it's a weird little masterpiece." Many claim the show to be satirical. To accept that in 2017, however, one would have to believe that neither Donald Trump nor his fellow-travelers take him seriously : he's a joke he plays on himself. If only.

Serious poseur from a cast that had scads of fun with a script at times outrageous in its hilarity.

How it's all put together : The time is early 19th century America. Spaniards and Brits have made aggressive incursions north from the Gulf of Mexico into U.S. territory (places not yet states). Often they've been abetted by native tribes. Jackson is impatient with Washington and its elites. He leaves his Tennessee plantation to muster homegrown armies and defeat the invaders. He's instantly a folk hero. To fight against the powers that be he then forms the Democratic Party and promises "rule by the people". 

The opening "emotional hardcore" [emo-rock] number in this eponymous show is entitled "Populism, Yea, Yea!". Its sneering, taunting chorus tagline goes "And we're gonna take this country back for people like us, who don't just think about things." (One has to remember the show was originally scripted in 2009 during Obama's first year in office, not in 2016 when a certain media-savvy Apprentice catapulted himself onto stage right.)

Bloody Bloody has been called "post-ironic", which is another way of saying it makes fun of taking itself seriously. Fey, possibly. Outrageous. Capturously unsettling. How else to respond to show songs with titles like "Illness as Metaphor", or a riff on the time-worn children's song "Ten Little Indians". Chillingly it recounts Jackson's frog-march of tens of thousands of Cherokee and Chickasaw at the end of US Army bayonets. From their home and native land in Georgia they did a brutal tramp. In starving rank humidity they were herded to  reservations sited hundreds of miles away west of the Mississippi River -- out of sight, out of mind it was hoped. 

What this show brings to the stage : Its timeliness is, of course, self-obvious. As such Bloody Bloody reminds those who need reminding of two factoids (factoids = opinions that stand a 50% chance of being, or not being, true). 

[1] That the United States was founded by a bunch of rebels who relied on brute force -- cocksure in the belief that God granted them the inalienable right to conquer America because the country is "exceptional". "We saw it, we wanted it, and we believed it was ours!" the BBJA crew sums it up.

[2] That in today's social media age, opinions are proffered as self-obvious truths regardless of evidence pro- or con- : the mere having an opinion now legitimizes it instantly-&-inherently and makes those who oppose such views "liars" and/or purveyors of "fake news". What's popular with the people -- the base as it's known -- is the right stuff. Eff everything else. 

It must also be remembered that Alex Timbers who was primary writer of the book for Bloody, Bloody did so on the cusp of age 30. Young, brash, cheeky, prescient. One cannot suppress Obama's cheerleader call of "Yes we can!" in promising "Change we can believe in" that were current at the time. Factoid, too, that Obama's true alter-ego was not the statesmanly ex-VietNam p.o.w. Senator John McCain -- no, it was that pitbull-with-lipstick Sarah Palin, of course : did Friedland have her or Obama in mind when he penned the verses for "Populism Yea! Yea!" that go "Take a stand against the elite / They don't care anything for us / And we will eat sweet democracy / And let them eat our dust." 

God Bless America is not a sentiment taken lightly by populists down there, rather a sacred covenant.

To expand a bit : Obama, remember, was at the time the Millennials' anti-elite. He was poised to succeed not only the "misunderestimated" Republican George WMD Bush but also had to beat out the Democrat National Committee's hand-picked successor Hillary Rodham Clinton. Later, Canadian-based writer Conrad Black would -- in his best poseur mode as provocateur -- lump all of them together with the fictional aggregate name the "Obushtons". Collectively the three families represent 30 years of hegemony-&-elitism, he believes, and as such they explain the rise of a self-promoting outlier who sports swirled orange hair and crotch-length red ties.

Production values that shine through Preliminary note: Most useful to have a 24-year-old raised-in-Canada daughter to accompany this one time social studies teacher to the show. First observation she made was that the utterly in-America content of the script to tell a 200 year old story writ on USA parchment paper lost quite a bit in translation here N. of 49 in 2017. I had to agree that the details and subtleties of Yankee history were not prominent in the BC public school curriculum back in the day. (N.B. What fun it was to try to explain to Grade 11 students in 1969 how Canada's troika of "peace, order & good government" doesn't line up romantically, quite, with the USA's "life, liberty & pursuit of happiness" mythos. And, further, have to say that when asked, most of those 17-year-olds didn't even know playboy Pierre Elliott Trudeau's name nevermind his current political position as Canada's sitting Prime Minister.)

