Saturday, 14 July 2018

Lysistrata resurrects 2,400 year old au courant grievances v. men
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 : The conceit of Lysistrata by the ancient Greek Aristophanes is simple. No more sex, men, until your arms of war go limp. Then we can all lie back and have a bit of peace just for the fun of it. Aristophanes was enjoying some pre-feminist political snickers here. Based on the Peloponnesian war that had been dragging on interminably. If the war tumesced much longer, he mused, soon the women of Athens and Sparta would have no men to roll in the hay with for years to come. So the feisty femme Lysistrata proposes why not stage a pre-emptive sex strike now when the soldiers come home on furlough all hot and horny?

Jennifer Lines, Quelemia Sparrow and Marci T. House have a giggle over plans to boycott the bedroom. "The war is over, if you want it!" they tell their men. 
Photo credit : David Cooper

How it's all put together : About her award-winning direction of Pericles for Bard in 2016, I said this : "Director Lois Anderson conspires with a variety of muses and consultants in concert with the show's creative design team to conceive and fabricate a fantasitcal version of the script." She and co-adaptor Jennifer Wise turned their efforts to that same task in 2018 with Aristophanes whose works preceded Shakespeare by two thousand years.

At present there's not an Iraq war triggered by phony WMD's to use as the launching pad for Lysistrata and its timeless jibes at men, their peccadilloes and erect pomposities -- we who occasion so much terror worldwide. But identity and gender politics never cease to pop up dramatic possibilities.

So Ms's Anderson & Wise gave their Lysistrata a unique hook : the play's staging has to appear as if it is a spontaneous and improvisational mounting of the Greek script by Bard's women actors. They say they're "on strike against Hamlet, apparently he's a snivelling bore". Hamlet is the piece they've been rehearsing for weeks and is about to open. But they learn that the patriarchal and privileged types who run politics want to convert Vanier Park into a major container port. They decide that Lysistrata will be a terrific protest statement showing strong-minded women at work rather than present a dithery Dane who can't decide whether he wants to be or not to be.

Quelemia Sparrow, Ming Hudson and Jennifer Lines do a spontaneous rehearsal of their protest performance of Lysistrata.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson 
To pull off being an impromptu and unrehearsed show, the program notes tell us, costume designer Barbara Clayden and set designer Drew Facey "...have chosen to work only with things you'd legitimately find at the Bard site : cardboard boxes, water bottles, a Sharpie, a curtain, old cans of paint, steel wool, the actor's street clothes, and a few unexpected discoveries..." like 38 discarded toilet paper tubes painted gold for the magistrate's headgear; errant broom heads for the soldiers' helmet brushes; mops for wigs;  countless beer can tops stitched in a row for jewel'd belts.

The play's the thing : The show is really three plays within one. The Hamlet troupe that morphs into the Lysistrata cast, then there's the Bard ensemble qua Christopher Gaze employees for the summer who come to grief with the VPD over some graffiti tagging and other Vanier Park vandalism when off-duty from their Lysistrata show rehearsals.

Along the way there are hilarious dialogue moments, no question. In denying their Greek husbands sex they promise not to perform "a head-butt followed by a reverse Spartan leg-wrap" or the favourite "lion and cheese-grater" manoeuvre.  

Lysistrata (Luisa Jojic) cajoles the women. We must stick together like birds of a feather, she demands. "If the swallows start squabbling and start wandering away from their nest they will be called the biggest sluts that ever lived". Still miffed that her feminist Hamlet has been knackered, Colleen Wheeler snarks : "This is the stupidest play I've ever seen. Do you realize you've just called swallows 'sluts'?" Laughs over that for 1/2 minute or more.

Quelemia Sparrow and Louisa Jojic conspire how to thwart the old men guarding the money at the Acropolis that funds the Sparta / Athens war. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson 
A pastiche of performances : When the play sticks to its slapstick moments a la Monty Python or its Christmas panto mode bringing audience members on to the stage to join the fun, this creative piece is pure hoot to watch. Even the interjections by Musqueam native Quelemia Sparrow about the park's indigenous history back 10,000 years and more is made into a running joke. Every time the cops refer to "Vanier Park" she interjects that its Coast Salish traditional name is "Snauq!" instead. The riffs and sight-gags back-&-forth on this bit grabbed countless laughs.

In the second act some live music is introduced. A ballad about how Greek women would knit coats for others to wear instead of beating ploughshares into swords was rich & subtle. Redolent of Chris Martin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ann Mortifee all in a piece. Nice work indeed by composer Mishelle Cuttler and performers.

