Thursday, 15 March 2018

A Beautiful View looks fitfully for love
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 amphiboly "Nothing is enough!" is playwright Daniel MacIvor's attempt to run a wry joke between two women friends in his 65-minute two-hander A Beautiful View. Is nothing -- zero -- enough? Or, had we everything, would that still never be quite enough? 

His repeated play on these words underscores the simple complexities of a decade-plus relationship between Emme (Sandra Medeiros) and Elle (Melissa Oei) that started in their 20's : lots of fun, lots of fibs, lots of sex ambiguity, lots of love and pain and the whole damn thang. A first kiss, a tryst, a skip-&-skedaddle. And then back together "accidentally" again for more of whatever's to come next. 

Elle (Melissa Oei) and Emme (Sandra Medeiros) find nature gives them common footing until life's vagaries trip them up.
Photo credit : Angelo Renai

For an hour and a bit we hear all about the hiccups in their friendship though, oddly, they never refer to one another by name. A host of 20-20 hindsights rhymed off that hi-lite the giggles, the beers, the rock and roll, the camping they share. But mostly their words focus on the confusion and ambiguities and betrayals. The fears. Of bears in the woods and one another in the city : angst of equal measure. The seemingly reluctant reconciliations. As if each of them is trying, desperately, to find "a beautiful view" of themselves they can project, not unlike what weatherman Phil Connors' karmic trek was all about in Ground Hog Day. Just not as successfully.

What the show brings to the stage : MacIvor's script begs this question : can two people who once seduced one another when drunk be lifelong friends in spite of all the lies and hurts and misguided emotions they've shared along the way? Yes -- MacIvor contends rhetorically -- if we can just get past the labels people foist on each other. Does our making love mean we are, or are not, lesbians? Then what about the men we dallied with and/or married? How do those relationships also define us? Trouble with all this is that in 2018 these are no longer particularly vital questions given the more profound and nuanced concerns of 3rd wave feminism.

Founder of da da kamera theatre in Toronto, MacIvor won the 2006 Governor General's Award for Drama for a quintette of scripts that included A Beautiful View. The following year he dropped the curtain on da da kamera for good. He has stated in interviews that he wrote the play intentionally as da da's last show. Also, he hopes ABV is the one of some four dozen he's written so far (and counting...) that he wants the world to remember him for.

Performance pin-spots : There can be no question of the sincerity and energy Naked Goddess Productions have put into this play whose final Preview performance I attended tonight. The character notionally named "Elle" is played with warmth and irony and edge by Melissa Oei. Her counterpart "Emme" is played by NGP co-founder Sandra Medeiros. As scripted by Mr. MacIvor, her character is more stiff, linear and emotionally monochromatic. But Ms. Medeiros pulls from her character all that's there to work with.

Which leads to the question always to be asked of a performance : Does it work for you? as viewer. Despite the pedigree of both playwright and this celebrated show, ABV did not quite "work" for me. MacIvor's constant repetition of the "Nothing is enough!" line between the actors rubbed raw on the ears after it was recited two dozen times or so. 

And then for Elle to parse it -- to explain over and over again in her monologue what its dual meaning is all about -- this was as painful as it was obvious and unnecessary, a kind of dramatic sabotage. And his ending to the show? Utterly artificial and dissatisfying.

As for staging, two primary problems here. One is the 60 x 15 foot rectangle stage in the old church sanctuary of Kits Neighbourhood House. Too wide by half at least. ACT's late-great Granville Island Revue stage would have been perfect for this intimate show. 

The other is the blocking and stage direction by Director Tamara McCarthy. Because the dialogue MacIvor provided her was so self-reflective and diary-like, the actors spent most of the night as if glued rather than animated. Small wonder. All they had to work with was playwright MacIvor's talk. Talk, talk, talk. Talking about talking. Talking about not talking. Trying to talk their way into creating meaning in life rather than just by being. 

Case-in-point : Harold Pinter ["The Last to Go"] created a couple of Limey duffers talking over pints of warm beer -- day-after-endless-day -- who make trite but somehow blithe observations about the local buses going by outside their favourite pub window. His genius was to make their yada-yada both seem and be convincing in its own commonplace way.

Who gonna likeWhether a gay male playwright can adequately infuse two ambiguously gay women with compelling persona is not a question about appropriation of voice. These characters needed more obvious depth than the somewhat glib existential question they pose back and forth ad nauseam.

But because live theatre is so vital and immediate -- an unforgiving medium if ever were one -- the enthusiasm brought to this production and performance by Ms's Medeiros and Oel is noteworthy. As actors their energy intersects even if the words they've been given to work with lack gut-level emotional persuasion. 

In so doing they reflect admirably part of NGP's stated raison d'ĂȘtre for what they do : "Theatre is that honest place where we tell a story in the most truthful way possible. To be authentic while sharing the lives of flawed and genuine people." No question this performance achieves that objective distinctively despite the limitations of the script itself.

Particulars : Produced by Naked Goddess Productions.  Written by Daniel MacIvor. On until March 25th.  At the Kits Neighbourhood House theatre. Run-time 65 minutes, no intermission.  Tickets and schedule information via Naked Goddess Productions

Production team : Tamara McCarthy, Director.  Celeste English, Lighting Designer.  Nico Dicecco, Sound Designer / Stage Manager.  Sandy Margaret, Scenic Designer.  Amelie Love (daughter of Ms. Medeiros), Music & Lyrics for the song Bittersweet Stories.

