Thursday, 21 March 2013

2 Pianos, 4 Hands should amuse even R&B fans

Vertical integration is not just a business thing. It can work in theatre, too, given the right circumstances. As it is in ACT's latest Stanley Theatre production that was written by, directed by and stars Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt. 

2P4H was conceived some 17 years ago as a fictionalized diary about each man's classical piano teachers during their fetched-up years. Albeit in real life some eight years apart in age, on stage their characters spend a decade together competing with and against one another. First as daydreaming flummoxes, but ultimately as highly-skilled though not-pro-level performers, just "best in the neighbourhood". How many suburban hockey kids fit that description, too? More than not. Dreamers of all description -- whether astronaut or movie star or rock god wannabes -- will relate to this tale.

We watch these two nascent hotshots of Chopin, Bach, and Mozart from their early bristles and squawks and cacophony through grammar school. That takes up most of Act 1. Gradually each becomes a bit o.c. and nerdy as hours-&-hours of practice consume them during the pimple years. Right through high school they act out a sequence of semi-autobiographical skits as both their teachers and the music get tougher and tougher on them, not to mention the parents. This is the stuff of Act 2.

In the end their dreams of stardom, like spring flowers in June, droop and drop altogether: Dykstra is rejected for Conservatory training to become the next Glenn Gould because he's "undisciplined" while Greenblatt mistakes a trilly Ferrante & Teicher version of My Funny Valentine he wrote as jazz. The man waran't impressed. No brudda. No Harlem jazz school for him. 

So Greenblatt tries his hand at cocktail lounge entertainer -- one of the funniest and truest bits doing Billy Joel's Piano Man under the shouts of a bellicose drunk. For Dykstra, he tries his hand at teaching piano basics to suburban moms at the ABC Piano School. They simply use him and their weekly lesson time to confess their life's misery.

This somewhat melancholy fall from grace for both of them as overachieving Kiwanis competition prodigies has, however, been punctuated throughout by great guffaws. Indeed it's the comedy acting that almost upstages their exceptional skills on the twin Yamaha grand pianos -- particularly Dykstra's facial contortions, timing and wonderfully wimpy groans. 

In stage argot this is a "two-hander" as Dykstra and Greenblatt are the only two performers. But they each toggle back-&-forth as imagined student and teacher for one another. Touchingly they capture the foibles of the kids who are forced to take these bloody piano lessons in the first place, particularly the daily grind of practices they hate. But equally well their personna capture the peccadilloes of their long-suffering teachers. Dykstra's rendition of poor old Sister Loyola and her perpetual migraine at Greenblatt's childish keyboard excruciations is priceless comic stuff. 

And Greenblatt playing Dykstra's belligerent old man is cleverly wrought. He orates a note-perfect "not while you live in my house" speech to Teddy whose grades are slipping. Slipping simply because by age 16 Teddy's tumescent only about the piano -- not about girls or sports or anything else -- piano is all he does or thinks or breathes or phantasizes. It's a speech nearly every one of us has both heard and given in our lifetimes when a teen seems headed astray in some way or other.  

Script meets life by virtue of Dykstra and Greenblatt having done the 2 Pianos, 4 Hands schtick so long -- 900 performances in the past decade-&-a-half. They are symbiotic, like piano-man twins in their comic and personal turns on stage. Being in each other's skin, almost literally, is what lends the performance its poignance.

The 20 or so mostly classical pieces are played in snippets as an extension of the running dialogue occurring on stage. One needn't be a classical music fan to enjoy them, though having some familiarity with the genre doesn't hurt. 

Production designer Steve Lucas creates a set just right for the music and dialogue : only outsize picture frames adorn the stage behind the nose-to-nose pianos. Within them are shot various home-style windows -- to represent the different teachers and venues as well as chiaroscuro screens behind which Greenblatt and Dykstra mimic mom and dad nattering and scolding the boys to practice harder. All worked adequately well until the final scene when the sunset-red and puffy clouds in the closing J.S. Bach Concerto in D minor sequence seemed meh -- a bit casual and indifferent and unfocused in purpose. 

Background notes :  The Dykstra-Greenblatt collaboration has been performed literally thousands of times, both by these two and nearly 100 others in local companies. ACT tots up some 5,000 performances of the script at 200 theatres in eight countries on five continents to nearly 2,000,000 viewers. The current production is part of a farewell tour of the show playing Ottawa, Vancouver, and Edmonton before Dykstra and Greenblatt, at least, retire the work for themselves as performers. If numbers count, this is a Don't miss it ! event.

Helpfully, the New York Times  describes the musical format of "two hands" piano-playing thus : 

"In the 19th century orchestral and chamber works were often transcribed for piano duet so that those who couldn't attend concerts might still hear the latest symphony or opera. These duets were considered more suitable for the parlor than the concert hall, where two virtuoso egos would be uncomfortably squashed together on one piano bench [Ed : the two-butt, one-bench scene by Dykstra/Greenblatt was great slapstick]. Four-hand two-piano works had more appeal for the reigning superstars, even allowing them to indulge in some lively onstage one-up-manship [Ed : which D/G do repeatedly and deliciously throughout the ACT production]."  (NYT description by Vivien Schweitzer, Feb. 16, 2010.)


