Sunday, 23 March 2014

Chelsea Hotel thrills Cohen fans old & new

Quick take :  If Leonard Cohen's musical poetry tickles your ears and steals your heart, don't miss the latest reprise of Chelsea Hotel that closes this coming Saturday at the Firehall Theatre. Six song-&-dance troupers blow the heck out of a dozen or more different instruments as they weave a clever tapestry displaying Cohen-the-man, Cohen-the-loner, Cohen-the-hustler. Melancholy, loss, romantic angst and love's wreckage are never far from the tip of Cohen's quill & inkwell. No question a slummy-ish hotel set is the perfect backdrop to showcase the man's storied talents.

The set-up :  Vancouver's Tracey Power who conceived, directed and choreographed the show obviously concluded The Chelsea would make a great hook for the musical review because of a favourite Cohen chart, "Chelsea Hotel #2" in which Cohen recalls a night of drugs and sexcapades with Janis Joplin.  "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / You were famous, your heart was a legend. / You told me again you preferred handsome men / but for me you would make an exception / and clenching your fist for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty / you fixed yourself, you said / 'Well never mind, / we are ugly but we have the music." In a 1969 Texas interview, Joplin recalled the night. She said Cohen "gave me nothing" but then quickly added : "I don't know what that means. Maybe it just means (he was) on a bummer."

Cohen stayed at The Chelsea in the late 60's along with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, when Cohen was chasing them around The Big Smoke to absorb their genius. This was around the time the Canadian National Film Board championed the emerging Montreal persona. His metier was poetry in those days that he shared both in books and in coffee house gigs. The NFB put out a 16mm black-&-white bio-pic I used to show my senior high English students, "Ladies and Gentlemen : Introducing Mr. Leonard Cohen". Clever and amusing, the flick includes Cohen bathing in a clawfoot tub at a seedy Montreal hotel while he smirks at the lens and writes the words caveat emptor on the bathroom wall as a kind of warning to viewers about all this precious fooferaw over him. But music was bursting in Cohen's breast, too, not just poetry, and NYC was where those times were a-happenin' and a-changin'. 

Power's cabaret format features some two dozen Cohen songs in whole and in bits that are covered by the troupe. There's a John Irving-esque plot stitching the songs together -- about a writer writing furiously and all the while fretting and fussing that writer's block prevents him from producing The One Indelible Lyric Of All Time. The show opens in an imaginative set by Marshall McMayen in which Kayvon Kelly, the Cohen alter ego, emerges from a paper mountain of scrunched-up poetry and song-lyric discards. (Indeed, as if to mock two stereotypes, over many decades the Buddhist and Jewish Cohen has often kvetched about his suffering in life as a wordsmith -- the pain words cause writers as their minds struggle for "just the right one" in any given line.)

Hallelujah out-take :   Case in point. Cohen's iconic "Hallelujah" that celebrates its 30th birthday this year reportedly had some 80(!)
original verses to it. After years of slashing and re-writing, Cohen managed to bring it down to just seven. Its final verse has lines that perhaps say all Cohen himself might, ultimately, want to conclude about his life as a writer and performer : "I did my best...I've told the truth... / I'll stand before The Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."  k.d. lang's performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is probably unmatchable among some 300 others who the media journals say have recorded it -- most recently by Rufus Wainwright in his best-hits-album "Vibrate" released just three weeks ago. For its part the raunchy rock rendition of the song the Firehouse gang rolls out satirically is worth a go, too. But it was Kelly doing it as an extra-slow-mo ballad to close the show (to a standing-o) that brought tears to the eyes of more than one patron Sunday afternoon.

