Thursday, 28 June 2012

Unanimous standing-o for Xanadu

Snapshot : A full-house unanimous standing ovation, even in clap-happy Vancouver, is not altogether typical. That is what the crowd on opening night June 27th felt it owed the cast and crew and the various coaches who made Xanadu such a fun nite out for them.

Compared to the 1980 cult film disaster it was based on, to say the stage play Xanadu is “gay” says it all : “carefree, joyous, bright & sunny” as well as reference to the clever creator who wrote the score’s book, Douglas Carter Beane, and to a goodly chunk of the costuming and choreography.

ACT’s version directed by Dean Paul Gibson is 80’s sentiment wrapped in tinsel, silk and spandex and reflected, metaphorically at least, in a giant disco mirror-ball.  If you like Olivia Newton-John songs, Jeff Lynne’s ELO rock and John Farrar’s lyrics such as found in “Evil Woman”, then this show is your kind of nostalgic plouffe.

Storyline : As unlikely as it gets. In 1980 nine muses, daughters of Zeus, descend from Mount Olympus to Venice Beach, CA. Head muse Clio leads them to help a struggling chalk artist realize his dream of opening a roller disco. To masque her ethereal self, Clio puts on roller skates and leg warmers and calls herself Kira. Two of Clio’s siblings, the “ugly sisters” Melpomene and Calliope, conspire to have Clio fall in love with Sonny, the chalk artist. Of course Clio will be banished from the Mount by Zeus if she does, don’t you know. Says Melpomene of their scheme : “Let us not giggle. Let us cackle.” Responds Calliope: “Cackling and hiding, listen to us. This is like children’s theater for 40 year old gay people.”

"Magic curtain" under a proscenium arch that separates actors from audience? Not on your life. This is all about ham and slapstick and goosing the crowd into joining the antics on stage. Beane's book is rife with nudge-nudge, wink-wink one-liners designed to jump past the apron and plop directly into viewers' laps.

Campy ? Kitschy ? Did I say gay ? Reviewers can’t seem to decide whether they line up with the New Yorker’s Hilton Als who calls it a “lavish and sublime confection”. Or whether they’re more on-side with the New York Post’s Clive Barnes who in a review titled “Xanadon’t” called it a “juke box musical (whose) music is not awful, simply nostalgic-generic”.  Then, after that oh-so-faint praise, damns the show mercilessly: the music he said “is the only goodish news of an absolutely ghastly show” – talking about the Beane script, not the acting on stage.

Production values : My 19-year-old daughter and I came away as if from "a pleasant dining experience" -- satisfied, surely, maybe not sated. I asked her three questions as she drove us home. (1) Strongest asset. “The music,” she said, meaning songs, lyrics, actors’ singing, and band accompaniment all.  (2) Weakest feature. “The lighting,” she said, opining that Gerald King, a 24-year veteran with ACT, was simply not on top of his game for this show. (3) Would you go again if you had to pay for your seat with your own money ? [This is almost a metaphysical question to the average 19-year-old.] “Absolutely!” she said ne’er missing a beat.

For me the three strongest assets are Lisa Stevens’ choreography and stage business for the actors, far and away the most prominent strength of the show i.m.o.  Nevermind the fancy footwork – the arm gesticulations throughout were a dance in their own right and a delight. No question I would go again just to enjoy the choreography.

Second, the acting of five people in not-quite-random order : Bonnie Panych as Calliope channels Nicola Cavendish, a comic scheming wench of eye-watering laughability throughout. Gaelen Beatty as Sonny Malone, in his debut role with ACT : as thick as  bartender Woody Boyd from Cheers but who roller skates to beat the band and sings with gusto. Vincent Tong in all his guises, but particularly his turn as “Young Danny” Maguire when he puts on a tour de force show of dance that he and Stevens designed.  Cailin Stadnyk as Euterpe, who was exceptionally engaged and electric in her execution of support roles. J. Cameron Barnett as Terpsicore-in-drag throughout – the most wink-wink actor on the stage. As the centaur his equus pawing of turf was splendid. 