Performers :  Sandra Medeiros, Emme.  Melissa Oei, Elle.


Thursday, 8 March 2018

Forget About Tomorrow looks @ Alzheimer's collateral damage with faith, hope and charity
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 : To truly live in the "now" requires one to literally "forget about tomorrow". Then there's actor / playwright Jill Daum's approach : write an autobiographical play about her husband John Mann's early-onset Alzheimer's that finds him now, at just 55, in a Vancouver care home. (John was co-founder, lead singer and prime mover of Vancouver's Celtic-rock band Spirit of the West, est.1983.)

Part of the Mom's The Word collective as both co-writer and actor, Daum germinated the idea for her first solo show before John was formally diagnosed five years back. Previously on staff at the Kidsbooks shop on West Broadway, Daum had already started writing an "everywoman" script. Her goal was to tell a tale of how being "just a normal family" provides as many challenges and as much joy and pain as those of the rich and famous.

Husband Tom (Craig Erickson) sings an anniversary lullaby to wife Jane (Jennifer Lines) that speaks of how today is the only day, for now, of the rest of your life.
Photo credit David Cooper
John enthusiastically embraced Jill's idea to morph her play into a story that details his Alzheimer's journey. He did so with the same eagerness he evinced in writing the songs for a solo album "The Waiting Room" in 2009-2010. Morris Panych subsequently made his songbook into a play that ACT produced in 2015 and Mann sang in. It got rave reviews. That story detailed Mann's successful fight against colorectal cancer -- a vicious bout that now is chief suspect as the catalyst for the Alzheimer's that hit him a few short years after.

The last two songs Mann ever wrote book-end his wife's play, the first an anniversary lullaby, the last called "Forget to Forget". "Working on the music was as cathartic for him as the words in the play were for me," Daum notes. 

How it's all put together : Daum wanted to emphasize the ordinariness of the circumstances her characters portray. So she started by giving them straightforward names : Tom (Craig Erickson) and Jane (Jennifer Lines). 

How Jane and their adult children Aaron (Aren Okemaysim) and Wynn (Aleita Northey) grapple with Dad's inexorable and inescapable disease in its early phases is the stuff of the play.  But unlike Lisa Genova's Still Alice which is mostly about the stricken protagonist, here the focus is on the well one -- the person destined to be chief caregiver and survivor -- Jane.

Wife Jane (Jennifer Lines) swaps titillating romantic daydreams with her boss  Lori (Colleen Wheeler) as both women, while married, contemplate the aloneness they feel in their respective worlds.
Photo credit David Cooper
The first word that comes to mind, of course, is fear. Then the whole DANDA algorithm identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. All the energy to aid her failing husband who soon will not even know her name.

Along the way, of course, thoughts about life's meaning : is there any?  Would, could, should the prospect of a romantic interlude with a flirty widower (Hrothgar Matthews) help Jane cope? In a godless world, why-or-why not seem to have near-equal magnetism. (Daum noted in an interview [a] that the romantic interlude piece is a wholly fictional bit, and [b] that husband John, when still compos mentis, found this plot twist both amusing and intriguing).

What the show brings to the stage :  Daum cites her emerging and ongoing and crescendoing fears, certainly.  She describes Alzheimer's as "exceedingly cruel". Because it "doesn't only smother the unique, exquisite minds of vibrant, beautiful people -- it also ransacks families and haunts us all." She also identifies another emotion probably not normally thought of : the "shame" that this "pointless, horrible disease" visits on family members. She seems to be asking an interesting rhetorical question along the way : how do the words "caretaker" and "caregiver" differ, how do they intersect, how and when and why do they seem to switch places with one another?                  

As Mann did years back singing about his cancer and hospital episodes, Daum introduces as much comedy as possible into her script. The role of baby boutique owner Lori -- played flawlessly by Colleen Wheeler a la Rosalind Russell doing Auntie Mame six decades later -- was clearly one of Daum's chief cathartic outlets in writing this show. Not to mention a generous parroting of Daum et al's humour from the Mom's the Word series is at play as well, particularly in reference to Jane and Tom's children. 

Production values that hi-lite the script : Two aspects jump out here, namely the Pam Johnson set with its floor-to-ceiling backdrop of cross-rail panels -- representing Jung's "doors of perception" perhaps -- but most notably the lazy-susan centrepiece with its L-shaped countertop that swivels and toggles between Jane and Tom's kitchen and the baby boutique front counter.

As well, Candelario Andrade's projections onto the upstage wall of the children skyping and sniping and whining from their respective cribs back east were effective. His contrasting black-&-white movie scrim of giant cumulonimbus clouds with an endless sortie of crows launching into them added a clever retro-Alfred Hitchcock punch to the viewer's eye.

Good lighting design and soundscape, too, combined with the just-right contrast of Rodeo Drive glistening threads for boutique owner Lori opposite Jane's Blundstone boots that anchor her everyday Mark's Work Wearhouse denim uniform.  

Acting pin-spots :  Director Michael Shamato's casting was note-perfect for this oh-so-personal play. As suggested above, playwright Daum clearly relied upon so-called comic relief as a primary outlet for her to manage the multiple layers of emotion she dealt with as both the centrepiece of the autobiography and her challenge as a playwright in how to make meaningful and successful drama for others to engage in. "So-called" because at times the character of Lori threatens to upstage the more visceral undercurrents we are being asked to share emotionally with this family.