The troupe :  Kelly shares the stage with five other actor musicians. Three women -- Lauren Bowler, Rachel Aberle, and Marlene Ginader reflect former (read : lost, abandoned, dumped) loves that the never-married Cohen famously wrote about : Suzanne, Marianne, and Jane. They are joined by two men, Benjamin Elliott and Steve Charles in the two-hour comic and bittersweet musical caper. I was doubly amused by the number "I'm Your Man" that features Bowler prancing about the set wrapped in a bedsheet blowing and humming a kazoo. Cute stuff in its own right but also because it reminded me of an old Sigmund Freud vignette : while smoking one of his signature stogies on stage during a lecture, Freud took a long drag, pulled it slowly from his mouth, gazed at it fondly and proclaimed : "And it's also a cigar!"

Bowler doing that song points to an interesting dynamic at play here : the fact of the women often singing lyrics clearly designed to be performed by a man singing to or about a woman. That makes for some engaging and dramatic shape-shifting on stage when listening to Cohen's lyrics out of a her instead of a him.

The songs :  Fortunately not all of the songs performed in Chelsea Hotel have the same tempo and tone and malancholia of Cohen's oh-so-famous ex-girlfriend ballads. The show's brilliant musical arranger, Steve Charles, proves how Cohen's musical oeuvre can be manipulated in the right hands to pump up his most famous songs and make them a lot less "drone-y" than Cohen often does himself. 

Charles mixes and matches Cohen's songs with surprise stylings galore, most notably the chirpily up-tempo "Closing Time". "Suzanne" to a cello / banjo backdrop was superb. The 4-part harmony on "Marianne" was tight tight tight. "First We Take Manhattan" done in cheeky syncopation made it a whole lot less Germanic and more universal. 

The leit motif of Leonard Cohen is always rejection, loss, hoped-for redemption. "I cannot follow you, my love / You cannot follow me. / I am the distance you put between / All of the moments that we will be" is a refrain sung repeatedly. And this observation about an unrequited relationship : "Now I am too thin / and your love is too vast." Or what about : "Tonight will be fine, for awhile...". Another oft-sung line : "Lover come back to me [repeated seven times] / Let me start again I cried." One of my favourites of Charles's arrangements was the song "That's No Way To Say Good-bye" done Cowboy Junkies style in pitch-perfect three-part harmony by the women with just banjo and bass accompaniement. Oh, sweet. Most of these exchanges are between Kelly and Ginader as the always-star-crossed lovers. For his part Elliott plays the role of the writer's muse, while Bowler and Aberle are often a pair of choreographed angels / devils ever-taunting the cad writer Kelly.

But you don't go to this for the story-line. You go to see and hear a clever cabaret collection of cover songs all deconstructed from Cohen originals and re-synthasized by a monstrously talented six-pack of song-&-dance pro's. You'll hear banjo, accordion, tambourine, harmonica, double bass, violin, cello, electric guitar, electrified acoustic guitar, drums, ukelele, keyboard piano and organ plus no doubt one or two others I missed. The cast rotated themselves around playing these various instruments with amazing cross-over talent on each.

Production values :  Power's choreography of the cast was clever, engaging, and spot-on with the McMayen set, exploiting every corner of the diminutive Firehall stage to wonderful advantage. Impossible to not conjure flashbacks of the Joel Gray Cabaret movie that was tour de force. Equal tdf here, no question. The group's costumes were an eclectic mix of plain-jane off-the-rack twills & Converse runners to circus get-ups by designer Barbara Clayden. Elliott the gangly muse as a kind of faux ringmaster in tails was perfect, as were the dancing twins Bowler and Aberle in their cocktail waitress black-&-whites. Ted Roberts' lighting was, as always, properly moody and apropos for each moment. 

Who gonna like : Some folks are too young to know the troubadour Cohen. Some folks find the Cohen genre too moody and self-indulgent and single-theme-y. But some folks will discover in this Power/Charles collaboration an absolutely stunning and unforgettable afternoon. That was me, that was my wife : she said she cannot remember a dramatic performance in all her life that she ever enjoyed more than this !