Third, tie between the great roller derby set by Kevin McAllister, also Andrew Tugwell's sound design, in which the band did not drown out the singers or vice-versa. Kudos to designers, producers, performers all. 

Oh, and a fourth. The costumes by Rebekka Sorensen were terrific, except for the decidedly not-1980 high school jock jackets in the final scene. Those are from the 50's-60's Happy Days epoch, not the ON-J and ELO 1980's.

Not-quite-so-much factors :

Acting. As Clio/Kira, Marlie Collins makes her Vancouver theatre debut, and she is mostly a delight. Good strong singing if a bit “pitchy” on the higher notes. Charming and sexy with Sonny at all times. Her roller skating, however, reminded me of me on either skis or ice skates : awkward and iffy, which was a bit distracting. I was tense expecting “Call the medics!” at any moment, but clearly I empathize.

Lighting. Scriptman Beane had a whole scene in Act I involving Maguire (Simon Webb – solid throughout) and Malone admiring the Xanadu sign over the new disco ballroom and how folks would see it from blocks away. Alas, the sign remained unlit and dead to the eye. A real Hmnn?! moment.  Also during the disco scene to wrap the show : the couple-dozen disco balls descended and exploded in sparkles far too late for much impact at all. The stars should have fallen on Alabama first, not last. Pity.

Choreography. Final scene needed all the actors all sporting roller skates immediately on the stage as Kira explodes leading the delirious “Xanadu” final number. Too little, too late, too bad.

Parting shot : Two from one family went. A 19-year-old just returned from a NYC theatre course with Langara College who had seen some 8-9 plays and opined : “As good as anything I saw there !” And her dad some five decades older who attended this show with a bit of healthy skepticism around the "how" and "why" of this goofy plotline as stage play. But who left quite agreeing with Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times – this is a show both “indefensible and irresistible”.


Monday, 25 June 2012

Merry Wives a *revenge* for Shrew ?

Merry Wives just might have been designed as a cheeky antidote to the chauvinist climate that reigned in Shrew -- perhaps -- as Wives was written a decade later. Not only that, but BillyBard jumps from aristocratic Italy to a middle-class 16th century Elizabethan English town called Windsor and shows us women not only equal to but superior to their men, just like Elizabeth I was.

In a comic chorus of comeuppance, BB pits a penniless but overfed ex-knight Sir John Falstaff against the clever machinations of Mistresses Ford and Page. Why? Because Falstaff is addlepated enough to send identical love letters to them both in attempts to poach their husbands' cash in the bargain.  First (multi-gender) rule of the hustle, then as now : wooing two who are best friends is risky sequentially, nevermind simultaneously. 

In response, the wives gleefully plot revenge on this loonie fallen- warrior. And because Mrs. Ford's husband is unquenchably jealous, he believes his wife is actually succumbing to Falstaff's seductive schemes. So she plots "Gotcha!" for him, too, possibly getting even for Shrew's Kate.  I.e. patriarchal rules of monarch, court and the 2nd estate no longer govern absolutely. Wives gives us a couple of clever bourgeois women whose objective is minor malice. What the audience gets is mirth

We also get, of course, the customary BB sub-plot schtick of multiple suitors pursuing a principal's daughter; disguises; ruses; woodborne tinkerbells; gay *marriages* -- the usual fun, sport & amusement in a show that usually runs close to 165 minutes of stage action.

Purposely set by director Johnna Wright in a Windsor, Ontario karaoke pub in 1968, no question all the mischief, matchmaking, canoodling, multiple identities, sight gags, deceptions and feints of some two dozen characters are designed to place 2012 viewers closer to Fawlty Towers and Desperate Housewives than to jolleye olde Englande.  

