Wednesday 29 April 2015

Midsummer a hoot even in French !

Background notes to solstice :  Saint Eligius (d. CE 659) is said to have warned early French Christians against "dancing, leaping or diabolical chants" on the summer solstice. Pagans built huge bonfires on Midsummer Night to drive away the evil spirits thought to roam freely about the fringes of the night when darkness took hold during its inexorable march toward winter. Shakespeare considered the Midsummer Night magical, as his play with its multiple revelries and goblins and faeries attests. And just a short while before The Bard's time one John Mirk of Shropshire noted ruefully : "At first, men and women came to church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long. In the process of time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery and gluttony turning the good, holy devotion into sin." The veil between good and evil is never so gossamer as on this particular night, he suggests.

A script & plot quicky : Clearly playwright David Greig had the morose Mr. Mirk's mischievous merrymakers in mind when he scripted the show he named Midsummer (A Play With Songs). What else could he have been thinking when in an Edinburgh wine bar he paired a hard-drinking adulteress divorce lawyer named Helena with an ex-wannabe rocker and once-upon-a-time high school year book editor who's now a petty bumbling crook named Bob. Both of these "likely candidates" are in their mid-30's, and they join fast and furious for a lost Midsummer Night week-end once Helena's married boyfriend stands her up. Wysiwyg : drunken revelry, a lengthy toss in the hay with a talking Elmo as witness, lots of vomit in a maid-of-honour dress, a bit of Japanese rope bondage, plus $15,000 stuffed into a tattered plastic shopping bag from the sale of a stolen pink Mazda convertible with Big Tiny Tam Callaghan in hot pursuit of Bob to get the dough before knocking him off. (Bob has other way-more-fun ideas how to spread Tam's criminal profits around Edinburgh.) If this isn't zany enough, what say we think about a life together after it all....

Oh. And a musical, too, you say. Well, not so much. More like a schmoozicle, a refreshing lollipop of a summer script even when performed in French by theatre L'Seizieme to this reviewer who knows not one word of French beyond bon jour. The music is incidental, lit. & fig. As the play's title suggests, more a play with songs that hi-lite the stage activity and dialogue.

What makes Greig's play (music by Gordon McIntyre) more than just a tuneful re-run of When Harry Met Sally that collides in the middle distance with Beautiful Losers ?  Because let's face it : 30-somethings adrift in an alienating and neurotic world -- mostly of their own idiosyncratic rendering -- is hardly new stage territory for North American audiences. Why would a 2015 crowd care whether these two misfits find a "happily ever after" ending of the kind Puck magically conjured for Shakespeare's criss-crossed lovers Helena and Demetrius? The show's director, Metteur en Scene Phillipe Lambert, is why. He draws every possible ounce of energy & wit & comic clout out of the show's two actors Isabelle Blais and Pierre-Luc Brilliant. And as a result the absurdity of their Midsummer Night week-end romp sucks us into its goofy and almost believable charm. 

Plot & dialogue cues : Booze creates bedmates. A time-honoured tradition over the centuries. Followed by hangovers, toilet bowl monologues, regret, and fond memories from people "dazed and dumbfounded from lost sleep". (N.B. These lyrics helpfully provided by an upstage scrim that scrolled the English being spoken and sung in French by Helena and Bob.) Telling each other they'll never see each other again, they chirp : "Give me tonight, give me a drink, then in the morning take it all away." And when morning comes they sing a hangover duet to one another : "If my hangover were a film it would be Greek with Czech subtitles", Bob moans. 

Interspliced with these scenes is Helena's sister's morning-after wedding that 6-time maid-of-honour Helena, the wretch, manages to miss. She hisses hussily at the locked chapel doors : "It's an internet date / I give 'em a year!" M. Brilliant does a very clever turn as Helena's nephew Brendan who's a bit o.c. and freaks when Aunty's vomity mess outside the church splashes on him. "Love breaks your heart / But basically that's what you want!" is the ballad of boffo bitterness Helena and Bob sing at each other three times during the show. And not to be forgotten is the hungover Bob's chitty-chat with his still-erect penis  from the night's gambol : "Bob, you and I are not young men anymore. Add our ages together and we're 70. I'm fed up with being in different beds in different places. Our adventuring days, they may be over." Then there's the show's theme that Bob sings at the end to his now-college-age soccer player son Aidan whom he'd abandoned as a teen-age dad : "We all come from the past and we are going towards the future. This is it, this is what happens. You are where you came from and you go where you go."

Production values : Not quite enough, probably, can be said for the tour de force performance Isabelle Blais gives as Helena. This is sheer raw talent afoot with eyes and facial expressions and singing voice which combined are wholly engaging and exciting, vomity scenes et al. Eminently capable on the guitar, she brings her mic'd up ukulele to an even deeper level of subtlety. As Bob (pron. "Bub", mostly a bit of a doofus-like "Boob"), Pierre-Luc Brilliant is largely the understated goof of wannabe \ has-been his part calls for. But not to be fooled : his Ha! routine during the mimed Japanese bondage scene coupled with his Nephew Brendan meltdown and his clever finger licks on guitar throughout the show betray a large and generous talent. 

Who gonna like : Gotta say it. While a francophile but no francophone, I and any other English mono-linguists were at a distinct disadvantage on opening night, the show's French production premiere in Vancouver (following mounts in Montreal and a tour across the land). Because this script is all about badinage, action and messages both wrapped up in lyrics -- sort of slam poetry meets two stand-up comics meets duets sung and spoken in riffs of dialogue and echo. These features are central, considerably moreso than the blocking and stage business and casual choreography. And with all the night-clubby haze effect, the scrolled English lyrics were at times hard to read. Still, the energy and antics of Ms. Blais and Mr. Brilliant overcame my francodeaf ear deficit. Probably 10 minutes too long at 100 minutes with no intermission, Midsummer is nevertheless some choice boutique small-stage acting writ large. 

Particulars : Written by David Greig. Music by Gordon McIntyre. Translation by Olivier Choiniere. A La Manufacture production with artistic direction from La Licorne presented by Theatre L'Seizieme at the Studio 16 stage, 1555 West 7th Avenue, through May 2nd, 8 p.m.  Go to for tickets -- site has English or Francais options --  or phone 604.736.2616. English subtitles Thursday & Saturday for this performance. 

Production crew : Director Phillipe Lambert.  Assistant to the Director Jean Gaudreau.  Costumes & accessories Josee Bergeron-Proulx.  Lighting Andre Rioux.  Musical arrangements Pierre-Luc Brilliant.

Performers : Isabelle Blais.  Pierre-Luc Brilliant.


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