Wednesday, 4 January 2017

And Bella Sang... catches 1912 DTES flavour

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)

A bit of local context : 1912 DTES & Chinatown, Vancouver. Four years before women's suffrage would become the law in B.C. Five years before B.C. would introduce wartime alcohol prohibition. A raw wild west resource-based economy run by men for men for better or for worse. Women and whisky quite the lifeblood here, cops and politicians often the most regular of patrons in the saloons and bawdy houses under their watch.

Following a Portland, OR initiative in 1908, Vancouver Police were the first in Canada four years later to decide they needed a couple of women constables to help out ministering to the city's "wayward girls and women". Referred to as the "women's protective division", their purpose more "morality enforcement" than busting chops. Enter Lurancy "Lou" Harris (Leanna Brodie) and Minnie Eakin Miller (Sarah Louise Turner). No uniforms, no guns, just little purses to carry their little badges worn atop their skirts and petticoats. Their beat? The beaches, taverns, dance halls, and gambling dives of Vancouver's Hogan's Alley where women were often prey for men, particularly come payday.

A century later on a micro level society sees some cosmetic changes to this familiar scenario, but still much for the contemporary eye to compare and relate to given 2016's news hi-lites of rampant RCMP and Canadian Forces sexism and harassment, not to mention what the Indigenous Women task force will, eventually, unearth about the missing and murdered in recent years from those communities.

From the footlights : This original 75-minute script by local playwright Sally Stubbs tells the imagined-tale of these two real life constables : Harris, 48, the wannabe-man-in-a-man's world, Miller, 34, the Christian-nurse-cop-spinster-do-gooder with a big rich heart from the Central Mission Rescue & Protection Society. Women doing men's work but at women's wages -- hired into the lowliest Constable 4 echelon for $20 a week -- and forcefully kept under the thumb of their male bosses. 

This is a long-forgotten, barely recorded episode in Vancouver Police Department's early 20th century life. Through a series of vignettes strung together mostly by the honky-tonk piano of Patrick Courtin. His plinky-plunk charts underscore the various scenes that sketch out how these women search for the what & how of their work, each with their own "why" at play.

The functional box-crates and skids of Brian Ball's set serve as desks, stools and jail cells. Sound effects props are engaged from upstage tables, while downstage the characters mime the various teacup clinks, handcuff noises, the regular swirl of booze being poured into glasses and slurped up.

What the show brings to the stage : The singing reference was apparently borrowed from a Calgary police tale about a violent woman repeatedly jailed -- what emergency folk refer to as a "frequent flyer" -- who despite her tendency to assault her captors could be quieted by singing. 

In this case the bellicose barkeep Bella (Beatrice Zeilinger) was able to be calmed by Minnie when she struck up the tune "You Great Big Beautiful Gal". 

Simon Webb plays three male characters, the feckless and spiteful Constable Fields, the women's boss. Also Alderman Daniel Crane who lusts after the 14-year-old Chinese prostitute "Mai Ji" (Agnes Tong) whose parents knew her as Maggie Fraser. Webb's turn as the low-grade nasty pimp and hustler Connor O'Rourke was superbly repulsive.

Production values : While the show lacks the visual wizardry of Arts Club's 2014 show Helen Lawrence set in 1948, Bella tells its 1912 tale with simple functional staging ideal for small rooms. Director Sarah Rodgers and her assistant Ian Harmon mix their characters' contrasts well, each of Turner and Webb providing the evening's most compelling performances. 

The choreography of set changes, frequent as they were, was a bit belaboured and fussy at times, but lighting (Kyla Gardiner) and costumes (Barbara Clayton) played off one another magnetically. That the backstory took place originally right outside Firehall Arts Centre's doors came through convincingly & emotionally thanks to their skilled by-play.

Who gonna like :  Coffee house theatre fans will enjoy the simple and uncomplex artistry of Bella that could be performed easily on a stage 1/2 the size of Firehall's with equal effect. Folks who're born and raised in Vancouver will find this snatch of DTES / Chinatown history intriguing. The feminist issues raised in the script are almost as timely and poignant a century hence as they were back then. Back when male chauvinist tendencies in North American society were just that more open, obvious and obnoxious than they are in the New World Order of Trumputin politics now before us. Local history by local talent is what Bella delivers -- the final 10 minutes of the show particularly pull all its pieces together poignantly and touchingly.

Particulars : Produced by And Bella Collective in association with the Firehall Arts Centre. Playwright Sally Stubbs.  Performances January 4-14. Tickets and schedule through Firehall Arts Centre  Run-time 75 minutes, no intermission.

Production crew : Sarah Rodgers, Ian Harmon (Directors).  Patrick Courtin (Pianist). Barbara Clayden (Costume Designer).  Brian Ball (Set Designer). Kyla Gardiner (Lighting Designer).  Breanne Harmon (Stage Manager).  

Peformers : Leanna Brodie.  Agnes Tong.  Sarah Louise Turner.  Simon Webb.  Beatrice Zeilinger. 


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