Monday, 18 June 2018

Macbeth is well-cut treachery, gore & mayhem
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 : Interpretations of Macbeth are as many as there are directors and performers to do the piece. The 2018 Bard show is by Chris Abraham in his local debut. (His regular day job is Artistic Director of Toronto's Crow's Theatre). While he confesses to "radical re-workings" of other Shakespeare scripts previously, this one he "wants to strip down to its muscular core...anchored in a very visceral approach to the language and staging...something like the conditions [its] first audiences might have."

Most critics focus on Macbeth as a greedily ambitious and prideful anti-hero for whom it's all about power. They link his murderous rampages either to his temptress wife and/or to fate as represented by Hecate and the three weird sisters. Director Abraham hints he may be thus inclined, too. This tumultuous tag-team comprises "two of the most terrifying and devastating tragic figures imagined by Shakespeare...at times chillingly amoral and at others superhumanly sublime in their suffering," he declares.


Lady Macbeth (Moya O'Connell) surveys the results of screwing one's courage to the sticking point on the face of husband Macbeth (Ben Carlson) .
Photo credit : David Cooper
There's another possibility, of course. As raised by Shakespeare himself in Act 5 Sc. 3 : mental illness. Just before her suicide, her husband describes her as beset by "the written troubles of the brain" and "perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart". Macbeth's doctor responds as if by rote reflecting society's attitudes over the years toward mental illness : "Therein the patient must minister to himself," he proclaims.

How it's all put together : The moral ambiguity on the cusp between Elizabethan and Jacobean times at the turn of the 17th century is caught by the witches a mere 12 lines into the piece, which -- to be unabashedly trite -- also aptly describes life in DC four centuries hence: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air."

Interesting the obvious disconnect between this 1606 script and the day-to-day Christian schisms between Catholic Scotland -vs- Anglican England.  Eye of newt and tongue of dog are a far cry from bread and wine as the sacraments of Christ's body and blood after all. It is said wretched Puritanism resurrected demonology practices and rituals. And indeed the setting and plot appear to be ripped straight out of pagan druid times and traditions and climes.

The rough-cut wood-hewn functional two-tier set with virtually no stage furniture -- other than, briefly, an empty cradle belonging to the dead baby Lady Macbeth mourns -- allows the audience to focus fully on the dialogue and the insidious self-absorption of the grasping and desperate Macbeths.

What the Bard reveals to viewers right up-front : This imagining by Director Abraham is all about the script and the actors. Any doubt that this alleged anti-hero really is just plain old-fashion villainy writ large is betrayed -- I humbly submit -- only 190 lines into the piece when Macbeth soliloquies this aside : 

"Why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs / Against the use of nature? Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings / My thought, whose murder (sic) yet is but fantastical / Shakes so my single state of man / That function is smother'd in surmise / And nothing is but what is not."  

A more compelling bit of foreshadowing up-close-&-personal probably exists nowhere else in drama or literature.

Some say Macbeth grows "increasingly mad". Maybe not. Maybe consummately mad from moment one. Only more dedicated as time passes to his crescendoing paranoid evil, not unlike a certain Austrian corporal named Adolf. Has moments of doubt, needs some cajoling and badgering and threats from the good wife to steal a t.v. cliche. 

Speaking of "lady" Macbeth -- whether in mourning for a dead infant or no -- mere moments after the warrior's "horrible imaginings" of murder and mayhem she offers up how "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements. Come you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty."

So perhaps we should not over-analyze or complexify the obvious. This play is Shakespeare doing a horror-movie in the flesh and real-time. Which quite frankly makes it less the kind of dramatic exercise that Chris Abraham wants from us -- "Macbeth is a play that asks its audience to forge a unbique bond with its protagonists" -- than just plain outright shocking terror with a few psycho-drama moments thrown in. Like Banquo's ghost appearances at dinner and LadyM's "out damn spot" crash just before she suicides.

Production values that enhance the script : On opening night, it being Father's Day, my 25-year-old daughter accompanied me. She was wow'd by the consistency and polish of the actors' performances overall. No upstaging by any one character, no weak cast members at all. By the richness and genuineness of Christine Reimer's costumes, particulary for Banquo (Craig Erickson) and Macduff (Andrew Wheeler). 

By Owen Belton's tympany-thick and pounding soundscape plus its purposely atonal bagpipe skirls and screeches offset by friendlier bird trills and cricket chirps. By the excellence and realism of the fight sequences choreographed by Jonathan Hawley Purvis. By Gerald King's clever lighting and the incessant hazer fog accompanying the lights'  nuanced changes. I couldn't agree more.

Acting pin-spots : Arguably Director Abraham has commanded a production whose protagonists are maybe not Macbeth (Ben Carlson) and LadyM (Moya O'Connell) quite as much as it is a showcase for the Weird Sisters with whom I did indeed form a "unique bond". Kate Besworth as Witch 2 was shriekishly compelling, her voice and stage manner a mirror of her fright hair. But Emma Slipp as Chief Witch and Harveen Sandhu as the third voice in this menacing trio were no mere shadows or also-rans. The crowd jumped to its feet for them all at curtain. Their performances were utterly magnetizing.

But take nothing away in the least from Mr. Carlson and Ms. O'Connell. Each of their iconic soliloquies as they faced their certain fates at play's end were stunning. The 20-second pause between the announcement of Mrs. Macbeth's suicide and the start of her husband's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" lament was brilliant. His rendering of those fate-filled lines of raw unabashed existential agony was perhaps the most unnerving delivery I have ever witnessed either on stage or film. Never has the word "idiot" struck harder.

