Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Day Before Christmas is a chummy tale 

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sunday, 27 November 2016

EastVan Panto Red Riding Hood seasonal silliness

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orchestra :  Veda Hille.  Barry Mirochnick.

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, 24 November 2016

No trumpery : Q is spot-on sentimental timely fun 
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 :  By now, 13 years after it first launched Off Broadway in New York, most folks know that Avenue Q is a comic and naughty musical take-off on Sesame Street-like Muppetry that is risque, irreverent and saucy. It was wildly popular during its 2013 & 2014 ACT runs and again during its ACT On Tour chautauqua in 2014.

The puppets are attached to the arms of their human characters -- the cloth made flesh, as it were. Given the parochial negativity awash up-&-down the land now that the White House has been rebranded Trump Tower, the question arises whether my earlier descriptor of the New York City district where Q happens will still magnetize : "The characters are Gen-Xers with krappy college degrees and superb existential angst living communally along Avenue Q's streetscape. Together they fret about jobs and bills and sex and social relations circa Y2K."

Millennials and their demands for designer gender pronouns (zie, xem etc.) are the current campus rage. Can the snuggly, gnarly puppets Princeton and Kate Monster gruntily fornicating to the tune "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" have the same innocent laughability today? Specifically in an age insisted by many to be doomed because they say it is, universally, a Rape Culture? When tenement supervisor Gary Coleman (Katrina Reynolds) demands "If you're doin' the nasty, don't act as if you're at the ballet", will she get the same guffaws?

WYSIWYG :  Fact is it's the time of year when all of us folks are asked -- in the immortal words of Canada's poet minstrel Leonard Cohen -- "to put a paper cap on [our] concussion and dance!" Which is why Christmas pantomimes and remounts of such as Mary Poppins and It's A Wonderful Life almost never fail at the box office this time of year. People are desperate for re-runs of That's Entertainment-like shows to take their minds off Breitbart and Fox and Drudge.

So what's up. On Sesame Street back in the day there was a Learn This Word screen -- offering up, say, the word "delicious" for the little grommets to advance beyond just "Ummmm, good!"  The Avenue Q word screen, for its part, features the German psycho-mockery term schadenfreude : taking pleasure in the pain others suffer. Which is precisely what the Elephants in USA's political zoo feel toward the Donkeys they krapt on from a great height with deadly accuracy on November 8th.

The cheering, clapping crowd on opening night (in the 205th ACT performance of Q) proved that it is still possible to get a yuk out of the song "We're All A Little Bit Racist" despite the rampant xenophobia among the alt-right on this continent (while for their part the alt-left p.c.'ers are equally if oppositely stuck in their demands for unquestioning group-think).

What the show brings to the stage :  During the earlier mounts of the production, Director Peter Jorgensen bragged tongue-in-cheek how fun it was going to be to add "muppet porn" to his c.v. No doubt of its effect. Else why would ACT risk a fourth time out with Q in just three years? Once more Jorgensen did a terrific job blocking the troupe to keep the puppets front-&-centre considerably moreso than the actors. 

Because as noted in previous BLR reviews of Q, Rick Lyon's puppets and their persona are wonderfully wrought and acted out by their puppeteers. The Bad Idea Bears (Scott Bellis & Jeny Cassady) are a delight of hilarious comic mischief. Their Bear impersonations and spot-on spontaneity are a highlight of the show. And the choreography between them when sharing the two animated hands of both puppet characters "But I'm not gay" Nicky and Trekkie Monster-the-Internet-porn-addict was simply step-perfect once again.

Production values that hi-lite the action : The impressionistic set by Marshall McMahen almost makes tenement living seem like a quite a delightful option. As noted last time out, the set seems like what a pop-up illustration of skid road housing one might expect to find in a suburban kid's learn-to-read book. Except for the jetsam & detritus littering the stage that make the scene more convincingly slummish.

Musical Director Sean Bayntun led another able ensemble, though last night's tunery seemed a bit muted compared to the chautauqua version of 2014. Still, sprightly good fun. Can't say enough about Jessica Bayntun's costumes : they let the puppets do the talking while the actors seem mostly to go along for the ride. 

Acting pin-spots : Andrew MacDonald-Smith as the perpetually horny hetero "Gotta find my purpose, gotta find myself !" English B.A. graduate named Princeton -- as well as his stereotypical in-the-closet gay (Republican, investment banker) Rod -- was a truly swell performer in both roles. His vocal breadth and dynamics are remarkable.

