Friday, 26 July 2013

Actors rip into Findley script at Vanier Park

First impressions :  Elizabeth Rex is a spicy, sex-driven tale purpose-built for the contemporary stage: power politics meets sexual politics meets theatrical games. The late Canadian actor, novelist, essayist & playwright Timothy Findley fantasizes that Shakespeare's acting troupe spends a night yakking it up with Queen Elizabeth I in a barn behind her castle in 1601. The play is staged as a 15-year flashback viewed through the prism of Shakespeare's mind hours before his final exit: he supposedly imagines all this on the eve of his death at 52 in April, 1616. It's as if he's directing the play that in the time QEI lived (d. 1603) would dare not speak its name because of its myriad sexual revelations. The setting is almost whimsical, like an impromptu talk-back between cast and audience replete with chicken fingers & ale. WS opens the show thus: "These are the only truths I know -- I know no other truths but these. We play so many roles before we die -- and then...we die." Sandwich'd between his front-&-back-end monologues is the following play-within-a-play.

Plot overview : Shakespeare's troupe, Lord Chamberlain's Men (LCM) has just performed Much Ado About Nothing for Queen Bess as divertissement. The 67-year-old monarch is troubled this Shrove Tuesday night because her former lover turned traitor, the 30-something Earl of Essex, is to be beheaded at dawn on Ash Wednesday by her command. Thanks to a convenient curfew on the streets of London -- Bess fears there may be a pro-Essex uprising -- LCM is forced to bivouac overnight in the royal stables. Seeking further distraction throughout the long night of waiting, the queen joins the troupe unannounced and demands their continued entertainment of her.

The play's conceit : In real life QEI is quoted as having said: "Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind." And further: "I have the heart of a man, not a woman, and I am not afraid of anything." The queen wonders whether she can now tame her constant "manliness" and summon the emotion to mourn her lost love. Her antagonist, meanwhile, is LCM actor Ned Lowenscroft whose career championed his playing women's roles because women were not permitted to act in Elizabethan times. He is not only gay (as was Findley himself), his late soldier lover Captain Hal gave him the "pox". AIDS-like lesions now cover his body. He fears he will die soon. In contrast to "King Elizabeth", Ned the perpetual woman on-stage wonders whether he has sufficient "man" in him off-stage to face death bravely. Most of the action involves bouts of sometimes surreal verbal jousting between the so-called "virgin queen"and the commoner gay actor whom Bess was so impressed with when he played Beatrice in the MAAN performance. For his part WS wanders through the barn fitfully. He scritches out snippets of dialogue for his latest work-in-progress and along the way admits his chief love in life was Essex's co-conspirator the Earl of Southampton. 

What to expect @ Vanier Park :  Despite a cast of 14, Findley's focus is clearly on the three principals -- the queen (Colleen Wheeler), Lowenscroft (Haig Sutherland), and WS (David Marr). Because of Bess's intrigue at the "how" Lowenscroft brings to his women's roles on stage, she offers him a carte blanche ticket to act in whatever role he wants during the evening's long wait for the axe to fall on Essex's neck. This leads at one point to the nearly absurd exchange between them when she shrieks at him he's but a "Beatrice in britches!" and he retorts she's but her father "King Henry in skirts!" That's a script problem, however, not the actors' fault. Generally Wheeler finds just the right words to shout out with full-on regal contempt, such as "Ingrate!" that she bellows to correct one of the troupe who has referred to Essex as a "reprobate" instead. Wheeler conjures for me the memory of Glenda Jackson's Elizabeth R role, a tour de force, on USA's Masterpiece Theatre some 40 years back. Powerful. Richly evocative. Sarcasm in whiffs, drips and globs. She and Sutherland swap words with rapier-fast delivery and artful, purposeful injury to one another in search of each other's alter ego, if there in fact is one for either of them. Findley tries to convince us here, but his words don't quite pull it off by play's end. [See "warnings" section below.]

As WS, David Marr infuses the Bard with fretful believability. When Bess accuses him of being a "vagabond from reality" who produces on stage "histories that are lies", Marr quite forcefully lets her know he wears such an accusatory mantle proudly. Stage plays are "art", not "life", he insists, always plumping for compassion to triumph over vengeance. Which in his world he lets happen; in hers she does not. "And if, because I love him I spare him, I will then have killed the man in me who is England's only defence against her enemies," she says. And : "I killed the woman in my heart, that England might survive...".