Who gonna like : This is hard-core Shakespeare. Despite the infamous drunken Porter scene by Kayvon Khoshkam for a moment's wee diversion, there are no giggles to be had here. Evil is as evil does. We choose our persona, we command our life performances. 

Unless, of course, we are certifiably mentally unbalanced. Which I suggest these murderers may in fact just be, all the centuries of psychoanalysis and decrypting of their motives and ambition and greed and self-doubt to the contrary notwithstanding. That may make them more understandable but not particularly pitiable even when our better angels are asked to ramp up the empathy radar.

Folks looking for vehement and unremitting earnestness from their Macbeth "favourites" will find the 2018 Bard version of the show utterly exhilarating, embracing and breathtaking.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the BMO Mainstage, Vanier Park. Performances : 28 shows between now and the September 13th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.org. Run-time 150 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Chris Abraham. Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Set Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer/Composer Owen Belton. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Fight Director Jonathan Hawley Purvis. Associate Fight Director Jacqueline Loewen.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebeca Mulvihill. Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.  Directing Apprentice Marie Farsi. Costume Design Apprentice Alaia Hamer.

Performers :  Lindsey Angell (Lady Macduff).  Scott Bellis (Duncan ; Doctor).  Kate Besworth (Witch 2; Fleance).  Ben Carlson (Macbeth).  Nicco del Rio (Macduff's son).  Austin Eckert (Ross).  Ben Elliott (Lennox).  Craig Erickson (Banquo).  Jeff Gladstone (Malcolm).  Kayvon Khoshkam (Sergeant; Porter; Seyton).  Moya O'Connell (Lady Macbeth).  Nadeem Phillip (Donalbain).  Harveen Sandhu (Witch #3).  Emma Slipp (Head Witch).  Andrew Wheeler (Macduff). 


-30-

Thursday, 17 May 2018

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

From the footlights : The expression "jukebox musical" didn't originate with the show Mamma Mia! but well it might have. Usually a stage musical wrested from Hit Parade charts involves a storyline that weaves a singer or group's tunes into the plot. In the case of Mamma Mia!, meanwhile, the storyline is but loosely and almost off-handedly sewn into see-through cloth. 

In truth it's primarily a concert of the ABBA tunes that escaped from Sweden in the mid-70's and infected the world joyously. ABBA would dominate not only the radiowaves but every karaoke bar from here to Timbuktu for almost ten years.

No question "Knowing Me, Knowing You", "Waterloo", "SOS" and "Dancin' Queen" are earworms not even a sluice of RoundUp could ever extinguish. If, that is, you grew up on those tunes. If you didn't, you might find the songs catchy, but the Catherine Johnson book written to stitch ABBA's pop hits into a musical won't likely make it to the top of your list of shows with the best dramatic arc. Still, no matter. Not in the least.

Teen rocker friends Rose (Cathy Wilmot), left, and Tanya (Irene Karas Loeper), right, try to cheer up disconsolate mom Stephanie Roth (Donna Sheridan) who wants to wave 20-year-old out-of-wedlock daughter Sophie off marrying so early in life.     
Photo credit : David Cooper
How it's all put together : Of Broadway's opening at the Winter Garden in 2001, Clive Barnes exulted that the show "flies as tuneful as a lark and as smart as a cuckoo". The story starts a couple decades back. An American saloon singer named Donna Sheridan (Stephanie Roth) works on the Greek mainland but is having a ball making whoopee with young US and Oz and UK vacationers on a small off-shore island. She gets preggers by one of them : entree daughter Sophie (Michelle Bardach).

Feisty and independent, Donna stays on her hide-away island and opens up a taverna. She raises Sophie as a single mom after her holidaying hook-ups go home. The inevitable settle-down of families and careers await them when they sober up. 

Twenty years hence Sophie has met the dashing young Sky (Stuart Barkley), and they are eager to marry. But Sophie wants the dad she's never met to walk her down the aisle. After a sneak into Mom's diary out of a musty desk drawer, she learns of three men mom dated serially back in the Summer of '79. Posing as Donna, Sophie writes each of the erstwhile paramours and invites them to come to her wedding -- certain she'd figure out which one was her DNA match.

That's about the limit of the cuckoo's smarts here. The rest is just plain fun with a wacky coincidental Billy Bard-like surprise climax where all's well that ends well.


Fun, sport & amusement as well as the usual hot-&-horny girl-chase pursuits are what these men are all about on stag nite on a remote Greek island.
Photo credit : David Cooper
What the show bring to the stage : The story squeezes itself into the original ABBA tunes much like the fat lady squeezes herself into a corset to belt out her breathless arias. There's mama / daughter snits plus reconciliation; historical ex-lover grudges and ambiguities; an old femme rock trio gang called Donna's Dynamos who can still whoop it up musically; and, finally, a 3-song encore so the audience can bust its pipes in a karaoke singalong in whatever key you want that's stand-up hand-clappy fun.

Production values that enhance the show : There is not one aspect of this show that didn't delight 100%. Probably most compelling, as the pictures show, were Alison Green's costumes. From beachwear to tourist togs to outrageous! 70's disco outfits, MM! delights the eye every second. David Roberts, as usual, fashions a clever but simple set on sleds that slide effortlessly between Donna's taverna cafe and her guest rooms, all of it just right glaring Greek white with blue accents. Lighting isolation of individuals and duets and whole scenes by Robert Sondergaard made the Stanley's 90-foot proscenium an up-close-&-personal space the night long. 

