Thursday 11 February 2016

4000 Miles probes matters of the heart

N.B. This is a redux review of this play due to BLR's inability to cover each and every production in Metro Vancouver, nevermind those taking their show on the road.  4000 Miles "On Tour" by ACT will play in the towns listed below. Because the principals in the production are the same as in the Fall of 2014, I am re-issuing the comments made when I saw this remarkable script and performance at that time. 

Script overview : 4000 Miles puts me to mind of T.S. Eliot's 1917 assessment of  the human condition in his Essay on Hamlet 

"...[T]he ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. [He] falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet, these are always forming new wholes."

Life, for most of us, is a series of rather mundane day-to-day activities punctuated by the odd "significant event" : a DUI conviction; loss of our job; cataclysmic illness; the suicide of a loved one, those sorts of events.

4000 Miles is not, in Eliot's lens, "poetry" by a long shot. But it does succeed in sparking our interest in two of its four characters. A 91-year-old ex-Communist fellow traveler and her 21-year-old wide-eyed ingenue of a grandson who's cycled to Greenwich Village from Seattle. He shows up unannounced at Granny's at 3 a.m. His biking companion is absent, somewhat spookily. Mom Jane is mad at him -- he's been incommunicado since Minneapolis, no cell-phone, thanks, I'm a greenie. Girl friend Bec in Manhattan is aloof and distant and spinning toward break-off. 

Mundane? Absolutely. Still, one hopes the play will explore "the gap" -- that wondrous space where truth lies between the words, between the generations, between the neediness of a newby adult and the wise perspectives of the wizen'd family matriarch who mentors him.

On surface, this is cliche stuff for sure. No "forming new wholes" here, rather a stereotypical Jewish bubbeh playing off her neurotic and spoilt grandson, and he her. But as both Lao Tzu and musician John Cage have taught us, maybe we'll learn from the silences that give notes their meaning, or the dark that reveals the purpose of the moon as Tom Robbins mused. Perhaps this will be a play that lacks dramatic arc but compensates for it in some Pinter-esque scenes of commonplace jabber set off by sighs and pregnant silences. 

Caveat emptor : Perhaps, you will note, is what I suggested. Well, it turns out not so much. While very capably directed by Vancouver favourite Roy Surette, this 2011 script by Yale MFA grad Amy Herzog is a two-person character study. No sense mincing words. As grandma Vera (Latin root : truth), Vancouver stage maven Nicky Cavendish has laser-perfect comic timing. 

Famous across the land for her Shirley Valentine and It's Snowing on Saltspring pedigree, Cavendish is reason alone to head to the ACT On Tour venues just to watch her bust her chops on this role, far and away Herzog's most capable character in the piece (based, she freely admits, on her own bubbeh).

Grandson Leo (Nathan Barrett) commands the majority of lines, perhaps, but as a character his is nearly 100% a caricature of a person instead due to Herzog's depiction. While one might have expected a charming "growing up / growing old" dynamism to unfold, instead we get an extremely capable and competent and engaging Nathan Barrett playing out a neo-hippy role that is one-dimensional throughout : a 21-year-old narcissist who is not only self-absorbed, he utterly lacks insight; a rationalizer; a blamer; an "I'm the way I am because of..." other people who annoy me, events I think control and offend me, anything but because "I choose to be this way because I'm an out-&-out schlub.

E.g. this is a schlub whose cycling partner and long-time friend Micah gets killed in Kansas and Leo doesn't even bother to make it to his funeral in Minnesota. He cycles on, in his own space lit.& fig. A brother of an adopted Chinese sister, Lilly, he has serious sexual urgings toward her that he acted on while under peyote's grasp but later dismisses. She's a sister, sure, but she doesn't share my DNA markings so I'm free to wonder during a curious Skype moment with her why she might be in therapy over my lust for her. A night club hustler who brings home a Chinese party-girl because she reminds him of his sister. This Leo is no lion. Er ist kein mensch is how it might be said in Yiddish. And he's pretty well 98% cub, still, by play's end.

