Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Go for a spin with SPIN : not dizzying and very clever

The spin on SPIN playing through Saturday at the Cultch Historical room is this : creator Evalyn Parry spins a nice factoidal yarn about when bike spins were all the rage 120 years back before Model A Fords drove them off the road. More than that : the subject is women and how bikes and bloomers and suffragettes and temperance and advertising all met at the intersection of late 19th century America.

Parry does so primarily in song, but also through free verse poetry, black-&-white psychedelia screen projections and a bike -- her muse -- that’s hung on a mechanic’s rack and ingeniously mic’d up for Brad Hart to thrum and strum and percuss with fervor.

Parry likes double entendre and homonyms a lot for their wordplay, starting right off with a number that says what's about to come is “Two-Wheeled Words To Wield Words”. A bit arch, that. Still, the history lesson to daughter and me last night was clearly a case of  “Who knew…?”

Entering the theatre, we were drawn to a backlit screen that features a Sarah Bernhardt quote which did some quick turns in our heads : “The bicycle is on the way to transforming our way of life more deeply than you might think. All these girls and women who are devouring space are refusing domestic family life,” she said in 1896. Women "refusing domestic family life" in 1896...?!

From there the story pedals forward quickly to the primary subject of the evening’s drama, one “Annie Londonderry”, who famously circumnavigated the earth in 1894-1895 in 15 months. This she did reportedly in response to a wager between two Bostonian rakes whether a (“mere”) woman could do this. The prize was to be $10,000, a swack of dough back in the day.

And how did Annie fund her around-the-world slog on a one-speed ? Selling advertising she pinned to her cycling outfit – word-spins to finance the bike-spins. Even her name morphed from Anne Cohen Kopcovsky to Annie Londonderry because she got $100 from the Massachusetts-based Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company to sport their advert on her bike and change her name to promote their product.

The tale Parry tells is a case of Around The World In 80 Days meets Annie Get Your Gun and its signature song, Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better. Decades later when he caught wind of this unusual branch in the family tree, grandnephew Peter Zheutlin did the research on Annie and reported thus in the Christian Science Monitor in August, 2006 :

“…[T]he bicycle was Annie’s means of escape from a life constrained by 19th-century expectations of women. By age 18 she was married and had one child; when she left to cycle the world in 1894, she had three young children and a job selling ads for several Boston newspapers. Her husband, Max, was a devout Jew who made a modest living as a peddler. The bicycle, she hoped, would also be her ticket to fame and fortune. For a woman of that era to leave her husband and young children was unimaginable; to do so to bicycle the world was utterly radical…A consummate self-promoter, and a skillful creator of her own myth, Annie became a global celebrity, her adventures reported by newspapers from San Francisco to Saigon and Chicago to Shanghai. Her genius was to seize on the major social phenomenon of her day. The 1890’s was the height of a bicycle craze in the US and Europe [BLR note: 2 million bikes were sold in USA in 1897, one in 30 Americans owned one.]. The women’s movement was in full force, and the bicycle, said Susan B. Anthony, ‘has done more to emancipate women than anything else in history.’”

To tell this story on stage, Parry and Hart worked assiduously to morph Hart’s 1972 CCM Galaxie that he years before had retired to Parry’s basement into a musical instrument to accompany Parry on her electric guitars. Enter the world of piezos thanks to sound designer Anna Friz -- electronic gizmos to generate vibrations that kick to a mixer and make the CCM’s spokes, pedals, saddle and frame a one-man band of intriguing electro-sound even stranger but as clever as anything one might hear on Laurie Brown’s CBC show The Signal.

Over the course of the 80 minute performance Parry’s yarn links a history of women’s clothing and the expression ‘bloomers’ from one Amelia Bloomer, a publisher, in 1850;  how suffragette and temperance advocate Frances Willard came to write a book on cycling techniques for women wannabes;  how cycling allowed women back then “to be free to move their political legs”;  how "Sex sells" was jumped at : e.g. in 1896 via the new printing artform of lithographs the Gladiator Cycle company of Montmartre, Paris featured nude women with racy red hair flying with their bikes -- 90% of which were bought by men of course. (A celebrant of her own and others' "queer" orientation as she calls it, Parry wonders aloud whether Willard was a "pre-outed gay".)

Because life imitates art, just as art imitates life, Parry shills her CD’s and T-shirts shamelessly about 2/3 the way through the show. But no matter, to this ear : so did Annie, and the fact is artists always have to market their creativity to live. “We are the merchandizing overlords of our own merchandizing world in a phantasy of freedom,” Parry monologues. She then closes the show and links these various musings by quoting a letter written to her by Annie’s granddaughter Mary.  

Mary states that Annie’s leaving her three young children with their dad Max all due to the reported “wager” was not championed by the family. Parry surmises more likely the wager angle to justify her jaunt was simply “the first story Annie told just to get out of the house”.  Mary relates that the emotional impact of Annie's round-the-world adventure on Max and the kids and later the grandkids was not healthy, even after Annie "re-nested" and moved the family to New York upon returning from her trip. For a short time thereafter she wrote features for the N.Y. World promoting her "new woman" values, but Wiki reports Annie died unheralded and “in obscurity” in 1947. Still, Parry’s closing song asserts her own abiding worldview regardless : “Don’t give up on anything / One might miss the miracle.”

Director Ruth Madoc-Jones orchestrates tight sequencing in the theatrical montage that SPIN is. Projectionist / lighter / production designer Beth Kates pulls terrific technical values together : the 19th century women cycling in full dresses and corsets around pylons was worth more than 1,000 words. Production manager and technical director Charissa Wilcox earned every shekel keeping the production moving along apace. Brad Hart had thrilling riffs playing the Galaxie. Parry's voice and lyrics and spoken poetry bounce well off the Cultch walls to engaged ears.

This show will appeal, obviously, to cyclists; to historians interested in the connect between bloomers and bikes and the dream of emancipation a century back; and to folks who relate to clever stories spun out with head and heart and humour. 


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