Monday, 28 May 2012

Taming of the Shrew : sexist misogyny ?

Plot quicky : Younger sister Bianca is a hottie and the lust in many suitors’ eyes. But older sister Katherine (Kate) is not yet married. So father Baptista rules Bianca is off-limits until sis ties the knot first. Enter Petruchio. He marries the feisty Kate who is what cowgirls today might call “hard twist”: a strong, no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-lip kind of free agent. The rest of the play tracks their marriage demonstrating how Petruchio overcomes (“tames”) Kate’s hard twist mind and tongue (“shrew”) until she becomes compliant and adoring – to a fault.

The controversy continues : To say the play has been disparaged as male chauvinist piggery writ large hardly captures the debate that has raged for centuries – even from its first performance in 1594.

I have no doubt that as a nascent suffragette in 1895 my grandmother would likely have agreed with George Bernard Shaw’s assessment of this play: "No man with any decency of feeling can sit [the final act] in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed", he said, dismissing the popular 300-year-old play as “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility”.

Still, many see Petruchio’s words as irony, not misogynistic sarcasm. For example, Kate hisses to her father that Petruchio is “one-half lunatic” and “a mad-cap ruffian”.  Petruchio immediately retorts that to his mind Kate “is not hot, but temperate as the morn” and “modest as the dove”.  Some academics claim Petruchio’s words are but reverse psychology to woo her into genuine affection and love for him despite the fact she became his “chattel” via a steal-of-a-deal – a dowry with lots of cold hard cash from her papa.

Given all this, what is it that keeps acting troupes performing Taming of the Shrew and audiences flocking to see it now 400 years later ? The word to explain it is simply “art”. Shakespeare at his worst is still art unlike any previous or subsequent drama practitioner has managed to create. On an utterly facile level think of Shrew as analogous to the Joel and Ethan Coen film Fargo that “celebrates” greed, dishonesty, and wife-slaying amidst assorted other scenes of mayhem and murder. All conduct and values I, like most, abhor. Still, Fargo remains one of my favourite all-time USA movies. Such paradox might help explain Shrew, too.

Starting May 31st at Bard on the Beach main-stage at Vanier Park on English Bay with the Pacific Ocean as backdrop.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Song-&-dance good as it gets in High Society

Zoom Spot : Huzzah’s to High Society in spades. The exuberance and crispness and outright fun the performers have in this old-style musical comedy will excite even the most dour sourpuss in your household. The Arts Club’s performance outshines in every way the miscast and largely insipid 1956 movie starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Outshines it by uncountable lumens. And to this viewer the key is not the Cole Porter music that was adapted to the original and unlikely script of The Philadelphia Story. The key is Director Bill Millerd’s casting, first and foremost, followed quick-step by Valerie Easton’s choreography of the actors individually and collectively. Not to mention an extremely clever set by Alison Green, great mood lighting by veteran Marsha Sibthorpe, a perfect-pitched jazz orchestra led by Ken Cormier, and the period-piece costumes, particularly for the servants, designed by Phillip Clarkson. Don’t be cheap -- shell out the ducats to see all of this in perfect concert and harmony in Act II’s song-&-dance routine Let’s Misbehave if for no other reason.
                                                       *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Over dinner before the show I wrote the following as a proposed Apologia for what I thought I was about to see on the Stanley Theatre stage in ACT’s version of High Society :

In the current socioeconomic mileau, High Society could only be a Tea Party phenomenon. Its sole focus is on the well-heeled 1% with not even a momentary glance back at the Occupy 99% cadre.  Doubtless the decision to mount HS was made probably 8-10 months prior to the Occupy movement that catapulted to the world stage in September, 2011. Thus what follows is aimed at prospective viewers in 2012 who will “suspend disbelief” and enjoy witnessing the trials and tribulations of the 1% crowd in Newport, Rhode Island, USA circa 1938.

On the day Ontario police watchdog Gerry McNeilly condemned the actions of Toronto police at the G20 summit two years ago, my proposed Apologia above didn’t strike me as in the least cynical.  Just existentially contextual.

Bill Millerd and crew “forced” me to scrap that approach. Watching the production May 16, I was able, like Leonard Cohen, to “put a cap on my concussion and dance”.  To let a silly, goofy plot be rescued by excellent theatre antics and skills.  As I watched I was put to mind of the wonderful choreography from the 1950’s movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that was tight beyond measure.