Thank god for comic relief in the play. It comes from two sources primarily, the role of the troupe's nearly-blind seamstress Kate "Tardy" Tardwell who's always kvetching at the actors for how they abuse her costumes. Lois Anderson absolutely nails this role with wonderful stage business, gesticulation, voice and body action. As the aging former clown Percy Gower, Bernard Cuffling never fails to raise a giggle with his various plaints and antics. Mention, too, must be made of Andrew Wheeler in his Irishman's Jack Edmund turn. A proper blend of a stiff and unhappy obeisance to Her Majesty, with his Dublinesque peasant's contempt for the English nevertheless right on his sleeve at all times. Strong and steady performances by the balance of the ensemble, though Findley didn't give them much to do but to watch and listen to the Main 3. (As Lowencroft's "rescue bear" -- saved from certain death in the bear bait pits of the times -- Benjamin Elliott makes the life-size ursine Hush Puppy almost, well, "believable".)

Production values : Rachel Ditor squeezes every ounce of skill from her cast in this compleat outing at the studio stage. While Findley's script gets somewhat rambly and redundant and preachy in Act II, Ditor manages her crew well so they deliver crisply and evocatively regardless. Still, to hack maybe 10-15 minutes off thru use of a deft editor's scalpel wouldn't hurt the play's intent or impact, i.m.o. Scenic designer Drew Facey's Elizabethan barn / actors' hang-out acquits itself admirably, as did his Measure for Measure New Orleans grillwork. Costume designer Mara Gottier has both eye and touch that please : whether brocaded gowns or actors' skivvies -- not to mention Bess's wigs atop her shaved head -- all of it suits the time and the characters perfectly. Patrick Pennefather's period music helped set a proper Elizabethan tone and mood. 

Politics-of-sex warnings : Since its premier in 2000, critics have termed Findley's script "didactic", "derivative", "contrived" and "dated" given the yin-yang stereotypes being examined: yin "softness" -vs- yang "hardness; head -vs- heart; ideas/decisions -vs- feelings/empathy. Even the gender-swapping aspect of the play -- the butchy queen 
-vs- the bitchy quean -- is declared cliche and finds no end of detractors. But like WS scripts themselves such as Taming of the Shrew, Findley's Rex requires suspension of disbelief and tolerance for stereotypes both traditional and contemporary. For prospective viewers, it's a case of wysiwyg and caveat emptor both.

Should you go? : The above "warning" notwithstanding, Elizabeth Rex squares nicely with the Bard on the Beach Shakespearean format, no question. And the excellent cast performances will delight, particularly Colleen Wheeler's Elizabeth. Another "big win" for this year's ensemble that year-after-year helps shape summer's cultural identity in Vancouver.


Thursday, 18 July 2013

M4M is no tragicomedy as done by BotB, nosiree!

First impressions : The trick in staging Measure for Measure for contemporary audiences is for the director to determine whether the show is more comic than mordant, more tittle than tattle, more to fun with or to preach. As adapted nearly wholesale by director John Murphy, there is not one scintilla of the tragic in any of it. His version exploits the script for every ounce of fun, sport & amusement Billy Bard imagined and then...a lot more ! Song, dance, mardi gras masques galore, horns, strings, drums, parades, a whole she-bang! of stuff dancing about studio stage. The crowd's eager laughter and clapping throughout prove this Murphy's law is quite unlike the usual "If anything can go wrong..." warning of the original.