That is not, however, so much a piece of "criticism" as it is applause to the playwright for traversing such tricky terrain with a dramatic eye and an empathy for this real-life ongoing gut-blow she is describing.

As Jane, Jennifer Lines brought it all : pathos, agony, flirty sexiness, guilt, shame. A big Brava! there. Opposite as husband Tom, Craig Erickson once again demonstrated what power he commands doing serious, emotionally-challenging role portrayals. His depiction of a man utterly fogged and befuddled and desperate in his fading grasp of "now" was not just genuine but grippingly sad to behold. 

Who gonna like : This play has so much comedy to it it would be hard to classify it as anything but. Yet the subject matter of "How do you think you would deal with this agony and disorientation in your family?" is a profound and complex and necessary question to ask. 

There are moral considerations. There are practical considerations. There are, most of all, emotional considerations. How does one balance loyalty and faithfulness and integrity toward a grievously and irreversibly sick loved-one and still remain whole and safe and sane so caregiver does not become caretaker instead?

This is powerful drama with terrific antic moments that ease the underscoring pain. Of what ACT has on offer this season, Forget About Tomorrow is a show not to be missed for poignance, relevance and heart.

ParticularsScript by Jill Daum. Music by John Mann. Produced by ACT in collaboration with the Belfry Theatre, Victoria.  At the BMO 1st Avenue Stage.  Run-time 2-hours,15 minutes -plus- intermission.  On until March 25, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Jill Daum, Playwright.  Michael Shamata, Director [Artistic Director of Victoria's Belfry Theatre]. Pam Johnson, Set & Costume Designer.  Bryan Kenney, Lighting Designer.  Candelario Andrade, Projection Designer.  James Coomber, Sound Designer.  Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg.  Caryn Fehr, Stage Manager.  Ronaye Haynes, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Craig Erickson (Tom).  Jennifer Lines (Jane). Hrothgar Matthews (Wayne). Aleita Northey (Wynn).  Aren Okemaysim (Aaron).  Colleen Wheeler (Lori). 


Thursday, 1 March 2018

Pacific Overtures an unsung Sondheim oddity with moments of sharp 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 : Fighting Chance Productions' resurrection in 2018 of the 1976 Stephen Sondheim show Pacific Overtures puts a new spin on the original. Whereas the Hal Prince extravaganza featured 31 characters, FCP uses but 12 to depict the lot. And then stage it in the cozy confines of PAL theatre on Cordero.

The storyline is rich and spare at the same time. In 1853 Admiral Matthew C. Perry and a phalanx of four warships descended on Uraga intent on establishing trade relations with Japan. Perry referred to the Yankee approach -- without a hint of irony at its double entendre -- as "very reasonable and pacific overtures". And we all know how those overtures have played themselves out. 

Playing the role of Mother who poisons her feckless Lord of a son with Chrysanthemum Tea, Thomas Chan (left) is a splendid villain. The Lord's samurai protector Kayama (Jason Lam) can only look on helplessly .
Photo credit : Allyson Fournier Photography
The show's book by John Weidman tells the tale of traditional Japanese culture being overwhelmed by the Western invasion through the eyes of a fisherman and a samurai. Sondheim employs traditional Japanese music by using a pentatonic (5-note) scale rather than stick to the familiar Western 7-note version. Lyrics are often expressed with haiku simplicity thanks to the form's poignance. Compare the "barbaric yawp" of Walt Whitman's Songs for Myself to get the picture.

How it's all put together : The capitalization of Japan wrenched it away from its "changeless" relatively simple domestic traditions such as planting and harvesting rice, flower arranging, tea ceremonies, endless painted screens sliding about and calligraphy. The transformation is told and dramatized by two primary characters, Kayama, the police prefect, and the fisherman Manjiro who was lost at sea and subsequently spent six years in Boston after being rescued by American sailors. As the play progresses Manjiro retreats back to his homeland's styles and traditions as a developing samurai while Kayama becomes progressively (sic) westernized.

The play's Reciter or narrator (Henry Lee) ties the various narrative and musical threads of the Sondheim show together with humour and the dramatic irony of knowing ahead-of-time how all the events will unfold.
Photo credit Allyson Fournier Photography
Through a dozen songs, the 120-minute play in two acts employs a "Reciter" who is a kind of narrator borrowed from both the Kabuki and Noh theatre traditions. He ties together the at-times seemingly random threads of the plot that range from the wistful reminiscence of old Japan in "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" to a geisha madam prepping her farmer-kid recruits to seduce the invading merchant sailors to part with their earnings in "Welcome to Kanawaga". 

What the show brings to the stage : East meets west meets middle earth. So it seems with the evocative "Someone in a Tree" that recalls Adm. Perry's original meeting with the shogun where the American naval officers were deceived by their clever hosts so they would not set foot on Japanese soil contrary to the emperor's sacred edict of 1600. Sondheim has named this his favourite composition from among the countess hundreds he's written over the decades.  By show's end the once-belligerent Kayama sings of his thrill to wear a "Bowler Hat" that emblemizes the new costumes and bling the foreigners have brought with them that he now gladly sports.

