Sunday, 8 December 2013

Quartet aims at War Babies & Boomers

A slogan-pin popular with aging lotharios states : "The older I get the better I was." Or as the T-shirt on the octogenarian gentleman I see often at the gym proclaims : "Growing old ain't for sissies." Such as these might well be sub-texts behind the script of Quartet currently being performed by RAP Productions at the PAL Studio Theatre on Cordero Street.

Plot overview :  Like the Performing Arts Lodge (PAL) itself, the setting for Quartet is a retirement lodge. Designed to house musicians particularly, the fictional lodge focuses on four former opera soloists who a lifetime ago performed Giuseppi Verdi's "Rigoletto" together. Once again -- in their 8th decade of life -- through a combination of choice-&-chance they are thrown together anew. To honour Verdi, "the best composer for voice who ever lived", a gala is performed at the lodge on the anniversary of Verdi's birthday each October 10th. The dramatic tension in this comedy is whether the tenor, the baritone and the contralto from 30-years-back can convince the newest resident, the prima donna soprano, to join them in a reprise of the opera's 3rd act quartet at the upcoming gala. Along the way playwright Ronald Harwood has each of the characters reveal snippets of their long-ago selves, secrets and gossip, revelations of sexcapades both real and imagined from back in the day.

Character takes :  What gets the juice flowing in this script is the fact that prima donna soprano Jean (Yvonne Adalian) who's newly arrived was once married to the tenor Reg (Sean Allan) whom she divorced decades back in a nanosecond before wandering through 3-4 subsequent marriages. Reg is aghast that the lodge would take Jean in as a resident without consulting him first, given their history. He is apopleptic about her imminent arrival. His baritone buddy Wilf (David Petersen) is a widower -- a randy and priapic old lech. He poo-poos Reg's angst because he's too focus'd on wanting to mount the contralto Cissy (Wendy Morrow Donaldson) and/or any other female who comes to mind. 

When Jean arrives she delivers Reg a speech apologizing for ditching him shortly after their nuptials, asking that he treat her nice, and then promptly announces "There! I've done it. I've been practicing that for weeks!" Reg, who's a bookish art-nerd, finds the warmth of his enthusiasm for her apology is somewhat less than luke. The effervescent Cissy, meanwhile -- who avoids Wilf's droolish monologues toward her by donning earphones to listen to old opera CD's of them all -- emerges from one of these opera swoons to propose they re-mount the quartet for the Verdi gala. Jean is adamant. No! And that's final. Depressed at being at the lodge "on charity", she bivouacs in her apartment and weeps, rages and throws things for a couple of days. Reg softens. She is vulnerable after all, not just a heartless mannequin. He tells the other two only he might be able to coax Jean into being the 4th voice come October 10th.

First impressions : The Quartet script didn't get much pick-up after its 1999 initial production until Harwood re-jigged his book for a 2012 movie directed by Dustin Hoffman. In Hoffman's debut as a director (at age 75) the movie featured an all-star cast including Maggie Smith as Jean, Tom Courtenay as Reggie, and Billy Connolly as Wilf. In fact it was seeing the movie that prompted RAP Productions' Sean Allen and Camilla Ross, both PAL residents, to re-mount the original stage play version. One lesson that perhaps ought to have not been lost on RAP Director Matthew Bissett is that the Hoffman big screen show ran for 98 minutes, full-stop. That's some 25 or so minutes shorter than Mr. Bissett's Cordero Street stage version. Twenty-five minutes easily shaveable from the original script i.m.o. 

That said, the play is heartwarming and seasonal in its "all's well that ends well" plotline. Because both through their characters' lines and in real Vancouver life, too, the cast acts out this proposition : Life is not 'then'. Life is not 'when'. Life is now. And now is what you make of it. So get on with it. As Reg and Wilf and Cissy remind each other throughout : "NSP!" -- "no self-pity" permitted on the premises.

Jean isn't quite 'there' yet. She whines and whimpers and whinges in classic princess, prima donna mode : "I am a different person today than who I was -- that somebody shone in the firmament whose light is now extinguished!" Balderdash and bollix, Wilf says, commandingly. "No, you're not. Nor are we. We've aged, that's all. And it happened so fast we didn't have time to change. In spirit, I'm the same lovely lad I always was. I just happen to be trapped in a cage made of rusty iron bars."

Earlier, Reg tries to win Jean over to the quartet re-mount idea. "It's my opinion that performing again, albeit once a year, to an audience of our fellow residents, to members of staff, the odd visitors, is a way of reaffirming our existence."

The fun of it all : Most reviews focus on Jean's role in the piece and point to Cissy's part as "secondary" and even "least sympathetic". Not so in the RAP production. To this reviewer, Ms. Donaldson's Cissy is the glue that holds the production together. She has the brightest glint in her eye, she has the ginger snap in her lines, she has the gesticulations and blocking quick-step that make her character the most likeable and believable and rich. Aside from his "rusty iron bars" soliloquy that was grand, Mr. Petersen's Wilf character as drawn by Harwood is mostly a dowdy version of Artie Johnson the lech from t.v.'s Laugh-In days that Mr. Petersen does his damndest to flesh out. Reg is thoughtful to a fault, an impotent force when not in tenor mode, except for a seemingly odd-character lapse when he rages at one of the aides, repeatedly, for failing to give him marmalade for brekkie instead of jam. Sean Allen marks him well. As Jean, Ms. Adalian turns in a nuanced rendition of a somewhat crippled soul who finally grasps that "was" was then and except for a few CD re-mount sales, "was" don't matter no more to no one.

The Glenn MacDonald set of piano drawing room worked well, but even higher kudos to whoever chose the costumes from the stash provided to RAP by the United Players. Excellent throughout!

Who gonna like : This play is one we War Babies and the Boomers who followed us will appreciate for its insights into life after kids, the 'burbs, the careers, and the klieg lights. As a kind of play-within-a-play given the PAL connection of its cast, it proves the point of Wilf's soliloquy and does so touchingly. The characters offer insights into what last-chapter pages might read like for many of us if we're lucky enough to make it to the 8th and 9th decades of life or beyond. For that it's surely a "go". Despite its ploddy length particularly in the first act, the repartee between the characters is superb. The make-up scene prepping for the gala where they reveal their secrets and peccadilloes and truths from their pasts is where Harwood's script tickles and delights and the cast delivers very agreeably indeed. 


Thursday, 5 December 2013

It's Snowing on Saltspring great Xmas giggle

If David Mamet's House of Games is your idea of engaging stage humour, you probably won't want to see ACT's reprise of It's Snowing on Saltspring. Saltspring is Nicola Cavendish's iconic 1985 Christmastime total feel-good phantasy. Heavy on the dark and sardonic it definitely is not. 

