Thursday 17 March 2016

The Out Vigil is coffee house cabaret charm

From the footlights :  A straightforward story on its face. A young fisherman desperate for money exits fish-lite Newfoundland, initially to tap into Fort Mac's once-rich tar sands future. No luck there : no skills at-hand to market. On a tip he heads to Alaska where he scores a last-minute king crab fishing gig in Dutch Harbor. He is pursued there by the gal who loves him. With Cape Breton / Newfie music fiddling its way throughout, the story tells a tale of love and guilt and nature's power and redemption as seen, timelessly, through the eyes of contemporary 20-somethings, just so the name of their theatre troupe. Promotional materials describe the show thus : "A modern fable steeped in maritime lore, The Out Vigil questions our ability to accept the natural world for all that it is, both beautiful and terrifying." As the hed above declares, this world premiere of TOV is coffee house cabaret charm writ large in a chummy room made for its intimacies.

How it's all put together :  Vigil. Wiki denotes its purpose : "a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching". Thus the word carries with it not only heavy portent but churchly epithets as well. Meanwhile "out" in this case has nothing to do with gender politics -- rather with fishboats departing safe shores. The original vigil in the piece was brought in two senses by Danny MacEachern (Matthew MacDonald-Bain). He lost his best buddy Ian Brown in a rogue wave storm mishap out there fishing for the elusive cod, or maybe just to catch the colourful sunrises. Poised to commence a full-ride hockey scholarship at a Boston college, Danny's rising hockey stardom crashes thunderously when he obliterates his knee desperately trying to save Ian who's swept away by that ugly unforeseen wave. 

Two vigils here : one for the loss of the charming lad Ian and the second Danny's 6-week hospital purgatory after knee surgery. Since grammar school he's been a teasing tormenting chum of Ian's young sister Lizzy (Stephanie Izsak). The two of them discover the spark of love during their ongoing fevered exchanges as she tries to make sense of her darling brother's death -- mostly stuck in denial -- while bosom buddy Danny tries his best, innocently, to comfort and console her but also convince her there's no hope whatever that Ian might, miraculously, have somehow survived. Emotionally piqued, both of them, not surprising that they connect intimately.

Later, when Danny abruptly flees Little Harbour, NL because there's no work on the horizon, she pursues him across the country where the rest of the show's next vigil plays out. This one starts when Captain Cal (Zac Scott) somewhat spontaneously and precipitously takes Danny on as fifth crewman on his crab boat. Last vigil now involves watching it disappear over the ever-dangerous horizon for a month or more in the frigid Bering Sea.

Through flashbacks and shanties, roving chronicleers Christina Cuglietta (violin) and Alison Jenkins (accordion, tin whistle, vocals) employ their musical warp-&-woof cleverly to weave the saga of hope and doubt and shame and fear that often attends to la belle passion.

What the show brings to the stage :  Old enough to be these actors' grandfather, I confess to the thrills and chills that coursed my spine watching these talented performers tell their Millennial tale of the trials their generation's characters face. 

Written by Julie McIsaac, the show has been workshop'd and fiddled with, lit.-&-fig., for two years under the direction of Twenty Something Theatre artistic producer Sabrina Evertt. It's described as "poetic naturalism" : the audience is treated to a purposeful collapse of the usual fourth wall, starting with the five performers doing an Irish folk jam session in the lobby pre-show. 

Every culture has folklore and traditions and myths that drive them. They might be deist such as the Abrahamic traditions describe or possibly pantheistic -- a God who is immanent and lives in all things. In TOV reference is made to a "She" who governs the sea, who can be evil (Ian's death) or good (successful harvest). Jews, for example, have a "vigil tradition" called kaddish that requires family to sit and pray for 365 days(!) after the death of a loved one. 

In TOV the belief or superstition or trepid trembling the folks share from down the ages is the prospect of She doing fishers harm. To ward off She exercising her yang rather than her yin while they traverse the seas, a candle must be lit and a Gaelic song of invocation for safe travel be sung. 

In her notes Director Evertt conjures just such a Gaelic song as this (that Google suggests to me is roughly my English translation on the right):

A Mhathair shiorai                    O Mother everlasting
Deonaigh cosan                          Grant us a path
Slan sabhailte do                        That we may be safe.

To amplify the point, Evertt notes in the program as well : "Home can be a place on a map. It can also be a person. Or, the feeling you have when your work has purpose. Home can be many things, to many people, but one thing we all share is the feeling of being in harmony with our surroundings."

Acting pin-spots : Stephanie Iszak as Lizzie positively Wow'd! this reviewer. She is pure and simple spitfire antic words and actionWith a nice sustained NL vocal "d"-nuance throughout (e.g. mudder for mother), she rips off her fears at the prospect of losing Danny on Cal's boat given this is Cal's maiden voyage as skipper (Dad got drunk and drowned, at the dock, in three feet of water a year earlier). "It's good being scared," she spits at Danny, "it keeps you from being stupid." Iszak is clearly a rising star, a brightly lit rising star on the Vancouver horizon. (I look forward eagerly to her one-woman musical Swan Song that will premiere as part of the SHIFT festival late May at Firehall.)

