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!