Plot overview : 1603 Vienna is re-set by Murphy in 1903 New Orleans, in The District, a.k.a. Storyville. The Duke of Creole duchy wants the place cleaned up of its "bawds" -- WS's all-purpose word for brothels, pimps, prostitutes, johns, barkeeps, entertainers and anyone else even remotely infected by association with such venues. But the Duke lacks the fortitude to do it. Because for nearly two decades he's let rompery and debauchery prevail. So he fakes a sabbatical in friar's tucks and gives his oxymoronic deputy Angelo the job to do for him. This challenge Angelo undertakes with satanic alacrity. He sees Julietta about to give birth. He knows no banns were ever published by her betrothed Claudio. So under an age-old puritan law against fornication, he orders Claudio beheaded to make an example of him. Sister Isabella, a novitiate at a nearby convent, pleads with Angelo to spare her brother. Angelo agrees, on the condition Isabella sleep with him. Enter Friar/Duke once more. He plots with Isabella to have Angelo's former fiancee Mariana sleep with Angelo instead, thus saving Isabella's virtue and Claudio's life -- WS's popular "bed trick". Friar/Duke schemes yet another switcheroo in prison when he learns Angelo has reneged on the deal : Claudio is to lose his head anyway despite Angelo's midnight laydown with "Isabella" as previously agreed.

What happens, what doesn't : Dixieland music written by musical director Benjamin Elliott leaps out from Moment 1 of the production with a classic Bourbon Street funeral dirge plunked out on the ancient Mendelssohn Piano Co. upright by the Duke (Andrew Wheeler). Within a bar or two, bordello matron Mistress Overdone (Lois Anderson) belts out a torch song "Lady of the Night" and we know quite where this version of "tragicomedy" is headed. Fact is critics and academics often assail WS's Measure because the first act's set-up is viewed as largely tragic (the fall from grace of arch-Angelo), while act two slips more into a series of comic relief bits. In #M4M2013, it's all slapschtick from front-to-back, both vertical & horizontal mambo the reigning dance routine. Lots of nudge-nudge/wink-wink with the audience. Circus whistles. Cued mission bell chimes. Sight gags. Keystone cop chases. Pratfalls. The works. A host of cheapjack brothel denizens panting and slavering in dixie cadence.

Obviously Shakespeare purists ain't a-gonna get as smitten by all this madcap tomfoolery as both the BotB cast and the crowd obviously were. As noted in the Hamlet review -- judging by their robust enthusiasms -- the Vanier Park bunch generally will plump for more accessibility to Shakespeare's wordsmithery through imaginative staging than for faithfulness to 17th century Elizabethan manners, costumes and script. So that's what this crew provides. Tunefully. Effervescently. Splashily.

Character strengths : To try to isolate or rank excellence in performance in this year's Measure is a mug's game, for sure. As Duke/Friar, Andrew Wheeler flips back-&-forth between the slapsticky stuff but also gives off dukely airs in a more serious way. He does so capably and convincingly. The four comedians of the piece -- Lois Anderson as Mistress Overdone; Anton Lipovetsky as Lucio; David Marr as Pompey; Chris Cochrane as constable Elbow -- almost trip over one another in excellent turns. WS gave Lucio the biggest bit, and Lipovetsky nails it, but Marr as circus clown Pompey steals many a scene, except the ones Cochrane does. For her part Anderson is torchy and raunchy and humpy-manic line-after-line. And the more minor comic parts for Froth/Bernardine were executed bibulously by music man Elliott. 

Though somewhat small a part for all its central-ness, Claudio (Luc Roderique) makes us believe. But it's sister Isabella (Sereana Malani) who is featured in the promo photos no doubt quite on purpose. Along with senior bureaucratic advisor Escalus (Bernard Cuffling), only those two characters are more traditional in their staging and delivery. Mr. Cuffling as always brings his "just right" mature style and sonorous delivery to each of his lines. For her part, Malani was word-perfect, to this ear, in every soliloquy, every importuning plea to Angelo (David Mackay). I would see Measure again to hear her words and watch her deliver them, passionately, alone. Mackay, meanwhile, was solid and consistent in portraying Angelo's hypocrisy and duplicity.

Production values : Again it's difficult to weight the praise. Scenic designer Drew Facey makes the most of the studio stage potential with its New Orleans grillwork doubling as prison bars plus the three trapdoors to the jail's bowels. Costume designer Mara Gottler excels particularly with Mistress Overdone's garish but sumptuous get-up. Lucio's suit-&-spats and cane were spot-on, while the mardi gras parade costumes and masques on the musicians were clever beyond description. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg delivers many crisp flings and jumps and pirouettes to add to the fun. In the end, however, it has to be Benjamin Elliott's original N'awlins ersatz music -- kind of Jacques Brel meets Buena Vista Social Club meets Tennessee Ernie Ford meets the Dukes of Dixieland. His playful tunes and soft ballads punctuate and best capture the cachet of John Murphy's adaptation of WS's Measure. One wee caveat : all the faux Southern accents were, well, not only contrived and irregular in delivery, were also quite unnecessary as Malani's accent-less excellence proved. 