As the irascible Trekkie Monster and also as Rod's roommate Nicky, Scott Bellis revealed pipes and animation well under the age his grey hair would suggest him to be. Just marvellous. Unquestionably a Vancouver favourite character actor with vim and spunk and heart galore.

Strong, consistent performances from all of the women in the piece, with especially fun ironic verbal flourishes from newcomer Kimmie Choi as the Chinese-American character named Christmas Eve. 

Feckless, fat-&-lazy Brian (Chris Cochrane) the wannabe stand-up comic who married the character Christmas Eve was a delightful harmless neighbourhood goof. (A wedding yarmulke for him to match the puppets' skull-caps was oddly MIA.)

Who gonna like :  Puppets as people and people as puppets singing and dancing out their life neuroses on stage. Who gonna like ? Wrong question based on opening night. More like "What's not to like?" given the near-universal, standing-o response from an almost full house. Again, based on the numbers ON, the demographic that seems to fall out of its seat enjoying Avenue Q the most is the Millennial set, though X'ers and Boomers who recall their own couch-surfing and 4-to-a-room daze during their break-out years will also relate.

Of the four productions seen, without doubt this is the strongest, tightest, most consistenly entertaining. That Act 1 droops in pace and energy toward its end is not the cast's fault but the writers'. Instead of a rousing, robust and animated chorus (like the troupe in "You Can Be Loud As Hell"), the scene ends with a lachrymose ballad by the jilted Kate Monster (Kayla Dunbar).

Meanwhile the dictional glitches and complaints from years past were cleared up neatly, and the "Hallelujah!" nod to Leonard, brief as it was, was touching. The song at end reminding us that "everyone's a little unsatified / everyone's a little empty inside / nothing lasts / life goes on..." makes Avenue Q utterly relevant across every generation. And the final refrain gives all in the room reason to hope : "Everything in life is only for now", whether it's work, happiness, discomfort, sex, hair, even Trump.

Much much to clap your hands and stamp your feet and sing along with in this joyful, free-spirited production. Q is now a virtual ACT classic that no doubt will be re-mounted every few years or so. A tendency to stage people-pleasers is a knock often laid on the Vancouver theatre scene by critics & cynics : well, this particular people-pleaser is one not to miss.

Particulars : On thru December 31st at the ACT Granville Island stage. Week-nights @ 7:30, Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. Run-time 125 minutes in two acts, including intermission. Tickets $29 and up by phone to ACBO @ 604.687.1644 or by visiting www.artsclub.com

Producers / crew :  Music & lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty.  Produced by Arts Club Theatre Company. Director & Choreographer Peter Jorgensen. Musical Director Sean Bayntun.  Puppet Concepts & Design Rick Lyon.  Set Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Jessica Bayntun.  Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Sound Designer Brad Danyluk.  Video Designer Michael Sider.  Orchestrations Stephen Ormeus.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.

Musicians : Sean Bayntun (Keyboards).  John Bews (Bass).  Niko Friesen (Drums).  David Sikula (Guitar).  

Performers :  Scott Bellis (Nicky / Trekkie Monster / Bad Idea Bear).  Jeny Cassady (Bad Idea Bear / Mrs. Thistletwat).  Kimmie Choi (Christmas Eve).  Chris Cochrane (Brian).  Kayla Dunbar (Kate Monster / Lucy).  Andrew MacDonald-Smith (Princeton / Rod).  Katrina Reynolds (Gary Coleman).

Addendum #1 : Coleman's character is based on the erstwhile t.v. child star of the show Diff'rent Strokes. Coleman's aura later in dimmed. He became a tenement manager on a slummy NYC sidestreet. His "finest" adultlife moment occurred, we are told, when he sued his parents for rippiing off his Strokes royalties. Karma being karma, Mom & Dad had to file for bankruptcy later on. That real-life vignette squares neatly with the overall tenor of Avenue Q and its characters.

Addendum #2 :  In previous show materials for Q, ACT provided the following descriptors that from the first I noted I could never improve upon by either tittle-or-jot, so I simply reproduce their words for the amusement of readers :

Warning :  Full puppet nudity and other vulgarities will induce laughter. This is a puppet show. However this is not your kids' puppet show as it sneaks a peak at raucous sexual congress, failed childhood stardom, excessive drinking, moving in and out of a slummy neighbourhood, investing, mix-tapes, cute creatures doing bad things, singing boxes, getting laid off, finding your purpose, getting fired, getting rehired, ruvving someone but wanting to kirr them, exotic dancing, erotic dancing, exotic erotic dancing, homosexuality, racism, pornography, masturbation, interracial marriage, interspecies relationships (monsters and humans), roommates, coming out of the closet, coming out of your apartment, getting ahead in real life, going to college, panhandling, wishing you were back in college, coming out of your shell, and recycling.