But then the play started to change focus from its largely comic lens. More straight Aristophanes dialogue than satire and snigger. From panto and Pythonesque silliness the audience was asked to jump-shift to a lengthy, utterly serious side trip extolling native reverence for the land and the sea that consumed the final 15-20 minutes of the show. Dramatically this failed for me. But I may have been alone : a nearly 100% unanimous standing ovation greeted the cast when the lights were doused.

Acting pin-spots : Much silliness and risible performances from the cast. Colleen Wheeler protesting the cancellation of her Hamlet role : she repeatedly reports for duty in her all-black shroud to emote and shout and finally spit out her "to be" lines in the faces of front row patrons. Marci T. House as one of the hunchy old men and as chief magistrate. Ming Hudson fretting "I'll never work at Bard again!" thanks to the Hamlet troupe's bit of spontaneous anarchy at play here telling Mr. Gaze to pound sand. The 3-men, 3-women nude wrestling match : no question the show's slapstick highlight what with all those nylon mammaries and gonads being slung about at random and then the geezers dropping fitfully but embracingly in a dog pile. The deadpan ambiguously gay cop Sebastien Archibald who ultimately warms to this bunch and weeps. Just plain fun one and all.

Who gonna like : This ambitious and inventive script is a wholesale reimagining of the Aristophanes original. Personally I had doubts the hook of a container dock protest would work as a no-sex-for-you gambit. And the costuming / staging bit of "the lethal one-eyed pool snake" for the Greek soldiers suffering from long-term sex denial carried on quite quite quite too long. 

But fans of this troupe -- most of whom are also doing Timon of Athens -- will cheer the energy and imagination and dedication they all put into creating this homegrown mini-spectacle. The standing-o the crew got at show's end took a bit to rise up but ultimately did with appreciative vigour in their claps and cheers.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 18 shows between now and the September 13th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ Run-time 120 minutes with intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Lois Anderson. Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Musical Director / Sound Designer/Composer Mishelle Cuttler. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Indigenous Consultant Quelemia Sparrow. Stage Manager Joanne P. B. Smith. Assistant Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart. Apprentice Stage Manager Zoe Bellis.  Directing Apprentice Joel Wirkkunen.  Costume Design Apprentice Hannah Case.  

Performance Ensemble :  Sebastien Archibald. Sharon Crandall. Michelle Fisk. Marci T. House. Ming Hudson. Luisa Jojic. Jennifer Lines. Joel D. Montgrand. Adele Noronha. Quelemia Sparrow. Colleen Wheeler. 


Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Truth, yes, but no chance of reconciliation in Timon 
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 : A few decades back Vancouver's Howe Street was infamous for its penny mining stock instant millionaires. Along with a hefty cohort of swindlers at play, too. Many of them ultimately found their beds at B.C. Pen far less snuggly than their long-lost cribs at the Four Seasons. Tales of endless riotous evenings at the Cave and Isy's and the Georgia during the good times were duly reported by Jack Wasserman. All of this and more makes Timon of Athens an excellent script choice for Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival.

Whether parable or morality play or outright tragedy, Timon causes us to reflect on what true friendship looks like when the party's over. Timon is a classic "high flyer". He loves Gatsby-esque parties with lavish tables, wines worth their talent, and hob-nobbing with local artists and poets who see themselves as up-&-comers. They ask for loans, Timon digs deep. Expensive baubles he truckles on others. In truth, of course, they're but sycophants and lickspittles and spongers who when Timon's luck and money go Poof! they do, too.

Isidore (Adele Noronha) and Timon (Colleen Wheeler) yuk and suk it up gaily during Timon's heady days as a mover & shaker on the big city scene. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

How it's all put together : From the get-go, Director Meg Roe gives Billy Bard's Jacobean ear a really hard twist by casting the chief 10 roles all as women. And whether male or female, most in Vancouver know today's maths by heart : in the average household folks owe $1.70 in debt servicing for every $1 of disposable income they have. Worse still, the cost of housing alone now eats up over 80% of after-tax earnings here -- no question we live atop an inverted pyramid financially. 

When her tipsy pyramid crashes, Timon (Colleen Wheeler) beseeches her friends to bail her out with generosity equal to what she's effused on them over the years. They demur, defer, and depart right smartly. So she throws one last party for them. A feast of hot water in bowls on charger plates under silver domes. After a splashdown table-smash of epic proportion, she then hies herself off to the wilderness to become a hermit for the rest of her days. Even refuses to return triumphant to the Big Smoke despite discovering gold -- by the handful -- while digging for roots to eat.

Timon's assistants Flaminius (Ming Hudson) and Flavius (Moya O'Connell) share a final bit of Instagram mirth just before their mistress's house is rent asunder, literally, by Timon who now rages at her former, fickle fair-weather friends. 
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

What the show brings to the stage : There are four elements in a typical Shakespeare drama that resurface constantly : foreshadowing; hyperbole; shameless scheming; wrath that is rung down clamourously. 