Then there's the music. Ken Cormier's orchestra, familiar names all, were once again more than fully equal to their task. Shout-outs due to Andreas Schuld on guitars : his take on "What's The Name of the Game?" surely is a distant cousin, musically, of J.C. Superstar favourite : "I Don't Know How To Love Him". Martin Fisk underscored the ensemble throughout with supple-wristed drumming and percussion of first order.

Performance pin-spots : Of the 20 singer / actor / dancers on stage, this was as craftily-selected and hand-picked an ensemble by Director and Choreographer Valerie Easton as could be imagined or hoped-for. She took the talent she wanted and obviously worked them to death executing her dance routines, her blocking, her meticulously-timed stage business and facial jibes. Vancouver is so fortunate to have her NYC Broadway-level imagination and adroitness and ingenuity to marvel at and immerse ourselves in. 

Four songs particularly jumped out at me in Row 2 : the first "Dancing' Queen" sequence in the upstairs room; "Voulez-Vous", "Under Attack" and "Does Your Mother Know" -- these last three totally unknown to me before tonight. These are dance routines to knock your sox off.

The stag-party gang (picture #2 above) doing their diving flippers dance bit was hi-octane Valerie Easton superbly executed by the troupe. Shannon Hanbury as Ali and her wedding bridesmaid partner Jennifer Lynch as Lisa were full-on full-in in their dance routines, as was Cathy Wilmot as the coquettish ex-Dynamo Rosie -- a cross between Rosie the Riveter and Roseanne Barr. Oh what fun from all. 

Voices. My goodness. Stephanie Roth, Welcome! to Vancouver. As Donna this is a voice and a nuance and an engagement to be reckoned with. Her "Winner Takes All" duet with Michael Torontow was pure delight, as was his alt-ballad version of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" sung with Michelle Bardach as Sophie.

Not a weak or marginal contributor anywhere. Kudos! to the entire crew for their note-perfect verve and snap. 

 Sugary rock 70's Swede-style is what's on display in yet another Valerie Easton crisply staged & blocked & choreographed concert of ABBA tunes set on a Greek Isle where perpetual unemployment and national bankruptcy woes give way to whimsy and fun. 
Photo credit : David Cooper
Who gonna like : This show is vintage Arts Club Theatre summer fare and a wholly fitting exit-stage-right for outgoing Artistic Director Bill Millerd. Above, the word "joyous" was used to describe ABBA's grab on tunes and beat and charm and fun back in the 70's. 

To re-live such whimsy in 2018 when, politically, there's a shadow over the world's sun many days is refreshing and rejuvenating and reassuring : you can't escape the feel-good vibe and rush and sex-appeal of this show. Don't even try. Just go! Three months until final curtain but tickets won't last long I have no doubt.

Particulars : Original Theatrical Production (1998) : Music and lyrics by ABBA front-men Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, assisted on some songs by Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Produced by Arts Club Theatre at its Stanley stage, Granville at 11th. On until August 12, 2018. Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.687.1644 or www.artsclub.com. Run-time two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.

Production teamDirector & Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Musical Director Ken Cormier.  Associate Musical Director Sasha Niechoda. Set Designer David Roberts.  Costume Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.

Orchestra :  Ken Cormier (Director; Keyboard).  Sasha Niechoda (Keyboards).  MIchael Creber (Keyboards).  Angus Kellett (Keyboards).  Andreas Schuld (Guitars). Martin Fisk (Drums, Percussion).

Performers :  Paul Almeida (Pepper).  Michelle Bardach (Sophie Sheridan).  Stuart Barkley (Sky).  Oliverrt Castillo (Eddie).  Shannon Hanbury (Ali).  Jay Hindle (Harry Bright).  Warren Kimmel (Bill Austin).  Irene Karas Loeper (Tanya).  Jennifer Lynch (Lisa).  Stephanie Roth (Donna Sheridan).  Michael Torontow (Sam Carmichael).  Cathy Wilmot (Rose). 

Ensemble :  Sierra Brewerton.  Jarret Cody.  David Cohen.  Frankie Cottrell.  Maria Fernandes.  Julio Fuentes.  Brianne Loops.  Emily Machete.


-30-

Saturday, 21 April 2018


Me and You is a sisterly tale spanning seven decades 
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 sisters. Seventy years. Twenty masques. Eighty minutes. That's what's at play in Melody Anderson's original script Me and You. Sisters Liz (Patti Allan) and Lou (Lois Anderson) are classics of family types. One's bookish, organized and orderly, a biologist who planned her marriage and children and her life as if straight out of a lab workbook. The other is an abstract painter, got preggers spontaneously at art school, leads a life of whimsy and creative flow describing her seemingly erratic footsteps through this world.

How it's all put together : Playwright Melody Anderson cut her theatre teeth making masques (the spelling I prefer). These are big numbers : more than 3,000 masques for 50 productions and counting. Her skills are part of theatre costuming college classes across North America. She's composing a book on it all to help apprentices learn her craft. Earlier this decade she turned her talents to playwriting as a way to extend her theatric reach.

The result now on show is a two-hander featuring elder sister Liz and four-year-younger sister Lou from elementary school days to their post-retirement final days.


The kids Liz and Lou hamming it up with their bulbous cheeks and cheekiness.
Photo credit : David Cooper
We watch them as chunks of years skip by starting in the 50's : mock atom bomb hide-under-your-desk drills; teaching each other to dance; Lou meets tampons for the first time; hair dyeing gone amuck; boyfriends; the moon landing; babies; rebellious teen kids; 9/11; Dad splits from Mom; history repeats itself on this front-- and so it goes as Vonnegut told us repeatedly it would.