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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Brothel #9 hints at hope in the shadows
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 :  Brothel #9 is not for the faint-of-heart. Sex slavery. Rape. Tortuous screaming in the show's opening moments. Violent undercurrents constant. Just life as it is and what it is for these characters trapped in Calcutta's sex trade ghetto (the city now known as Kolkata). 

Dreamt up by South Asian-Canadian playwright Anusree Roy, the show resulted from numerous trips Roy took to this northeast Indian city specifically to interview sex workers, their pimps, and the cops who are bribed to not only look the other way but have their way with these women they "protect".  Ms. Roy was also influenced in her imagining by the troubled abandoned roaming teens she worked with in India's inner city core years earlier and their utter vulnerability (the blinding scene from Slumdog Millionaire popped instantly into mind watching her script play out).

The show focuses on four characters. The youngster Rekha who naively thinks she's being sent to Calcutta to take up her first real job : making light bulbs. Fact is she's been sold to the pimp Birbal by her sister's husband who drops her off outside the "factory". The madam of the brothel Jamuna who is resigned begrudgingly and fatalistically to this life. When he isn't hunting out women to be sex-for-hire "playthings", Birbal spends his time going back to his village to care for his wife who is dying of "the monkey disease" -- AIDS. Last but not least Salaudin, the rapist married cop who has been Jamuna's Tuesday / Thursday john for years but finds his tumescence aiming elsewhere now.

WYSIWYG :  The expression "It is what it is..." is neither nihilistic nor impotent in circumstances as desperate as these. To borrow a familiar Vancouver DTES refrain from their annual photo calendar, it's a belief there's hope in the shadows.

And so it is with 34-year-old Roy's script (first produced in 2011). How enslaved now in this ghetto, Rekha (Adele Noronha) learns to adjust to her imprisonment in order, she hopes, to buy her freedom from Balbir (David Adams) and return to the rural village life where she grew up. As the saying has it, the only way out is through. To escape -- whether physically or emotionally or morally -- one must forgive. But remember, too. Have compassion, yes, but keep the faith and not succumb to what lesser souls surely is flat-out futility.

Through just four characters playwright Roy manages to make the universe personal. In Jamuna (Laara Sadiq) we see a complex survivor who is resigned to her life. She makes fish soup and sings Indian lullabies to herself even while Salaudin rapes the virgin god-fearing innocent Rekha one room away. Birbal is a violent but also compassionate man. Thus the paradox of him being a pimp but caring deeply for his wife, too. Salaudin (Shekhar Paleja) claims to fall in love with this young woman he earlier raped. For her part, Rekha's determination to liberate herself from her prison is undiminished even as she faces profound life setbacks.

Production values that enhance the show :  Upon entering the Cultch's Lab auditorium I was instantly struck dumb by Drew Facey's set and attendant props. A more detailed and realistic rendering of big-city back alley brick, exposed wires, and failed plaster I have never seen equaled on any Vancouver stage. Worth the price of a ticket just to see this !

Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh's brilliant saris worked marvellously both as costumes and as opportunities under director Katrina Dunn for continuous stage business by the two women principals. Lighting design by Adrian Muir captured alleyway starkness with subtly, while Rup Sidhu's moody melancholic sitar-&-vocals supported the Facey / Muir milieux viscerally. Completely "unrepresentative". Totally honest & genuine, all of it.

Acting pin-spots : Slogging my way out of EastVan amidst the Culture Crawl crawlers -- and hitting every red light between Vennables and the Knight Street bridge -- it occurred to me I witnessed this afternoon three absolutely paramount, gripping, breathtaking performances.

A more forceful and compelling Birbal could not be imagined than what opera veteran David Adams brought. As noted, a paradox. A pimp. A loving husband. A bully. A buddy. Utterly compelling, rich, nuanced, profundo.

For her part I could watch Laara Sadiq forever. As the fatally compromised and complex Jamuna she was superb. To imagine her as Lady Macbeth or Lear's chippy daughter Cordelia is just heaven to think of. In jazz they talk of "chops". Sadiq has irresistible unconquerable chops.

And then there's Adele Noronha as Rekha, named by her late mother after Bollywood superstar (nearly 200 films) Banurekha Ganesan. The range of Noronha's emotions from terror to s.t.w. "businesswoman" to the moral but forgiving judge of Jamuna and Salaudin as she engineers her escape to nurture a new life, lit. & fig. -- Noronha grabbed me by the throat. I cannot remember a Vancouver stage character and performer who has brought on such welcome tears in me. 