The storyline of High Society is borderline offensive to anyone with a wit of social conscience. It’s sexist, ageist, anti-intellectual, champions the rich and floats in what the script identifies as “an alchemy of alcohol”.  Not easy to get more politically incorrect than all of that in 2012. 

The chief character is one Tracy Samantha Lord, who around age 30 is about to marry a second time after a first failed practice marriage with her childhood sweetheart Dexter Haven, a yacht designer.  The play is set mostly on the eve of her 2nd bout of nuptials, this time to bourgeois striver George Kittredge, a mining CEO whose umbra is class neurosis. He represents new money, which is bred of “youth and skill”. Old money is “age and treachery”. And we all know who wins those showdowns.

On this evening Tracy entertains a series of lusty and marital thoughts about not only her fiancĂ©e, boring George, but also of her ex- even as she flirts vigorously with a writer from a gossip-rag like the The Enquirer. His party invite was handed out as a bribe to kill a pending expose about Tracy’s dad who's been canoodling with a young dancer in New York.  In 2012 only Tea Partyers care about the peccadilloes of the social elite. Those “bright but synthetic qualities” New York Times critic Bosley Crowther derided back in ’56. Plastic values even in post-war 50's boom times, nevermind nearly 60 years later...

As Tracy, Jennifer Lines executes a near flawless rendition of this princess-ditz. Her dazzling smile and more-than-just-capable singing voice put Grace Kelly’s feeble shrill efforts to shame (though Grace pretty well managed that mediocrity on her own without any need for comparison to prove the point). Tracy’s younger sister Dinah played by Bridget Esler almost upstages every scene she’s in – that just-pre-teen smart-ass who zaps zinger lines with professional cadence.  Norman Browning as dipsomaniac and lecherous Uncle Willie pulls down regular slugs of gin and weavy dances with caricature accuracy.

Daniel Arnold is perhaps a bit teenybopper in his swooning over Tracy. He claims a bolshy soul but then drools at her every glance. Todd Talbot as Dexter grows into the part as the play rolls on, his bedroom choreography during Just One of Those Things as good as Ted Danson doing those endless pirouettes in the flik Body Heat a few decades back. 

Still, it is the servant group of Kayla Dunbar, Brandyn Eddy, Timothy Gledhill, Seana-Lee Wood and Melissa Young whose choreography and dance-stagehand routines ratchet this play up from not just good, but great great fun.  

As Zoom Spot says : “Don’t be cheap -- shell out the ducats to see all of this in perfect concert and harmony in Act II’s song-&-dance routine Let’s Misbehave if for no other reason.”



Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fizz-&-froth-&-fancy dress -- and Cole Porter

In ACT's promotion for High Society that opens Thursday, local arts editor and podcaster Daniel Ralston ends an insightful 9-paragraph history of the original movie The Philadelphia Story and the musical re-mount of 1956 with this comment on the seduction of theatre nostalgia : "High Society invites its audiences to compare an imagined past and an all-too-real present."

With 18 songs by Cole Porter set in Gatsby-era Eastern Seaboard mansions, this ain't Coors and cotton candy country. We are promised petit fours for one silk glove and French bubbly for the other, without the Scott Fitzgerald existential angst underpinning it all.

Anyone who marveled at the top-10 film of 1956 starring Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong will easily be teased into watching their celluloid antics translated to stage business.  Director Bill Millerd and cast will surely try to please 2012 sensibilities in the rich confines of the Stanley.

The plot is pure froth and nonsense : about a rich and spoiled naif on the eve of her second wedding. She pirouettes and giggles and suffers(!) the competing attentions of her fiance, her ex-husband, and a gossip-rag reporter throughout a night of incandescent partying.  Come dawn one almost hears Scarlett whinging to Rhett : "Where shall I go ? What shall I do ?"

Still, let's compare.  We live in an epoch of rap and worse; The Baconator; Steve, Obie and Mitt; the Eurodrone; Al Qaeda semtex underwear; Quebecois youth rioting over dollar-a-day university fee hikes -- in such a world as this maybe the fizz and fuzz and silly goings-on by a bunch of USA nouveau riche from the post-WW II boom years is just right. What other Rx for the 2012 neuralgia and dyspepsia we suffer -- only Timothy Leary's Turn on, tune in, drop out ! it seems.

To borrow from Daniel Ralston again : "A blend of nostalgic film associations, catchy Porter scoring, and the allure of the carefree 1950's [might be] the perfect cocktail."