Who gonna like, who not so much : As noted, period piece prefer-ers will not enthuse. But that's not what Studio Stage is all about. For the rest, there's lots to amuse visually and much BillyB language precision and Elliott-music to tickle the eardrums.


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Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Hamlet is Jonathon Young writ large

First impressions : Contemporary troupes are all about making Shakespeare "accessible" to 21st century playgoers. Bard on the Beach director Kim Collier aces that concept in her version of Hamlet. Her staging exploits i-Phones and laptops and split-screen 40" t.v.'s as active devices, not just stage props. For its part the setting could be Abbotsford for all the gangster motifs in it, including myriad handguns. But conceiving and blocking and staging a play can be for nought if the players aren't equal to the challenge. No issue here. Because as Hamlet, Jonathon Young gives viewers endless scene after scene of breathtaking originality, imagination, creativity and kinesis.

Plot overview :  Make no mistake. This is Shakespeare. Serious WS. There may be two laughs in the entire performance. It's Hamlet's existential sizzle that sells the steak here. He's a Wittenberg campus frat-boy come home to Denmark. Only to find that his dad, King Hamlet, is dead. Worse, Mom Gertrude has up and married the new self-appointed king, his uncle Claudius, within a month or two of Hamlet pere's demise. And if all that weren't sufficiently Freudian and iffy in deed as well as thought, there're also rumours floating about of an agitated ghost who's haunting Elsinore nightly. Sure enough. Dad. And he wants revenge for the fratricide / regicide by little brother.

What happens, what doesn't : Whereas Macbeth has lots of plot activity, Hamlet is a thinker's play. He's a ditherer and a procrastinator and a morally-riven soul. He "wants" to revenge Dad's death, but he just "can't". Hamlet plots and schemes, but he just can't seem to bring himself to "do". Part of his scheming is to fake madness. In doing so he renounces his love for Ophelia and orders her to hie herself to a whorehouse (nunnery). And because Collier opens the play with Hamlet and Ophelia nuzzling horizontally downstage centre -- an original insertion and part of the "accessibility" piece -- the result is a boy-breaks-off-with-girlfriend speech that wounds grievously, viscerally. It was one of the most poignant and compelling scenes in the play (whereas the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy was done somewhat matter-of-factly, in a kind of "on the one hand this, on the other that" style that nevertheless quite worked.)

Fact is Hamlet's famed "antic disposition" -- the phony madness -- is a gambit he tries out mostly to buy time : to determine if Dad's ghost is for real and is to be trusted and not a Satanic trick; to see if he can find the "smoking gun" in Claudius's hand; to muster up the guts and energy to actually pull off the revenge-killing like a Tony Soprano or one of the Bacons. Ironically, the murder of Claudius occurs almost by accident in the play's final tumultuous moments.

Character strengths :  As noted, Jonathon Young commands the stage. Full-stop. But as the aging Lord Chamberlain Polonius, Richard Newman is still the delightful doddering blabberer always offering up "fruits of advice" in 10 words where two would do. [Ed. Note. Sort of like a typical BLR review.] Collier assigns the role of Hamlet's bosom buddy Horatio to Jennifer Lines, who early on has marvelous blocking and hand gesticulation to accompany her eager speeches. Rachel Cairns as Ophelia is a compelling ingenue. Her final soliloquy with brother Laertes (Todd Thomson) is the second-most poignant scene in the play, the two of them equal in that respect. Barbara Pollard as Queen Gertrude is convincing as a "Who me...?" person who never quite gets why Hamlet is upset with her. Bill Dow as the usurper Claudius is a steady kind of Nixonian evil with flashes of brilliant temper. Casting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as lovers (Naomi Wright and Craig Erickson) was a touch well executed. They were a delight playing off one another. Hard to decide whether Duncan Fraser as Ghost King was better than his gravedigger antics. 