Classic riffs with Liz the elder who of course must wag her finger and forever set younger sister straight. But Lou is no pushover, she can give as well as take : "I didn't 'traipse' through Europe," she protests, "I 'traveled'. I saw the Mona fukken Lisa!" True to form she names her out-of-wedlock love child Serenity. When after standing on her head Liz finally manages to get preggers by hubby Wayne, another biologist, theirs will be named Anne Agatha. "She'll hate you for life!" Lou warns her. Liz promptly flips back some Dr. Spock-isms at her.

Fresnels on the show production values : Once more the versatility of the 1st Avenue stage is realized. Bleacher seating faces an acting space some 40 feet across. Angled walls reach upstage : their panels feature a geometry of countless dozens of drawer handles.  But not attached to drawers alone : to a bed; to doors; to a biffy; to clothes wardrobes -- they also serve as climbing rungs for variety-blocking -- while boxes pop up from the stage floor and clothes betimes drop down from above.

Sister Liz heads off to college in the 60's while younger Lou, nudging toward hippiedom as an artist, both welcomes getting sis's room but knows she's also going to miss having her mentor / tormentor around, too.Photo credit : Daivd Cooper
The music soundscape is richly-wrought electro-pop whose tunes match the various epochs on view -- they change with each of the masques the sisters sport as they age. Engagingly, almost spookily, each new masque emerges out of backlit sepulchres that extend from both walls. Nice effect indeed !

Acting pin spots : Playwright / masquer Melody Anderson's script is excellently cast by Director Mindy Parfitt. As a boy who grew up with three older sisters -- and whose wife has a sister five years her senior who lives in our town -- I can vouch for the accuracy of the taunts & teases & zingers & put-downs & regrets & sweet-sweetnesses Patti Allan and Lois Anderson flip and flick back-&-forth across the years. 

Can also vouch for the deliberate silences, like Lou's bitterness after she nurse-maided Mom for years. Then of course Mom died before Liz managed to get herself back to the homestead for a final visit. The inevitable spat over who had rights to Mom's precious ruby-&-emerald ring. A contretemps about Mom's ashes that Lou kept in her artist's paint can closet. "Mom would have happily spent eternity in the garbage dump if it meant you and me got along," Lou scolds Liz when the silent freeze finally starts to thaw a number of years later.

Who gonna like : This is touching comic drama. Mindy Parfitt's blocking of this talented twosome is deft and sure. They angle in on every bit of the stage as their actions befit the various ages they're displaying. Their talk-over snipes when each projects selfishness on the part of the other are pricelessly precise. 

Single kids can learn, enjoyably, some of the dynamics that having the siblings they never did can bring about. As can brother-sister twosome families : the relationships girls in a family have are different than theirs, gotta be no question in that respect if my life experience is any measure. 

The prominent word in all of this, again, is "charm". Worthy looks, worthy emotions, a genuinely worthy wander out for an evening of expressive and touching live theatre.

Particulars :  Script by Melody Anderson. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the BMO 1st Avenue Stage.  Run-time 1 hour, 20 minutes -no- intermission.  On until May 6, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ www.artsclub.com or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Melody Anderson, Playwright -&- Masque Maven.  Mindy Parfitt, Director.  Amir Ofek, Set Designer.  Barbara Clayden, Costume Designer. Conor Moore, Lighting Designer.  Owen Belton, Sound Designer.  Cande Anrade, Animation.  Angela Beaulieu, Stage Manager.  Koh McRadu, Apprentice Stage Manager.

Performers :  Patti Allan (Liz).  Lois Anderson (Lou). 

Addendum #1 :  Director's notes by Mindy Parfitt : [from the program]

I come from a big family, six kids altogether. Of my siblings, my sisters hold a special status. I have two : one nine years my senior and the other 10 years my junior. They shape who I am as much as who I am not, and there is a depth and complexity among us that undoubtedly makes me a better person.

All three of us call Vancouver home. In fact I even share a house with my older sister. But life is busy, so I look forward to our annual tradition : the three of us get together at our family's old cabin on Gambier, we drink G&T's on the porch, and play three-way racing-demons until our fingers bleed. It's heady stuff -- a direct link to childhood, and an important reminder that their love and loyalty allow me to get beyond myself.

Lest I mislead you, let me be clear : we are competitive and can be mean. We can agitate and annoy each other (and they hate that I always win at racing-demons). But ultimately, I love having an older sister I look up to and whose opinion matters, and I love being an older sister, being the one to extend a hand.

So, I dedicate this to my two incredible sisters. Without you, I would not be me. 

Thank you.

Addendum #2 : Playwright's notes by Melody Anderson : [from the program]

I remember, as a child, thinking that if I concentrated carefully enough while looking at myself in the mirror, I might be able to catch a specific moment when I changed and became older. I also remember staring (probably unnervingly) at my grandmother and struggling to make sense of the face that she was once an infant.

Perhaps it was this fascination with the aging process that drew me to mask-making. Throughout my career I've often mused about the idea of seeing a character age on stage over the course of an entire lifetime.

When I shifted my creative focus to writing, I decided to try my hand at exploring this idea. Since a sibling relationship spans a lifetime, I thought : why not write a series of vignettes about two sisters, each vignette a snapshot of their push-pull attempts at connection as they grow older together?

