Sunday, 25 March 2012

This is a fun nite out for all ages

There are three primary reasons to go see Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Arts Club Stanley Theatre : 

(1) Wilde’s Gatling gun social commentary that is as trigger-quick in 2012 as it was in 1895;

(2) the inspired sets of designer Amir Ofek, and

(3) superb performances rendered particularly by the “downstairs” players : butler Allan Gray, tutor Deborah Williams, and cantor Simon Bradbury who give stellar support to the “upstairs” principals Ryan Beil  – A&W’s helium hero from t.v. –  Charlie Gallant and Allan Zinyk, with Zinyk in pantomime-drag as Lady Bracknell. [Given Wilde’s bi-sexuality and the currency of such matters still to-day, panto-casting Lady Bracknell was a clever touch by Director David Mackay].

The nearly full house Saturday, March 24th numbered mostly Grays – but no few Gen Y’s too – whose giggles and guffaws beside and behind me occasionally cost my ears a line or two.  No matter : proof positive that Wilde’s dialogue can zing with younger patrons, too. 

Designer Ofek’s first act set is a townhouse-sized top hat in front of a same-size vanity mirror, both anchored in front of scalloped asymmetrical ivory curtains. Bold. Rich. Ofek’s stacked giant steamer trunks in Act 2, for their part, lend a ton of support to the 120-year-old dialogue being bandied about atop them.

As well, Ofek’s set was perfectly synchronized by designer Nancy Bryant who suited- out the men in metrosexual Yaletown garb while contrasting the women in the buxom baroque finery of Victoria’s age. An excellent costume / set juxtaposition that treats the eyes.

As the earlier BLR preview points out, the play is British madcap stuff-&-nonsense about life’s favourite leitmotif : stupid human tricks borne of hypocrisy and hubris.

The two fake Ernests in Earnest have reptilian noses they look down to disdain their “inferiors”. Early on Algernon observes “A high moral tone is not good for one’s health”, while for his part Jack proclaims : “I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left." The mirror framing him answers that question right smartly.

Without a doubt what Wilde loved to do was focus on stereotypes and snipe at their self-congratulation – the smugness and silliness of their shallow souls – and he did so with great wit :  “The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” These are the pre-Hefner kinds of sniggers I alluded to before. Clever, fun, slightly unsettling in their relevance still to-day.

In all of this hi-jinx goofiness my wife and I agreed there was a “best line” in this play, believe it or not. A line that proves Oscar Wilde is utterly relevant for contemporary audiences. 

Struggle and fight as we might, we are nevertheless condemned to live in a Facebook, Twitter, “BFF” universe – a world where kids text one another riding to Whistler in the same car…

As between Gwendolyn and Cecily in the garden, this not-so-wee bit of satirical insight could easily have been scripted and YouTube’d instantly to-day :

“It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends once can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.” 

Anyone with 748 Facebook friends *must* endure pain such as this btw, lol, wtf.  Oscar Wilde in 1895 surely knew fake sincerity. As the bumper sticker said : “Fake sincerity’s almost as good as the real thing.”

Go see this play whatever your age, for all the reasons noted. Though Wilde’s garden scene at the start of Act 2 cries out for Twitter treatment, no one I heard leaving the theatre nattered much about that. They were all chuckling and snorfling too much for such small carps to be remembered.

P.S. Deborah Williams’s hand gestures as Miss Prism were without a doubt my favourite bit of tight-acting-stage-business in the entire play. Followed by the dipsomaniac butler Lane in Act 1 and the dottery Scot Merriman in Act 2 played flawlessly by Allan Gray – his make-up and mien were superb in both.  Oh fun !


Thursday, 22 March 2012

Plot synopsis of "Earnest" hard to capture in 500 words...!