Oh sure, it starts off with various stage tropes around mid-life crisis blue funk, pregnant-wife-estrangement, endless broods & buzz-kills from hubby. But with the wink of an eye in come some randy neighbours, a riotous Sandy Claws, kandy kanes and bag-after-bag of chocolate Viva Puffs. In short order it's one bejeesus big seasonal confection almost impossible not to giggle at -- whether again, or maybe, like me, for the first time.

Plot overview : Middle age dentist Bill Bannister (Andrew McNee) is married to a v-e-r-y pregnant Sarah (Juno Rinaldi) whose baby is coupla fat weeks past due. Bannister is freaking. Babies don't come with instruction manuals. But not just this is his source of angst. He's on a sabbatical from his Vancouver dentistry practice, too. Sarah explains "he's got the itch to run", just like his Dad did to him and his Mom three decades earlier when he was 10. But soon their neighbours sweep in -- the Kanes, wife Martha (Deborah Williams) and The Rev. hubby Kris (Joel Wirkkunen). Martha is a flutter of well-wishes, manic cleaning and puttering amidst a flurry of naughty one-liners such as "I smell hot rubber -- we're not interrupting anything here, are we...?" For his part Rev. Kris reels off seasonal bible verses like an eager circuit preacher, but his angelic quotes are delivered devilishly, eyes atwinkle to fit the season. Mid-verse he grabs Martha and does a vertical version of the horizontal mambo right in the Bannister kitchen. "Kris is full of the holy moly spirit!" Martha titters. 

Shortly the realtor who sold the fixer-upper to the Bannisters some months back, Bernice Snarpley (Beatrice Zeilinger), arrives. She's a Weyburn, SK gal come west after being jilted by her business partner / lover Shirl who after 15 years "out" opted back "in" for a hetero marriage. Snarpley has come to have Bill and Sarah sign a contract to sell the cottage in the new year. Seems our boy Bill hasn't told Sarah about his plans to do this so they can act out his phantasy to escape to the Canary Islands. Sarah explodes and hucks Bill his jammies to sleep on the front room couch. But not before she leaves a note for Santa : "Dear Santa. I believe in you. I believe in miracles. Please advise." Right on cue Santa arrives and whisks Bill away in a Rod Serling-esque dream sequence to the North Pole.

Act 2 provides Bill's deliverance -- comic, antic variations of Miracle on 34th Street stuff -- that finds Bill have his epiphany at last and drift back to the Christmas hearth on Saltspring a changed and chastened and cheerful reformed chump of a swell guy.

First impressions and character take :   As a newbie to this Cavendish script, I found Saltspring a small wonder. Sentimental, sure, but in a madcap farcical kind of way. Not preachy or larded with homilies, just a bunch of witty epigrams to reflect the better angels we try to coax out of one another this time of year to scare away winter blahs and crud. 

As with so much comedy, the first act is an extended build-up to the fast-paced second act where all the conflicts find resolve. And it is the second act of Saltspring that had folks behind me exclaiming "Oh, wasn't that just so much fun!" while more than one 50-something couple grinned at one another and held hands on their way out.

The secret to the fun of this piece is the excellent cast ensemble selected by Director Lois Anderson. As scripted by Cavendish, The Rev. Kris and Martha Kane from Act 1 morph into Sandy and Martha Claus at the second act's North Pole. Snarpley becomes head elf Grindle O'Darby in pig-snout headgear, while Sarah plays Grindle's main grab Peggy. The dialogue is in cute rhymed couplets the whole scene in the sing-songy cadence of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas.

This Christmas Eve Santa's factory at the North Pole is a madhouse. Grindle has a major toothache he's medicating with liquor. The toy conveyor belt filling Santa's sleigh is broke. The dozens of helper elves are whooping it up farting and kai-yai-ing instead of wrapping and packing. Martha yells out the window to whoever is bombarding the scene with music : "My nerves, my nerves are frightfully shattered / Play it tomorrow when it doesn't matter!" And in all the raging pandemonium it is the sight gags of Wirkkunen and Williams as Santa and Martha throwing their sizable girths at one another, blowing kisses, feigning the nudgy-wudgy, pirhouetting around the stage like manic overfed fire ants that make this a laugh-out-loud hoo-ha.

As Bill Bannister, Andrew McNee delights. His reversion to his kleptomaniac youth, even stealing from Santa, was a spot-on touch. Any adult who's had a bout or two of existential angst will relate to his rants and fits and goofy "Let me out of this nightmare, now!" moments. Juno Rinaldi as Sarah is just right as the chirpy, spunky wife who tries desperately to cling to hope and good cheer while living with a man who used to make her laugh but is now Drudge One.  Beatrice Zeilinger with her droll no-nonsense schtick brought to mind Frances McDormond's Marge Gunderson in Fargo. When the atmosphere gets a bit tense between Bill and Sarah she remarks, deadpan : "Times like this I just wanna hook up the power washer, put on a little k.d. lang and blow the dirt out of everything!" Perfect SK farm gal with heart as big as the prairie.

Production values : As a Cariboo cabin owner, I was struck instantly by Set Designer Ted Roberts' excellent rendition of the getaway rural place with its vaulted ceilings, Franklin stove against rock firewall, and Sally Ann puke green chesterfield. But his transformation of that set to Santa's workshop at the Pole with the colourful toys and boxes oozing out of every pore of the stage and the stacks of fileboxes with old Letters to Santa was even more to celebrate. Kudos, too, to the stage-hands who expertly flipped the props and scenery in mere seconds between the two sets. Bravo! indeed.

Costume Designer Darryl Milot did not miss one detail in outfitting these characters. Tribute in the program to original designer Phillip Clarkson tells me Mr. Milot followed much of his predecessor's lead for 2013. The Mr. & Mrs. Claus outfits were particularly delicious, as were the O'Darby pig-snout get-ups. 

Lighting by Alan Brodie flipped appropriately from plain to festive to circus-like, while Sound Designer Michael Rinaldi (actor Juno Rinaldi's husband) focus'd mainly on secular Xmas tunes with only a bit of religio-Christmas-y stuff -- just right for this piece. Ronaye Haynes doing the mega-puppets Karma the dog and Rudie the reindeer were fun bits throughout, particularly the robustious Karma who's all jump-up and slaver and loving bother. (Remember the bumpersticker quip "My karma ran over your dogma"...? I bet Cavendish did when she wrote this!)

Who gonna like : Maybe a bit sexified for grammar school juniors, but highly recommended for +8's and adults alike. You owe it to yourself to enjoy the season's spark and mirth and spontaneity and magic this production provides -- you can't help but be charmed! 