When one fully absorbs the fact the script shows a Japan only 120 years after modern foreigners were first allowed on its shores, the effect is made the more jarring and exceptional. That no mention is made whatever of Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima was purposeful by Weidman / Sondheim. The Japanese phoenix had by the time of the show's writing fully taken flight. The time was now of Toyota Camry's and Sony Walkmans and Nikon cameras. Reference to the firepower of mid-century wartime conflict would not suit.

Production values that hi-lite the action :The quote above by Sir Trevor Nunn about says it all. An intimate space. A dozen energized actors. White face. Traditional Japanese dress. Simple runs of risers in thrust seating design up to a diminutive main stage. Follow-spots that track the actors on the runway. All of these elements were in eager play in this production. 

But two features particularly stand out : the excellence of Kerry O'Donovan's keyboard and other synthesized backup brought a listenability to a musical that might well have put off many viewers in its absence. As well, director Ryan Mooney's offset of the actors' bowing obediently in traditional mode -vs- the choreography of the modern scenes and the fight sequences add much needed zing and imagination to the presentational staging that done on Broadway by Hal Prince originally back in '76 was the more traditional proscenium arch modality.

As the fisherman Manjiro who becomes a devout samurai, Alina Wong is a dynamic force who doubles as a hilarious French general promising Japan endless baguettes and champagne.
Photo credit : Allyson Fournier Photography
Acting pin-spots : In traditional Kabuki, all roles are played by men. FCP's cast of 12 features six women. The trade-off is a cross between Shakespeare and English panto : men play the women's roles and women play some of the men's. It all works delightfully in the "non-binary" culture we now inhabit.

The leads deserve a particular shout-out : as the prodigal son fisherman cum samurai Manjiro, Alina Wong was magnetic in her punchy impudent manner. Opposite playing Kayama, Jason Lam brought a studied integrity to his role (but perhaps was best riffing Gilbert-&-Sullivan as the British Admiral in the chummy "Please, Hello" number to kick off Act 2).

Carlo Furtin as the geisha madam leading his proteges through the deliciously ironic "Welcome to Kanagawa" was great fun, as was Carlo Yu playing the hapless and addlepated Lord Abe who in a fog of bewilderment signed away Japan's cultural and commercial fate.

Who gonna like : For Sondheim aficionados who want a measure of the man's lyrical breadth, Pacific Overtures is a show to add to their list of dramatic "should see" shows. The 5-step atonal song sequences may not strike happily on all ears. E.g. for myself I tend to prefer Ralph Vaughan Williams doing his melodic take on Thomas Tallis over the 12-tone pieces of Bela Bartok. Taste is neither right or wrong, it just is.
The cast -- all FCP first-timers -- had but a month to absorb lines, accustom themselves to the unusual Sondheim tunes and cadences as well as execute the clever blocking and stage business set out for them by director Mooney. The cast's eagerness and fidelity to match these challenges brings much to admire and applaud.

Particulars :  Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Book by John Weidman.  Produced by Fighting Chance Productions.  At the PAL theatre, 581 Cardero Street.  On through March 3rd.  Tickets & schedule information @  Run-time : Two acts, 75 minutes + 45 minutes with intermission.

Production team :  Ryan Mooney, Director.  Kerry O'Donovan, Music Director.  Kelsey Cunningham, Costume Designer.  And Lloyd, Lighting Designer.  Sandy Margaret, Set Designer.  Cailin Taverner, Stage Manager.

Performers :  Thomas Chan.  Brandon Chow.  Tracy Dam.  Carlo Fortin.  Chelsea Huang.  Jason Lam.  Henry Lee.  Ashley Park.  Wynn Siu.  Veronica Ung.  Alina Wong.  Carlo Yu.


Monday, 26 February 2018

The Code examines teen angst via social media
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 :  Social media bullying is so prominent a topic it seems almost trite. But with Pink Shirt Day this Wednesday, now is a perfect time to consider its effects yet again. Forty-plus years doing plays for schools, Green Thumb Theatre continues its mandate. This time it is assistant artistic director Rachel Aberle's world premiere of The Code

Her communication cum integrity messages are currently on a chautaqua around BC high schools. Aimed mostly at Grade 8-9's, the show plays to senior highs too. A one-nite-only outing + talkback for the general public was presented at The Cultch tonight.

Aberle's script demonstrates admirably various applications of a favourite Boomer quip : "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am afraid what you heard is not what I meant."  

On its face it's an old storyline : "the suits" in school admin want to dictate a dress code for the girls for the upcoming school dance. Along the way the dance organizer is mocked and pilloried on social media and a key friendship crashes and burns as a result.

Best buds Connor (Mason Temple) and Simon (Nathan Kay) snigger over some share or other on Simon's phone. Later a cut-&-paste photo-patch of their friend Moira turns out to be a fake news mock-up with costly consequences.
Photo Credit : Leah Gair

How it's all put together : In response to the dress code threat, dance organizer Moira (Elizabeth Barrett) and friends Connor (Mason Temple) and Simon (Nathan Kay) decide, fatefully, to stage a rally in protest. Their catchy tag-line is "Our bodies, our clothes, stand up, break the code!" The rally is a huge success with their classmates whose smartphones buzz their Huzzah!s at Moira's defiant stand @ #breakthecode. Until the dance is canceled by way of school admin's response to / revenge for the students' protest rally. In the result the expression for Moira surely must be "Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer!" Never truer nor more apt.

