Monday, 29 October 2012

Switch off the I-Pad and go see The Unplugging

Tribalism. Ostracism. Survival. Family. These are the four pillars of Yvette Nolan's The Unplugging that finishes its run at ACT's Review Theatre this week.  The script affected me the way a typical Alice Munro short story does -- crisp; pungent; poignant with honest voices from people we would all know as neighbours.

The play is a three-hander set in a bitterly cold and black North winter environment due to a crash of the grid, a systemic "unplugging" that never fixes itself. In its wake two women have been outcast from their home village as loners and gripers and independent souls. Some community : one not unlike Jonestown, Guyana in the late 70's where male repression is key.

Thus the women, Elena and Bernadette, find themselves having to hustle up shelter and food miles from home in the tundra with none of life's comforting cheats as we know them -- no electricity, no stores with stocked shelves, just the odd tin of food cached in hunters' cabins. To survive even a few days they must rebirth some core survival skills their kinfolk introduced them to decades back. Snaring rabbits is big, also "catching" a moose.

Although Nolan's working title to the play was Two Old Women, in the current staging Bernadette (Bern) is obviously the younger by a decade or more than Elena, the elder. This sets Bern up nicely for some turns with 20-something Seamus ("Shame us!") when after three months he crashes the two-fer society Elena and Bern have created. Bern likes sex and is generous in sharing it. Elena mostly aches at all this dalliance and intrusion. The storyline is redolent of Charles Frazier's brilliant U.S. civil war piece Cold Mountain.

The Unplugging is obviously set in some near-future apocalypse in North America. But as our family has learned from two decades in an off-the-grid cabin in the Cariboo, voluntary simplicity loses a bit of its Walden Pond appeal when the mercury hits -40.  Of such lifestyles, Elena recalls her feisty self-reliant grandma who repeatedly ran away from the bonds of a nursing home and died in the bush : "She never really trusted the technology. Never used a bank card. Drove an ancient truck with a standard transmission. Fixed things instead of throwing them out." And fixing things in Elena's raw new world includes personalities and neuroses and social relations, starting with herself.

Director Lois Anderson honours Nolan's insights remarkably. She is spot-on in her casting of actor Margo Kane, a Cree-Saulteaux, as Elena. Kane's version is lifted from the Sophia wisdom tradition of "beingness" and inner calm but also betrays dollops of existential angst. (Playwright Nolan is herself of Algonquin and Irish stock.)

Jean Griffin as Bern is edgy and sarcastic and naive and loving all at once. Seamus teaches her that she may be a more generous soul than she gives herself credit for. While honest in her rendering of the Nolan script, Griffin needed more blocking variety and stage business to complete her role.

Anton Lipovetsky is just the right blend of innocent-&-clever, not unlike the charming Lucentio he portrayed in Bard's Shrew last summer. As the play unfolds he shows he's learned some zen-like empathy from each of these women as the three of them become, if but fleetingly, a family.

The score and soundscape behind the piece by Alison Jenkins are an inspired montage : sort of Leslie Feist meets Inuit throat singers. Drew Facey's set of sliding screens evokes midwinter blues and whites amidst stylized aspens and birch -- together they plead with the characters to find redemption in all this harshness around them. Perfect minimalist stage props encourage the process, as does Bern's ratty clump of sweaters and leggings one all but smells.

By way of context, writer Nolan advises the play was a full 10 years in the conjuring but then found a publication draft completed in just 90 days. A long gestation but a noteworthy final product : her hand is deft and clever and will produce more no doubt.

People who kvetch about so much "predictable, safe theatre" in Vancouver owe it to themselves to take in this idiosyncratic and offbeat and timely story that suits the Review stage perfectly.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

She Stoops To Conquer doesn't quite, but amuses much

Sex always sells. And that's why though it's nearly 240 years old, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer withstands the ravages of time as comedy-cum-farce. When sexual hypocrisy is the core conceit, people giggle large. That's because sexual hypocrisy is visceral and core in all of us.

