Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Wild aims to amuse Boomers-&-Beyond

Zoom Shot :  In your 50’s-70's and maybe lived all your life in Cascadia but never been camping? Fresh off a pretty traditional life in the city or the 'burbs? If so the Michele Riml script Into The Wild will surely find ways to tickle your funnybone. Derivative from the Jackie Gleason Honeymooners schtick of 60 years back, Wild finds a pre-retirement couple whose life circumstances have been sphinctered thanks to the worldwide recession we're stuck in. They are trying to imagine life without daily cappuccinos, nevermind business class flights to Europe – camping is their first toe-in-the-water at “compensating” with an "on the cheap" vacation.  Now add a quirky sister who all but loathes her brother-in-law. She roars into their campground on a recycled motorbike with some zen maintenance on her mind. The result is some quick and easy comedy for Boomers-&-Elders. No Sexy Laundry, for sure, but 2012 giggles to be had.

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Into The Wild is the sequel to Sexy Laundry, written six years and a worldwide economic implosion later. 

Thus it was almost foretold by fate it would lose some of the fizz and pop of its original juice. The freshness and surprises of Sexy Laundry in character and dialogue are somewhat muted now in a more mundane script, though giggles still prevail.

Dominatrix leathers are replaced by twill shorts and Be Prepared paraphernalia. The thunderclap F-word that banged repeatedly before is heard, off-handedly, but once.  Fact is ITW’s dialogue drizzles down to some tired sarcasms older marrieds often sling at one another when their life circumstances are strained and threatened. Fear and anger do that. Luckily there's lots of comic relief as antidote.

Henry is still a fumbleklutz. Before it was hopeless with a t.v. remote. Now he refuses to read the directions on how to hoist his new goretex tent.  This character device of a B. Eng. who can’t even light a strike-anywhere-match is to my mind a bit limp. But the nearly full-house on opening night disagreed. They guffawed robustly at all of Henry's antics.

Enter sister-in-law Diana (Beverley Elliott) who surprises Alice and Henry – on her ’70's vintage Yamaha road bike.  She brings along a quick lip and some Eckhart Tolle “nowness” that is part retro-hippie, part dipsy romantic, part zen. Henry has been fired under murky circumstances, cut loose at age 56 after 29 years of loyal service.  Thus the camping now, not cottaging.  But grudgingly on Alice's part because she is cast as a woman who can’t add fractions, therefore she fights "getting it" that Henry’s reduced pension and no job means no more shopping junkets to Paris. (Non? Alors!)  

Still and all, Michelle Riml scripts some trademark clever repartee amidst a message that life’s trappings and clutter are not its essence, nor should happiness depend on a fat bank account.

In support, the excellent Ted Roberts mossy camping scene is right out of Haida Gwaii for all its heart-of-darkness backdrop to the silly shenanigans on stage. As well, Sound Designer Geoff Hollingshead creates a very realistic B.C. campground environment and a windstorm scenario that accompanied by numerous sight gags will please and amuse. 

Wild appeals to the grays because they’ve experienced much of the life continuum Riml describes. 40-somethings won’t likely relate nearly so much : the almost constant talk of finances and pensions and retirement is not what soccer moms and hockey dads think much about. As well that group might find the sexist stereotyping objectionable (“DadATM”; Mom a Feminine Mystique holdover). No question the Sexy script will travel better over time than Wild because it is a sexier script and it’s not set in the wilds of B.C.  Sexy’s humour is more cross-generational, not aimed squarely at Boomer +++.

Having flipped out those demographic caveats, I happily report how Susinn McFarlen has many comic moments as Alice, her retail nightmare at the end of Act I but one rich example. Andrew Wheeler as Henry has almost perfect pitch for his character’s dialogue with just the right inflections and cadence, though he's perhaps a bit overweight on the word Asshole ! once or twice. There is also much stage business among all three characters that works very well theatrically, particularly the various tent sequences and the skinny-dipping scene.

Until May 26th at the GI Theatre.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Into the Wild for middle-age madcap antics

Men depicted as klutzes and wusses seems a neverending source of fun, sport and amusement for writers. As in the clever variation on Lord Berkeley’s conundrum about the sound of a tree falling in the woods : “If a man shouts in the forest and his wife is not there to hear him, is he still wrong?”
And so it is with the Arts Club Theatre’s Into the Wild. The main characters are middle-aged Henry (Andrew Wheeler) and his wife Alice (Susinn McFarlen), with McFarlen reprising the role she originally played in Sexy Laundry back in 2004 by the same playwright, Michele Riml.
In the earlier piece the couple checked themselves into a chichi spa to kickstart their 25-year-old marriage with the aid of the how-to book “Sex for Dummies”.  This was classic dirty week-end stuff to see whether their marriage could survive the blahs brought on by the usual day-to-day stresses, raising kids, and their respective pot bellies and love handles. Obviously it did survive because just like in Poltergeist, “They’re ba-a-a-c-k...!”
Riml says she resurrected Henry and Alice after a dubious camping experience of her own in terrible weather with a friend. So this time Henry and Alice are armed with “Camping for Dummies” and another kitbag of neuroses the ensuing one or two more years together has produced. Obviously this wild they’re venturing into is not just the mosquito patch of mud we all remember “fondly” from our youth – it’s also the kind of unknown wild that happens if you’re 58 and lose your job, your giddy retirement plans go up in smoke and once again you’re poised to lose your marriage unless you find yourselves first. 
Confronting uncomfortable truths about oneself and one’s future while wrapped in the oozy sweet of a s’more promises to be the stuff of this one. 
April 19 – May 26 at the Granville Island stage.  BLR review April 25th.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