Production values :  For all the "black" in the play, scenic designer Pam Johnson's strikingly white set projects the right images both visually and morally. The furniture sheets as shrouds in the opening scene were spot-on. Costume designer Nancy Bryant produced a clever blend of black, grey, and white suits, offset by more colourful and elegant togs for the royalty. The music and sound design by Torquil Campbell and Chris Dumont was superb, with Hamlet punching up background riffs off his i-Phone including the Beatles' "Revolution" and the cheeky "Is That All There Is?" when he confronts Mom Gertrude about her horrible, ugly duplicity in all of this. (Loved Dawn Upshaw's backdrop of Henryk Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" during the final Hamlet / Laertes fight scene.)

Who gonna like, who gonna not : Don't take Shakespeare newbies to this. It's for WS aficionados and Hamlet hand-wringers. It's l-l-l-long, 190 minutes with Int. It's w-w-w-w-wordy. But it's Jonathon Young doing whirlygig manic depressive shout-outs flipping to pained reflective ruminations in hair's breadth timing, one after another after yet another, each word and line and nuance with astonishing absorption and clarity and verve every time. For that alone, go! 


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Boffo buffoonery by puppets clever, raunchy

Overview : As a dad for the first time 45 years back, I remember watching Sesame Street with my kids on a black-&-white 16" screen. The conceit of the show was its ability to educate youngsters and adults both through clever puppetry and pop-up screens flashing words and phonics and social ideas they wanted us all to learn.

Fast forward to Avenue Q now playing at ACT's Granville Island mainstage. These same Sesame Street-type characters have morphed to Gen Xers with krappy college degrees and superb existential angst living communally on the eponymous Ave. Q. Together they fret about jobs and bills and sex and social relations circa Y2K. And "they" here means both the flesh-&-blood actors themselves and the hand-held puppets attached to their person. Sometimes you watch the actor, other times the puppet. It's fun

Meanwhile in today's update there's a wonderful "learn this word" screen -- schadenfreude -- let's derive joy from others' misery. Between that bit of sniggery and the number "We're All A Little Bit Racist" -- well, the innocent stuff me'n'the kids enjoyed back in the day went Poof! in a jiffy, har-har.

The show kicks off with a 23-year-old named Princeton (Andrew MacDonald-Smith) lamenting "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?", which segues nicely into the company challenging one another with assertions "It Sucks To Be Me" that ends with them all wondering "Is there anybody here it doesn't suck to be...?" 

First impressions : Today's matinee played to a decidedly white head/blue rinse crowd, for the most part, and it was obvious the sass of Q both delighted and "squeamed" them at the same time. Particularly the number "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" which featured the puppets Princeton and Kate Monster having endless congress in more positions than even the Kama Sutra spells out. Tenement super Gary Coleman* (Evangelia Kambites) has the line that aces it: "If you're doing the nasty, don't act as if you're at the ballet."

A decade back when Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx stitched together the characters and plotline and Jeff Whitty did the book, "Sex and the City" still reigned despite the "reality t.v." of 9-11 a couple years earlier. America was looking for divertissement driven as much by phantasy as by autogiography, thanks. Q answered that need nicely because of its hooks back to muppetry and Sesame Street as well as the relative innocence, still, of young people living communally trying to both break out and break in -- break out of juvenile mind-traps and break in to careers and security and "purpose". "Gotta find my purpose, gotta find me !" Princeton wails.

Plotline look : While the script has not exactly surpassed its "best-by xxx" date, for all its cleverness it is no longer as fresh as it might be though still scrappy and punchy.

The "in-the-closet homosexual" Republican investment banker, um, Rod, who's got the hots for roomy Nicky, denies he's gay and sings of a fictitious girlfriend in Canada as his cover. Well, quite frankly, that's post-trite in 2013.

The fleshy [non-puppet] Japanese therapist named Christmas Eve (Shannon Chan-Kent) is obviously an off-shore Pacific immigrant, but use of the expressions "ruvv" for "love" and "kirr" for "kill" clanked even on these utterly non-PC ears.

The kindergarten teacher (Jeny Cassady) is named "Mrs. Thistletwat". The over-the-top-ness of that name is just that -- was a decade back, too -- but not helped in the least when Kate Monster stresses the t-ness of the 3rd syllable emphatically each time she utters it.

