Friday 8 April 2016

Dead Metaphor has hilarious painful timely jabs
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  At the hands of TO veteran playwright George F. Walker, the Canadian anti-Taliban adventure in Afghanistan becomes but springboard for how a single bit of wit will play out : what is a proficient military assassin -- a long-distance sniper with a high kill-ratio -- to do for civilian work when he is mustered out of Af and returns home? (The show cries out to be retitled "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Gunner").

This one-trick pony is put among a pack of unlikely also-rans for the next loop around his life's track. His pregnant and pushy once-&-future wife. Shouty leftist Dad who's dying of a brain tumour and has lost all filters and governors to check his spontaneous acerbic outbursts. Mr. Nice Guy civvy job placement counselor who's in a blistered and scabrous marriage. Mr. NG's wife, a right wing reactionary political candidate who is on Sarah Palin's "Pit Bull with Lipstick" hockey team, no question.

Theatre virtuoso Richard Ouzounian calls Walker "the man who juggles the double crown of Canada's angriest and funniest playwright". For its part Canadian Encyclopedia claims Walker "is best known for his fast-paced black comedies, filled with corrosive satire of the selfishness, greed and aggression characteristics of contemporary urban culture...".

Happy to report Firehall Theatre's production of Dead Metaphor proves each of these claims. It also ensures all the tomfoolery inevitable out of the bunch noted in paragraph two will somehow work out. They spar feverishly and hilariously at cross-purposes the night long with delightful effect. DM is a potty-mouth roar and rant that will bring tears to a glass eye -- metaphorically speaking of course.

How it's all put together : The pre-curtain lyrics by the punk group Rise Against in their anthem "Hero of War" set the stage. To come will be pure-&-simple satire and sardonic black humour. Its fictions play out only slightly more -- maybe less -- exaggerated than the latest Repugnicrat antics that prance across our t.v. screens every day.

Dean Trusk (Mike Gill) returns from sniper duty in Af with barely muffled PTSD from his tour after his 17 kills. Bureaucrat job placement guy Oliver Denny (Jovanni Sy) leans on wife Helen (Meghan Gardiner) to take war vet Dean on as an assistant in her election campaign. "He'd be easier to sell if he'd lost a limb or something," Helen whines. But she hires him. When Dad Hank (Alec Willows) hears of son Dean's new job he bristles instantly : "She doesn't have ideas. They're just sales pitches. She's dangerous because she's a fraud."

Dean soon discovers Helen is getting illegal campaign contributions from highly-placed church officials. Helen and Mitchell, her "handler" lit.-&-fig., fear Dean may do a Deep Throat to the media on them, so he gets the boot. But like Watergate, leaks can't always be plumbed dry. Oliver tries to talk Helen into dropping out of the race lest all this campaign finance scandal go public. Ego won't let her. She shrieks in frustration : "People are causing impediments to my personal tranquility," she snivels. "When they disagree with me they should just shut the fuck up!"

Though Walker doesn't expressly declare his setting and plot and characters to be American, they are so extreme they could hardly be mistaken for Canadians who are generally a more reserved and apologetic and off-hand lot. Not this bunch, by no means.

How the plot evolves : A dead metaphor is a physical comparison that needn't be visualized to be understood : "Why can't he grasp the obvious?" is an example. And the obvious in this play is the churlish and fractious state of political relations -- a grossly distempered grassroots -- that makes far-away foreign war service seem more tame than homegrown politics. Any A who fails to grasp B's "obvious" truths about life on open mouth radio or in social media is free to be assailed. Bullying, shaming, ostracism or simply taken out "with extreme prejudice" as Brando put it so blithely in Apocalypse Now are all fair game tactics. 

Act 1 ends when Dad Hank with his inoperable brain tumour tells Dean over the BBQ he wants to go. He proposes a park walk that he won't return from. Always gnashing his teeth against government's deceits and lies, he rants at his obviously reluctant son : "But I'm giving you a purpose to kill someone for a reason you might actually be able to understand!" he pleads.

Act 2 begins with a choice church scene. (The audience is cleverly conscripted by the cast talking over their shoulders to be co-congregants in the conversation.) Hank calls out Helen as a complete and utter phony to the church flock. She can't help herself but recount to the gathering an earlier threat he made -- The Realist's Paul Krassner meets Hunter S. Thompson here -- how Hank would happily defile her beheaded cadaver sexually. But quickly she dismisses it all with a cheery wave to God. Wife Frannie (Donna Spencer), meanwhile, is mortified at all this spectacle and addresses us worshipers : "Hank's not well. If he meets you on the street and tells you to eat shit or go fuck yourself, don't take it personally!" she reassures us. (Hilarious! bit).

Helen now frets openly that Dean might rat her out over the illegal church payola. Oliver grows increasingly anxious that his increasingly unhinged wife will do the world permanent damage. "I'm the sad ineffective guy she met before she found her inner beast!" he broods. And decides right smartly she's a danger to the future that cannot be countenanced. Ever-closer-to-delivery, the pregnant ex/future wife Jenny (Carmela Sison) ultimately becomes power broker for Dean. She badgers him to use his military training on domestic soil for cash. Whom to silence, for how much? 