Footnote re: the hotel :  The Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in NYC has been a famous and favourite drop-in home for artists of all sorts ever since it opened back in 1885. Joni Mitchell's chipper & cheery "Chelsea Morning" gave the place rock star status, though its fame had earlier been marked, darkly, when Irish poet Dylan Thomas died there on a grey November day in 1953 shortly after bragging about the 18 whiskies he'd just finished polishing off. The 250-room 12-storey Victorian gothic with iron brocade balconies gained further notoriety when punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed his punk girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there in 1978. (Out on bail, Vicious himself would die in Greenwich Village of a heroin overdose just five months later : the investigation into the murder in Room 100 at The Chelsea was promptly abandoned by NYPD and never proven or solved.) Best description of the hotel from Cohen's time there came from someone named Nicola L. in a 2013 Vanity Fair article by Nathaniel Rich entitled "Where The Walls Still Talk". Quoth she : "Anything could happen... It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can't remember which. It was a crazy time."  


Thursday, 20 March 2014

Breakthrough e-wizardry in Helen Lawrence

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan famously declared that "the medium is the message". Meaning that movies, for example, distort time and space and sequence and perspective in ways normal 3-dimensional human activity -- or a stage play -- cannot. Not, that is, until Vancouver visual artist Stan Douglas and local writer-producer Chris Haddock's collaboration to create Helen Lawrence now bending perceptions at the Stanley. HL is a multimedia visual and thematic dance oh-so-cleverly choreographed by its creators and by video programmer Peter Courtemanche along with a squad of talented 3D artists led by Jonny Ostrem.

Plot-&-set quicky : On its face the play is a film noir-style piece set in post-war Vancouver. The old Italian Renaissance-style Hotel Vancouver at Georgia and Granville had been boarded up to face the wrecking ball even though it was but 30 years old. (Its utility expired once the current Hotel Vancouver a block away opened in 1939.) But returning soldiers, desperate for civvy-street living quarters, squatted in the derelict old landmark. Shortly after the city sanctioned it to house some 1,000 veterans and their families before it was torn down in 1949 and paved over for a parking lot for 20 years until the Eaton Centre / Sears / Nordstrom parade of hopefuls that have succeeded it. 

As was the story in many post-war coastal cities, Vancouver was a rough-cut diamond in those days. Lots of natural beauty, sure, but also gambling joints and bookies, brothels and speakeasies that prospered thanks to police protection rackets that ran the show despite "tough on crime" but gullible politicians at city hall. Prime location of the action in Vancouver was the Strathcona district that housed a blend of multi-racial, multi-ethnic folk as well as being the home of Hogan's Alley where all these seedy but enticing social enterprises could be sampled by people from all walks of life around the city. 

From the decrepit dowager Old Hotel kitty-corner from The Bay and across from Birks in the heart of downtown to Hogan's Alley in DTES -- these "two solitudes" that nevertheless feed off each other set the stage for the action. 

Femme fatale Helen Lawrence has hopped a train from California to hunt down her ex-lover who was her millionaire husband's murderer who quickly disappeared N of 49 leaving her to take the rap for him. She's on the lam from an L.A. psychiatric "sanatorium" where she'd been held pending medical clearance to stand trial. She lodges at the once-gracious Old Hotel in centre de ville but ultimately tracks her prey down in Strathcona. 

Meanwhile the enterprising cats from the Alley are busy plotting and scheming with the police chief to preserve their underhanded businesses and perks. It's the duplicity and mendacity of all these gangsters and grifters and racketeers -- and not to forget the "hooker with heart" stereotype of noir films -- that provide the fundamental storyline of the show. Cop vs. cop, brother vs. brother, thief vs. thief, but all with a pinch of redeemable qualities, too.

Back to McLuhan : The plot of HL is pretty well incidental to this theatre event, however. Because the show is all about "functional blend" : the troupe's acting done mid-stage with minimal props blended with real-time videos of their actions being simultaneously projected onto a gossamer scrim across the proscenium in front of them. It is this visual legerdemain that is the hook and the treat and the conceit of the performance. 