As always it is the language of Shakespeare that is the challenge to be "got" by both actors and audiences : to be delivered crisply and with appropriate pauses and cadence -- but also with precisely the right emPHAsis on each and every sylLABle. All the more critical with the conceit of thrusting the action 400 years forward into a suburban Canuck (Red Wings...?) milieux. 

Too, malapropisms -- like their cousin puns, often a pretty sketchy form of sniggery -- take centre stage in this play, one that academics often refer to as the "least poetic" of BB's scripts. Still, my WS guru A. L. Rowse declares straight-up: "This perennially successful play is the most purely amusing, from beginning to end, that Shakespeare ever wrote."    

So ker-THUNK ! goes the gauntlet from Prof. Rowse directly at the feet of Wright's Bard-bunch. No question the talent displayed in delivering BB's cleverness off-the-tongue will determine the degree of success the cast and director have in making us LOAO or not.

Opens June 28th at the Studio Stage at Bard on the Beach in Vanier Park.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Xanadu promises zany fun

Glimpse : Take the music of Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra and have it collide with the mania of 4-wheel roller derby in 1980 Los Angeles.

Remember the Olivia Newton John disco song called “Xanadu” ? This is a  90-minute comedy sprung by that song but add the roller skates, add Chorus Line leg warmers, Greek muses, a sidewalk chalk artist, creativity block, potential suicide, two “ugly sisters” and the threat of condominium development in Los Angeles DTES. Say what ? Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times called it a musical both “indefensible and irresistible”.

Does it work ? Slickity tunes and slickity costumes will a join a bunch of slickity characters, we’re promised, and from what I’ve read the dialogue is wonderful cheesy. For me, the Jeff Lynne songs “Strange Magic” and “Dancin’” alone would be enough to make me go because I’m a sentimental slob when I feel like it.

Xanadu was a huge hit in New York in 2007-2008, so I find it  Unimaginable! that a professional troupe under Director Dean Paul Gibson could fail to produce the summer’s feel-good winner. Proof will be in how well the ball bearings spin along with the 8-track tunes.

A good and capable Macbeth

Director Miles Potter’s version of the play sets a journeyman’s eye upon the script and its challenges, no question. There is yeoman service given to the schizoid setting, plot and characterization that all feed into one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. While skilled in execution in most respects, the production did not find me leaving the tents doing fist-pumps while gushing “Yes! Yes!”  More Salieri than Mozart, one might say.

 Signal : for the first time in all the years I’ve attended mainstage Vancouver performances, not even one audience member rose to give the cast a standing-o on June 19th.  Typically it’s 50% or more in this city.

In parsing the play, most observers point to what they see as the contrasts between the Macbeths as civilized gentry who then succumb to witches’ portents, ambition, motive-&-opportunity all of which “conspire” to “make” them evil.
I say from Moment 1 Macbeth’s ego augered him down into his bedrock essence. Of the bearded sisters’ initial prediction he would be King of Scotland, Macbeth muses immediately : “If good, why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, / Against the use of nature? Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings : / My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smothered in surmise / And nothing is but what is not.”  [Aside : The line “Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair” could not be improved upon – in 100 lifetimes by 100 different writers – one iota.]  Point is Macbeth’s brain conjures the prospect of ugly mischief to achieve his destiny from the get-go.

Throughout, Bob Frazer’s catch of Macbeth vacillates, as the script does. Robust man-of-action braggadocio toggles with introspective soliloquies that are both poetic and edgy.  Still, I think I was looking for some psychic consistency, some fundamental underlying menace that doubts and feints can only masque : a  17th century warrior Nixon. 

For her part, Lady Macbeth (Colleen Wheeler) displays nefarious inclinations from her first soliloquy, too : right off she says her husband lacks the “illness” that should attend to ambition. “Thus thou must do, if thou have it / And that which rather thou dost fear to do / Than wishest should be undone.” She knows only brute force will win Macbeth the throne. And she lets us know right smartly she’s his go-to gal, his bloodlust seductress.