Who gonna like : Exceptional. Stupendous. Astounding.  From what I have written above, you will know whether this is for you or not. 

Particulars :  Produced by Touchstone Theatre as part of the Diwali Fest in association with The Cultch. On at the VanCity Cultural Lab stage through November 27. Run-time two hours including intermission. Happy hour at the bar until 30 minutes before show time. Festival seating : 1/2 hour ahead to grab the best is recommended. Parking in the area often "Residents Only" so plan ahead. Schedules and tickets @ the cultch.com or by phone 604.251.1363.

Production crew: Director Katrina Dunn (her final production as Touchstone Theatre Artistic Director [19 years]). Set & Props Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh.  Lighting Designer & Production Manager Adrian Muir.  Music Supervisor Rup Sidhu.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager & Props Support Shila Amin.  Sound Editor & Technical Director Scott Zechner.  Fight Choreographer David Bloom.  Accent Coach Supriya Bhattacharyya.  Head Carpenter Adam Curry.  Carpenters Robert Allen, Jesse Hendrickson & Jesse Trayler.  Scenic Painter Justus Hayes [Ed. Note : Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!]  Transportation Randy Biro.  Scenery built at Great Northern Way Scene Shop.  Publicist Jodi Smith.  

Performers :  David Adams (Birbal).  Adele Noronha (Rekha).  Shekhar Paleja (Salaudin).  Laura Sadiq (Jamuna).  Munish Sharma (various johns).

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Friday, 18 November 2016

Long Division is the curve of math made human
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 : You know the theory of "six degrees of separation". Roughly put, that total strangers who meet anywhere in the world will in short order discover some manner of common connection between them. SFU Professor Peter Dickinson's Long Division is analogous. A kind of Moebius strip of human experience -- that half-twisted connected loop you learned in Grade 5 science class -- such is what links the show's seven characters to a single tragic event that pulls them all together and tears them apart at the same time.

As the Pi Theatre Productions promo describes the show, "the three male and four female characters use number theory, geometry and logic to trace their connection to each other and to the moment that changed their lives." 

According to Mr. Dickinson's blog, the show involves over 80 converging cues that link the show's sound, lighting, stage activity and video/projections. In addition "there is the fact that movement in Long Division is operating both on the level of traditional theatre blocking and in relation to an additional choreographic score." Pi calls the show "a multimedia, physical theatre play about the mathematics of human connection". 

How it's all put together :  Physical theatre relies on the motions of the actors to demonstrate what they're talking about, and what they're also not saying. In the choreography of Lesley Telford, the actors intercross and dissect and bridge one another in rhythmic spiccato marches and jaunts to unmarked spots on a diminutive 15 x 5 meter stage surface. Their gesticulations are often like pinocchio marionettes done in syncopated jerkiness. Their actions are semaphores to reflect, I think, the angularity of the serial mathematical propositions being bandied about in the dialogue. Clearly the choreographic debt to Marcel Marceau's famed "art of silence" mime technique is also immense. For the actors, a lifetime of doing party charades would certainly warrant a 1, not a 0, in this binary universe of ours.

Sequentially the actors present their characters' stories through extended monologues while miming and intersecting with the others. Scads of mathematical theories are reviewed or mentioned. Dizzyingly so. Just like Grade 11 discovery math was, is and always will be to many. But in linear terms, much of the focus really boils down to the notion of probability. The "point" of play is perhaps best expressed by the character Lucy who speaks for millions of Canadians when she talks of our national lottery ticket mania : "It's a mix of risk and certainty," she says, "the fulfilling of expectations : even when you know what's going to happen, you're still surprised. It's never about beating the odds, it's about not succumbing to them" she says to end Act 1. (Which, just 10 days after Election USA, is an utterly apropos life observation here in North America.)

What the show bring to the stage :  This script is ingenious, no question. A brainiac romp more different by far than any of the other 170-odd plays I've seen the past four years. The descriptors noted above in the Pi promotional notes are accurate. A humanities student mostly, I nevertheless had two favourite alt-subjects in high school : geometry and physics. Geometry for its postulates and theorems so like philosophy. Physics for its mix of space, time and energy -- also akin to philosophy. 