I se the early vignettes in the 1950's because I was interested in examining the cultural shifts that have happened during my own lifetime, especially with regard to attitudes toward women.

Aside from the historical/cultural backdrop and stylistic elements, though, I wanted Me and You to simply be a story about the relationship of two sisters -- a celebration of their ordinary and yet uniquely remarkable lives.

Addendum #3 : That I saw the show on the 2nd anniversary to-the-day of my own sister Anne's too-soon death a couple years after her retirement, no question that for me the coincidental timing made this afternoon just that much more poignant. 

Until her passing, Annie was BLR's most loyal & vigorous & vehement & immediate critic and editor (she a former text-editor for Ortho how-to-books.) I would post a review at 02:30, and when I dragged myself up at 10:00 later that morning, hers would be the first response on-line.

One time particularly I remember I had used the literary expression "bitch goddess". Lots of silence ensued from my feminist sibling -- she a year my senior -- at minimum a two-month vacuum after I stubbornly refused to change that reference. 

Annie, from one of your three younger brothers -- the one you grew up with, to you who most directly helped grow me up -- this review is dedicated with all the everlasting love and gratitude only you could possibly know.


-30-

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Osage is like no family you'd ever want to meet -- except on stage
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 : High camp. Burlesque. Potboiler. These are words to bear in mind before going to see playwright Tracy Letts' soap opera August : Osage County at the White Rock Players Club.
A more impaired and dysfunctional American family saga would be hard to conjure. Particularly so because the matron, mom Violet Weston, is metaphorically like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs -- her 6 1/2 decades in life have made her into a take-no-prisoners bitter vicious thrasher and slayer whose vengeance against her brood knows no bounds.

The clever but uncredited White Rock Players Club program banner for this gothic tragicomedy
depicts a family whose home and lives are utterly uprooted and buried in their own well-deserved grave.
But why not have some fun along the way? In the immortal words of critic Clive Barnes a decade back : "A family that shouts, rants, throws plates, smokes dope and drops into unwitting incest can't be all bad...". This is Mamet meets Albee meets Roseanne -- a troubled bunch of misfits as if on loan from a deranged vaudeville troupe that's has wandered unwittingly into Pawhuska, OK.

How it all launches for better or for worse : Loaded with foreshadowing, Osage starts with a charming chat between the Dad guy, a university prof and once-upon-a-time poet named Beverly. He's interviewing Johnna, a local Cheyenne who he wants to bring on as housekeeper -- or possibly more as peacekeeper between himself and Violet. "My wife takes pills and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck ...one of the bargains, just one paragraph of our marriage contract...cruel covenant." Admitting such frailties to a youthful stranger he's known but for five minutes foretells there will be melodrama ahead.

If there were any doubt it is dispelled within seconds when Violet stumbles into the scene, addled and rattled and juiced. When Bev suggests "Why don't you go back to bed, sweetheart?" she spits back : "Why don't you go fuck a fucking sow's ass?" Seconds later Bev tells Johnna, without a hint of irony, that if she comes to work for them "I doubt you'll be able to maintain any sort of healthy routine." Bev hires her with a final ironic riff at T.S. Eliot, observing "My last refuge, my books, simple pleasures, like finding wild onions by the side of a road, or requited love." With that charming and touching bit, exit Bev, stage left. Forever. And that's when the play truly begins.

What the show brings to the stage : Turns out Violet has cancer of the mouth along with myriad other malaises for which she pops packs of pills incessantly, perpetually. Between the countless cigarettes she still consumes. When Bev hasn't returned home in a handful of days, the family descends. 

Unmarried middle daughter Ivy, 44, arrives first : she's hung around Pawhuska looking after Mom and Dad's needs for years. Mom zeroes in on her : "You always look like such a schlub. Your shoulders are slumped and your hair's all straight and you don't wear makeup. You look like a lesbian." Her life-choice partner, held secret nearly all script long, will turn out to be anything but gay.

Vi's sister Mattie Fae, eight years her junior, arrives next with her nice nebbish hubby Charlie. Their doofus layabout kid, 37, is still called Little Charles. He lives with them at home 90 minutes away but they're fretful he can't be relied upon to even let the dogs out and fetch them back successfully. 

Eldest daughter Barbara and philandering husband Bill plane in from Boulder, CO with 14-year-old Jean who is eagerly in search of herself. She likes pot. Youngest of the three sisters Karen comes up from Florida with her 50-year-old shady businessman boyfriend Steve. He's a pedophile, thrice-married. 

So. No question Mr. Letts is reaching out for Tennessee Williams' New Orleans in all this. Also no question his theatrical grasp -- entertaining and canny and sly, but more superficial -- is quite a bit closer to David Jacobs' Dallas.

Past commentary on this show : When it first hit the NYC stage and took the 2008 Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Osage was cited as a "new American classic" by many. But not all. "Contrived", declared Hilton Als of The New Yorker, to which playwright Tracy Letts responded in an interview with Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail : "Fuck Hilton Als...he's an asshole," sounding word-for-word like his protagonist Vi Weston.

And while I may side toward the Als camp in this -- he is one of my favourite S. of 49 reviewers -- fact is the White Rock Players Club production directed by Ryan Mooney provides a show that presents with zing and pathos and sardonic humour all three. (Oh yes, another "three" or two in the mix : with its three acts and two intermissions, it runs three hours-fifteen JSYK.)