Thursday, 7 March 2013

How Has My Love Affected You certainly affected me

HHMLAY is at once brave, clever, challenging and insightful. It also strikes me as an unethical and offensive intrusion into the life and spirit of the playwright's mother.

According to its pre-performance publicity, it's a "memoir". Playwright (and son) Marcus Yousef plays himself and tots up 90 minutes of monologue providing countless memories. His perspectives -- now, as a middle-aged man, about life with mother ever since the day mom and dad divorced when he was a teenager some 30 years back because dad was a serial adulterer -- are poignant and compelling.

No, the primary problem with HHMLAY is not its production or scriptural values per se. Not even the uneasy Freudian gestalt created by playwright/actor/son Marcus having his own teen-age son Zak on stage. Zak is there mostly to sing catchy Veda Hille original songs about his Grandma's idiosyncracies taken from pounds of note scraps found in her former lodgings over an eight month stay in the 2400 Motel on Kingsway in EastVan.  But Zak also has a role-within-a-role to act as sounding board and confidante for Dad playing out his memory schtick for all to see.

Here's the problem. Mom is still alive. This crucial central fact is not revealed in any of the play's advance publicity nor in the playwright/actor/son's interviews nor director/dramaturge Rachel Ditor's interview nor even revealed in the dialogue until the closing moments of the play.

What struck this viewer dumb was the real-time video of Mom in her 2013 Vancouver nursing home special care unit that was shot up onto the bedsheet projection screen. What we see is a woman in her 70's breathing and blinking in her nightclothes in her bed but utterly ravaged and consumed by Alzheimer's. A video made of a woman who could never have known her son would exploit his relationship with her -- without her knowledge and consent -- while she is still alive. Who in her right mind would agree to have her son air an index of all her neuroses and the ones she allegedly induced in him for commercial purposes?

No, had the play opened with that video clip, many in the audience would have exited the theatre in a heartbeat out of empathy for her, though surely not the ones giving the performance a standing-o and shouting Bravo! robustly as Vancouverites are wont to do too often by rote. (BLR I daresay has never ranted quite like this before : but this production generated a nagging ethical itch I can find no honest way to scratch simply by calling it "drama".)

Still. I did commence the piece arguing HHMLAY is "at once brave, clever, challenging and insightful". If one were able to imagine the play as historical fiction about a deceased parent, the values of it as drama would emerge. Here's a peek.

In the 1870's Count Leo Tolstoy said it best when he opened Anna Karenina so brilliantly : "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Scroll forward 100 years. Yousef's Mom lived her life until her cognitive collapse in a seemingly endless internal monologue through writing -- journals; dream diaries; memos; sketches; scraps of these words, volumes of those. Mostly filled with self-absorption as such media inherently do. A 70's Berkeley product, she marries a dashing and brilliant Egyptian immigrant. They have a daughter early on in their romance whom they adopt out. Inconvenient, Yousef strongly suggests, to hippie college zoomers agitating for the Free Speech Movement in Sproul Plaza.

When they settle and marry, they have Marcus. The ensuing decade brings on the dalliances and the inevitable divorce -- bitter, costly, devastating to a woman sick to death of the male patriarchy values that have nearly consumed her. Any man's vehement protests that he is the victim when his spouse refuses to just let him be who he is pretty well sums up all that hypocrisy. Though made fun of over centuries by stage drama, it's always corrupt and demeaning to all who are touched by it.

Not surprisingly, therapy lives large in HHMLAY, both hers and her son's, the latter of which Yousef advises is ongoing. He tries to make a joke it will end -- at least with his mother as primary subject matter -- once the 16 remaining public performances of his self-analysis at the Revue Stage come to an end. But then sniggers to Zak : "Unless we take this on the road...!"

Naomi Sider's cardboard box set balloons to fill the entire Revue stage north / south / east / west and thus cleverly documents the matriarch's insatiable hoarding tendencies. Reminiscent of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs. Projection designer Jamie Nesbitt's screen work of age-old family photos on all these boxes is cleverly wrought, aided by Marsha Sibthorpe's signature lighting prowess.

So, if one could see this work imagining it as truly "memoir", filled with "truthiness" and "factoids" and the usual f 1.4 personal perspective of memory, it would carry itself successfully. Yousef's late-stage riffs summing up all the myriad positive character traits and noteworthy paradoxes that comprise the unique, complex woman who raised him gripped me fast. Nice nice work.

But I can't forget the program note. Yousef proclaims he is "interested in the recognize the irresolvable contradictions that are at least part of any human being's time on this earth". This play is just that. A contradiction that is irresolvable. Unsettling. Disquieting. Not right. Out of respect for the living it should just close. Immediately. And perhaps be re-mounted years down the road when it truly might warrant the designation "memoir".

Fact is the ACT Silver Commissions Project to feature new works and experimental drama at the Revue Stage is laudable and arguably my favourite component of ACT's yearly productions. Let us hope this questionable aberration in ethos and judgment does not jeopardize the Project's good name and reputation in future.