In Timon, that last aspect is heightened once her friends scorn her collectively and offer up but a few hundred quid to soften her bankruptcy. Director Roe puts it thus : "It is difficult to pin down its themes. Working on it, I've been wondering about redemption, greed, agency, capitalism, friendship, altruism, generosity, societal obligation, nihilism, money...about the rotten systems at work in Timon's world. I think of Timon as a parable, but I'll leave you to fill in the moral at the end. In my opinion that is the most difficult part."

Clutching her last grasp of filthy lucre dug out of a wilderness cave, Timon (Colleen Wheeler) lets the world know exactly what she thinks of about honesty, fidelity and friendship when money comes into the picture.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

Production values that enhance the script :  In the 50's the staging conceived for this performance would be called avant garde. Experimental. Unorthodox. All this it surely is on many levels. Starting with the all-women principals. Who are outfitted in contemporary yacht club lounge get-ups. Acting on Drew Facey's functional, elegant warehouse-loft set that morphs, violently, into a dirt-filled cave. These scenes join an electro-rapture of cacophony in the final anarchistic moments while lights crackle ominously atop simulated gunshots.

Add to all that, this : in its original the script is five acts in eleven scenes. Almost precisely the length of an uncut Macbeth. This troupe's Timon is done in but one continuous act, its scenes linked intimately, all executed in but 90 minutes -vs- the 150-minute run-time across the Bard campus portico for Macbeth. Original? Twenty-eight named characters plus ensemble, just twelve actors here (in 15 truncated roles).

Star production performance is without doubt the Facey set of square'd patchwork floorboards and support joists in Timon's home that Ms. Wheeler systematically rips up and throws aside in piles ringside. This wild scenario creates the cave that ultimately becomes Timon's chosen sarcophagus. [I was exhausted watching her huck all this weighty lumber to-&-fro, no question, while she ranted, raved and sobbed vociferously throughout.]

Acting pin-spots : No question Colleen Wheeler executes a profound and compelling and thunderously well-wrought Timon. Not unlike Lear, this is another of Shakespeare's seemingly bi-polar tragic characters who don't "fall" so much as "switch" from a decent, normal, copascetic adult into a wrathful, vengeful monster-god. Her soliloquies in the final chapter of the cave scenes could, however, have been sliced up a bit further -- there's a drag factor at play. Doing so would result in little loss to the script's focus on the horrible hypocrisies that infect people when the love of money transcends almost all other drivers and values in their lives.

As Timon's ever-loyal servant Flavius, Moya O'Connell was to this eye flawless : crisp efficiency, empathy run riot, loyalty-from-love her driving ethos. 

How not to like Apemantus (Marci T. House) who from Moment 1 questions Timon's Big City modus operandi : "What purpose these feasts, pomps and vain glories?" She calls out the Rich Housewives syndrome that Timon surrounds herself with as phony and cruel and exploitive. Curious how many critics call her role cynical when in fact it is these grasping charlatans who are the true cynics in the piece.

Who gonna like : In this adaptation of the Bard by Director Roe, cast and crew, perhaps the above question is better framed this way. If you are a Shakespeare traditionalist. If you want far more original Bard than adaptation. If wholesale gender-switches don't, as a rule, appeal to you. Well then this will not be your preferred outing to Bard in 2018.

If, on the other hand, you think you might be up for a clenching -- nay, accosting -- theatre experience, this is your Summer '18 toke for sure. It is excitement writ large in originality and chutzpah and braveness that will linger in memory for years to come. 

And all the layers of leitmotif themes Meg Roe itemizes above jump out not just convincingly but hauntingly. "Are we done in? What of this House?" Flaminius demands of Flavius at show's end. Who can possibly predict in a world such as we find ourselves. 

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 33 shows between now and the September 9th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Meg Roe. Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Sound Designer/Composer Alessandro Juliani. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Choreographer Amanda Testini. Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Stage Manager Joanne P. B. Smith. Assistant Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart. Apprentice Stage Manager Zoe Bellis.  Directing Apprentice Cherissa Richards. 

Performers :  Patti Allan (Sempronius).  Sebastien Archibald (Help 2).  Kate Besworth (Painter).  Michelle Fisk (Lucius).  Marci T. House (Apemantus).  Ming Hudson (Flaminius).  Jennifer Lines (Poet).  Joel D. Montgrand (Help 1).  Adele Noronha (Isidore).  Moya O'Connell (Flavius).  Quelemia Sparrow (Ventidius).  Colleen Wheeler (Timon).