This is a show that by rights should toggle in repertory with the Mom's The Word series that Vancouver's ACT produces. Not only because it is 100% the exact opposite in tone and temper and cadence, but it features seven women all with strong and precisely-aimed stage presence -- gothic or no -- as crafted by the clever Mr. Letts. To wit his mother Billie, an author, quipped in the Dallas Observer in 2003 : "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead."

Fresnels on the production : The Robin Maggs / Andrea Olund set design is one of the best I've ever witnessed on the WRPC stage. It grabs the eye from the get-go. Finding a way to intersect thirteen actors on three floors of an OK farmhouse -- including eleven of them cluttered around the squidgy funeral wake dinner table -- takes some imagination. Brava! stuff here indeed. 

Diane Grant Booth's costumes suited each character with appropriate variety and idiosyncrasy from frumpy to dumpy to sexy to same old plain old. Lighting by Richard Smith isolated the various individual scene locations with imagination, while Gord Mantle's soundscape -- particularly the scratchy Clapton vinyl -- lent a further okie vibe to all the family shenanigans on show. 

Acting pin-spots : In Osage the script "belongs" to mother mayhem, matriarch Violet Weston (Cindy Peterson). In the program she admits she has lusted after this role from her first reading the play some years back. And deliver the goods she does indeed. From droll to drugged to been-there-done-that stoic cynicism, she is every kid's squiggly nightmare of their mom. 

Second protagonist in the piece is eldest daughter Barbara (Alaina Holland). She belts out pain and venom and teen-mom irritability with equal measure. Both long-suffering middle sister Ivy (Katherine Morris) and largely estranged, self-absorbed naif youngest sister Karen (Samantha Silver) are robust in their portrayals -- all three evince the kind of "betrayal syndrome" only siblings are capable of. Special mention to Alina Quarin as the 14-year-old daughter Jean : nice riffs as another challenging teen trying to stake her claim among the pusillanimous men in her family vis-a-vis the women who are to a person wounded warriors.

Solid performances across the piece by this eager ensemble of local talent. To keep a full-house of mostly seniors engaged with laughter and groans and tears for 3+ hours of a Wednesday night is no small feat indeed.

Who gonna like : The preceding descriptors should tell the tale. American gothic melodrama with lots of verbal violence, eff-words, a nifty synonym checklist for Mom's vagina -- a good start there to see whether you're a Who gonna for this kind of play or not. [Me Yes! my wife n.s.m.]

The Ryan Mooney direction of the actors in their talking-over-one-another group scenes was superb, one of the best examples I've witnessed on Vancouver boards. For their part, playwright Letts and Stephen Karam (see BLR March 29, 2018 review of ACT's The Humans) are often mentioned in the same breath as current USA dramatic wunderkind

This is bitey, chewy stuff, but dark dark dark. How else could mention of their Dad who apparently loved Mom -- "But then committed suicide!" -- bring forth gales of laughter from the crowd. No, Tennessee Williams this decidedly ain't. But for a witty and gritty get-under-your-skin look at Family Dysfunction Writ Large, a lot to entice and excite the wondering and willing here.


Particulars : Written by Tracy Letts.  At the White Rock Players Club Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Road, White Rock.)  On until April 28, 2018.  Schedules & ticket information from WRPC or box office at 604.536.7535.  Run-time 3 hours 15 minutes minutes including x2 15-minute intermissions.

Production crew : Producer Colleen McGoff-Dean.  Director Ryan Mooney.  Set Designers Andrea Olund / Robin Maggs.  Costume Designer Diane Grant Booth.  Lighting Designer Richard Smith.  Sound Designer Gord Mantle.  Assistant Producer Jackie Grant. Assistant Set Decorator Laura McKenzie.  Stage Manager Kathleen Allisen.  Prop Maven Naomi Mitchell.

Performers : Paul Cowhig (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau). Alaina Holland (Barbara Fordham). Cassidy Hryckiw (Johnna Monavata).  Pat McDermott (Charlie Aiken).  Katherine Morris (Ivy Weston).  Chris O'Connor (Steve Heidebrecht).  Fred Partridge (Beverly Weston). Cindy Peterson (Violet Weston).  Alina Quarin (Jean Fordham). Heather-Jane Robertson (Mattie Fae Aiken).  Samantha Silver (Karen Weston).  Cale Wald (Little Charles Weston).  Andrew Wood (Bill Fordham).


Addendum #1 : Reference is made in the play to Southern novelist Carson McCullers whose coming-of-age novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and its 1951 follow-up The Ballad of the Sad Cafe were de rigeur reading for high schoolers and young college preppies back in the day. And of course To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee particularly after it was made into a black-&-white movie, lit.-&-fig., in 1962 starring Gregory Peck as the steely-eyed but compassionate lawyer Atticus Finch.

On Page 7 of the Dramatists Play Service, Inc. 2009 publication of Tracy Letts' script for August : Osage County, Letts included a lengthy squib from yet another southern writer, Robert Penn Warren of Kentucky -- he the author of my all-time favourite existential poem "Waiting". This from his most famous novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1947,  All the King's Men :

The child comes home and the parent puts the hooks in him. The old man, or the woman, as the case may be, hasn't got anything to say to the child. All he wants is to have that child sit in a chair for a couple of hours and then go off to bed under the same roof. It's not love. I am not saying that there is not such a thing as love. I am merely pointing to something which is different from love but which sometimes goes by the name of love. It may well be that without this thing which I am talking about there would not be any love. But this thing in itself is not love. It is just something in the blood. It is a kind of blood greed, and it is the fate of a man. It is the thing which man has which distinguishes him from the happy brute creation. When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to use a hame trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can't get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can. And the good old family reunion, with picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium. 

