Thursday, 24 April 2014

Watching Glory Die is a grief poem & elegy

Quicky overview :  Playwright Judith Thompson's 75-minute one-woman show Watching Glory Die at The Cultch through May 3rd is a quiet poem of a play that moves viewers' hearts and minds through nuance, shade and subtle character colours. Directed by Ken Gass, it is not screed, sermon nor angry tirade against the bureau known as Correctional Services Canada (CSC) that it condemns. Thompson plays three interconnected women all linked by the futility and victimhood of their circumstances : a teen prisoner fashioned after Ashley Smith who died in prison by ligature suicide; her helpless adoptive mom on the sidelines; and the teen's primary jailer who demonstrates a soupcon of empathy for her but is mostly a cynical "screw" who takes the system's code of revenge against its captives as a given. Thompson's script is clear : Ashley Smith deserved a huddle of mental health folks wrapping their arms around her in loving embrace to help her grow. Not the prison torture she got.

Real-life backdrop :  The death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith on October 26, 2007 at Ontario's Grand Valley Institution was an event that shook Canada viscerally. Particularly once it was learned that Ashley had been in various jails continuously since age 14, most of it in solitary confinement. In fact, CP reports that Ashley was trussed up and bounced around 17 times among nine institutions across five provinces in just one year, her last. But worst of all was this revelation : despite being on suicide-watch, her CSC guards had been instructed to not enter her cell under any circumstances unless she stopped breathing. Although witnessing her suicide occurring directly and personally in front of them, only when Ashley actually stopped breathing 3/4 of an hour later did the six guards watching go "assist" her : nought to do but cut the ligature from her blue-black head and cover her in a shroud. Like soldiers across the ages, they were "just following orders" lest they lose their jobs in a job-poor market.

It took the elapse of five years for a 5-woman jury to hear from some 80 witnesses over 11 months before they concluded Ashley's death was what it in fact it had been -- a homicide --  i.e. a preventable death occasioned by an act or an omission by some other(s). Among the jury's 104 recommendations, a particular one is like a needle that punctures the eye : "Prison staff at all levels are to be personally responsible for everyone's right to life."  Really? Does this truly need to be spelt out? In Canada-the-Good? In the 21st century? 

It could be that Ashley had an active personality disorder. Or maybe just deficient DNA. Or she may have suffered the neurosis known in DSM-IV as oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) that is pretty close to self-explanatory. From hucking crabapples at a postie at 14 to telling her guards to eff-off constantly to nudging them in the ribs when she was just funnin' -- Ashley's original six months sentence in a juvie remand facility turned into 2,239 days being "tacked on" to her original sentence by dint of 500 prison administrative penalty charges -- usually 60 additional days' incarceration for each charge -- arising from the 800 incident reports filed against her. 

To restrain her, teen-age Ashley was pepper-sprayed, straight-jacketed, Taser'd and otherwise physically subdued. No question : Thompson's sympathetic exploration of the Ashley Smith story demonstrates how powerful are the forces in society that demand conformity. Particularly when they act outside the focus of public eye.

The show :  Thompson wears one primary outfit for all three characters -- a drab prisoner's dress that is highlighted by a guard's jacket and clogs when playing jailer Gail; a shawl and sandals when playing the Mom Rosellen; barefooted when playing Glory. But it is Thompson's ability to create different voices that gives the play its layered poetic moods : Fargo-ish Frances McDormond when Gail the guard; Nova Scotian hobby farmer when Mom; ironic in-your-face push-back ego when Glory.

Were this expository drama, we would expect tantrum rages from Glory. They never come. Mom would be blustery indignance. She seldom goes there. Jail-guard Gail would be officious sarcasm. She is flatly matter-of-fact-ish instead.

The action shifts from Glory's solitary confinement cell to the prisoners' catwalks to Mom's kitchen. Thompson cycles through these planes one-by-one as her characters act out their sad tales of how hopeless the revenge / conformity / power-centric penal system in Canada is, even (especially?) for wee teens -- what Gail characterizes "an un-wipe-able stain" of suppression and grief. 