The plot of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is predicated on a simple play on words that reminds me of sober advice my mother used to give us kids. “Life is a serious and earnest business !” she would proclaim when we had the collective temerity to express a preference to watch Disney ‘s Mickey Mouse Club.  This was not earnest enough, I guess. We moaned as she flipped the dial on the black-&-white t.v. to take in the proceedings of the Republican National Convention instead.
The play Earnest is a classic comedy of manners in which Wilde has great fun poking at the pretensions and hypocrisies of Victorian England’s aristocracy and gentry.  The play’s title Earnest is the spelling of the word as adjective, while the play revolves around two chaps who wish their names were Ernest instead of Jack, on the one hand, and Algernon, on the other. 
These fellows are best buddies, and both are rounders. “Playboys”, 100 years pre-Hefner.  In his straight life, however, Jack Worthing is guardian of one Cecily Cardew, granddaughter of Thomas Cardew who adopted Jack after discovering him as a foundling in an abandoned suitcase in a railway station cloakroom (thus the photo in the Arts Club publicity).  But Jack, too, adopts a child – an inner child whom he claims is a dissolute runaway “brother” named Ernest. Jack from time to time tells Cecily how he needs to leave their quiet country village of Hertfordshire, yet again, to go “rescue” Ernest from endless carousing in London. Which, posing as Ernest, Jack then proceeds to go do himself.
Not country gentry but a Londoner, Algernon also has created a fictional “other” named Bunbury.  Algernon escapes the boring rituals of high society parlour life on occasion by feigning he is off to minister to “Bunbury”, whom he claims is a failing and needy invalid. Algernon’s “ministry” actually involves playing silly bugger elsewhere in London. When visiting “Bunbury” is how Algernon meets and befriends “Ernest”, not knowing “Ernest” in his “real life” is this alleged country gentleman Jack Worthing .
Meanwhile Algernon has a cousin named Gwendolyn Fairfax whom Jack is desperately in love with and wants to propose to.  Gwendolyn is warm to Jack’s amourous advances, but when Gwendolyn’s mother Lady Bracknell discovers Jack has no idea who his birth father is, she forbids the marriage.  For her part, Gwendolyn has announced to Jack that she in any event would never marry someone not named “Ernest”.
In the early going of the play, Algernon discovers Jack’s double life, and he exploits the opportunity to hi-jack Jack’s inner child “Ernest” himself in order to woo young Cecily, whom Jack has described in delicious terms. Because coincidence being coincidence and omnipresent in comedies of manners, turns out Cecily, like Gwendolyn, declares she too would never consider marrying someone not named Ernest. 

And so off traipse both Jack and Algernon trying to get their names officially changed to “Ernest” so these too-clever-foxes can land their “prey” in the “hunt” before the dogs of circumstance and Lady Bracknell chase them off.
Suffice to say all these phony guises and fake identities nearly cause the ruin of these two friends, but in a variety of plot twists and character revelations, once again circumstance and coincidence combine for a happy and confectionary ending to this randy little romp.
At the Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre until April 15th.

Passing of The Playhouse opens up opportunity

The demise of Vancouver's Playhouse Theatre Company mid-season surely is cause for fretting and hand-wringing.  The word "tragedy" quickly falls off people's lips when describing how the doors slammed shut after a final performance of Hunchback earlier this month.  Whatever the financial woes that led to the crash, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on the venue itself.

Here are two side-by-each letters from the Saturday, March 17, 2012 Globe-&-Mail that bracket two aspects of what might be behind the theatre's problems, one of which was my own submission.

Life’s stages
Having just seen Nicola Cavendish deliver her fabulous performance in Shirley Valentine at Theatre Calgary, I realized that any live theatre, not just the Vancouver Playhouse, is facing at least two life-threatening challenges (Curtain Falling On Vancouver’s Cultural Scene – March 15). One is the e-entertainment the young generation favours, and the other – sadly – is an apparent lack of interest among visible minorities and new immigrants. Just look around the auditorium and see how many people are under 50 or a member of a visible minority.
John Cihal, Calgary
For 15 years, I was a freelance reviewer in Vancouver. I regularly lamented the Playhouse stage as “awkward” and “amorphous”: too detached from the audience for intimate scripts, yet too thin and skimpy for more sumptuous productions.
Since I became a paying consumer of live theatre, it has seldom been the company’s choice of scripts that has kept me away. It’s the off-putting venue, simple as that. The place needs a serious retrofit as theatre-in-the-round. That would connect viewers to the stage literally and figuratively. As W.P. Kinsella put it: Build it and they will come.
W. Baird Blackstone, Tsawwassen, B.C.
In mounting Broken Leg Reviews, a few pieces I wrote in the mid-80's fell out of a musty old file.  In looking them over, I found I commented repeatedly on what I felt are limitations on the *room* itself.  