Dance organizer Moira (Elizabeth Barrett) uses an old-tech / analogue bullhorn to spur the student body into righteous indignation over the school administration's dance dress code for girls while her ostensible friend Simon (Nathan Kay) captures it on on his smartphone.
Photo Credit : Leah Gair
Ideas & social values at play : The prominence -- physically as well as emotionally -- of smartphone devices and their manipulative messages is timely. The latest brain research shows how '+' messages such as Twitter like's release euphoric dopamine that pumps followers with an instant nearly addictive high. 

But when '-' messages are decoded by the user instead, dysphoric secretions known as dynorphins flood the brain equally quickly : feelings of social rejection, isolation and even depression instantly snap to attention, alas. (Of all addicts, gamblers perhaps best know -- intuitively -- the bipolar seductions of this paradoxical plus/minus algorithm.)

Add to all this device-driven amygdala activity the customary hormonal urges & desires & constant messaging that occur within teens that they act out. Hoo-boy! that kind of cocktail mix can be not just volatile and stupefying but can cause permanent damage quickly, research tells us.

Production hi-lites that add to the script : Ruth Bruhn's brick high school outdoor playground wall as backdrop coupled with Elizabeth Wellwood's various contemporary costumes and her oh-so-clever sound design embrace one another symbiotically. Together they generate the proper gestalt for all the suspicion and angst and instantly-changing emotions that run riot in this script. Eminently capable cast blocking, voice-work and emotive highlights are elicited well from the actors by 30-year GTT artistic director Patrick McDonald. The dramatic result evinced by the trio is haunting and unsettling. Just as designed.

Acting pin-spots : Together the three 20-something actors pull off being 16-year-olds with fetching and winning allure. (During the talk-back they confessed this was the toughest part of their assignment.) As Moira, Elizabeth Barrett had the most challenging emotional role. Her becoming "woke" to women's victimization -- worst of all at the hands of one of her BFF's -- was commanding and potent. "Why when men behave badly do women get blamed?" she asks more than once. 

Nathan Kay's Simon was one-part nerd, one-part naif, one-part typical male chauvinist. He revealed an almost too-easy access to ego-driven retaliation and payback. His falsely thinking that friend Moira was starting to hot-up to him -- instead of theirs being a strictly platonic friendship -- was the result of myriad texts, selfies, emoji's and offhand teen lingo : the prospect of their agreeing to go on a "date" completely threw him over.

As he did in Satellite(s) last fall, Mason Temple once more showed growing emotional capacity as a young actor. Gotta say his rage attack at close chum Moira when the dance was canceled was a shock due to its suprising over-the-top vehemence. But it was scripted thus and he was directed so.

Who gonna like :  On a continent where wee tots and high schoolers alike are wantonly slaughtered en masse, a play about the broad topic "communication" & cyberbullying may seem slightly tardy. But Porgy sang "It ain't necessarily so." Because violence begins with words. And communication is neither an abstract nor a toy. Not a toy despite how our myriad devices might have us believe so given all their playful-seeming apps. But once out there in cyberspace it's all for real and forever no matter how contrived or fake. How perverse.

So. Rachel Aberle's script asks, implicitly, how to get people to understand that every nanosecond they choose their very thoughts and emotions. Choose. An active verb. Choice. The results. It always comes down to that. 

Plus, Aberle warns, the fact the old adage "Actions speak louder than words" is not true. Because our words now are so instantly permanent out in cyberspace. Words and the images we so whimsically and gleefully and cheekishly append to them now are actions. 

Ms. Aberle's reflections on how one achieves personal agency and integrity in such a world will never likely be delinquent or untimely or irrelevant. Her script The Code is a powerful reminder of this.

Particulars :  Written by Rachel Aberle.  Produced by Green Thumb Theatre.  On tour performances at various mainland and Vancouver Island high schools this spring.

Production team : Director Patrick McDonald.  Assistant Director Bronwyn Carradine.  Stage Manager Tessa Gunn.  Set Designer Ruth Bruhn.  Costume/Sound Designer Elizabeth Wellwood. Interim Tour & Education Manager Amy Lynn Strilchuk.

Performers :  Elizabeth Barrett (Moira).  Nathan Kay (Simon).  Mason Temple (Connor).  

Addendum : A Note from the Playwright by Rachel Aberle

It feels to me that we are in the middle of a global conversation about consent. About what it is, how you define it, how one obtains it, and the intense and dire ramifications of what can happen when things happen without it.  think this is good -- it's an important conversation, especially for young women and men to have as they begin to engage in their own relationships -- romantic or otherwise.

What strikes me about the current conversation however, is that it feels reactionary. It feels like something we talk about after something bad has already happened -- like a report of harassment or assault. With The Code, I wanted to roll that conversation back earlier in a relationship, to before anything irreversible has taken place. Specifically, I wanted to look at how seemingly healthy and positive relationships can fall apart when communication breaks down.

So I wrote a show about friendship, and about what happens when people have different ideas about the nature of their friendship. Our main characters, Simon and Moira, are best friends -- but Simon has been secretly hoping that they will become more. When Simon suggests that he and Moira go to the Spring Dance together and she says 'yes', Simon is over-the-moon to be going on his first official date with Moira. But when it becomes clear that she thought he meant they'd go as friends, their friendship starts to break down. The two of them fight over whether she misled him or he misinterpreted her, and it becomes clear that everything he's put into their friendship, the energy and care, has been -- in his mind -- an investment. When de doesn't receive a return on that investment, he feels like it's all been a waste of time.