On other scores, daughter offered up how the bark mulch choice for the stage floor lent an utterly appropriate circus atmosphere to the country faire campaign rally-style set. Costumes, too, were the stuff of mostly simple folk : a bunch of red plaid skirts redolent of high school and college sports rallies befitting the pep-squad underscore of the script. Effective lighting, including the gimmick of shining bright spots back at the audience as if to suggest everyone's complicity when populism and nativism conquer quiet rational consideration of issues. 

Regrettably a miserable opening night for sound : constant feedback problems with instruments, perpetual electro-zaps from the actors' mic's, wholesale imbalances between "back-up band" and vocalists (e.g. impossible to discern opening number lyrics even in Row 2). Have to say all this distracted not only the house but the actors and musicians, too. My heart went out to them all. Still, shout-outs due to the (unidentified!) band twosome : the drummer who had a deft and subtle hand the night through and to the keyboardist who was smooth but snappy when the music charts demanded it. 

Acting pin-spots : Daniel Berube's FCP debut as Andrew Jackson was clearly baptism by fire or a polar bear swim, choose your metaphor. Co-actor Karliana Dewoolff calls the Timbers / Friedman show "a beast of a script", and she is right. (A good turn for her as the shouty Martin Van Buren sniping back and forth with AJ.) A bit awkward handling in Mr. Berube's guitar slinging, but he gave the character AJ a juvenile smugness maybe more than the writers would have preferred, still quite suitable i.m.o. Opposite as his belaboured wife Rachel, Martha Ansfield-Scrase captured the ache of a Pat Nixon who loathed the very limelight her husband was so seduced by (and whose moral 5 o'clock shadow was, ultimately, his undoing). Clear parallels there with Andrew Jackson. 

Who gonna like : Again taking clues from Daughter : aimed at 30-somethings who know a bit about The Excited States and their history. Music clearly targeting that cohort as well, though geezers who have nimble ears can appreciate it too. Choreographer Erin Michell's blocking of the chorus numbers had crafty and artful moments that helped make those parts of the evening jolly good fun.

This is truly a Georgia peach of dramatic timing. Ironic? Post-ironic? Anti-ironic? Who cares. Just to hear AJ natter at his chief Cherokee mediator Black Fox "Don't go chasing waterfalls, just stick to the lakes and the rivers that you're used to" -- a 1994 forgettable spin from a one-time group called TLC -- was enough fun to make me want to go see BBAJ  all over again.

Technical bollix's aside, these enthusiastic performers are the future of professional stage in Vancouver. Their eagerness and enthusiasm to tackle the narrative and musical and choreographic challenges  of this script certainly made last night's Game 7 of the World Series pale by comparison. With another couple of shows under their belts to sharpen their timing, this latest FCP adventure will get hearty Huzzah's of enthusiasm, no question. 

Particulars : Written by Alex Timbers & Michael Friedman. Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman (d. Sept. 2017, age 41).  Produced by Fighting Chance Productions.  At Performance Works, Granville Island.  On until November 11th, 2017.  Tickets & schedule information via Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission.

Production team :  Director Ben Bilodeau.  Music Director Thomas King. Choreographer Erin Michell. Stage Manager Ian Crowe.  Costumer Designer Kimberly Blais & Nazanin Shoja. Set Designer Nikolay Kuchin & Sarah Sako.  Lighting Designer Michael K. Hewitt.  Sound Designer Peter Young.  Fight Captain Max Kim.  Dance Captain Annastasia Brown.

Performers :  Martha Ansfield-Scrase (Rachel Jackson / various roles).  Daniel Berube (Andrew Jackson).  Annastasia Brown (Soloist / various roles / bass guitar).  Thomas Chan (James Monroe / various roles).  David DeLeon (John Calhoun / various roles / guitarist).  Kailea DeLeon (Elizabeth Jackson / various roles / guitar). Louis Desfosses (Black Fox / various roles).  Karliana DeWolff (Martin Van Buren / various roles).  Chelsea Huang (Various roles / band leader / guitar).  Max Kim (Henry Clay / various roles / banjo).  Christine Roskelley (Storyteller / various roles).  CJ Zizzari (John Quincy Adams / various roles / guitar).