And finally, one of my all-time favourite quotations from yet another Southern novelist, Alabaman Walker Percy. His 1971 piece Love In The Ruins is a science fiction morality piece set in USA's dystopian future. Percy writes :

What must be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past : the past that is gone and grieved over and never made sense of.

As I watched the final scene of Osage last night when eldest daughter Barbara abandons her mother Violet for good and Violet seeks solace from Johnna Monevata (English : "Youngbird") -- the Cheyenne cook and family caregiver -- Percy's quote jumped instantly into mind and I found myself shedding some tears that Letts and the WRPC cast had helped pend up in me over the course of the night.

Addendum #2 :  Before attending the WRPC performance, I was chatting with a friend about Vancouver theatre. I mentioned that one goofy but repeated frustration I find is in how actors hereabouts swear on stage. Almost always Wrongly! I said to him. As in saying "What is your fucking problem?" to a sibling, rather than the way the language is actually used, which is "What is your fucking problem?" 

The only time the word fucking was emphasized rather than the noun after it -- which is how we speak -- was Alaina Holland exclaiming about Violet's "fucking pills". That was right. In that instant, the emphasis on "fucking" was right. 

The rest of the time each and every of the cast for the balance of the night used the adjective "fucking" as the throw-away word it is, emphasizing instead the following noun or adjective or verb, as in "Are you fucking kidding me?" 

Touche! Ryan Mooney and cast. My faith that good directing and good actors can pull this little bit of dictional accuracy off now has a base-point that I can refer folks to down the road. Thanks!

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Sunday, 15 April 2018

Cabaret reminds us that was then this is now. . .
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 :  Entr'acte. The space and time between acts. The time between the end of the Roaring 20's in America and the crash on Wall Street. In Germany the demise of the Weimar Republic under the weight of WWI reparations. Coupled, not coincidentally, with the rise of Ernst Rohm's Brown Shirt beer hall thugs. In their shadows is Hitler's growing Nazi collective of just-plain-German-folk : they skulk brilliantly in the dim light.

As Charles Dickens said of the French Revolution, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Thus many who remember the 1972 Bob Fosse film Cabaret starring a glittering Liza Minelli tend to remember her personal glitz-&-glamour. We might be guilty of thinking the show's hit song as intended straight, not ironic -- that life is short, so why sit at home and fret, why not just go play? Fact is the racy raucous nite club times at the Kit Kat Klub were more akin to Sodom and Gomorrah than to the burlesque of the Folies Bergere whose images were so richly embroidered in the Montmartre lamplight posters of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Screen-grab off internet.
As Royal City Musical Theatre's Artistic Director Valerie Easton writes pointedly and insightfully : "The late 20's and early 30's were a very liberal time in Berlin, the government of the day having cancelled all censorship. Nothing was taboo. Drug use was rampant, alcohol and sexual conduct was 'anything goes'. No one was paying attention to the political climate and along came racism, greed, hatred, prejudice, the Nazis and radical change."

Thus from the opening number led seductively by the show's polysexual Emcee (Andrew Cownden), "Wilkommen", oppressive thunderclouds loom within striking distance. Even most high-flying Berliners no doubt sensed the decadence and free-spiritedness being indulged in at KKK were shallow and sham and shameful despite appearing to reflect what Europe's post-WWI zeitgeist was "supposed" to look like. 

How it's all put together : Three tales are told simultaneously. How a young American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Tim Howe) has come to Berlin to finish writing a novel. There he meets Sally Bowles (Lauren Bowler) who is a British singer who slept her way onto the Kit Kat Klub stage. Despite being ambiguously gay, Cliff is smitten by her charms. They couple up after KKK's hyper-jealous owner Max kicks her out once he sees them flirt across his dance floor. 

Sally moves in with Cliff at the rooming house owned by lifelong spinster Fraulein Schneider (Cheryl Mullen). A neighbourhood widower, Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schulz (Damon Calderwood), is sweet on her. They plan to marry until Nazi rainmaker Ernst Ludwig (Gavin Leclaire) declares peremptorily how this would be unwise for her in these unsettling times. Soon would come Kristallnacht and crowds of bullies yelling Heraus mit Juden! at folks who used to be their neighbours & friends.

Tying these threads together is the seemingly omniscient Emcee who with his Kit Kat troupe entertain the guests with song and dance numbers. Their acts simultaneously tell the stories of how all these characters are faring outside where the Brown Shirts are assaulting and disappearing people daily. 

Emcee Andrew Cownden encourages his burlesque troupe to Wilkommen! the patrons to the Kit Kat Klub cabaret, inviting them to "leave their troubles outside" and join them inside where life is "real".
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
What RCMT brings to the stage : After the Fosse & Minelli 35mm. wizardry that championed the original Masteroff / Kander / Ebb script, watching a stage version at the high school auditorium at New Westminster Secondary School presents no end of challenges for the theatre company and audiences both. We come to Cabaret with a demanding set of expectations. 


Suffice to say Director Valerie Easton & Co. executed their Pflicht as the Germans would say -- their duty -- with eagerness, aplomb, energy and insight that are trademarks of Easton's RCMT. Particularly ept was the blending of the upstage rooming house scenes into the KKK stage arena, as if many of those scenes were in fact being acted out in front of the Klub's slavering patrons.

How life appeared to many at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin's pre-Hitler daze.