I can't tell you the number of times in my life I've heard someone complain about feeling like they've been stuck in the "friend-zone". But is romance ever a fair thing to feel entitled to. How do we deal with rejection when it comes? In a situation where one person feels led on, but the other feels misinterpreted, who is right?

It's important to note that I don't think Simon is wrong to feel hurt. Handling rejection is really hard, and finding out that someone you like doesn't feel the same way about you is painful. The question is -- what do we do with that pain? How do we navigate the bumps in a relationship without doing things we regret?

The questions this play prompts are tricky. There is no easy answer tony of them, but I think that's the point. It's only having these complex and sometimes uncomfortable conversations that we can begin to move forward.


Saturday, 17 February 2018

Saltwater Moon a taffy-tug of love
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: 1926 Newfoundland. When it was its own country with dominion over its people and their life opportunities. Thousands dreamt of escape from The Rock to go see the lights of big-city T-O. Most who left never came back. Some who stayed had guilt, others felt grief and held grievances against those who fled.

Such is the backdrop of this love story, one of playwright David French's quintet of "Mercer stories" -- the tales of two generations of a former Newfie family who opted for Canada and struggled to make-do. This is a flashback chapter to some previously-produced Toronto stories of the Mercer clan that take place a couple decades hence.

Mary Snow (Mayko Nguyen) lights up the blue star of Vega for the man she's not sure she loves anymore Jacob Mercer (Kawa Ada) in this Romeo-&-Juliet with a happy-ending script.
Photo credit Joseph Michael

The show is magnificently simple and timeless : how love, actually, can manage to blossom, wilt, then rebloom between two feisty proud teens. Errant Jacob Mercer has returned to Coley's Point in Conception Bay to claim his true love Mary Snow he abandoned for Toronto. Left spontaneously, whimsically, more break-out than break-up. He has returned a year later almost as offhandedly and instinctively as he left -- once he heard from Mom, that is.

Mary, of course, has meanwhile resigned herself to a lifetime of local outpost living. Resignedly she engaged herself to balding, pipe-sucking high school teacher Jerome Mackenzie. He has introduced her to astronomy. She may have stars in her eyes, but Jacob meanwhile can barely suppress a blood grudge he holds against Jerome's dad Will. Has he come home to win back Mary's love or get even with Jerome's dad ?

How it's all put together : This is not a Gateway mount, it's a traveling road show brought west by Toronto's Why Not Theatre in a production by Factory Theatre. WNT's artistic director Ravi Jain quotes Kenyan dramatist Ngugi we Thiongo to proclaim "alternative visions of existence" are the "bedrock" of everything WNT produces.  E.g. whereas playwright French's 1984 script had precise set, costuming, and stage directions for Toronto's mainstream actors, Jain goes one better. In the opposite direction. His teen lovers Snow and Mercer (1) are non-white actors Mayko Nguyen as Mary and Kawa Ada as Jacob, and (2) they don't even try to fake Newfie accents. They are universal, not provincial.

Jain also strips the show of its detailed sets, of the usual telescopes that squinch down the sky's constellations as well as the called-for formal costumes -- all of which playwright French detailed meticulously in the script's margins. For costumes the cast wear the kind of day-to-day kick-around duds like they might sport just hanging out. But all the other complex set and stage directions are not lost completely. 

"Please join me...!" Jacob Mercer pleads of Mary Snow whom he jilted by walking out on her to  "escape" to Tornto a year before. 
Photo credit Joseph Michael
Because Jain introduces a narrator for the show, singer / guitarist Ania Soul who is perched upstage right on a music stool and recites French's script details off her Manhasset songsheet stand. Thus we learn the house is 19th century. That it is near the great big sea "to make easy access to the waters where they make their living". That Mary is designed to be get up in "a short-sleeved yellow satin dress".

And because the stars are so central to the plot and set, obviously they've got to be here. But in a nifty visual and thematic reversal, their brilliance emit from a dorado of slow-burn candles on the stage deck -- from the earth up instead of from the heavens down. And in a nearly 10-minute zen ritual while Soul sings to open the show, Mary draws long-neck matches delicately, almost reverently, out of a paper caisson. Ever-so-slowly and touchingly she sparks the 40+ tapers that have star power here.

Music alights with stars afoot as Jacob and Mary search out each other's hearts to the backdrop musical muse of Ania Soul behind. 
Photo credit Joseph Michael.

Production values that hi-lite the script : The stripped-bare minimalist stage design by Mr. Jain is inspired. It draws the audience's rapt attention to the dialogue and the nuanced interplay of the lovers with Ms. Soul as their muse and balladeer. Stage directions introduced as monologue. Clever !

WNT's resident production manager Kayleigh Krysztofiak designed a high-low sword-play of spotlights whose effect is as magical as it is simple. 

Blocking for the cast, for its part, is a study in understated rich intimacy. While Ms. Soul reads out the complex stage directions and the details Mr. French wished to see play out on the boards, the actors often remain as if frozen in aspic there but for their telling dialogue and facial expression.

Acting pin-spots :  Talk about equals. Ms. Nguyen and Mr. Ada are a perfect complement. As mentioned : Feisty. Stubborn. Righteous. But such delight to be had in Jacob's ironic commentary and playful toying with Mary about Jerome and his claim to be potent as well as the mythical? maybe? girlfriend Rose-of-Sharon in Toronto who he took to see Tom Mix movies. 