Scar Tissue captures family's angst and pain

Zoom Shot : Are you a Boomer or Gen-X? Does the thought of you being caregiver and helping Mom linger through five years of Alzheimer’s deterioration before death strike your fancy? Then you might well find Scar Tissue at the Arts Club Revue Stage a perfect antidote to smug self-comfort. Due to a riveting grasp on the various agonies of dying this way by Gabrielle Rose as the mom, viewers come away tasting, smelling, and feeling in their skin and their hearts how this cruel disease degrades its victims. Primary among the victims is Mary’s younger son David who obsesses over her demise, worrying he too will face the same fate without ever having "lived". Strong support is contributed by veteran Tom McBeath as the dad and by Megan Leitch as David’s wife Anna. Clever lighting and spare, utilitarian sets help focus on the pain being played out intimately on the coffee house Revue stage. Lots of words make up for not much dramatic action, but fact is this is a contemplative script first and foremost. Playwright Dennis Foon crystalizes the essence of an almost neverending soliloquy by David in the original Michael Ignatieff novel quite admirably.

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Full Review 

Dennis Foon’s Scar Tissue script deserves full marks. It is crisp and succinct in its grasp of a novel that rambles a bit. Most of Foon’s play, by contrast, wastes nary a breath or nuance.

Within two minutes of curtain the audience has the dynamic tensions and characters at play here : mother Mary – a former exuberant artist in the early clutches of Alzheimer’s though just in her 60’s – her tortured and obsessed younger son the philosophy prof David, his older brother Nick, a neurophysician, and their dad Alex, an immigrant from Odessa who loves dirt, scientifically. As well we meet David’s charming wife Anna.

This is another “loss” story of the kind each and every one of us goes through as we watch a parent “leave”. David doesn’t want to lose the dynamic, effervescent, playful mom of his youth. He doesn’t want life to change. At least not so much. He prefers the laughing cigarette puffing beer swigging artist he remembers from his teens.

This angst about Mom dying – and him perhaps a few years hence as she is the 3rd generation to fall prey to Alzheimer’s  – these facts propel David to be consumed by seeking the “answer” to life, which always involves denying, fighting, and cursing death. Every such lifequest of course zeroes in on family, from the big existential / Freudian queries to unmasking the small mysteries and absurdities of one’s childhood.

Foon flips the audience back-&-forth, toggle-like, between snippets of life now, life then in the Nevsky family in rural Ontario.  The action occurs on a spare and functional set by Yvan Morissette that exploits the variety of uses simple materials like a library table and four chairs can be put to.  Clever! 

The multi-functional furniture on stage is backed by pivot panels behind that serve as doors, portals, and movie projection screens. John Webber’s jitterbug execution of lighting fades and spots assists the time and motion transitions nicely.

Mary descends, rapidly, from “funny” little repetitions of statements and questions to instantaneous rage over the whereabouts of a goddamned spatula or her goddamned glasses and then a kitchen-thrashing horror over an unfound teapot. 

Meanwhile wife Anna, protecting herself and son Jack, challenges David’s compulsive obsession and never-ending care of Mary. She makes the moral choice to leave him – he must pursue emotional exclusion on his own.

For his part David insists on a need to understand the “deep, disastrous choices” he claims his mother made and the “why” behind it all to make sense of himself, somehow. Nick wonders why, too – why humans are “the only animals who don’t know how to die”.

These are the weighty questions that poets and avatars have posed for centuries. To make them the stuff of a stage play requires not just cleverness, but pace. After the opening scene, the pace of the play lags a bit as the complex relationships among the family need to be fleshed out. Act II, for its part, clips along a bit more. Altogether this is a reflective person’s play for certain – nothing frothy about it.

Gabrielle Rose as Mary plays her role flawlessly – from giddy in young momhood to furious in forgetting to wordless and resigned, save one last burst, at the end. Flawless hardly captures her work. Engaged. Dynamic. Vivacious. Her painful, pathetic jump-shuffles around her bed in the final scenes is a poignant performance writ large that may well bring tears.

Characteristically, Vancouver veteran Tom McBeath wrings every ounce from his role. In this he is all of stodgy immigrant, loving husband, disdainful patriarch toward David but boisterous in his embrace of son Nick.

