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.