British homeopathist Anna Thorley had occasion to write about these characters, thus : “The fundamental problem with the Macbeths was that they were joined at the hip, undifferentiated as a man and woman and frighteningly dependent on one another. She was identified with masculine attitudes, manifesting in aggression and cruelty; he was cut off from his manhood, completely unable to withstand the pressure she put upon him. Both were estranged from feminine sensibilities, intent on manipulating their outer situation with no regard for the consequences for the soul.”  Anyone familiar with yin/yang concepts would have no argument there. Once Macbeth “murders sleep” neither of them find that sweet peace in their bed or in their heads any longer.

 So. Back to Bard. Here is my cut at it – bad pun intended, given the numerous swordfight scenes, all of which were well *executed* thanks to swordsman coach Nicholas Harrison.

Highest kudos go to sound designer Murray Price who, when Director Potter told him he wanted a “claustrophobic, internal, edge of mania type of closeness” in the soundscape, Price simply delivers up a Grammy.
The liner notes say Macbeth’s backdrop comprises “sounds that we don’t so much hear, but feel. They resonate in our bodies or our subconscious…”  Between the leitmotif of ravens squawking and owl scrills, there was a sub-sub-woofer trend reminiscent of the 2010 World Cup vuvuzelas that buzzed away constantly. Once or twice I was uncertain whether the other overhead commotion was from Price’s recordings or helijet ambulances screaming toward St. Paul’s – but whether by design or accident or both, all the ambient audio tension worked wonderfully well.

The setting with its moorish screen backdrop cutting out English Bay plus the many mists and smokes pumping out effluent throughout enhanced the dark and equivocal mood of the play immensely.  For its part the gothic arch set had nothing particular to recommend it but was functional, especially the subterranean entrance that was used to good advantage.

Blocking and stage business – other than the fight scenes – I found somewhat fixed and ploddy, not unlike what one sees in opera. Except for Frazer’s excellent interpretation of the Banquo ghost scene – on balance perhaps the best performed scene in the play.  In it Frazer showed terrific animation and true existential angst as he sustained Emotion #4 of 4 – fear – the other three being mad, sad, glad.  Wheeler was ever-so-equal to Frazer in this scene with her sardonic dismissal of his manhood, both in word and action.

Duncan Fraser as Doctor (“More needs she the divine than the physician”) / 2nd murderer / Old Siward gives each role his all with both overt and subtle effect.  Bernard Cuffling as King Duncan could not have been more endearing or elegant.  But special mention has got to be reserved for John Murphy’s excellent porter – not just in the knocking / Gates of Hell /dipsomania scene, but throughout. True consistency of character and comic menace – very fun indeed.

Two clangers : Lady M / Wheeler when she shrieks after the Banquo-ghost episode : “Stand not upon the order of your going / But go at once!” Rosie O’Donnell could not have executed it worse. Well, maybe.

Bob Frazer’s “Out, out brief candle…” turn should have been Sisyphus grimly facing the rock, yet again, but this time nearly opting for suicide himself – consumed by core visceral pain, not just situational distress. It came off as an aloof philosophical daydream.  Still, his lingering silent pause at the end of this most renowned and familiar speech of the play almost compensated.

In sum, this is Bard. This is summer(?) in Vancouver. So go, dress v-e-r-y warmly, avoid the popcorn (in its 23rd season as well) and enjoy.  “Yeoman” and “professional” all the way through with a few moments of blue spark.  I may have wanted more or different, but this Macbeth is worth your shekels regardless. 


Friday, 15 June 2012

Mr. & Mrs. Macbeth – having a look…

There is no mystery key to unlock the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Except to mimic the poet himself from the play @ I /iii /143 : “Come what come may / Time and the hour run through the roughest day.”