Director Douglas calls it a "work of visual polyphony". For more reasons than one the audience can't help but watch both the actors and the projected images from the four cameras downstage that are tracking them. But the biggest trick had to be Mr. Courtemanche's creation of the computer software needed to pull all this off. His wizardry and Douglas's artistic vision allow 3D graphics derived from pictures of the old hotel and the Alley make the scrim videos appear as if the stage action was actually taking place in its rooms and on DTES's 1948 streetscape.

The result is a Stanley stage that visually dazzles and crackles with energy. You can watch the theatrical version, or much of it anyway, or you can watch the cinematic version. Take your pick. The on-the-set action behind the scrim or the Jumbotron black-&-white simulcast up-close-&-personal in front. Or both at the same time. Life as cinema, cinema as life, a perfect metaphor for today's ubiquitous Twitter'rs and Facebook'rs. As theatrical experiment HL is brilliant and breathtaking in its boldness. 

A wee but... Depending on one's seat, however, much of the centre stage-acting is often blocked by the camera dollies doing the filming right behind the scrim. Seven rows from the front and off to the side as we were, well, this occurred sufficiently often to force us to watch the video version, want to or not. A perhaps unintended plus, meanwhile, was the actors' blocking and expressions in the equivalent of floor-to-ceiling 70mm. celluloid being thrust right in your face. 

Genesis & theme : Fully five years in the making, HL's images as directed by Douglas accompany writer Haddock's script (Haddock the originator of Da Vinci's Inquest) and demonstrate how juxtaposed civility is with lawlessness at any given moment, then as now. Haddock says his work means "creating fiction out of history and bringing a veracity to the fiction".  I.e. no "one truth" can tell Vancouver's history -- there are many, and they overlap and infuse one another.

Douglas for his part points to the seeming chaos of the world's social structures in the post-war, pre-50's-boom time -- the start of the Cold War; critical housing shortages everywhere; wildly unstable economies. That zeitgeist pointed directly to the visual effect he intended : to mix live and virtual realities to demonstrate via "images (that) are fundamentally unstable and relationships ...constantly in flux". The result of this visual overdub and re-mix of the real with the virtual brings about "the potential (for everything) to fall apart any moment...much like the futures the characters are trying to forge for themselves."

What about the acting ?  The dozen actors who comprise the cast were all expertly cast. Highest kudos from this reviewer go to Allan Louis as faded jaded ex-boxer Buddy Black and Sterling Jarvis as his brother Henry. Nicholas Lea as Mrs. Lawrence's ex-lover Percy Walker had terrific facials as a brawny bullying bookie. The ex-carny hustler turn of Haley McGee as hotel receptionist / maid Julie ("But everybody calls me Joe...") was a delight to watch, except, late in the play, a strangely perfunctory embrace of her Old Hotel boss and buddy Harry Mitchell played tightly by Hrothgar Mathews. Local favourite Tom McBeath sleazed the role of Sergeant Leonard Perkins goofily and bibulously -- spot on. And as Helen Lawrence, Lisa Ryder brought immediately to mind the husky breathiness of Kathleen Turner in her Body Heat days -- equally vixen and viper. "Don't tread on me" indeed.  

Special mention needs to go to Nancy Bryant as costume designer. Every stitch worked wonderfully well, both in colour on the actors mid-stage and in the black-&-white video shots. Real classy consistent period stuff. The Buddy Black frayed ex-boxer robe was as classic as Helen Lawrence's white suit and sexy hats. For his part, composer and sound designer John Gzowski coupled moody saxes and basses with big band riffs that underscored the script and the times perfectly.

Who gonna like : This is a show for rabid live theatre fans who like to flirt with Netflix, too. Because its uniqueness and cleverness and force of creativity compensate completely for all those sight-line contortions one might be put through. (Probably a balcony seat in the centre would overcome much of the camera dolly distractions.) That said, the computerized scrim-work that marries the nearly-bare stage blocking into 3D's of the hotel and Alley scenery is nothing shy of marvel.