Slight wonder surfaces : Mom Rosellen claims she will "Howl!" to free her daughter. But the script reveals no evidence that she in fact does so with her MLA or MP or the media. Apparently it occurred only in her own heart and head. Still Mom did try, repeatedly and desperately, to visit her daughter just to discover she'd once again been shuffled to a different prison somewhere else in the land. Not being judgmental, but I just can't help but wonder how more aggressive whistle-blowing and advocacy might have helped out here in the actual Ashley Smith scenario. Perhaps that's part of Judith Thompson's message : personal agency at this time was likely quite futile in the CSC closed-door universe no one was paying attention to.

Production values :  The spare set, the lighting both harsh and muted, the sound-&-visual projection designs* join the intimate Cultch historic stage to contribute to Thompson's evocative script and her understated deliverance that belies her outrage as a citizen and artist at what Ashley Smith suffered at the hands of her "guardians". 

Most poignant pieces :  Glory blames her birth-mom for her basic plight as a rebellious and bellicose teen. She imagines birth-mom as a crocodile from the swamp : "She is in the swamp, the swamp you don't see and I don't see but I feel under me, moving, wet and waiting. Can you smell it? I can smell it now, all the time. Smells like dead mice and dog food and a baking cake." [Were any child of mine to conjure such imagery, I would hope the system would steer them toward mental health providers -- not send them, criminally, to the folks who listen poorly and talk loudly with handcuffs and truncheons and Tasers.] Looking up at the omnipresent cell CCTV, Glory hisses : "I'll report you to God and my crocodile!" 

Gail enjoys a moment of insight when she observes that all the jailers "...have a sickness -- they treated her reputation, not her."  

Glory and her friend Renee who's also in solitary, one cell over, talk through the walls and share stories and poetry. Glory's Tuesday poem goes :

I am the girl
In your storybook swirl
On Friday it was a fiery wreck
And now I have 
A lovely green ribbon
Around my neck --
Can you guess why?

Rosellen's end-game soliloquy : "Every child born is born to all of us. We are all responsible. These things go on in the shadows, the dark and the wings, and we don't even know until they affect us in some way. And when we see these things we are astonished!"

For her part, playwright Thompson (a member of the Order of Canada and twice recipient of the Governor General's award for playwriting**) told TorSun interviewer Colin Perkel for Canadian Press this week that she was "...absolutely haunted and devastated by what happened to [Ashley]. When there's something I don't understand and I'm outraged, the only way I can express it is through writing a play. I was compelled to address the horror that Ashley Smith endured. I owe it to Ashley. I want to give her what I can."

The play as poetry, poetry as play. Here is what Irish poet icon Dylan Thomas once offered up that applies both to Thompson's original script and to her acting in a dynamic and utterly engaging performance :

"A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the things around him."

Who for :  Judith Thompson has made an indelible "contribution to reality" about Canada's treatment of teens in the penal system, about the system's unilateral "justice" decisions, about dark-side secret ops by institutions we as taxpayers fund and are morally responsible for. Watching Glory Die almost guarantees CSC can never be the same again. WGD is painful but accessible. It will surely open every viewer's mind-&-heart. And that is the stuff of good poetry and good play-writing both.  

* Astrid Janson, Set and Costume Designer
   Andre du Toit, Lighting Designer/Producer
   Debashis Sinha, Sound Designer
   Cameron Davis, Projection Designer

** G.G. awards for White Biting Dog (1985) and a collection The Other Side of the Dark (1989)

This Canadian Rep Theatre production moves from The Cultch to Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre, premiering May 17, runs to June 1st. 


Thursday, 17 April 2014

Bomb-itty of Errors is zany good fun

Quick snapshot : What do rap / hip-hop lyrics have to do with Shakespeare? Everything! At least in the saucy, cheeky production Bomb-itty of Errors now at the Granville Island Revue Stage until May 10th.

Based on Shakespeare's early slapstick giggler The Comedy of Errors that is all about mistaken identites, Bomb-itty is a fest of rap, rhyme and songs that re-tells the Bard's story about two sets of twins, parted at birth, and how their identities criss-cross one another while a DJ spins hip-hop music behind them.