Craig Erickson has the toughest role due to David’s myriad soliloquies. Erickson shows grit and dedication in depicting a romantic who’s stuck in a morass of sentiment and fear.

Megan Leitch as David’s wife is just right in her love, her hurt and her determination to survive.

Kudos : (1) To Director Craig Hall because he elects to change some of playwright Foon’s stage directions and push the play in a more believable direction.  E.g. at the end when Mary has a last-breath manic explosion as an artist, he depicts her creation as a free-form blitz of colour and shape, not the landscape impressionism that Foon calls for.

(2) To Projection Designer David Cooper for the excellent 8mm movie clips : from Mary’s New York gallery show, her splash of red paint pitched at Alex the peeping tom at her country studio, and the dutiful shots of the boys at play on the shores of the Great Lakes. True home movies from the 50’s couldn’t surpass these for capturing the medium and the times and the Mary who once was.

Quibbles :  (1) Clockwork. Regrettably there is no ongoing reference to time. The playwright’s stage directions in the script put David at 35 at the beginning, but there is no dialogue to fix this. That he turns 40 when there has been no obvious passing of a full five years of this immersion of David with Mom does not, cannot, impact the audience as much as it is meant to do. (Five years are the elapsed days of your kid’s B.A.+ M.B.A. degrees combined.)

(2) Foon reconciles David with Anna and son Jack in the end. In Ignatieff’s book no such reconciliation occurs. Nor, to this reader, does Ignatieff’s protagonist ever truly come to realize that life is this very second alone. Life cannot be lived honestly or courageously through either memory or future plans. Equally true, life is not reduced to DNA “predestination”.  Still, in the context and medium of such live stage action as this, perhaps Foon’s alternative ending does the novel no real injustice.

Until April 28th @ the Revue Stage, Granville Island.


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Scar Tissue Preview : opens April 5th

On its face Scar Tissue describes the brain lesions that define Alzheimer’s disease. The story line in the 1993 Michael Ignatieff novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize, follows the descent of a middle-age mom – a landscape and portrait painter of some skill who swigs beer – through the “progress” of her disease and death.
Scrape away the skin of Ignatieff’s novel and the subject, most simply put, is about words. How words and thoughts either propel us backward in time or project us forward.  As such they impinge upon us and can compromise us ad nauseam.  Ultimately words put us at risk of suffering Kierkegaard’s sickness unto death, the death of the soul. 
Given this cheery subject matter, one could be forgiven for thinking “Gosh, this promises to be heavy, daunting, and depressing!”  But Ignatieff's story is not. It’s a lively piece of character by-play and development that moves quickly and engagingly.
The story is told from the point of view of the younger son, a philosophy professor and incurable romantic.  In the Dennis Foon script his character is given the name David, age 35. David’s older brother is named Nick, age 40. He is a neurologist from Boston who is mildly cynical as he goes about his clinical practice blithely admiring coloured-dye brain scan downloads. Nick is Daddy's boy, David is Mommy's. 
Nick is convinced the answer to pathology is science, not philosophy or art. Throughout the book Nick and David scrap and tussle, the yang of intellect bashing the yin of heart.‬
David carries the narrative as Scar Tissue is primarily his struggle to find his *true* self, his essence, as he witnesses his mother, Mary, live out her life, failing from early onset. He ministers faithfully to her, forsakes his university job, his marriage, his son due to his all-consuming obsessive quest. 
He spends countless hours, days, weeks and months bedsitting her -- helping her dress, eat, sleep, and engage. Always engage. Always the words. Words chasing words. Guilts from the past, fears for the future. Never making sense of the now. Never stopping to just b-r-e-a-t-h-e.
David doesn’t seem to get that it’s Mary's present that is her life, not her history or her physical trappings or their endless conversations.  The truth is there for him, with every puff of air, but the words get in the way : lost pasts and lost paths only create scar tissue.
Proof of this is David’s agony over the “why” behind his mother ceasing to paint – to deal with how it was she in fact invited him as a teen to participate in ending her prized hobby abruptly, violently. 
Throughout Ignatieff's story David's angst betrays a fear his philosopher's tongue may be no more able to resist DNA and the ravages of Alzheimer’s than his mother's paint-stained fingers could. Or Grandma Nettie before her.
In fretting ceaselessly over his mother and their past, David fails to see what Mom ultimately discerns : that everything other than one's core energy field is but metaphor. In the same way paints only picture and words but describe, it isn't health or disease or hobby or profession that are “the” person. They are just circumstances and conditions. What was, was, what is, is. 
In Ignatieff's novel I am not satisfied David ever has the kind of epiphany his mom did. A “Saul on the road to Damascus” moment seems to elude him to the end, even though the paints are long gone and his own words haven’t led him to any kind of promised land.  
So whether playwright Foon nudges David further along the road to the light of insight will be intriguing to see.‬
Scar Tissue opens April 5th, and is scheduled to close April 28th at the Granville Island Revue Stage.  
N.B. Media Opening night is next Wednesday, April 11th. BLR's review will follow that evening.
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