Thursday, 14 November 2013

Corks popping for ACT's Mary Poppins

A quick look back : Maybe it's time to admit that the 1964 Disney movie version that made Julie Andrews a star had little in the way of character dynamics for either Andrews or the indefatigable Dick Van Dyke. And it was that absence of dynamic, even more than the Disney animations, that likely caused author P. L. Travers to sob at the end of the movie's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. In retrospect, maybe Andrews should have been given a wee bit of brimstone & treacle mouthwash to make her somewhat more nanny-ish and less the goddess-fairy that Walt had her be. 

Fast-forward to 2013 and ACT's stage-musical re-mount of the Travers stories. In this version Mary P. is less a toothy-white magical charmstress, slightly edgier -- not quite a "pitbull with lipstick" -- but closer, if only a couple of centimetres. And one can't help but think that the waspish and acerbic Travers, who died at age 96 in 1996 still not suffering fools gladly, would appreciate the changes from the movie version that she abhorred (though it made her a multi-millionaire as she received 5% of the movie's gross receipts, currently 25th all-time highest at more than $635M).

First impression : Many folks who fondly remember Disney's MP film recall its magic turns -- the legerdemain, the illusion, the trickery pulled off by Mary and Bert. Such stuff, though still there, is not the source of magic in the current ACT production. No, the magic witnessed opening night is in the fact of the hand-picked cast of actors and performers selected by Director Bill Millerd and choreographer extraordinaire Valerie Easton. As individuals and a troupe they explode off the Stanley Theatre stage with unmatchable vigour, enthusiasm and just plain fun. One elderly couple of theatre veterans remarked on their way out : "I enjoyed every single bit of this play from start to finish!"  
-and- "I honestly think this is the best stage play I've ever seen in Vancouver." For song-&-dance enthusiasts to disagree with those sentiments would be, I think, but to quibble.

Plot overview : This may sound cynical, but the script of MP is really just a long-drawn-out extension of the Harry Chapin ballad about a dad being a bad dad because he's always too busy for his family : Chapin's Cat's In The Cradle still gets air play ad nauseam on soft-favourites radio channels. Set in Victorian England, dad George Banks (Warren Kimmel) is a banker -- an overworked and stressed one at that. His wife Winifred (Caitriona Murphy) is a gentry-wannabe trying to manage the household with its two kids, maid/cook, and inept butler. As befits gentry-wannabe's, the raising of the children is outsourced to a nanny. Rather to a half-dozen of them in the past year the kids are so bratty, scheming and seemingly uncontrollable. The play opens with the most recent nanny fleeing #17 Cherry Tree Lane. The kids draw up their ideal nanny mock-ad : she must 

Take us on outings, give us treats
Sing songs, bring sweets
Never be cross or cruel, never give us castor oil or gruel
Love us as a son and daughter

Dad George blows a gasket, tears up their clever wish list and whistles it into the fireplace. Karma clicks in. Who should appear with a Poof! but Mary Poppins (Sara-Jeanne Hosie). Dad is all aflutter. He wants precision, order, efficiency in his domain, but complains "We're living in a mad house!" Mary marches the kids upstairs with her customary refrain of "Spit spot!" and her two-part reign with the kids begins : says son Michael (Graham Verchere), "We best keep any eye on this one, she's tricky...!" He would be just young and wise enough to get his own double entendre there.

WYSIWYG : The current stage play is musical comedy that is a pastiche of Travers' Mary Poppins books (she wrote eight of them between the mid-30's and the late-80's), the Disney script, the original Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman songs, and an updated book by Downton Abbey's creator Julian Fellowes with new songs and additional music and lyrics by Englishmen George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Hilarious, I found, that Travers had a provision in her will that nobody who worked on the Disney film could be a part of producer Cameron Mackintosh's proposed live theatre mount (he of "Cats", "Les Miserables", "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" stage-play fame). Contributors all had to be English, no Yanks allowed, thanks. Under Walt they had all conspired to sentimentalize her Mary Poppins character, sweetened her beyond recognition, and wrote a simple-minded cotton-candy version that she thought was cynical in the doing. In the introduction to a HarperCollins re-issue of the original Travers book from 1934, Mackintosh declared : "Mary Poppins is, and always will be, unique : stern, dependable, businesslike, magical and yet eternally loveable." Travers felt too much of the "stern" and "businesslike" were lost in the Disney/Sherman movie version, apparently.

Character take : Five characters, particularly, deserve individual shout-outs for their work in this production. 

As Mary, Sara-Jeanne Hosie is probably as close to perfection as possible. Her set jaw, her disapproving scowl when the kids or parents misbehave (the "stern" and "businesslike" stuff) are counterbalanced by her whimsy when it's time to fun -- terrific comic turns each one. Her singing voice is melodic and even powerful at times, though the mezzo soprano range suits her more than the upper octive soprano stuff. Marvelously crisp execution of Director Millerd's scene blocking and Easton's dance footwork, too. Mesmerizing to watch from moment-one to moment-end.

As Bert, Scott Walters warrants an extra Bravo! or two from me because he discharged forever the memory of Mr. Van Dyke's one-dimensional face-cracking smileiferous performance in the Disney movie. Walters was wondrously engaged in his role, displaying dynamic and clever facial shifts and nuances to suit every line, every step-ball-change dance step and kick-up. 

Susan Anderson as Mrs. Brill and the Bird Woman in the park huckstering two-pence breadcrumb bags was non-pareil in execution. Her comic timing of panic ! disapproval ! and sheer aghastness ! at the Banks' "mad house" was split-second "Spit spot!" each line, each moment. Bird Woman was pure zen.

As Michael Banks, Grade 6 student Graham Verchere bloody well nearly aces his performance as a Brit-kid snot with lots of love in his heart to match his mischievous and playful soul. His sustained British accent -- assuming he isn't British-born -- was astonishing. 

Grade 7 student Kassia Danielle Malmquist played Michael's sister Jane, and she, too stayed 100% in character with charm and typical 13-year-old older sister flippancy and toy-tossing snitteries. 

Character take, Part 2 : It's impossible, really, to review this play without extending Huzzah's to all the actors and performers for their contributions. Mom Winifred by Caitriona Murphy was wholly convincing as a bemused and slightly estranged wife. Katey Wright pulls off replacement-nanny -- Dad's childhood nanny Miss Andrew ("The Holy Terror") -- with robust dislikability. Warren Kimmel as the "Harry Chapin dad" struck terror in my heart when he exploded. Well done indeed. (His "conversion" to huggy-dad -- like the lightning that struck Saul on the road to Damascus -- was perhaps too quick to convince, but that's a script problem, not Kimmel's.) Then there's the twelve performers in the song-&-dance Ensemble. To a person they were just step-perfect from my up-close-&-personal perspective in Row 2.