Violence, horror and mayhem you say ? Let us not forget that with Macbeth we are faced with a vicious warrior. He disembowels the rebel traitor Macdonwald, who was loyal to the Thane of Cawdor who led the charge to unseat King Duncan. Not only kills Macdonwald, he also beheads him and pikes the bleeding trophy in triumph. To reward him, Duncan bestows Macbeth with the title Thane of Cawdor after Cawdor is in turn hunted down and summarily executed for his treason – a slightly-too-obvious bit of irony and foreshadowing on BillyB’s part some might argue.

What is profound about Macbeth is Shakespeare’s intuitive sense, pre-Freud and pre-Jung by a few centuries. We are complex bodies. We have no children so we kill others’. We worship our wives; we kill others’ who adore theirs as much. We exalt our leaders, but kill them when they obstruct our greedy plans. We have heart. We have dinners with wine and mutton just like other mortals do. We breathe heavily while dancing horizontal. We feel and hurt. We loathe. We conspire against those who stand in our way. What most we do is we think. We think. We think. And when we think, we conjure demons – women with beards – who enflame and tumesce our frightful obsessive fantasies.

The wacko Macbeths lack two things, primarily. Insight into the personal devils loose in their brains and their bowels. And no governor on their base impulses, barely a half-wit of superego in their collective souls. The id and ego juices excited between them are fueled by testosterone and estrogen, shared hormones of horror. Any guilt they feel might be rational but is not visceral – borne of words, not guts or spirit. Still, whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

A word or two about plot. Macbeth is also brilliant current events from the early 1600’s. It exploits the blow-up-Parliament-and-the-King conspiracy of 1605 that is known by the somewhat benign title of The Gunpowder Plot starring Guy Fawkes. (What will a mere 36 barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords do but flatten Parliament and a square mile around it, too?)  So not quizzical that a preoccupation with regicide results along the Thames precisely when BB writes this script. Further to the history of the day, Macbeth references the Catholic/Anglican split between Scotland and England and disparages the closet Catholics of Albion who “equivocate” why they didn’t attend Anglican matins. Much made of this in the porter knocking scene. Not to forget for a second how suspicions and hatreds were the communion of the day – all in the spirit of Jesus Christ, of course.

In the end BillyB knew he’d penned a classic in Macbeth and he ran with it, furiously, which is part the reason it’s so punchy from Moment 1 and, unlike Shrew, so short and tight.  Also a potboiler that slavers up jealousy, rage, ambition, sex, revenge and good old-fashion personal guilt in a grisly but fascinating drama that is anything but melo.

The challenge for a director in 2012 is to give such despicable human impulses as the Macbeths’ a contemporary gestalt in which to make new sense, if that’s possible, not just the same-old hisses and shouts.

We shall see what Director Miles Potter hath wrought.


Monday, 11 June 2012

Good (albeit slightly uneven) outing at Bard with Shrew

Zoom Spot :  Director Meg Roe had the right idea how to make Taming of the Shrew more palatable to contemporary sensibilities. Her audience is well-tuned-in to feminism and the increasingly prominent GLBT sexual culture, after all.  Solution ? Slapstick! this 400-year-old script, slapstick it bigtime. Lots of nods and winks directly at the audience, call Mantua “Montreal”, inject a slew of pratfalls both real and metaphorical. But mostly let lead Lois Anderson as Kate fully exaggerate her amygdala. Let her be Princess Bitch of the ages. She's two cats fighting in the alley all by herself. Pure comic stuff that Anderson aces. It works because slapstick is but irony writ large. The only *message* to take away is this : “None of our silly shenanigans are to be taken at face value!”  Where the current production is true to that game plan, the play wings along cleverly. Kayvon Kelly as Grumio, Shawn Macdonald as Gremio and newby Anton Lipovetsky as Lucentio all execute wonderfully well. Never do these characters spiel off Billy Bard’s words with even a soupcon of face-value denotation. As Petruchio, however, John Murphy resorts to rote-recitation too often, alas. The switch is not all his fault, for sure -- BillyB's contradictory characterization of Petruchio as a "kill her with kindness wife abuser" doesn't help. Worse yet, Kate's final speech : a fine mess indeed. On balance, however, Shrew is another fun Vancouver summer evening with English Bay and the twinkly lights of the West End as Bard's signature backdrop. Add in the omnipresent rainstorms, street sirens, and medic helicopters going Whumpa! Whumpa! overhead as they race toward downtown hospitals, and you come away satisfied this first play of the 23rd season in the tents with Bard gives you, on balance, decent bang for the consumer buck.