For her part Ms. Nguyen as Mary was punchy and proud and persuasive in her reluctance to re-engage, as it were, with the smart-ass folk-singer heartthrob Jacob. 

Balladeer / narrator Ms. Soul lived up to her name. Her humming aria during Mary's tale of her sister Dot sequestered in St. John's in some sort of girls' residential dormitory was elite stuff. My goodness.

Who gonna like : Are you a romantic? Did Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet smack your heart? Did you ever have a teen crush / love that you may wonder -- somewhat hopelessly and forlorn and melancholy on a blue Monday -- Was that the true love of my life? 

Even if these markers aren't quite on, this is one of the most charming shows I have seen in some time. Ravi Jain was ingenious & visionary & consumed with insight to mount this old David French / Mercer family chestnut in such a compelling and refreshing way. 

While faithful readers know I am a big fan of gritty gut-biting theatre, Gosh! it was nice to be swept away this afternoon by such an expressive and absorbed troupe & their take on this classic script. I would do this all over in a heartbeat. 

And -- btw -- I'd happily go again if for no other reason than to witness anew Mayko Nguyen's zen candle-lighting ceremony / celebration done to Ania Soul singing "I could cry me an ocean / It was all in my head / My heart asked me why?" : amazing how such simple bits of live theatre can grab one and not let go.

Particulars :  Script by David French.  Produced by Factory Theatre on tour with Why Not Theatre. At the Gateway mainstage in Minoru Park through February 24th. On at Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond thru February 24, 2018. Tickets & schedule information via box office phone @ 604.270.1812 or on-line @ Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission.

Production crew : Director Ravi Jain. Lighting Designer & Production Manager Kayleigh Krysztofiak. Stage Manager Tamara Protic.  

Performers : Kawa Ada (Jacob Mercer).  Mayko Nguyen (Mary Snow).  Ania Soul (Music & Narration).


Thursday, 15 February 2018

Fun Home a sad, fun musical photo album
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 footlightsPersonally I prefer graphic novelist Alison Bechdel's original subtitle to her 2006 book of memoirs -- A Family Tragicomic -- to what Lisa Kron has called her 2013 stage play adaptation, A Coming-of-Age Musical. Kron scripted the book and lyrics for the 27 songs tunesmith Jeanine Tesori wrote for the 2015 Broadway production. And the two were the first all-woman tag-team to ever win a Tony Award for best musical score. So maybe I'm a half-note or more flat on this.

Alison (Sara-Jeanne Hosie) will spend her entire adult life as a lesbian looking for the keys to unlock her upbringing in Pennsylvania after her gay father suicided her second semester at Oberlin College.
Photo credit David Cooper
But the reason I prefer "family tragicomic" is because it conjures up tasty synonyms such as "melodramatic" and "burlesque" and the elegant "harlequinade". A host of theatrical antics most of us can relate to when reflecting back on various instants in our own family histories. "A coming-of-age musical" is so blasĂ© it captures to-a-T such comparatively easy and anodyne scripts as Peter Pan and Avenue Q.

But mere quibble. Fact is Bechdel's story is of smalltown rural Pennsyvania. Her coming-of-age is code for a gal who comes out and embraces her lesbian spirit in 1979 at age 19. What makes her autobiography so compelling is that along the way she learns that her father -- the local undertaker as well as high school English teacher -- is gay. Dad is destined to have his life snuffed out in a heartbeat by a truck roaring along rural Route 150 four months later at age 44. No note left. But on the heels of mom filing for divorce and Alison's coming out, suicide seems to fit. So the show is how Alison comes of age in the telling of this tragicomic tale.

How it's all put togetherAkin to the original novel, the musical is here in its Canadian premiere. It tells its story from three age-perspectives. Small Alison (Jaime MacLean), Medium Alison (Kelli Ogmundson) and grown-up Alison (Sara-Jeanne Hosie). Among their dialogue and songs they spin out the saga of how life played out for Alison on Maple Avenue in Lock Haven, PA starting about 1968 or so when she was in grammar school.

The three Alisons join together in the finale "Flying away" that sums up on many levels what growing up and losing our parents -- in order to find ourselves -- is all about.
Photo credit David Cooper
Reading about the script I was put-to-mind of Kentucky novelist Walker Percy's indelible line from Love in the Ruins about family histories : "What must be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past, the past that is gone and grieved over and never made sense of." The ambiguity families are stuck with. The confusion. The opaqueness. The paradoxes. 

Indeed, how does a daughter coming out in Ronald Reagan's America embrace the realities of her Roman Catholic upbringing, her distant teacher/actress mom Helen (Janet Gigliotti), a life shared funnin' as a kid with two brothers (Glen Gordon & Nolen Dubuc) and her "gay" and loving but obsessive-compulsive tyrannical dad Bruce (Eric Craig) whose former students are often the objects and targets of his lust.

Director Lois Anderson probably sums it all up best : "A tension exists between a daughter coming out, coming of age, flying, soaring, and her father simultaneously falling, spinning, plummeting, much like a modern-day Icaraus." 

What the show brings to the stage : The title suggests the chumminess of a state fair pavilion or a circus sideshow. Perhaps a traveling carny's hall of mirrors. In truth the expression was the family's easy and ironic abbreviation for the family funeral home dad inherited from Gramps and runs on-the-side in their small town of less than 10,000 souls.