Production values :  Choreographer Valerie Easton -- current Artistic Director of Royal City Musical Theatre -- is to this viewer's eye simply brilliant ! each and every time I see her work. Her staging of "Step In Time" was so spot-on with all the chimneysweeps in taps and everyone gamboling at breakneck speed across the entire proscenium at the Stanley that I'd go to the show a second time for that number alone. Same with the familiar "Supercalifragilistic..." dance number, "Jolly Holiday", oh hell's bells, every one of them.

Costume Designer Sheila White's togs for everyone were rich, even when they were the streetrags of the chimney sweeps. Better costumes for the period-timing would not be imaginable. The colour interjections of reds in the park dance scene were a touch.

Set Designer Alison Green's sets all worked great both visually and "choreographically". With its two storeys, the Cherry Tree Lane home played effectively by exploiting both levels. The sight-gag of Mary pulling a coat-tree, floor lamp and wall mirror out of her kit-bag upon arrival was a crowd-pleaser. For their part, all the drop-screens for the park scenes were cleverly wrought and painted -- aided and abetted by veteran Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe's shadowy birds and raindrops flashing about quite merrily. 

Who gonna like : I mentioned to my seat-neighbour that personally I tend to prefer the kinds of scripts most recently reviewed by BLR, the more intimate stuff of Venus In Fur, Armstrong's War, Relatively Speaking. But, I confessed, as big-stage song-&-dance entertainment with wonderful music from the Bruce Kellett orchestra behind, this Mary Poppins is finger-snappin' and heart-strings-pulling stuff tailor-made for the winter holiday season. It's the one time of year that a wee dose of sentimentality about "the goodness that lurks in people's troubled hearts" is okay already. For choreography, visuals and delightful tunes in a package, this one's a Go! for sure. 


Thursday, 7 November 2013

Relatively Speaking still a hoot some 50 years on

Forget p.c. Forget western society's grudging baby-steps toward gender equality in the past few decades. Drop yourself back into the ethos between the time of Mad Men and the "Swinging 60's". Then hie yourself to Western Gold Theatre's production of Relatively Speaking being staged at the PAL stage on Cardero to hear yourself LYFAO. Because that's what the ingenious 1965 script by England's comic master Alan Ayckbourn, written when he was just 27, demands of viewers even 50 years on.

Plot overview :  Two young lovers, Ginny and Greg, have been canoodling in Ginny's flat in London since they met a month earlier at a party. Ginny has claimed Greg's virginity, and he's utterly schmitten. He proposes to her, albeit off-handedly, on the spot. She says she needs to go visit Mom and Dad in the country to warm them up to the prospect of a son-in-law. The morning has already witnessed a few mysterious phone calls, a pair of oversize men's slippers under Ginny's bed, myriad bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates littering the place. All of this has Greg suspicious that the more worldly and sexperienced Ginny is still attached to another lover, but ultimately Greg clings to his naif persona. This is *love*. I believe in it. I'm going with it.  So, unbeknownst to Ginny, he also trains it out to her "parents'" place in Buckinghamshire to seek their blessing of the impending nuptials. He arrives there ahead of her. Here's where the fun starts :  it's immediately apparent to the audience this is really the country home of Ginny's older lover, her ex-boss, and his adultered wife. With Greg understandably thinking they are her parents -- has his true love Ginny not told him this repeatedly? -- the ensuing comic possibilities are thus rampant and rife. 

The play occurs over two acts, four scenes, in two hours. Act 1 is a long-ish and slightly tedious exposition of Ginny and Greg's blossoming romance aimed, now, at marriage though they've only known each other some four weeks. By way of contrast, in Scene 2, we meet the "parents" taking sun in their garden with "Dad" Philip grousing about an inferiour marmalade "Mom" Sylvia has bought and wishing for jam instead. Shortly, no doubt projecting some guilt over his own extra-marital dalliance, he accuses his wife of having a not-so-clandestine affair. When Greg arrives and engages the affable Sylvia in chit-chat, thinking her his mother-in-law to be, Philip is convinced Greg is Sylvia's lover. Soon Ginny arrives. Her purpose is to cut Philip off for good once-&-for-all. Stop with the flowers and the chocolates and the phone calls. When she finds, alors!, that Greg is also there helping the phony "Mom" prepare lunch, well, the stage is set lit.-&-fig. for a jolly merry romp. And it is !

Act 2 becomes a silly but wondrously clever caper of lies, tightly-crafted miscues, confusion and panic all borne of various levels of mistaken identity that dodge-&-swerve past one another. It's comedy-lite with no subtext messaging or serious intent whatever -- a wordplay game being played strictly for the fun of it. I was reminded instantly of that old hippie quip about people who talk at cross-purposes : "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm afraid what you heard is not what I meant."
(N.B. See post-script summary comments by playwright Ayckbourn below on the how/why RS script came to be.)

First impressions and character-take :  It was apparent there were two audiences in the same PAL room at the same time watching this revival : Group 1 who for years have known and treasured Ayckbourn's comic jibes at middle class marital anxieties and hypocricies, and Group 2 who somehow haven't. Group 1 types like myself enjoyed the show for sentimental reasons if for no other. Newbies to Ayckbourn, like my buddy, could not resist these stereotypical Brits caught with their knickers, and their mores, at half-mast. Lots of gigglery from both groups.

Director Anthony F. Ingram made just-right picks in all categories. In the end the show-stealer had to be wife Sheila Carter played wonderfully deadpan by Anna Hagan. She is the steady loyal country wife who welcomes complete strangers to her garden and treats them to lunch and sherry. In executing the role without an iota of falseness or exaggeration about her character, she is the perfect foil for all the eager animation of the others around her. Her A-ha! moment at the end, and the final hint to hubby she in fact may have a paramour after all, was sheer fun. 

As husband Philip, Terence Kelly masters a range of facial contortions that delight every moment as they champion each of life's emotions -- mad, sad, glad -- sometimes serially, sometimes atop one another. Prime-time performance for sure.

Stacie Steadman plays Ginny, and she too provides just the right range of conflicting emotions : from coy coquette to mischievous deviant to genuine lover, current and ex- both. 

Fiance Greg is played brilliantly throughout by Jay Hindle. His is the best-written of Ayckbourn's character dialogue in this piece i.m.o. -- all eagerness and wonder and happy puppy -- think Odie, here, of Garfield comic strip fame. 

As an ensemble, the WGT troupe clicks delightfully. 

This viewer was, meanwhile, a bit bemused by the mix of accents coming at me : hard-working Brit white collar efforts from Ginny and Greg; quasi-Brit from Philip; Canuck from Sylvia. That's more niggle than outright natter at director Ingram's varied stage instructions to the cast, however : fact is to my untrained ear Hindle and Steadman project bloody good accents that ring true. They bring out Ayckbourn's ever-so-English milieux (quite properly -- I can't imagine this piece being written by a North American).  