In the current ACT mounting, SSTC pops a cork fizzing good fun that only occasionally gets too cutesy for its own good such as the pee-in-the-woods piece and the hag's dance. But the script is pure cheek -- it is not meant as satire in the manner of Oscar Wilde's Earnest, just goofy harmless fun.

The plot is straightforward enough. Country squire Hardcastle, a rustic and charming old blatherer, wants his "princess" daughter Kate to marry well. He prevails on uppercrust London chum Sir Charles Marlow to have his son Chas-the-younger come "suit" Kate. Then, as now, city folks want to try out country charades, bumpkins want to play at pomp-&-circumstance.

Trouble for the squire's plans for Kate is that Junior is a stammering yammering idiot around young ladies of his own age and class. Kate is bored silly of him. But if the women are of bawdy peasant stock, earthy and flirty, well young Chuck seems to rise to the occasion with as much lech as any other frat-boy. Every local tavern has barrels of them.

Through a series of plot and character set-ups, Kate ultimately "stoops" to young Chuck's level, masquerading as a barmaid to bring out his randy self. And as in most comedies of manners, it's mistaken identities on various levels that propel both the characters and the plot along. Junior and his buddy George Hastings, thanks to prankster Lumpkin, think Squire Hardcastle's estate is just a traveler's country inn and the squire but its bourgeois proprietor. They therefore treat Hardcastle as servant and take his digs completely for granted. Fop-snobs do so with their *lessers*.

The har-har factor of such "shocking misconduct" as this in Blighty's class-driven 18th century world would have resonated mightily with Goldsmith's patrons. But even for Downton Abbey gawkers like us, it provides lots of sniggery. Of course plays such as this also need foils, sub-plots, and trick-timing to work. Goldsmith provides them all, particularly in the character of Hardcastle's squawkish wife Dorothy.

The "Mrs." schemes to have her son by an earlier marriage, said Lumpkin, marry his cousin Constance and get all her jewels by way of dowry in the bargain. Lumpkin is a dissolute prankster in love with his lumpy self, his horses, his pints, and his tavern maids -- he's got no candle to carry for her nor she him. So in an amusing parallel romantic plot, Goldsmith has Tony redeem himself by conspiring to have the horny Hastings win Con's hand -- and gems -- at Mom's expense, lit.-&-fig.

Reading the play led me to numerous dictional delights plus no end of Zounds! and Pshaws! and throat-clearing Ahems! and Egads!  Watching the play produced a somewhat different response for two reasons.

(1) Director Dean Paul Gibson advised in an ACT interview he feels the key to making Goldsmith relevant to contemporary audiences is "Pace. Pace. Pace."

(2) Most of the players tried their bloody hardest to affect some manner of Brit accent in their speech. Though no speech coach, I'd say the results were mottled to not-so-much. Horse-&-buggy dialogue that rips along at autobahn speeds in faux-accents makes discernment of speech considerably more effort than it should require, alas. Too bad, because live theatre is speech by and large.

Still, Norman Browning as Squire Hardcastle is nearly note-perfect in his indignant bafflement throughout. Chris Cochrane as Lumpkin almost steals the show in all respects : dialogue delivery; stage business with body and hands; mischievous booby of a character more brass than class and oh-so-fun. As Hastings, Jay Hindle brought his A-game to play both hitting his words and fielding just the right body language. Luc Roderique as Junior was nuanced and steady and a convincing cad throughout.  As Mom Dorothy, Leslie Jones had moments of jovial outrage but was directed too far toward farce for my liking. Jennifer Macwhinney as Kate exchanged charming repartee with Dad, but I found her not coquettish enough with Chuck : she needed better barmaid clothes and demeanour, both. Melissa Oei as Constance delivered a nice blend of proper and coy.

Kudos to the servants, one and all, who doubled not only as buffoons but as set-changers and chorus on a pop-up knock-down set by David Roberts that did the trick. Special mention to Rebekka Sorensen and her threadmeisters for costumes that were some of the best I've witnessed on any Vancouver stage over the decades.

SSTC will appeal to history buffs, students of play- and stagecraft, and to lovers of all things Brit.