Director Catriona Leger sums it up best : "This play has everything I love in the theatre : Love triangles! Revenge! Mistaken identity! Mischief! Dancing! Crossdressing! Music! And, of course, Shakespeare."

The identity criss-cross is assisted nicely by the "coincidence" of each set of twins having been given the same forename by their worn-out mom who'd dropped her "litter" in the maternity ward before disappearing into the night. Thirty years later we find we're dealing with Antipholus from Ephesus and his manservant Dromio. Their respective twins, from Syracuse, are Antipholus and Dromio, too. So when the lads from Syracuse visit Ephesus, identity mix-up and madcap antics roar out of the starting gate. (Hereafter initials will i.d. who's who in this zany zoo.)

To add to the hilarity, there are some 20 characters in the piece -- many of them cameo -- but all of them are played by just four actors. And it's the same four who reprise their 2012 Jessie Award-winning production done then by the Temporary Thing troupe via Twenty Something Theatre under Artistic Producer Sabrina Evertt. These talented lads are Brian Cochrane, David Kaye, Niko Koupantsis, and Jameson Matthew Parker, joined in the redux gig by DJ Oker Chen. Watching these guys gleefully sporting stockings-&-boobs to play their twins' spouses, I thought I was right back in the thick of John Irving's current novel In One Person that celebrates the narrator's cross-dresser actor Grandpa plus a host of contemporary transgender'd souls.

The Bard's original Comedy was built on puns, wordplay, sight gags and plot shenanigans involving countless dubious and dimwitted characters from the shady side of town, huffy insultees who hiss, ditzes &c. &c. All these types were created by "MC Willy Shakes" -- as Director Leger muses he might be known today -- to entertain holiday-time beer-swilling Elizabethan law students from Inns of Court in fin de siecle 16th century. So when a quintet of New York University Department of Drama students* decided to adapt a Bard script in 1999 in the "rap" mode of that epoch, they chose just the right one and aimed it at the same "target demographic" -- just a Y2K version instead of a 16th century one.

Oh yeah. A "bomb" in millennial-speak is "heavy sick". And "sick", don't you know, is big-time good. So if you are wearing "sick" jeans they are tres, tres cool. Thus they wanted to emphasize that this contemporized version of "Errors" is considered a major whack-o-jolly-good story. A bomb-edy of a com-edy, just re-spelt contempo -- got it?

Plotline sketch :  The plotline is simple. Unmarried S.Antipholus quickly meets up with E.Dromio and thinks him the S.Dromio instead, while E.Dromio acts as if this Antipholus is his married boss. Therefore the two of them think each other is addled or stupid or just obstreperous when they confuse each other's roles, relationships, and activities in town centre Ephesus. Flip that scenario over to the other two twins and you've got quadruple mix-ups occurring serially.

Now add E.Antipholus's wife Adriana and her airhead sister Luciana into the mix. Adriana can't figure out why S.Antipholus, her "man", is acting so aloof from her. And meanwhile S.Antipholus develops the hots for Luciana, who is scandalized that her "brother-in-law" could come on to her, but charmed as well. Along the way throw in MC Hendelberg (Jewish jeweler rapper), a scatology obsessed keystone cop, spaced out Bobby the tone-deaf bike courier, rastafarian naturopath Dr. Pinch and a Nike nun -- oh lordyno end of Bard-like busy-ness to challenge and tickle the 21st century brain.

Production values :  Even 15 years after its conception and first steps, this play-cum-breakdance-cum-musical-cum-slam-poetry-jam is a marvel in its imagination and high-kilowatt energy. The opening prologue reveals these four brothers are two sets of twins from the same Mom whose drug dealer Dad suicided in prison. Their orphan history is simple : "Grew up in the world of hip-hop / Surrounded by the 1-2-3 don't stop!" They tell the audience this ain't comedy, this ain't tragedy, "It's a new style, it's whatever we want it to be!" But mostly it's comic. When E.Dromio thinks S.Antipholus is his married boss, S.A. answers right smartly : "I have no mistress / I have no maid / It's been months / Since I've been laid!"