The key to Ayckbourn's word-trickery b.t.w. is its grammar scheme -- viz. the lowly pronoun. By ever-avoiding names attached to the "he", "she", "his" and "her" reference points in the dialogue, confusion can only reign, which Ayckbourn does masterfully. In day-to-day conversation I regularly scold folks I yak with : "Hold on a second, I've lost the antecedent to your pronoun. Who the heck are we talking about here -- your daughter or your dog...?"

Production values :  Set designer Glenn MacDonald creates a clever two-fer set anchored in brickwork. From 60's studio flat strung through by clotheslines adorned with towels, shirts and sheets; tables and chairs enshrouded with blankets; Stones, The Who and Moody Blues posters plastered on the walls; ersatz pine 3-drawer dresser; and, best of all, the roll-away bed ! oh gawd spare me such memories. 

Pull all that montage and mish-mash away and the set morphs into a tasteful country garden whose brick is adorned with iron grillwork planters and a classic Greek peeing boy-statue that Philip uses to clean his paws with. For her part, costume designer Sydney Cavanagh puts all the right clothes on all the right characters -- the frumpish country Carters nicely counterbalanced by the more au courant togs of Ginny and Greg. The soundscape backdrop of a Tubular Bells-like version of the Beatles' You Say Good-bye and I Say Hello was spot-on.

Who gonna like : The wait until Act 2 for the magic of Alan Ayckbourn's verbal sleight-of-hand to fully engage the viewer is well worth it. Folks weary of t.v. sit-com schlock and formula contemporary comedy who love language and all its myriad possibilities for meaning will delight in both AA's quick-tempo script and WGT's interpretation. "Stuck" people protesting "the ethos between the time of Mad Men and the 'Swinging 60's'", well, maybe they should just stay at home & give this one a miss.

P.S. See the following notes about the script from various sources.

> Reason for the play : While working as a sketch writer for Ronnie Barker (of The Two Ronnies fame), Ayckbourn, then 27, was asked by Scarborough Theatre artistic director Stephen Joseph for a play "...which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies."

> Structure of the play : Stephen Joseph also assured Ayckbourn "...there's absolutely no harm whatsoever, whatever you think of the state of the theatre and playwriting in general, to try and write a 'well-made' play [a la Noel Coward]; that is, a play, that, in general terms, is fairly actor-proof, well-constructed and works..." 

> Playwright's cut at his own script and its conceit : "Relatively Speaking is a little machine of a play. Character plays a fairly secondary role in it -- everybody's too busy trying to find out what's going on and 'character' doesn't have a chance... Plays like RS are continually knotting and unknotting. There's never a moment when somebody isn't discovering or about to discover something."

> Creating the play : "The devious plot was the result of sheer frenzy and the dialogue of tearing haste. In just over a week the play was written, aided by my wife's blue pencil, her constant suggestions and her cups of coffee."

An adrenalin buzz it surely is, readers, once the momentum swings into action in Act 2. Fun fun fun writ large. Until Dec. 1st. With 2 p.m. Sat-Sun matinees, too.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Armstrong's War perfect for ACT Revue stage

The plot of playwright / filmmaker Colleen Murphy's play Armstrong's War that had its world premiere performance last night at the ACT Revue stage is straightforward. Through fate, two people coincidentally and symbolically named Armstrong come together in an Ottawa soldiers' rehab hospital. Halley Armstrong (Kitsilano High School sophomore Matreya Scarrwener) is a Girl Guide in the 'Pathfinder' cohort of 12-14 year olds wanting to earn every GG merit badge imaginable. To obtain the Community Service badge, she must make six weekly visits to soldier Michael Armstrong to read to him (recent UVic acting grad Mik Byskov). She chose him because they share the same surname, though unrelated.

Awaiting re-deployment, Cpl. Armstrong is in hospital to treat multiple leg fractures from an IED explosion in "Af" -- as Canadian forces refer to Afghanistan colloquially. Halley's first reading selection is a goofy teen detective mystery a la the Nancy Drew stuff from back in the day. But on Week 2 Michael selects the American Civil War classic novel by Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, which is metaphor for war wound. They alternate reading pages to one another, and it is through Courage that the personal and dramatic insights begin to occur.

A two-hander, Armstrong's War explores how two people of "opposite" ages (12 and 21) face their personal battles through the stories they mount in the process. Fact is Michael is injured psychologically by his Afghanistan tour more than physically. For her part, Halley is wheelchair'd as the result of a spine fracture a few years previously. While he is a tormented soul exorcising war demons, she is mostly optimistic and chipper despite her physical limitations and bouts of typical pre-teen hormonal rushes.

Director Mindy Parfitt has done a remarkable job coaching two young actors in their first professional roles. They reach and stretch themselves and succeed in pulling the life from Murphy's excellent script off the page and onto the stage.

Plot overview : Halley is bubbly and effervescent and a self-described reading fiend. As the play opens, she rolls through Michael's door, promptly announces her "mission", and proceeds to read the detective mystery aloud, histrionically and motor-mouthy, just as she is herself. Michael is hiding under his hospital bed. He tries to kick her out, calling her GG merit badge quest "bullshit compassion". He tells her that "solace won't save me, pity won't help me". When she leaves, he crawls back under the bed to talk to the ghost of his ex-comrade Robbie who was blown up in the same IED attack.

Back Halley comes for Week 2, and the read of RBoC begins, her going first. In a wonderful decision, director Parfitt has Halley put on a fake southern accent to read the American tale. Great comic decision. As well, however, Halley starts to reveal her past and talks of a ski accident that she says "ended my Olympic career at age nine". But she insists "I try not to look back, I look ahead."

The play continues with each of the six week sessions forming a mini-act in the 90-minute intermission-free performance. By Week 3 Michael has read RBoC at least twice on his own. The novel-reading stops and the real essence of the play begins to emerge : the two Armstrongs vigorously and heatedly exchange points-of-view about life, death, war, ethics, pride, courage, what-is-truth, fate, choice, hope and loyalty.

How is this possible in 90 short minutes, you ask. Because the juxtaposition of characters is like a brother nine years older comes home from his Afghanistan war tour and meets his 7th Grade pre-teen sister he hasn't seen since Grade 5.  She's filled with opinions and challenges and curiosity and assertions based on her developing, agile mind and all the fiction reading she does. E.g. she asks Michael "Is Canada going to win the war?" -- as if the NATO military exercise there is like the US Civil War with known combatants in recognizable coloured uniforms. Michael tries to explain : "No one's gonna win because it's a counterinsurgency; you can't defeat an insurgency, only marginalize it." Such intel is largely lost on Halley due to her naivete. For a junior high schooler, there's no worldly context to help her grasp it.