I was hoping for a nuanced representation for contemporary eyes from Meg Roe's direction of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Some recognition, say, that this is not just male chauvinist piggery writ large (see Preview below). More emphasis how bully-vs- bully morphs into lover-to-lover.

Roe’s version asks you to suspend your biases about political correctness and face the fact that Kate has as little emotional intelligence as Petruchio. Two psychosocial misfits who stumble and bumble into one another : both greedy, one for power, the other for security. They find each other. And maybe swap life roles in the process.

Fact is Kate treats her sister Bianca no better than Petruchio treats Kate herself : lots of sarcasm, dismissive disdain, physical violence. Whether in Shakespeare’s patriarchal culture or today’s GLBT world, such conduct is not much to giggle at. Unless it’s slapstick. Unless the bullying crosses gender stereotypes and applies to all two-legged creatures regardless of sex.

In slapstick, as the word implies, people bop and boff one another, just like the Three Stooges four centuries later. They smart-mouth and smart-ass each other. They hoodwink each other. They seduce each other.  Shrew should never be looked at as a prĂ©cis of universal moral “truths” -- just a goofy, edgy play on manners-of-the-day meant to be taken 100% frivolously, both then and now.

Further along these lines – skip ahead if this bores you – Shrew was written at the end of the 16th century A.D.  It was conceived as spunky ironic fun on the wholly Christian turf of England.  Whether closet Catholic or eager Anglican, Billy Bard was surely steeped in the 10th Commandment from Exodus 20:17 : “Thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”  The operative word being “thing”.  To Petruchio, Kate is a “thing”. And for his part Petruchio may be anatomically and metaphorically both an "a" and "p", but in Kate’s patriarchal time he was “it” -- her meal ticket and guarantor of a squishy life. Simple as that. So it’s the sexual energy between “thing” and “it” that makes this play still relevant, whatever the times. 

From the opening scene, Lois Anderson’s Kate has a voice that either wilts flowers or shatters glass. Unlike the film version as portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, she doesn’t bosom forth with fake rage at 150 decibels.  Anderson “finesses” Kate’s shrillness nicely. For his part, Petruchio (John Murphy) can’t find a core identity like Richard Burton did in the film with his sardonic and lecherous heh-heh-heh laugh constant throughout. Between Roe’s direction and Shakespeare’s lurchy script for this character, Mr. Murphy can’t seem to decide whether he’s ironic wit or macho pig or just faintly bored much of the time. His delivery of lines oscillates constantly as among these personna such that there’s no “person” at the end of it all, only role-playing.

But for all the foreplay, as it were, most disappointing of all was the final soliloquy by Anderson as Kate. Why Roe had her deliver it straight-up, with not a whiff of triumphant irony, is simply beyond me.  To make Shrew really work in 2012, Kate's speech has to project this sentiment : “We two have found each other because I am as bad-to-the-bone as you are.  The only difference is I recognize it, so I can suck up to you and laugh at you while you are still stuck being you. Yet in some perverse way I think I love you. You jerk.”

Had Kate's previous stage business not been superior, I would agree 100% with GBS (see Preview below) that her final speech -- taken at face value -- can't help but offend ear and eye in equal measure.  How else to respond to her invite to Petruchio -- I'll paraphrase -- to "let my hand be squashed beneath thy foot, O lord and master"...?