The wonderful Trekkie Monster character -- Big Bird on bad acid -- played by Scott Bellis insists that the Internet has one primary purpose : "for porn". In Y2K that was probably a major purpose for newby computer users delighting in the medium's possibilities first-hand. But again, in 2013 when cyber-bullying and priests storing whole caches of child-porn on their laptops are daily news items, the joke loses some of its comic tumescence of yore.

Character take : Quibbles aside, Q is a marvel of flesh, felt and thrown-voices choreographed superbly by Director Peter Jorgensen who brags tongue-in-cheek he can now add "muppet porn" to his live theatre curriculum vitae.

Rick Lyon's puppets and their persona are wonderfully wrought and acted out by their puppeteers even as they have their own flesh characters to project, too. The Bad Idea Bear characters (Bellis and Cassady) are a delight of comic mischief, straight from the creators' amygdalae.  Bellis's Trekkie Monster and Bad Idea Bear personation are a highlight of the show. His voice projection in both parts is spot on. The choreography between Cassady and Bellis sharing the puppet character Nicky was step-perfect.

As the protagonist Princeton, MacDonald-Smith was expertly cast, a song-&-dance diva of the first order. Counterpart and occasional girl friend Kate Monster (Kayla Dunbar) has the best pipes on stage, no question, though Chan-Kent was no slouch in the aria arena either. Wannabe comic Brian (Andy Toth) was cast stereotypically, too -- the fatman struggling to urge laughs out of his brain, first, then out of his buddies. His wedding day costume by designer Jessica Bayntun replete with virgin yarmulkes for the goys was non-pareil.

Production values : Memory of this show will always take me back to previous-Jessie Award winner Marshall McMahen's striking tenement set -- an asymmetrical caricature of 1930's walk-ups in dirty reds and rust, like pop-up illustrations of skid road housing one might imagine from a kid's learn-to-read-book. The scruffy paving stones with candy-wrappers and other detritus littering the stage were just right. Musical Director Sean Boyntun led an able ensemble, his own dance on the keyboards and the crisp strokes by Niko Friesen on the drums particularly earful.

Who gonna like, who maybe not : The key to Avenue Q's success for viewers will depend on the degree to which they are prepared to just play along with puppets as people and people as puppets singing and dancing out this catalogue of familiar (if-dated) neuroses on stage.#   In my view the ideal demographic to enjoy it would be the 14-45 set, though Boomers will also relate from their break-out / break-in years. 

In 50 words or less... : A 20-something actor acquaintance told me last week she raved over ACT's and compared it favourably to a NYC production she had seen previously. "I'm going again!" she enthused. I heard some blue-rinsers say "Gosh that was funny!" while others I spotted looked simply glazed. In the end, when it's children's dreamworld meets adult reality -- Oz is Oz after all --probably any age can find something to relate to and have a heck of a laugh while doing so. 

* Coleman's character is based on the erstwhile t.v. child star of the show Diff'rent Strokes whose aura later in life dimmed to being a tenement manager in slummy NYC. His finest adult life moment, Kambites tells us, was when he sued his parents for ripping off his Strokes royalites, only to file for bankruptcy later. That vignette sync's terrifically with the overall tenor of Q and its characters.

# Here's how ACT describes the show in its media promotional materials. I could never improve upon it by tittle-or-jot so I simply reproduce it for readers for their benefit:

Warning : Full puppet nudity and other vulgarities will induce laughter. This is a puppet show. However this is not your kids' puppet show as it sneaks a peak at raucous sexual congress, failed childhood stardom, excessive drinking, moving in and out of a slummy neighbourhood, investing, mix-tapes, cute creatures doing bad things, singing boxes, getting laid off, finding your purpose, getting fired, getting rehired, ruvving [sic] someone but wanting to kirr [sic] them, exotic dancing, erotic dancing, exotic erotic dancing, homosexuality, racism, pornography, masturbation, interracial marriage, interspecies relationships (monsters and humans), roommates, coming out of the closet, coming out of your apartment, getting ahead in real life, going to college, pan-handling, wishing you were back in college, coming out of your shell, and recycling.