The balance of the piece focuses on Michael being inspired by RBoC to write his own story. He titles it "Armstrong's War" and after he reads it to Halley the two of them have a visceral argument over his views of "how death works" in war. The catalyst for the argument is his revelation of the "blood pact" he had with Robbie in case either one of them was injured catastrophically. 

Halley responds next visit with her own version of "Armstrong's War" -- an edited and re-written cut at Michael's story that changes the ending drastically based on Halley's view of the sanctity of life at all costs, even in war. By the end of the play a major irony is revealed : that Halley's fictional re-write is closer to the actual "fact" and "truth" of what happened to Michael and Robbie on the road outside Kabul than Michael's version. And Halley's "real" story of her spinal cord injury -- a car wreck -- is what we suspected all along (is anyone truly on an Olympics career arc by age 9...? but then I may be naive here).

Character take : The beauties of the Murphy script are many. She captures wonderfully well the insouciance and cheeky self-righteousness of the 7th Grade mind and all the patois that goes with it. The cell-phone lippy blasts at Mom -- unknown in the benign 50's -- that are commonplace to-day. Even the swearing Halley mirrors from Michael is magnified. After an exchange of heated Fuck you's, Halley rolls out the door with the ringer : "Fuck you times a thousand!" Terrific! And during a poignant and revelatory scene with Michael when her cell phone interrupts, again, and it's Mom hovering over her, again -- Halley explodes at her : "Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up..!" A chill ran up my spine and a brief tear rose to my eye. Ahhh, been there -- more than once. I get it. From both perspectives. 

Director Parfitt's blocking of Halley in her 'chair was, simply, superb. She has Halley spin in circles; turn her back on Michael each time her cell rings; roll upstage to give Michael the downstage priority when he discourses vehemently. She coaches Halley to rely on finger-points and hand-flips to emphasize her comments, and it works well indeed. And the instantaneous flip-flop from Halley "talking serious talk" to angst-ing over her fickle friend Jacquie -- who calls her "cumbersome" and "slow" but is overweight herself and relies on Halley to do her homework for her -- this is precisely the kind of faux-schizy behaviour today's parents are obligated to suffer through with teens.

Meanwhile Michael's work-through of the PTSD he vigorously denies he suffers is powerful in Murphy's hands, too. He is utterly convincing as someone returned from a horrible war "theatre", to use that dubious expression. Angry, confused, bitter, his processing of his nightmare over the course of the play rings true. In the end the exchange between Halley and Michael all about life's choices 
-- vs. situations over which we truly do not have control -- brings the thematic wrap to the piece. How one's choices can impact the heart and the role hope might play in one's life.

But once again, good as the script is, it's Parfitt's blocking of Michael's character that really resonated. His "exchanges" with his crutch to favour his shattered leg; the huff-breath sucking-sound as he hops to relieve his excruciating pain; the slow-steady improvements in his walking over the play's six weeks lapsed time; his positioning on the hospital bed -- back-to-the-audience while reading (!), his flopping like a rag-doll when exasperated with Halley; his cuddling of the pillow "Robbie" -- all excellent stage direction that is well-well-executed by Mik Byskov.

Production values :  Set Designer Naomi Sider captures hospital drab right smartly, my favourite bit being the properly oversized hallway door replete with unlubricated squeak, as if on cue for each Halley entrance / exit. Also the soda cans stacked in and around the wastebasket, bespeaking institutional neglect. Nice. Sound Designer Candelario Andrade put together an intriguing soundscape of wind, flowing water, and low electro-drone hum that are vaguely familiar but mostly foreign. This eerie montage quickly displaces us to a land far away and menacing. Costumes by Carmen Alatorre are perfect for both characters -- his "uniform", hers teeny & loud & changeable. Lighting Designer Conor Moore blends interior rheo changes with sun/moon exterior moods to good effect.

Who gonna like : This is a play to admire. The script is tight and believable. Selected actors are not late-20-somethings with lengthy resumes as they were at London's Finborough Wine Cafe workshop version in August of this year. Choosing Byskov and Scarrwener -- so close to the ages of their characters -- was an act of faith and theatre-courage. While each has years ahead to fully grab character nuances and subtleties, the standing-o Ms. Scarrwener got from the house last night was well-deserved. Equal huzzah's to Mr. Byskov I say.

So it's two-in-a-row for ACT -- Armstrong's War paired with Venus In Fur. Plays to enjoy both the comic bits and the more serious issues about the myriad human foibles and follies they reveal. Stories. And the how-&-why stories are told the way they are -- the "what to leave in / what to leave out" that Bob Seger noted wistfully in his anthem Runnin' Against The Wind -- these nuances are what make words and peoples' stories such an intrigue, ever, to behold.


Friday, 18 October 2013

Venus In Fur supplies laughs & lots more

In Ars Poetica Horace famously declared that literature has two purposes : prodesse et delectare -- to teach and to please. The David Ives script Venus In Fur now robust-in-delivery at ACT's Granville Island stage may not set out to teach much, but it sure delectares the heck out of us with a swack of put-on S-M hoopla. A night of mostly-feigned whippings, chains, bulldog collars, trussings and spiked leather boots is what you'll see and what you'll get. But in the process no small bit of perspective on sexual politics over the past 150 years -- a chunk of prodesse after all about the politics of gender -- underscores the comic riffs.

On one level, the play is almost trite and self-conscious: a play about two players practicing at playing in a play. On a psychosexual level, however, VIF is about power, dominance, submission and a whole other range of goofy human tricks -- including cruelty, verbal and physical -- that mark our species' tromp through life. Director David Mackay has coughed up the perfect R-rated comic fare for Vancouver in preparation for Hallowe'en -- plopping us for 90 consecutive minutes in a world where to know for certain when the costumes, games and shenanigans end and "reality" begins is ever up for grabs.

Plot overview : Playwright Ives creates a fictional playwright, one Thomas Novachek (Vincent Gale) who has written a script based on a 19th century Austrian eroti-novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (a.k.a."Masoch"). The novel's plot involves an aristocrat named Severin Kushemski who wills himself into sexual submission at the hands of lady Vanda Dunayev. The play opens at the end of a day during which director Novachek has auditioned some 35 women for the part of Dunayev -- vainly. Abruptly one somewhat-too-conveniently-named Wanda -- Wanda Jordan (Linsey Angell) -- washes in, blown through the door late-in-the-day by a thunderstorm. Novachek is bitchy. Jordan's name was not on the call-list and besides Thomas is late for a date with his fiancee. To capture his bad hair day, he's just yelled into his cell phone : "Whatever happened to femininity?" This to his "true love" in 21st-century time. Enough said. His karmic blast of pique foreshadows the schemes and themes of the rest of the play. 