Here's one submission from "back in the day" about a play by David Pownall called Masterclass that I characterized as "...a juicy little potboiler of a play that tries -- successfully -- to recast Josef Stalin as just a chummy little peasant boy at heart."

As for the role the Playhouse stage qua stage had in Masterclass, meanwhile, I observed thus :  

    "The Edward Kotanen set is appropriately gloomy, unfriendly and foreboding. The only trouble is the fact that the sort of semi-intellectual nature of this four-actor piece is at once too little and too much for the 36 feet of proscenium of the Playhouse stage.
   "Only when Zhdanov and Stalin smash Prokofieff's entire syllabus of recorded 78 r.p.m.'s -- all across the stage in a pathetic, chilling litter of shattered art, lit.-&-fig. -- only then is the cavernous stage put to almost full use."  

The operative word being "almost".  

Meanwhile I think Mr. Cihal's point is probably more of a "core" issue, along with funding arrangements with various government levels, disappearing lottery gaming dollars into general revenue &c.  

And I certainly don't disagree with folks who grumble about "Why is there always enough money for a new retractable roof for Beastly Place but not enough to keep a 40-year-old theatre troupe alive...?" 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

In April, 1991 the erstwhile Saturday Review tabby in the Vancouver Sun featured views I had submitted on the role of the critic in assessing dramatic performances.  Upon discovering a printed copy of that piece this month and reflecting on it, I concluded my views had not changed at all in the ensuing two decades.  Thus as a foretaste of what Broken Leg Reviews will be about -- and how I will go about the task -- I am reprinting that Saturday Review article :

   Critic and playwright Peter Wilson captures exceedingly well the conundrum facing critics : how to be fair to all their constituents – their readers, the performers and crew, and the author. (The arts critic : dutiful, yes, but to whom? March 30)
   From 1972 to 1988 I was a freelance theatre critic for a half-dozen community newspapers in the Lower Mainland. I happen to prefer the stuff of a David Mamet script, say Glengarry Glen Ross, to the fluff of yet another song’n’dance review, say Angry Housewives. My job as a critic, however, was not to assail the dross and inflict my prejudices on readers as some sort of enlightened “theatrical truth”.
    In theatre, “truth” is what sells. What “works” for people, in a word. That’s what P.T. Barnum and Andrew Lloyd Webber share so intimately given what precious little substance there is to their stuff.  “Truth”, in the words of Yogi Berra, comes out thus : “If the folks don’t wanna go to the park, you can’t stop em...”.
    Experience also proved to me that proper criticism can be trenchant without being disdainful. Alas, I find too many critics are too busy preening in front of self-gilded mirrors to see their costumes and makeup. That’s why they deserve to be dismissed as arrogant charlatans.
    The wilful damage they inflict on the hopes and aspirations of legitimate theatre, meanwhile, is quite rightfully a cause for concern. Gratuitous attacks on theatre that the critic may not like, but audiences seem to love, are as unnecessary and unfair as they are inaccurate.
    For my money, an honest, thoughtful and well-intentioned critique, not merely an egotistical diatribe, is what I demand from arts critics. If they would only deliver fair comment – literally and figuratively – we’d have no argument, even if we had no agreement.
    There is, after all, no accounting for taste.

W. Baird Blackstone
1936 East 19th Avenue

Welcome to BrokenLegReviews !

Hello !  My name is W. B. (Baird) Blackstone. The best job I ever had was being a play reviewer (sometimes known as "drama critic") for a number of years throughout the 70's and 80's for various Lower Mainland community newspapers in the Greater Vancouver (B.C.) area.  I have launched "Broken Leg Reviews" to continue my efforts to provide readers a hint of whether current stage productions in and around Vancouver, B.C. might be to their liking and whether they might choose to invest their time and money to attend.  I hope this site will be of value to viewers and readers alike.