Brothers Christian (Glen Gordon) and John (Nolan Dubuc) ham it up doing a mock-funeral home advertising schtick with sister Alison (Jaime MacLean) called "Come to the Fun Home" during their more innocent days as kids.
Photo credit David Cooper
So memory witnessed through a glass darkly is what Alison struggles with as she tries to grapple and pin-to-the-mat the complex emotions she is now dealing with. Sketching out one of her panels she suggests in straightforward (glib? awkward?) fashion the following as caption to accompany her cartoon : "Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist." 
The word "became" embraces a continuum. And it is along and amidst that continuum of space-&-time we witness the family in their various stages of age, personality, and pathos. But also their fun, their friendly jibes, their fanciful moments. All of which is what family is, family does.

"Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children" is an early Kron / Tesoro ironic piece. A later song is "Let me introduce you to my gay dad". The show ends with Alison's poignant "This is what I have of you" sketches followed by all three Alisons harmonizing in the "Flying away" finale about their dad Bruce that on opening night was a show-stopper. Particularly Alison's ultimate epiphany : "Every so often there was a moment of perfect balance / When I soared above him."

Production values that hi-lite the script : Amir Ofek's set is rich and smart, a wonderful exploitation both visually and mechanically of the Granville Island stage. From its tapestry wallpaper to its crown mouldings 15 feet above, the baby grand piano, the velvet Victorian furniture, the overhead chandelier and the Tiffany table lamps, it clutches and encompasses the senses but also leaves enough open space to serve dutifully as Fun Home's embalming chamber, a college dorm room and a NYC crash-pad during USA's bi-centennial year celebrations. 

Effectively lit -- the back-lighting particularly -- by Alan Brodie plus faithful period costumes by Amy McDougall. Orchestra excellence the night through in modulation and crisp execution but also from its cello and violin solo riffs : together the players added a wealth of audial value to the evening's enjoyment.

Still and all the primary production value hands-down is the exceptional musicality -- songs & lyrics both -- by Team Tesori-&-Kron. Their cadences and harmonies and syncopated solos and tuneful stories are gripping, imaginative and utterly evocative of the powerful emotions mostly "at work" here -- every now and then, thank god, "at play".  

This is how one makes a musical out of subject matter as unique and idiosyncratic as Bechdel's A Family Tragicomic.  Words and notes tripping blithely and neurotically and compellingly over one another : the bitter reprise of "Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue" by Mom was superb, as was "Ring of keys" by Small Alison, each song both startling and wondrous.

Acting pin-spots : Chief narrator is Sarah-Jeanne Hosie as Alison the 43-year-old looking back on her childhood, her coming out, her dad and his pent-up and deep-rooted homosexuality. Director Lois Anderson's blocking and staging of Hosie was wholly effective as she hovered above and among her younger selves -- Jaime MacLean as "Small" and Kelli Ogmundson as "Medium" -- who filled in the necessary narrative details at Senior's feet with vigorous imagination and creative flow. 

As dad Bruce, Eric Craig was stunning in his grasp of being a repressed Rotarian Roman Catholic in a small Pennsylvania town back in the day. He knew as a high school sophomore in 1950 that his sexual and emotional urges would be trained, lifelong, on the male gender. The social demands for Dad Bruce to "go through the motions" as a married man brought out a bi-polar interpretation of the role that reflected tremendous nuance. 

His sad suicide may have provided him relief from how mis-fit he was for his time-&-place. But understandably no end of angst and anger and agony for daughter Alison such that she would have to be nearly his age before she could finally, frontally, confront her family's fateful truths. 

Who gonna like : A more neutral word than "homophobic" for people who prefer traditional interpersonal and sexual and married relationships is "heteronormative", the academics instruct us. Viewers who consider themselves members of that cadre would likely find Fun Home anything but. 

But for others in search of a marvellous and superior and utterly phenomenal theatrical evening, the Tesori/Kron music-&-lyrics-&-storyline collaboration is colossal and monumental entertainment. Its imaginative reach made as profound an impact on me in 2018 as Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story did when it exploded onto the silver screen in 1961. Fun Home is freakishly good stuff. 

Particulars : From the original graphic novel written & cartoon'd by Alison Bechdel. Book & lyrics by Lisa Kron.  Music by Jeanine Tesori. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Granville Island Theatre.  On until March 10, 2018Run-time 100 consecutive minutes,no intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Lois Anderson.  Musical Director Jonathan Monro. Set Designer Amir Ofek.  Costume Designer Amy McDougall.  Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Assistant Stage Manager Koh McRadu.

Orchestra : Niko Friesen (Percussion). Sarah Ho (Violin, viola). Jonathan Monro (Conductor, piano).  Laine Longton (Cello). [Plus performers below as noted adding their chops.]

Performers :  Mike WT Allen (Sailor; Diner; reeds).  Eric Craig  (Bruce Bechtel).  Nolen Dubuc (John Bechdel).  Nick Fontaine  (Roy; Mark; Peter,; Bobby; Jeremy; bass).  Janet Gigliotti (Helen Bechdel).  Glen Gordon (Christian Bechdel).  Sarah-Jeanne Hosie (Alison [adult]). Jaime MacLean (Small Alison).  Kelli Ogmundson  (Medium Alison).  Sarah Vickruck (Joan; guiitar).