When Novachek tries to brush her off, Jordan -- dressed in black leathers under a trench coat -- whines and wheedles and pouts and sulks like a ditz with lots of Fuck! and Thanks, God! But in the end Thomas surrenders, tellingly. There is something about this Wanda Jordan that's more than ditz & chutzpah. He lets her try out to be Vanda in the Dunayev role while he reads Kushemski's lines. In doing the audition schtick, Novachek and Jordan each jump in and out of their Masoch characters and nitter-natter back-&-forth:  What does this line mean? What is this character about, here? On the meta level, it's an intricate dance of power : does the director have the lead or the actress? When is Novachek being Kushemski, when is he just himself, the schmuck Thomas? When is Wanda being Vanda Dunayev, when is she Jordan? Who knows? Does playwright David Ives even know? It doubtless helps to be reminded, meanwhile, that the word "masochism" -- the melancholy erotic love of subjugation and dominance and sexual release therefrom -- was coined in 1886 by the Austrian psychiatrist Kraft-Ebbing, derived after his reading of Masoch's roman a clef, said Venus in Furs.

First impressions & character-take :  VIF is perhaps not genius play-writing, but it's closer than most fare we see locally. David Ives overlays adaptations from the Masoch script that "Thomas Novachek" has written with instantaneous flips back to the contemporary audition action. And it's actor Angell who is the centrepiece of his focus despite the fact that Gale is the play's protagonist. Angell's ability to shape-shift from somewhat scatter-brained but street-smart 2013 lipster to a 19th century dame a la Vanessa Redgrave is the reason to see this show not once but more. In doing so she mines the two scripts she's working from for pertinent observations about sexual repression in the Hapsburg empire and that of to-day. As Kushemski/Novachek, Gale is dynamic and forceful and utterly worthy, but no one! could match the magic that Angell inspires. Hers is a mix of juicy comic facials riddled with Aha! pronouncements about the sexism behind both scripts -- that men for all time have subjugated women but when they triumph doing so, they then blame women for creating men's self-inflicted miseries borne of bullying and repression. Yang quashes yin instead of blending with it harmoniously -- symbiosis be damned -- power is all. 

What happens, what doesn't :  The play-within-the-play -- the one about Kushemski and Dunayev -- is the perfect set-up  to reveal playwright Ives' truths. Kushemski recalls a beating when a youth by an aunt with a birchwood cane while he was restrained by two household servants. He subsequently has erotic dreams about the incident. Women, he says, supply men "delicious cruelty". He wants to live in a world where "there can be nothing more sensuous than pain or more pleasurable than degradation." Kushemski tells Dunayev he wants " have no will of my own, to be your property and vanish in your sublime essence." 

For her part Dunayev resists. She's an early feminist : "In our society, a woman's only power is through men. Her character is her lack of character. She's a blank, to be filled in by creatures who at heart despise her. I want to see what woman will be when she ceases to be men's slave, when she has the same rights as he, when she's his equal in education and his partner in work. When she becomes herself. An individual." 

After this speech, Wanda jumps out-of-character and remarks about the script "She's really ahead of her time, isn't she?" To which writer/director Novachek glibly replies : "Women's rights, yadda, yadda...".  Flip back to the Kushemski/Dunayev script. Vanda's lines are these : "Severin, don't you see? Don't you understand you'll never be safe in the hands of a woman? Of any woman?" Real-time Wanda snaps once again at Thomas: "Now this part is so sexist it makes me like scream. This is like some old Victorian Teutonic tract against Das Female. He forces her into a power play and then he blames her." 

At this the male ego of writer/director Thomas explodes : "How can you be so good at playing her, and be so fucking stupid about her? You fucking idiot! You fucking idiot woman. Yes. Idiot woman. Idiot actress." Wanda calmly but incisively replies : "It's a good thing there's no such thing as a goddess or you'd be fucked, buster." Aha! for the audience. S.s.d.d. is what Ives is driving at. The more men change the more they stay the same. Patriarchal values rule. Sexual dualities are still the norm. Or so men insist.

The end of the play brings first of all a sex scene induced by Wanda without any great amount of fondling or petting or squeezing or even deep-throating -- just some tame kissing. Still a hush falls over the house the scene's so breathtaking in its intimacy. Quickly followed by the climax, a role-reversal scenario that promises bloodshed and revenge to exquisite thunder and lightning. As mentioned, karma prevails. Enough said.

Production values : Sound designer Brian Linds replicates thunder as good as anything God ever provides Bard on the Beach during a summer squall. Maybe better. Set and lighting designer John Webber produces a functional set of rented warehouse faux brick and fluorescent lights, though it's a bit too orderly. The love seat enshrouded in covers, however, works both "real" and as symbol quite nicely. Costume designer Christine Reimer's duds for the characters in both scripts -- leathers to lace to gentlemen's smoking jacket to footman's frock -- are spot on. 

The key pieces : (1) Timing. Ives' remarkable talent in this script lies in how quickly his characters can jump from their roles acting out the "Masoch 19th-century script" back to themselves as 2013 "Novachek audition" participants -- Jordan as prospective actor Dunayev in his play and Novachek as writer/director reading the actor Kushemski's lines. (2) The patriarchal theme. Patriarchy underscores the action both then and now. Appropriately, its hypocrisy is all but neutered, if just for an eye-blink, in the final scene. (3) Linsey Angell. Nevermind the ironic catch of her real-life last name. Hers is a bravura performance of wit and subtlety that will make any viewer's heart race. Doubly impressive given her recent graduation from the Langara College Studio 58 program.

Who gonna like : Anyone who has ever acted or written for theatre or directed or done technical support will love the play / meta-play interaction of David Ives' script. People looking for something different to amuse & titillate & challenge their crania in ways a typical sit-com cannot will find their money well-invested. People who prefer straightforward tales with predictable thematic or stylistic tropes will find Venus in Fur a wee challenge, but should stretch their boundaries because they will agree the execution by actor Linsey Angell is just flat-out terrific. And Victor Gale is a mere half-gasp behind her. 

P.S. The drama-zine American Theater reports there are 22 productions of VIF either currently underway or scheduled for the '13-'14 professional season in USA -- more than any other play.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

Other Desert Cities reminds of Streetcar &c.

To 2013 Americans, a family showdown at Christmas between retired Depression-born Republican parents and Democrat GenX children might seem trite. Not so much perhaps for Canadians accustomed to Handshake Dad Steve Harper. So ACT's Other Desert Cities that opened last night will likely find enthusiasts of various ages in Vancouver.