No question the blend of RCMT's "It's showtime, folks!" exuberance with the serious sobersides of a world that was post-Black Friday in the failing Weimar democracy -- both of which were symbols of "Money, Money, Money" after all -- was struck well indeed. 

Production values that hi-lite the action : Curious that Set Designer Omanie Elias is plunk'd into 7th of 12 listings for the design crew. Her transformation of the Massey Theatre proscenium stage is remarkable and rich. The sidebar KKK bistro roundtables and bentwood opera chairs coupled with the upstage rooming house sets behind billowing sheer curtains wove the scenes together effortlessly. Not to mention the semi-circle catwalk around the orchestra pit that allowed the song-&-dance troupe to parade its stuff right smartly.

And how Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier wound up one spot below her for acknowledgment in the program is another mystery. Outrageous! costumery in this show, particularly for the Emcee role.  

Also delightful turns by the 12-piece orchestral ensemble. This reviewer's ear, however, does require shout-outs to go to Ross Halliday on drums/percussion for his subtlety and finesse -- no wood-chopper he. Also ringing particularly true were Tom Walker's trombone and Shawn Hillman's viola riffs. Subtle silky stuff. Altogether a very well-wrapt sound by one and all.

Acting pin-spots :  When first I saw Fosse's film with M.C. Joel Gray I remember remarking to friends at the time as a 20-something : "No one will ever do as good a job with that role as he does." 

"As good a job" is, quite frankly, the wrong choice of expression. Because what Andrew Cownden does for RCMT with Ms. Elias's clever staging -- and Director Easton's ever-ingenious choreography and blocking -- is (oh! how trite to put it...) worth the price of admission alone. Cownden embraces the saucy character of Emcee same as he embraces the privates of both the women and the men in his stage gang. He wears Emcee's role and persona and costuming like a man who first performed this gig as a nerdy kid 20 years back in Granny's farmyard -- he's just embellished-&-glitzed it professionally over time.

Lauren Bowler as Sally Bowles does a remarkable Brit accent and impersonation. Fine chops indeed. Albeit maybe not quite sleazy enough at times seducing stiff Cliff Bradshaw, her rendition of "Cabaret" at show's end was breathtakingly blue and nuanced and still naively-&-charmingly hopeful.

No review of this show could possibly not mention Cheryl Mullen and Damon Calderwood as the late-life ill-fated lovebirds. Oh how touching their words, their songs, their dances, their fateful engagement party. 

Who gonna like : As a student teacher at NWSS in 1969 under the school's English master Sam Roddan, I used to hate having to attend assemblies in the vast auditorium there. I feel little different 50 years on. What an impersonal and stadium-like room to have to work.

But work it Valerie Easton and her crews of performers and production talent do to marvellous effect. Cabaret is as Easton says so well : "Cabaret is a special show, one of the few thought-provoking musicals. The script is clever and the music raunchy, smart, tender, and most of all unforgettable."

Today's show was sold-out. Wise pursuers of an utterly delightful nite of song, dance, thought, laughter-&-tears will want to punch their ticket early so as to not miss out.

Creators : Book by Joe Mastoff.  Based on the play by "I Am a Camera" John Van Druten.  Selected narrative taken from "The Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood. Music by John Kander.  Lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Produced by : Royal City Musical Theatre. At the Massey Theatre, SW corner, 8th Street & 8th Avenue, New Westminster.  On until April 29, 2018.  Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.521.5050 or on-line at RCMT tickets. Run-time Two hours, 15 minutes plus intermission.

Production team : [from the program list]  Director & Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Musical Director James Bryson.  Artistic Associate Alen Dominguez.  Assistant Choreographer Jacq Smith.  Producer Chelsea Carlson.  Technical Director Alex House.  Set Designer Omanie Elias.  Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier.  Executive Sound Designer Tim Lang.  Sound Designer Malcolm Ross.  Lighting Designer Rob Sondergaard.  Properties Manager Sharon Zimmerman. Stage Manager Linzi Voth.  Assistant Stage Manager Gerri Torres.  Assistant Stage Manager Zain Khudhur.  Assistant Stage Manager Sophie Jederman. Rehearsal Pianist Patrick Ray. 

Principal performers :  Lauren Bowler (Sally Bowles).  Andrew Cownden (Emcee).  Tim Howe (Clifford Bradshaw). Olesia Shewchuk (Fraulein Kost / Chanteuse).  Cheryl Mullen (Fraulein Schneider). Damon Calderwood (Herr Schultz). Gavin Leclaird (Ernst Ludwig).

Ensemble performers : Callie Anderson.  Britt Bailey.  Daniel Cardoso.  Kurtis D'Aoust.  Isabella Halladay.  Lucia Forward. Jennifer Lynch.  Kyle McCloy.  Jayka Mayne.  Joseph Spitale.  Michael Stusiak.  Rachel Theilade.  Michael Wilkinson.  

Boy Sopranos (Hitler Jugend) : Adrian Asuncion Cuenca.  Oliver Gold.  Andre Kozak.  Owen Scott.

Orchestra :  Andrea Alexandra (Trumpet).  Ross Halliday (Drums / Percussion).  Shawn Hillman (Viola).  Angus Lam (Bass).  Kevin McDonnell (Violin).  Patrick Ray (Keyboard, Violin).  Steve Torok (Trumpet).  Tom Walker (Trombone).  Miranda Wheeler (Clarinet, Saxophone).  Lia Wolfe (Piano).  Kevin Wu (Clarinet, Flute, Saxophone).  Aireleen Zhu (Cello). 
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