Nevermind the mistaken identity schticks. The cross-dresser turns of Niko Koupantsis as Lew-chee-ann-a! are nothing shy of brilliant. It looked to me like he enjoyed that role even more than his straight E.Dromio one. Jameson Matthew Parker as Adriana is equal to the x-dress challenge, too, but the part is just not as LMFAO as Koupantsis's. David Kaye dancing about as Dr. Pinch gets top footwork marks. Throughout Brian Cochrane as both S.Antipholus and as MC Hendelberg elicited great guffaws.

Words are stretched to achieve forced rhymes -- "Ephesus" somehow rhymes with "breakfast is" early on. Hip-hop patois and rhythms abound as in the sing-songy "Dro-me-oh-oh-oh-ee-oh-ee-oh-ee-oh", while break-dance riffs command centre stage attention constantly. Messrs. Koupantsis and Kaye are superb in that regard, particularly at the end when Brothers Dromio meet each other again for the first time. Choreographer Joel Sturrock has executed his challenge remarkably, not just the dancing but also the nanosecond costume changes required of the cast. Costume designer Vanessa Imeson pulls off harlequin-esque costumes for the four principals wonderfully well. The cameo costumes for the in-drag parts were goofy good fun each one. Ian Schimpf's West Side Story-ish brightly coloured brick-&-corrugated iron doors graffiti motif was perfect for the tight Revue stage. 

Who gonna like ? : Let me repeat what Director Catriona Leger said at the top : "This play has everything I love in the theatre : Love triangles! Revenge! Mistaken identity! Mischief! Dancing! Crossdressing! Music! And, of course, Shakespeare." Throw in hip-hop rhythms and original music (by Anami Vice) to boot, and you've answered the question. In the zone on all those planes? You'll come away delighted. 

Meanwhile Shakespeare purists, people who figure "rap" is missing the letter "c" at the front, and folks who like their tunes in musicals to be hummable on the way home -- well, this one maybe ain't exactly the one you're gonna want to stand in line for. 

For the rest? Bomb-itty is just so irreverent and clever and imaginative and low-brow-brilliant it's time well wasted as Comedy Central puts it. You can't help but hiccup & giggle.

* Playwrights from NYU : Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, Gregory Qalyum, Jeffrey Qalyum and Erik Weiner.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Redux : Proud spoofs boring ol' Canadian politics

Below is the review from BLR published on April 13, 2014. In light of the major characters doing a reprise of their roles in 2015 -- commencing the very day the Sen. Mike Duffy court case puts the Conservative ethos directly in the spotlight -- I thought it appropriate to re-circulate the 2014 review as I will be unable to take in this year's performance. 

An unlikely premise behind it all :  Actor/playwright Michael Healey's Proud is a turn at what American comedian Stephen Colbert might call "Stephen Harper spoofiness". No wonder. Harper set himself up perfectly as Canada's satiric alter ego to Richard Nixon when in 2006 he delivered 10-year-old son Ben and 7-year-old daughter Rachel to their Ottawa school and promptly shook each of their hands (!) to the amazement and joy of the omnipresent paparazzi. Viewed as aloof and calculating, Harper's way of saying "Have a nice day, kids!" became as trademark as Nixon famously flashing his fake-double-V finger salutes while chirping "I am not a crook!"

But Proud is more than tittle and tattle about SH's time in Ottawa. And the Healey script is more than the kind of one-dimensional hoo-hah that comedian Rich Little mastered in eviscerating the perpetual 5-o'clock-shadow-and-over-eyebrow'd Nixon. Healey insists his purpose, believe it or not, is to engage Canadians in just what it is they want and expect from the solons running the country in far-fetched Ottawa. And so his depiction of SH, delivered engagingly by Andrew Wheeler, is broader and richer and subtler and more nuanced than Handshake Dad has shown himself publicly to be capable of.