Don't get scared off !  Now if all this sounds like advocacy to not go see 4000 Milesthat is far from my intent. The Herzog script is rich in its depiction of Vera who sports a host of delicious idiosyncracies : she's at war with her neighbour Ginny but they call each other nightly to check in; she believes in community, but forgives men and their flawed role in it "because men do things out of stupidity more than anything else, not maliciousness"; she loves grandson Leo desperately even as she chides him : "You should listen to yourself because you really sound very stupid, you really do!" 

Cavendish commands the stage with every pat of Leo's laundry, every tap of her barefoot toes, every kick at some bag or shoe carelessly left in her way by the self-absorbed Millennials underfoot. Watching her work is a seminar in classic character immersion and you can't help but love her and want to take her home.

Meanwhile go see Leo to provide yourself a check-list of nearly every quality you don't want your children or grandchildren to wind up with. Because still it is a clever schtick of all those "qualities" that Mr. Barrett delivers, after a shaky opening scene, with wonderful control : he leaps and pirhouettes and hand-flutters and races about and cross-legs himself on Granny's couch or floor with utter and convincing buy-in. To come away disliking this persona as much as I did speaks volumes of the character's (possibly unintended) success.

Other production values :  Set and costume designer Barbra Matis deserves well-earned kudos for her dress-up of granny Vera -- straight from Jones Tent & Awning. Her set is redolent of mothballs and mold -- befitting a 1960's rent-controlled NYC apartment -- replete with crocheted patchwork afghan, worn velvet rocker and ottoman, pedestal dining table and great wall phone with a 5-meter springy cord.

Lighting designer Conor Moore provides terrific illumination, spot-on "pensioner" 40-watt table lamps plus back-lit floor-to-ceiling curtain'd windows.

My only kvetch with sound designer Peter Cerone is his choice of an up-tempo and chirpy version of Bob Dylan doing Like A Rolling Stone to open the show, rather than the more edgy existential original. He should have taken the recording from a scratchy vinyl version off the landmark "Highway 61 Re-Visited" album i.m.o. Fun to hear all those other "commie" cuts from back-in-the-day, though.

One directorial glitch : Not only in Roy Surette's direction here, but in a majority of main-stage productions in Vancouver I discern a tendency on the part of directors / actors to put undue emphasis on swear words. Not sure why. Here's a generic example : if in irritation a character's scripted line is "Would you just get the fuck out of my face ferchrissakes?", it likely as not will come out as "Would you just get the fuck out of my face ferchrissakes?" Except for Ms. Cavendish, actors Barrett (Leo), Ella Simon (Bec) and Agnes Tong (Amanda) are each guilty of this minor syntactical niggle. Please. Let the ear render speech as it's sung on the street, folks. 

Who gonna like :  My 21-year-old daughter who joined me loved Nicky Cavendish because she reminded her of her own late Nana who was also 70 years her senior, same as Vera and Leo. And she didn't "like" Leo much, but she thought his acting was first-rate. The majority of seniors in the crowd hooted and clapped and cheered at all the comic Vera lines and clearly marvel'd at the Cavendish performance. Lots of standing-o folks at the end. 

Particulars :  Written by Amy Herzog.  An ACT's On Tour production.  Run-time 120 minutes including intermission.  On at the noted venues / dates until March 12th.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning the theatres listed supra.

Production team :  Director Roy Surette.  Set & Costume Designer Barbra Matis.  Original Lighting Designer Luc Prairie.  Adapted Lighting Designer Conor Moore.  Tour Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Stage Manager Rick Rinder.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.

Performers : Nathan Barrett (Leo).  Nicola Cavendish (Vera).  Ella Simon (Bec).  Agnes Tong (Amanda).

Venues, dates & phone ticket office contact numbers :

Maple Ridge, The ACT Arts Centre,  February 13th.  604.476.2787

North Vancouver, The BlueShore at Cap, February 16th.  604.990.7810

Surrey, Surrey Arts Centre, February 17-27.  604.501.5566

Coquitlam, Evergreen Cultural Centre, March 1-5.  604.927.6555

West Vancouver, The Kay Meek Centre, March 7-8th.  604.981.6335

Burnaby, Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, March 10-11th.  604.205.3000 

Mission, Clarke Theatre, March 12th.  1.877.299.1644


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