As her lover Danny, Matthew MacDonald-Bain obviously derived energy and verve from Iszak trying to keep up with her snappy-&-zippy pace. He talked over her, she over him, but he shone particularly in revealing his character's empathy. Of the shipping-out vigil that once was missed by Lizzy and she grieves over, he says : "They've done it [the out vigil] forever, and missing it once she thinks she's gone and messed up the whole order of things." Utterly engaging and exuberant chops on the acoustic guitar by McD-B throughout. 

Production values that shine : Julie McIsaac has an unflinching and intuitive, incomparable ear for her original Irish and Cape Breton and Newfunlan's tunes & cadences & rhythms & harmonies & textures : they are a marvel and complete joy to listen to. I'm an uneducated but vigorous fan of virtually all ethnic beats. So just a big Yowsa! for her work and integrity here.

As Set & Lighting Designer, Ian Schimpf puts together a completely engaging stage presence from the tiered shipside pallets to the representative NL window-frames behind gauze to all the fishing accoutrements. (I confess I found the hazer smoke a bit dense for the tear ducts, though its visual effect smogging the scene, even into the lobby, worked well.)

Who gonna like : Cabaret theatre junkies. Fans of new talent who energize and compel. Irish-style music aficionados who like it best when it's live and right-in-your-face. TOV is smart. Lively. Original. Crisp. Engaging. Loving. Laughing. Kudos to each and every creator, producer and performer for a show that probes how our myths and beliefs are so easily overwhelmed by Ma Nature at a snap of Her fingers. And why, therefore, our compensating myths and beliefs are so important to us.

Particulars : The Out Vigil.  Written by Julie McIsaac.  Produced by Firehall Arts Centre in association with Twenty Something Theatre. At 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until March 26, 2016. Box Office 604.689.0926 for nightly & matinee performances.

Production Team :  Director Sabrina Evertt.  Dramaturge Peter Boychuk. Producer Donna Spencer (Artistic Producer Firehall Theatre).  Music Director / Original Composition & Arrangements  Julie McIsaac.  Set & Lighting Designer Ian Schimpf.  Costume Designer & Props Sabrina Evertt.   Associate Costume Designer & Props Kaitlin Williams Gordon.  Sound Designers Jason Clift & Julie McIsaac.  Stage Manager Melanie Thompson.  Volunteers [final chorus &c.] Heather Blais. Sara Andrina Brown. Cindy Fedora. Rose Jakobs. Carly Le. Lisa Penz. Jan Tse. Nevada Yates Robart. Taninli Wright.  

Performers :  Stephanie Iszak (Lizzie).  Matthew MacDonald-Bain (Danny).  Zac Scott (Cal).  Christina Cuglietta (violin).  Alison Jenkins (accordian, tin whistle, soprano). 

Addendum : One (recurring...) kvetch : I have remarked on this previously, and I must do so again. And btw I fault the directors of shows in this more than the actors, who after all follow their lead. 

There is no need whatever to overemphasize swear words, particularly the eff-word. To do so is orally-&-aurally quite off-key.   

E.g. describing his dad's demise, Cal (Zac Scott) states it this way : "He drowns in three feet of fukken water." The danger of deep-sea excursions for king crab and the hearsay reports of two men lost-at-sea per week in Alaska comes out as "It's just a fukken numbers game." Same emphasis throughout all his cursing jags in the show.

No, madame director, with respect. As a 6-decade profanity champ, I say this is how I learned it proper on the Grade 6 playground back in the 50's. 

Think of the quizzicality and and befuddlement in the reaction to his dad's death -- quite stupefied as to its ridiculousness. Intuitively it would be articulated thus : "He drowns in three feet of fukken water...?!!"  Same with the ongoing debate about the number of fishing season deaths by drowning in the Bering Sea. Surely, trying to minimize the dangers, the comeback pops out as irritable frustration : "Oh, c'mon, it's just a fukken numbers game.

In short : deaden \ soften \ make more flatly-conversational the modifying F-word. Hit the subsequent adjective or noun after the cussword to bring out the poignancy that drives these lines.

But, alas, after four years doing BLR I've concluded my perpetual nattering over this common & communal cuss-word fault on Vancouver stages just falls into dead air space. Directors in this town -- and their actors-who-should-know-better -- seem to have a tin ear when it comes to cussing and its oral \ aural nuances. So it goes.

Still, hope springs eternal : perhaps Ms. Evertt can effect some remedial in-service here for future shows if practically speaking it might be too late for this one. 


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