Wednesday 7 May 2014

RIP! needs to rip through its riffs, not wander

Quicky overview : Axis Theatre's RIP! A Winkle in Time at the Waterfront until May 17 is an energetic pastiche of various stage actions lumped together and captured by what a stage-play lexicon would likely call "physical theatre". Its primary design feature is all its vigorous blocking, choreography and, telle surprise, the very physicality of the actors mounting the event. Dialogue in physical theatre is often thrown in as a bit of an add-on or afterthought. Not so in the Axis production, however. Words chase words here faster than Laurel could chase Hardy.

Riffing on Washington Irving's famous Rip Van Winkle story, this Rip (Randall Irving Parson) has been asleep for the last 117 years, not just 20, and the action's set in Canada's Gold Rush Yukon Territory not New York's Catskills. To escape his "battle-axe" wife Flora for awhile, Rip goes hunting for fauna in 1897 outside his Yukon town of 500 souls. He meets up with ghosts from the ill-fated Arctic Franklin Expedition of 50 years previously who entice him with a potion from an oak keg and promptly (well, slowly...) huck him into an ice cave after a too-long pilates-ish dance sequence to get him there. He slumbers on until 2014 when suddenly he awakens to Hoo-boy! a brave new world indeed. Biggest comic hook to signal the time-lapse focuses, of course, on an iPhone, its photo-capabilities, selfies and such -- Rip thinks it's a cigarette case people are talking into.

The words of co-directors Wayne Specht and Kathryn Bracht explain why the group known as the RIP! Creative Collective both aimed-&-shot somewhat long-&-wide of their artistic target for this script. Mr. Specht says that playwright KC Brown "took what became a bushel of images, musings, outrageous speculation and much more and wrote us a play that explores the 'What if' [theme] in a very unusual way." We agree on that. Bushels of stuff were stacked on top of one another, no question. For her part, Ms. Bracht says "It has been a crazy journey and I've found the trip to be wildly inventive, messy, and ultimately gratifying." On the first two adjectives we're in sync, not so much on the last. 

Admire as I always do the creativity and verve of stage folks, RIP! brings to mind the old comic of the convoluted schoolyard jungle gym designed by bureaucrats. It juts out willy-nilly in all directions up-down-over-around and would surely kill some poor bloke if used. All the schoolmarm asked for, meanwhile, was a truck tire at the end of a rope. 

Analogously, at 110 minutes of run-time, RIP! needed to rest in peace after 80-90 minutes max. Having said that, however, know that there are scads of redeeming moments and comic brilliance in the piece that drew giggles and guffaws aplenty from the appreciative albeit sparse Tuesday night crowd.

WYSIWYG : RIP! brings you Cirque du Soleil-ish acrobatics, puppeteering, dance, shadow play, slapstick schticks, silent film snippets, vaudeville, and music hall revue. Frankly these stage antics all worked out quite well indeed -- if a bit messy and chaotic at times -- thanks to the raw talent of their performers. But it was the prologue and exposition during what seemed an endless first act that needed not just snipping but wholesale amputation. 

The play opens with a Cirque trope : the stacking of opera chairs downstage left, up the actor proceeds to climb, nimbly, and cap it with a handstand. In RIP! the prop-purpose is to get the show's narrator, Moon (Annette Devick) to perch near a stylized full moon just above her head. Given the historic role of the moon in drama and the arts (lunar : lunacy : muse inspiration), the bit would have been fine thematically without the superfluous handstand. 

F.w.i.w. here's how I would have done that scene and carved off maybe 15 minutes in the process, to no ill-effect (to this viewer's eyes and ears anyhow).

After mounting the chairs, Moon would say, simply : "This is a story you know well but have never seen nor heard before. It's a modern-day Rip van Winkle take-off set in the Yukon in both 1897 and 2014 and has some wonderfully creepy Freudian moments of a 20-something bar hostess falling in love with a 147 year old man. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself a little bit here...".

Then through further clip-it dialogue we would learn that Rip's original land claim for gold in fin de siecle 19th century Yukon -- that great-great-grandson Rip IV now stewards in the 21st century -- has never been mined. That would involve watercourses, sluice boxes, sand screens. As with Irving's character, seems the generations of RvW's continue to be lovable laggards and sloths.

Meanwhile, in 2014, the Evergreen Corporation (hah, hah) wants to squeeze oil's black gold out of the claim instead of Au. And so the notional climate change / environment-slagging theme becomes the contempo thin thread that loosely stitches the 2014 story back to the original 1897 tale.

As both Moon and movie director Frankie, Devick turns in a stellar performance. Her training at the National Circus School in Montreal and recently in Russian clowning (apparently that's not a Putin oxymoron) show through every moment she's in the spotlight, particularly her rope-&-chase sequence pursuing Rip I. She's madly trying to snatch his wallet and capture its original claim-stake documents. If she sells the stake to Evergreen, they've promised her a culture centre and film studio for Parson City for her to be Creative Director of. She and Parson City will be on TripAdvisor and Yelp! and rich and famous and ohmygoshmygolly!

As Rip I, Stefano Giulianetti has just the right blend of Aw shucks Mr. Nice Guy, honour-driven values and affection for his faithful dog Wolf. Speaking of whom, Tara Travis is Wolf's puppeteer, but way more : her Lil / Lillian barkeep turns were utterly fun, as was her stage business stomping to keep her frozen feet warm. Her lines were sheer hokeyness. Simon Webb as Rip IV -- who is now both older and younger than his great-great-grandfather Rip I whom Lil is smitten by -- Webb gives folks a believable run at this somewhat baffled and bemused character. 

Production values : Naomi Sider's set, props and costumes all worked cleverly together, mixing the two epochs the action takes place in quite nicely. The upstage right 3-tier platform with saloon-y accents was a clever piece from which much of the action ran up-&-down. Choreographer Marlise McCormick must still be breathless from all the work she had her people do -- particularly during Devick's chase scenes -- but also the dance hall Parson City Follies routine that was pure fun to watch, as was most of the second act. Bob Buckley's mix of Bonnie-&-Clyde banjo with a singing-saw underscore pleased the ear nicely. Lighting designer Darren Boquist pulled off the moody Yukon landscape convincingly on the painted back-lit scrims. Except for the static northern lights at the end : if you've seen them in real-time you know they wave and roll and whoosh. Surely today's scenic technology could have managed to import such an effect for this show. 

Who gonna like : This is one for diehard fans of physical theatre and loyal Axis (Mime) Theatre patrons over the past four decades under the soon-to-retire Wayne Specht's guidance and inspiration. Knowing now the rough-cut plot, if a person were to attend only the 2nd act starting about 9:10 or so they'd no doubt come away quite entertained and feeling they'd got more than 50% of their money's worth. 


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