The set-up :  The storyline is built on "truthiness" as well as "spoofiness". It's 2011. SH has commandeered victory not only in ROC, he's also taken the Quebec seats actually won in 2011 by Jack Layton's Orange Horde. No longer required to seek the consensus he needed when he was a minority PM, Harper now has free rein. The play's set-up is how he tries to manipulate a pup of an MP from small-town Quebec, one Jisbella Lyth (Emmelia Gordon) and how she outmaneuvers and outwits him due to his overweening hubris. The other primary character in the piece is Harper's Chief of Staff Cary (Craig Erickson) who clearly is not based on the real life uber-confident but fatally flawed Nigel Wright -- he who paid off Senator Mike Duffus's $90,000 phony expenses and got fired once exposed. 

Script's notorious history :  From Y2K forward, Healey was playwright in residence for Toronto's Tarragon Theatre that prides itself as being "a leading Canadian company for the development, creation and encouragement of new work" (sic). From the get-go Healey had planned a trilogy of plays, two of which Tarragon in fact did produce : Generous (2007) and Courageous (2009), which explored those two themes of human conduct. Then came the rough draft of Proud. Hold on a minute here, cautioned Tarragon's artistic director Richard Rose. After reading it he forsook both of those qualities -- generous and courageous -- and, ironically, donned the proud masque instead. Seems a nervous and silly board member had warned Rose : "Handshake Harper might sue us for libel!" Rose refused to mount the show. "Bollix!" bellowed Healey. He promptly resigned his playwright commission. 

With his wife's encouragement they borrowed against their household line of credit to mount the show themselves. Then they and friends staged a series of readings across the land to fund-raise and pay the Healeys' LOC back, which they did. A Toronto competitor, the Berkeley Street Theatre, mounted the show. Guess what. No libel suit from 24 Sussex Drive.

Plot quicky :  SH wants to consolidate power after all those years as a minority PM. How to do that? First give your grasp at power the tumescent title The Harper Government. Then move to distract the press. Frosh MP Lyth stumbles into Chief Cary and PM Steve plotting the day's next moves. She's hot for a condom because she wants to "do" CBC's Evan Solomon who's on The Hill to interview her in her new office. Neither Steve nor Cary has one in their wallet, nor act as if they know what one is, even. But let's use this sexy ditz, Steve muses, to propose a bill criminalizing abortion after 20 weeks. That'll get the progressive rabble rabbling. And while the chattering classes are distracted by her anti-abortion proposal, hey, we can gut the Liberal-leaning Privy Council and the press won't even notice. And meanwhile we won't support her bill in any event -- being both practical and cynical -- but it'll keep the rednecks in our base quiet at least. 

Everyone goes through the motions, but Lyth finds eagerness and power from her proposal as it progresses through the House and gathers unexpected momentum. And now the antics between the PMO and the upstart MP can proceed apace. But all the while infused with comic flashes and flushes that drive the endless political monologues forward. (Bias : Based on my 40 years' experience as a B.C. public servant, all too seldom are politics "dialogue" -- more often just "serial monologues" between entrenched adversaries. Ever notice how the word "ideology" appears to stem from "idiot"...?)

Playwright's cut at it : In an Artsmania interview 18 months back, Healey revealed his modus operandi : "This was never intended to be a documentary or a straight-up biography. It's a heavily fictionalized depiction, but the aspects of (Harper's) personality that I've seized on are the ones that create the engines in the play that ask the questions that I want to ask about our politics... [T]here's an enormous amount of comedy available when you explore politics because what's said and what people intend are often two very different things, there are secrets galore, there are enormous power differences among people. All of these things contribute to comedy and make for a fun night in the theatre."

Firehall performance values :  No question the 43 souls who witnessed Sunday's matinee -- and in doing so sacrificed a delicious sunny playday outside -- found much to chortle at in this Donna Spencer-directed effort. 