Production values the show brings to the stage : DM is a pastiche, more character sketch and penny dreadful political send-up than a fully rounded play. Also, to see the show pre-US Primaries in 2016 would, no question, have given it a fresher spin.  Day-to-day visual proofs S. of 49 show a "grossly distempered grassroots". Their antics reveal a reality clearly stranger than fiction. [Compare local equivalent : How likely Michael Healey's Proud -- an inspired spoof about Handshake Dad Stevie Harper -- how likely it would have much dramatic traction now that Harper's a nobody and Sunny Sonny runs the country? Not likely. Despite a couple of very successful earlier runs that BLR thoroughly enjoyed at this very same Firehall.]

But. There are choice doings at play here, no question. First grabber is set designer Lauchlin Johnston's utterly imaginative rendering of Afghan desert and bombed-out rubble as backdrop. The war's detritus even reaches to the base of the job placement office desk and the restaurant table, too. This cleverness is back-grounded by a painstakingly-produced sky blue + sun scrim. The open set and the L-shaped house seating lend immediacy and more intimacy than the usual proscenium arch arrangements. Very clever all this!

Director Chelsea Haberlin -- who's simultaneously doing Gruesome Playground Injuries at the Pacific Theatre up the road in South Granville -- has cast her troupe well. For comic amusement no question Alec Willows as Papa Hank with the unleashed tongue is a show-stealer. But opposite him Meghan Gardiner as the shrill Ann Coulter knock-off is also a piece of work. Words ("lists of things she doesn't like, not beliefs") prattle and zing and fling out of her mouth in inverse proportion measuring depth-vs-speed. Jovanni Sy's evocative, peppery performance both as counsellor and befuddled wannabe wife-killer was choice in all his run-arounds.

Who gonna like : Folks will need high tolerance indeed for political charades & goofy conspiracies & self-righteous angry diatribes. Higher even than what they see on CNN. Fact is Walker's script as imagined and delivered by the cast under Ms. Haberlin's direction is nothing shy of a hoot! and a tickle and a laugh despite its seething anger underneath. Obviously Mr. Walker has serious meta-messages to deliver on the political spectrum of likes-&-dislikes, no question. But his explosive satire even as it plays out ambiguously at the show's end has a magnetic quality to it. It makes sense of the scrambled and chaotic world we live in today in a way only live theatre can do that raw t.v. footage simply cannot.  

Particulars : Written by George F. Walker.  Produced by Firehall Arts Centre, Donna Spencer, Artistic Director. At 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore).  Until April 23, 2016.  Box Office 604.689.0926 for nightly & matinee performances.

Production Team :  Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set & Lighting Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Amy McDougall.  Sound Designer Troy Slocum.  Props Master Jennifer Stewart.  Stage Manager Jillian Perry.  Assistant Stage Manager Aidan Hammond.  

Performers :  Meghan Gardiner (Helen).  Mike Gill (Dean).  Carmela Sison (Jenny).  Donna Spencer (Frannie).  Jovanni Sy [Artistic Director, Gateway Theatre] (Oliver).  Alec Willows (Hank).

Addendum #1 : from the program.

A note from the Director :

Do you know what a dead metaphor is? I didn't until working on this show. Here's the definition : A figure of speech which has lost the original imagery of its meaning due to extensive, repetitive, and popular usage. Because dead metaphors have a conventional meaning that differs from the original, they can be understood without known their earlier connotation.

It's not the most obvious title for this show which makes it a really interesting one. George F. Walker revealed in an interview why he picked this title. It's a fascinating explanation but I think that there are other possible explanations. I've written George's explanation below but I challenge you to watch the show and come up with your own reason before you read his explanation.

When asked why he called this play Dead Metaphor George F. Walker said : "One of the reasons for it was the thought that there used to be a time when we didn't send soldiers off to fight wars and then forget entirely about them, like they weren't even part of our society. Less than one percent of both our [USA & Canada] populations have anything to do with them. So something that used to mean something -- soldiers fighting for their country -- is now irrelevant. It is a dead thing. We don't even know where they are. Off they go and then they come back into our world, many of them in trouble, messed up and with nowhere to go. They come back and they only get noticed when they're in trouble. And we're in trouble too."

Chelsea Haberlin, Director

From the Firehall's Artistic Producer :

"One of the ways of making the world less chaotic, I guess, is to show that it is chaotic." George F. Walker, 1982.

Welcome to the Firehall and to our production of George F. Walker's Dead Metaphor. With his provocative wit and his sly satire, Walker paints a picture of a family caught in the challenges of unemployment, pregnancy and aging parents. With off of this season's works we have worked to bring you stories that entertain, challenge and create a greater understanding of who we are in society today. Only in the theatre can you sit and share an experience with others whom you don't know that will be a once in a life time event...

Donna Spencer, Artistic Producer

Addendum #2 : selected stanza lyrics from Rise Against's song "Hero of War" :

He said "Son, have you seen the world?
Well, what would you say if I said that you could?
Just carry this gun and you'll even get paid."
I said "That sounds pretty good."

Black leather boots
Spit-shined so bright
They cut off my hair but it looked alright
We marched and we sang
We all became friends
As we learned how to fight

A hero of war
Yeah that's what I'll be
And when I come home
They'll be damn proud of me
I'll carry this flag
To the grave if I must
Because it's a flag that I love
And a flag that I trust

A hero of war
Is that what they see
Just medals and scars
So damn proud of me
And I brought home that flag
Now it gathers dust
But it's a flag that I love
It's the only flag I trust

He said, "Son, have you seen the world?
Well what would you say, if I said that you could?"



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