Fair enough. But over the course of the night the audience is introduced to three or more dozen mathematicians and their various propositions dealing with cardinal, ordinate, nominal numbers etc. etc. School principal Grace Ingram (Linda Quibell), herself an unsuccessful English teacher, says this about these nameless, faceless digits she's become accustomed to pushing to and fro as an education bureaucrat : "You can count with them and you can count on them." Hmnnn. An ex-education bureaucrat myself, back in '75 I remember the school district comptroller -- when directed to project the cost of teacher salary increases -- asked : "And just what would you like the number to look like, pray tell?"

Along the way primarily two contemporary social subjects are investigated : bullying and bigotry. Both of which lead to a calamitous and dreadful outcome at the local high school. Linkages are made to numbers and what they mean in certain religious and number theory and astrologic-type contexts, but in the end the appropriate algorithms and calculus play themselves out with a kind of inevitability. The seven interactive agents all become "an empty set that contains all there is, gathering all our hurts together".

Acting pin-spots : Crisp and keen performances by each and every actor on the snuggish Gateway Studio B stage, a house that seats just under 100 people. Best lines by playwright Dickinson are reserved for Lucy Ganardi (Melissa Oei) whose character is an aspiring actress who to make ends meet has to sling beer for Jo Garofsky (Jennifer Lines) at her downtown bar. Lucy quite gets the math jones around probability and Moebius-style outcomes that are the central conceit of this script -- in the end we all wind up where we started -- but she believes striving for happiness is a better goal than mesmerizing over numbers in this curve of time we live in.

When the inevitable "Do you believe in god?" question arises amongst this casual assembly of agnostics, Islamics, gays and straights, I was put to mind of Stephen Hawking's response to the question : "I believe in the power that creates and expands the universe," he said. Amen. A physics / philosophy hook that resonates more with me, personally, than an extended and at times microscopic examination of integers and the true mathematical meaning of "zero". (Re-scripting this play through the lens of quantum physics would be a hoot!)

Who gonna like : As noted above, a "more different play" in Vancouver I've not seen (though I know the PuSH and Fringe festivals also offer much avant garde postmodern stuff that punches through the 4th wall and plops itself boldly into the audience's collective and often unsuspecting lap). There's a whiz-kid element to this canny and utterly idiosyncratic script that folks who, quote, "hate all things math" would likely find somewhat off-putting. Without question the two women in my family would be front-&-centre in that category. But for lovers of unique, inventive, and novel small-stage scripts and drama, as obviously do I, once again Pi Theatre Productions brings to the fore a show filled with zest and imagination galore -- not only in the acting but in the production originality of lights, set and math equation projections as well. A night I will remember many moons from now no question.

Particulars : Produced by Pi Theatre Productions in collaboration with Gateway Theatre. Performed at Gateway's Studio B, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond.  From November 17-26.  Run-time 100 minutes including intermission.  Schedule and tickets for both evening and matinee shows by phone at 604.270.182 (all tix $29) or via www.gatewaytheatre.com/longdivision.

Creative Team : Playwright Peter Dickinson.  Director Richard Wolfe (Artistic Director Pi Theatre).  Assistant Director Keltie Forsyth.  Choreographer Lesley Telford.  Composer Owen Belton.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Connie Hosie.  Lighting Designer Jergus Oprsal.  Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt.  Production Manager Jayson Mclean.  Stage Manager Jethelo E. Cabilete.  Dramaturg DD Kugler.

Performers :  Anousha Alamian (Naathim Zaidi).  Jay Clift (Reid Hamilton).  Nicco Lorenzo Garcia (Paul Vinoray).  Jennifer Lines (Jo Garofsky).  Melissa Oei (Lucy Gunardi). Linda Quibell (Grace Ingram).  Kerry Sandomirsky (Alice Evans).

Addendum :  In his blog today, playwright Dickinson notes : "Three and a half weeks of rehearsal plus one workshop week on the script plus four odd years of writing and revising and dramaturging the original idea : all to get to this point. When you balance the run of the show (even including the remount at the Annex in April) against the length of time for its development, it seems an unfair equation. But I can live with the math."

And from the program notes, further observations by Mr. Dickinson : "I didn't set out to write a play about math. But the story I wanted to tell -- about seven random strangers connected by tragedy -- seemed to demand it. Math became a way for my characters to abstract an event that was too painful to confront by other means. In the course of my research I discovered that, as the 'science of patterns,' there is a reason why we often turn to math to account for the mysteries of our universe. I also discovered that our own relationship to the universe, and to each other, can only every be additive : 0 + 1. Likewise in the theatre one can never go it alone...[folks were] willing to take a risk on a quirky play about how people divide into each other. If, for better or worse, theatre is partly a numbers game, I can only say that in my case those numbers have aligned in a very special way."

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