It helps to have even a vague notion of Canadian national politics and current events. If like the silent majority you'd be even more apathetic if only you could bother, this clever but flawed script ain't for you. Here's what it's not : it's not a critique of The Harper Government. SH is just the excuse, the vehicle, the means to Healey's end of talking up political ideas both macro and micro. More than once the SH character talks of what "ideal" Canadian government looks like : long-term boring stability and security. Sort of like the 2006-2011 Harper minority rule when sleeping with the enemy whether PQ, Liberal or NDP at any given moment made sense to Harper to prevent a non-confidence vote.

As Steve, Andrew Wheeler turns in a steady performance : at various times bombastic, blustery, babbling, awkward, forceful and/or bemused. His endless buttoning/unbuttoning of his blue serge suit jacket as he blathered forth was bang on. But it is Emmelia Gordon as the Frosh MP Jisbella who is the most rounded and engaging player in the piece. Her bubbly stream of f-word utterances and coquettish power-sluttery -- completely stereotyped, not one iota of p.c. here at all -- nevertheless make the viewer want to have a beer and a giggle with her. Craig Erickson's Chief of Staff Cory struck me as not edgy enough -- I wanted more of Nixon's Bob Haldeman than Obama's schmoozy flakmeister Jay Carney. Oddest character was Jisbella's grown-up son Jake (Scott Button). He provides a soliloquy of Healey's last words about politics in a superfluous (and pedantic) anti-climax to end the play. Odd business, this.

Theme-ish stuff : The script's attempts to discuss "beliefs"-vs-"feelings" and "strategies"-vs-"tactics" on The Hill serve mostly to advance the plotline, not provoke us to think overly hard. SH sums up the thrust of the play when he notes, slightly off-key, that "Political inconsistencies are situational : integrity is the last thing Canadians want in their politicians." Hmnnn. Tell that to Brazeau, Wallin and Duffy, eh? 

Or possibly the best comment on politics occurs during a discussion of nihilism : Jisbella blurts out at SH, "Fuck, all this shit is fucked!" Or, how not to lol at Jisbella's summation of her anti-abortion bill. She confesses it won't solve what has become a non-existent social problem. But, she acknowledges, it will satisfy the PC base : "It's pointless, it's stupid. It works because it's meaningless -- it's perfect politics!" Healey must have been channeling ex-PM Jean Chretien when he wrote that line, Chretien who once observed : "Canada is a country that works in practice, just not in theory.

Postscript : Healey's ideal government :  At the conclusion of his Artsmania interview with Anita Malhotra, Healey responded to her ultimate question "What, in your view, would be a perfect Canadian government?" Healey gave a succinct (but probably naif) everyman response i.m.o. : "I think government that isn't worried about scoring points would be a perfect government. A government that's willing to admits its mistakes, a government that is willing to listen to evidence and change its view if the evidence convinces them they need to change their view, a government that projects a kind of centredness to the world -- a kind of calm conscience to the world. A government that's fiscally responsible, a government that takes my tax dollars very, very seriously and a government that is less interested in marketing than it is in policy." 

No question. A 1st-world dream like this is better than real life in many of the world's 2nd and 3rd-world zip codes. Think about it. How utterly decadent to be able to go watch good acting and giggle about politics. Conjure life in Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, Central African Republic et al. Healey reminds us we in Canada -- whether proud about it or not -- are life's luckiest folks indeed. 

P.S. Quite coincidentally to-day (140414) I downloaded the April 21st e-version of Maclean's onto my iPad to browse on Canada Line. And in it was the following interview with Tom Flanagan, a long-time Alberta Conservative / Wildrose operative. His cautionary tale about cyber-world media instantaneity is worthwhile. But specifically I dedicate its reading to Richard Rose of Tarragon Theatre. If he and his squeamish board member really thought Michael Healey's SH character was the "true" Stephen Harper whom Healey was libeling, they need only read this for proof Healey's SH is a pastiche, a satirical and artistic and whimsical caricature based on the the guy -- not, not by a long shot, the actual Handshake Dad whom Flanagan used to advise. To make such a profound error in judgment in the arts realm where freedom of expression is foremost is not just gutless but unforgivable.'s%20Magazine/e5d3693b3f95480a8a76987efdc3a82d/MME_20140421/03h_interview.html