The script by Jon Robin Baitz neatly captures Count Leo Tolstoy's insight at the start of his novel Anna Karenina : "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Plot Overview Meet the Bickertons, er, the Wyeths,  gathering in Palm Springs, 2004, a year after George W. Bush and his fake WMDs scammed the U.S. into the Iraq war. Daughter Brooke (Anna Galvin) swoops home from Long Island after a 6-year interlude trying to write a second "promising" novel. Only to get pock-marked by writer's block, depression, and hospitalization at a Harvard hospital. Shortly she announces she's written a memoir instead -- about the suicide of her brother Henry at age 15 after he'd got caught up with Weather Underground-style anarchists. A bomb they built "accidentally" killed somebody at the Venice City army recruiting office c. 1974 at the same time Nixon was carpet-bombing Cambodia. Henry freaks and flees. A suicide note is found in a discarded shoe of his on a Black Ball ferry out of Seattle, though his body never did wash up.

As powerful blue-blood Republicans who were personal friends of President-to-be Ronnie Reagan and wife Nancy back in the day, mom Polly (Gabrielle Rose) and dad Lyman (Alan Gray) clearly would prefer Brooke not scrape away madly at their scar tissue and re-aggravate such a grievous family wound via her memoir. There are family appearances and reputations at stake, don't you know. For her part, Polly's alcoholic sister Silda (Gwynyth Walsh) delights to catalyze all the crackly interpersonal snipes and jibes that gush out of these people. Baby-of-the-family son Trip (Benjamin Elliott) tries, unsuccessfully, to act as peacemaker.

First impressions :  ODC is all about its dialogue. Lovers of Neil Simon-style clever smart-ass commentary a la that in The Odd Couple will find much to amuse. A typical Trip observation refers to the boozy, increasingly resentful reunion as a "stiff upper-lipped thermonuclear family war". Such stuff resonates throughout, mostly from mom. Dad, a former 'B' movie actor and Reagan-appointed ambassador, pines for his past : "Maybe I prefer acting, with my lines written down." Polly says of her neurotic daughter Brooke : "There are lots of locked doors in her doll house." Of sister Silda she remarks : "Families get terrorized by their weakest members." Of the constant bickering, Polly says : "Acting or real, the two are hardly mutually exclusive in this family." Trip says of Brooke : "You think being depressed makes you 'special'; your depression makes you banal." Brooke dismisses the family : "I am so tired of the indentured servitude of family." On a superficial level this is potboiler stuff, but Tolstoy's "own way" dictum for unhappy families imagines the possibility of love behind all the anger and angst and corrosive byplay being rhymed off on-stage. And ultimately does reveal itself.

What happens, what doesn't :  The first act starts out agreeably enough with the family playing tennis together. When they get home, the character development starts innocently. Brooke calls the endless sunshine of Palm Springs "ridiculous". Mom Polly is revealed as a faux-Texan who's really a countryclub Jew -- a wannabe goy -- and acts like one to a fault.  Trip writes and produces "Jury of Your Peers", a reality t.v. show that dad dismisses, airily, as a show where "being right or wrong is less relevant than being funny".

Shortly, however, the verbal knives come out between Brooke and Polly, primarily, with Silba also exchanging zingers and challenges with her sister. (Once upon a time they co-wrote schlock Hollywood screenplays together.) During the VietNam era Republicans stood for the proposition "My country right or wrong!" During the post-9/11 epoch, Republicans seem to endorse Polly's views that include : "I don't like weakness." "The world can die of too much sensitivity." "I hate to be fair." "Children today want a free pass." Silba, for her part, counters: "Your politics are offensive to normal people; you goad people with them." 

This flip-flop between Simon-esque glibness and family character assassination continues, troublesomely, throughout the play. Is this situation comedy Robbie Baitz wants us to enjoy, or is this more Streetcar Named Desire stuff or that of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Finally comes the climax of the second act that propels the script more toward the latter than the former. 

Brooke, pig-headed like her mother Polly, insists she's going to go ahead and allow the New Yorker to serialize her memoir starting two months hence. Polly claims that would be a betrayal and would destroy the family and would put an end to her "love" for her daughter. Normally mild-mannered diplomat dad Lyman concurs -- his "love", too, is conditional. He asks that Brooke defer publication until after he and his wife have died. If she goes ahead, her doing so will result in her permanent banishment from his version of the family. Still Brooke threatens to go back to New York to do just that. At that point Lyman cracks, and out comes the great family secret that changes everything. BLR would serve no useful purpose to provide this plot-spoiler.

Character take : Director Rachel Ditor calls ODC a "well-made play" whose script carries the night. "Casting might be the most important decision a director makes," she declares in the program notes. "The closer you can get to really hearing the rhythms in the writing, the tone, the humour, the author's interests, the stronger your production will be." 

Okay, let's start there. It's the rhythms in the casting that don't always work here. Particularly so with Rose as Polly. From her opening line she doesn't project her character so much as shout! it. Her delivery throughout, until the climax, is about 10 decibels louder than anyone else's and was distracting rather than engaging. She brought to mind Ken Kesey's character Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Off the page of Kesey's book Ratched shouted and stormed. In the excellent Milos Forman movie adaptation, by comparison, actress Louise Fletcher made Ratched 100-times more sinister by being restrained, controlled, more visceral than loud. So needs Polly's character to be.

As Brooke, Galvin displays the part of neurotic daughter writer histrionique with gusto, but not much subtlety except with some scenes with Elliott as Trip. For his part Alan Gray's dad Lyman was a journeyman mix of loving father / struggling patriarch / victim of his times then and now.

Two best performances i.m.o. were from Walsh as Silda in her depiction as the alcoholic in whom in vino veritas spews forth regardless even as the dry drunk she now is. Highest kudos, however, go to Elliott as Trip. His dialogue captures the play's best themes due to his delivery, as when he challenges Brooke : "You mean art comes before life? Losing the trust of the people you love for the sake of these opinions of yours?" Or to the entire family near the end : "I just see that we all live with each other's divergent truths." And : "As you take your last breath all that will have mattered is how much you loved, that's it." 

Production values : Set designer Amir Ofek wins the prize for his clever 60's stage-wide set of Palm Springs : acorn fireplace in front of floor-to-ceiling syncopated sandstone flatbrick. Rectangular squat chairs and settees. IKEA liquor cabinet of ersatz wood. Built-in wall-length bookshelves with pix of Nancy and Ronnie. Cantilevered steps out to a swim pool that shortly slides under the living room floor to bring the action closer downstage. 

Costume designer Drew Facey executed well, overall, but why Lyman's signature blue blazer was two inches short in the body -- off-the-rack from Zellers instead of Brooks Brothers tailor-fit -- I just can't fathom. 

Choice of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" as background was just right except for selecting some anonymous contemporary cover group rather than using the original score by the Boys themselves. God only knows indeed.

Who gonna like : Folks who like family squabbles or feuds or dysfunction as their preferred fare -- I love such stageplay! -- will come away not displeased by this energetic and eager but somewhat flawed production. While uneven, the Baitz script is nevertheless worth a listen and plays out well on the Ofek set that spans the Stanley stage. 

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