Wednesday 6 February 2013

Quirky soft-shoe on teen-age angst amuses

Try to imagine 90 minutes of campy stage play on the subject of six dead teenagers killed off in a traveling carny roller coaster crash. Wait! Don't be put off. Ride The Cyclone is an original and quirky and tuneful dramedy that will intrigue.

Fact is teen-age angst has always been mined for both its shallows and its depths, and RTC shows six kids' longings and hopes in a song-&-dance milieu. Originally a cabaret concept a couple years back on the Revue stage across the alley (I missed it !), it's now dressed up as the full-meal-deal at the larger G.I. mainstage. E.g. pre-recorded backtracks at the Revue have been shunted aside in favour of a live 4-piece band. The G.I. venue is perfect for a play of medium size that boasts a big ticket idea: in mass tragedy, the stories of individual victims get lost almost instantly. Playwright Jacob Richmond of Victoria's Atomic Vaudeville Theatre Company took it upon himself to imagine the "what" about six such "who's" who might otherwise blend into anonymity.

Asked by Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star why he chose to kill off six teenagers, Richmond replied: "The thing I like about adolescence is it's a very emotionally open kind of age. They don't have professions yet. They can only describe themselves in terms of their dreams...We all share a confusion as to what our purpose is. Do we even have a purpose at all? Would anyone notice if we just vanished? That's why I had them all killed off. I like the idea of a generation that just disappears."

RTC launches viewers onto an unlikely platform: the Catholic notion of purgatory -- that way-station people go to after death where it's decided whether one proceeds up to St. Peter or down to Beelzebub. Teen viewers, I reckon, will likely not even have heard of the p-word or know its origin. Or care much. No matter.

The storyline, amplified: the six teen victims are from Uranium, Saskatchewan from the St. Cassian Catholic School. A traveling carny show shambles through town. At the urging of Karnack the carny's automaton fortuneteller, the giddy kids pile into the roller coaster known as Cyclone. The coaster crashes at the apex of its upside-down rotation. But the kids don't quite die just yet. Because Vatican rules have them vault to purgatory first.

Enter Karnack (the name swiped from Johnny Carson's eponymous soothsayer). Karnack (via Carey Wass's live voice off-stage) offers each of the six kids a chance to compete to get flesh-&-blood life back instead of eternity: only one of them will win, to be selected by "unanimous consensus" [which this ex-bureaucrat knows is an oxymoron -- group decisions are either "unanimous" or by "consensus"].

So the conceit of RTC is for each of the actors to have to argue their case why they should be the one saved and not the others. This they do through autobiographic monologue followed by a song-&-dance number that trills their story while the other choir members act as their back-up troupe. Completely typical of dream sequences, each performer's gig embraces a legion of emotions -- the fears and passions and dashed hopes that death steals from youngsters.

First off is Ocean (Rielle Braid), half-Catholic half-Jewish uberstudent with a Reaganite energy lobbyist for a mom and a Marxist-Leninist for a dad. Please. This is a stretch, even in a musical. But Braid demonstrates Ocean's schizy ideas nicely, backed by some great face masques.

Next up is Uranium's only homosexual Noel (Kholby Wardell). Somewhat stereotypically, he's a gay who champions existentialist thought [life has no inherent meaning or purpose]. Meanwhile he dreams of being someone he calls Monique Chevaux, a cross-dressing hooker obsessed with kissing men in pre-WWII Paris -- as he says, a "hooker with a heart of black charcoal". His dance sequence with the Ukrainian rapper Misha is arguably the best choreography and the best drama in the show. "I want to be that fucked-up girl!" is Noel's eternal plea. Misha (Jameson Matthew Parker) responds when the women do a big "Uggh!" to his kissing Noel : "Just because I'm a gangsta don't make me into a homophobe, you bitches!" 

As proof, Misha longs for his Facebook lover in Ukraine whom he kids himself into believing resembles the elegant, jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Misha claims he has two emotions only : rage and passion. Rage is rage. But the passion sequence by choreographer Treena Stubel projects video dance shots onto the choir's costumes. More video of Misha's lover on a silk screen and then Misha fades off-stage to blend into the video himself. No doubt the visual highlight of the night.

Constance (Kelly Hudson) is fat, knows it, lives with it okay, hates the fact she has the reputation as "the nicest girl in the school" and destroys yearbook sentiments saying such. She has a love/hate jones for Ocean and her favourite expression is "Sorry!" She's the only one who can't imagine leaving Uranium where her parents own the Fatman Cafe (don't bludgeon us with over-obvious metaphor, JR). Unlike Noel who never lost his virginity and breathes heavy over that fact, Constance reveals that she did just before she launches off Cyclone. With a tattooed carny gofer -- in a porta-potty of all sexy places. Her joyous revelation of this is the play's best laugh.

Ricky Potts (Elliott Loran) is pure oddball schtick with an inner life from a sinister sci-fi comic book world, mute and lame sometimes, animated and chatty others, a mix at moments. Not unlike Squire Barnes.

Then there's Number Six, RTC's weirdest but arguably cleverest creation, Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer). So-named JD by the coroner because she was decapitated in the Cyclone accident and none of the other St. Cassian Chamber Choir singers can seem to recall who she was. But her body was found sporting a choir uniform, sans head. So she *must* be one of them, just not quite. In whiteface with eyes behind black scleral contact lenses, Jane disquiets the other five. She's a spook, a zombie, straight out of horror flix. But her voice is the most powerful and lyrical of all : her refrain of "Just tell me who I am!" is poignant capital-p.

Message or mirthful muse, RTC ? Yes. Richmond (son of director Brian Richmond and actor/director Janet Wright) offers up an Eckhart Tollean "Now" sub-text -- life is what it is in each precious moment, and even when cut short at 17 years it will have had meaning and purpose, more than what Karnack jokes at the start of the reincarnation contest : "The point is to purge yourself of this world." Richmond's script and co-director Britt Small's handprint demonstrate considerable dramatic insight into teen angst with wit and humour and profanity and naivete and flippant cynicism that are all charming in their mix.

Brook Maxwell's pastiche of musical genres in the cast's production numbers runs the gamut from swing to R-&-B to gospel to music-rap to Kurt Weill and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Capable showcasing and songsterism by all, but while Wardell and Braid ace it, Pelzer deuces everyone.

Ingrid Hansen's costumes are best in Ricky's sequence with his silverflash priapic leotards-&-cape when surrounded by the gaggle of space-galaxy kittens.

Treena Stubel's choreography was, in most of its bits, superb. But to this eye some of the blocking appeared a bit "rehearsed" and rote -- surely better than but vaguely reminiscent of my fumbling how to do a step-ball-change the last time I was on the boards in a Lerner-&-Lowe review in White Rock in 1980.  Still, mere quibble, that.  

This is youthful exuberance worth a look. New York is casting an eye on mounting RTC there, likely off- or off-off-Broadway if at all. The pending cross-Canada tour of this ensemble will help determine whether RTC will play in Peoria or places east or not.

Until February 16 only, then on to Edmonchuk.


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