Thursday, 15 May 2014

 Spamalot is idiotic feel-good song-&-dance  

Quicky prologue & overview : Popular web-poet C.L. Thornton reminds us in "A Short History of One's Life" :

Life is always fatal.
It begins pre-natal
and continues undiminished
until finished.

Undiminished, that is, only if one is capable of spontaneous silliness on occasion. How else to offset the cynicism brought about by current phenomena such as social media infestation, "reality t.v." or the mass kidnapping of hundreds of teen girls in the name of God. Yes, being able to LOFAO occasionally without booze or drugs or tickle-torture is a salubrious yoga pose we need to slide into more often. And Monty Python co-founder Eric Idle created the barmy & daft musical Spamalot for precisely that purpose.

Co-written with composer and partner John Du Prez, Spamalot started out as a musical stage version of the Python crew's first full-length film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). The movie's purpose was to satirize English royalty / Camelot myths, organized religion, and middle class / sensible conduct codes with over-the-top silly playfulness. Can Black Death corpses be fun? What about gleefully hacking an enemy's arms and legs off? Or a knight executing a bride's family and wedding party? Fun? You bet. The stage-play knock-off Spam hams it up further with some hilarious swipes at Broadway middlebrow musicals that take the world by storm and whole industries are spawned from.  Folks fork over countless dozens of ducats to stand in line for them and buy the T-shirt, CD, DVD and such. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera is perhaps the prime example here.

There is no narrative or dramatic arc in Spam, even less than in the movie Grail. Just a series of comic sketches that are loosely strung together telling a tall tale of King Arthur, his rag-tag clutch of Round Table Knights, orders from the Almighty to find-&-fetch the Holy Grail, and a host of madcap encounters along the way. Giants, tricksters, one exquisitely sardonic French soldier plus a jeezly-sharp-fanged-carnivorous white rabbit (like none Gracie Slick could ever imagine) all stand between this gaggle of goofs and their cherished chalice. And all of the carrying-on is smothered in irreverent and silly song, dance, kick-lines, tap, plus a passel of jolly good chases. 

WYSIWYG :  The movie was mostly a backdrop for the trademark absurd and slightly insane Python banter. Its characters to a person reveal a sublime awareness how ridiculous all of their shenanigans are. In the 30-year-later Spamalot, meanwhile, dialogue is often somewhat lost amidst all the "irreverent and silly song, dance, kick-lines, tap, plus a passel of jolly good chases" just noted. But that observation is not criticism. Just a fact. And, according to some viewers overheard at half-time at the packed Stanley house opening night, that makes Spam a whole heckuvalot more accessible to them than Grail ever was.

The best original bits are retained, thank goodness. The coconut shells clapped together for hoofbeats while the actors mime their imaginary steeds. The effect now, as before, is hilarious each second -- it never grows stale. And there's a glitzy overlay of Vegas and Camelot that is priceless : the castles don neon roof-lines; the ensemble kick-line is bling'd out richly; there's a chorus (Laker girls) whose antics are straight out of Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri's Saturday Night Live iconic Spartan cheer squad routines.

Messrs. Idle and Du Prez obviously wanted to skewer Broadway musical theatre : snide reference to ALW; take-offs on Fiddler On The Roof and Streisand in Yentl; a song "You Won't Succeed On Broadway" without any Jews; the spoof "The Song That Goes Like This" -- a drawn-out ballad mid-show that is reprised ad nauseam. But the Vegas scene also gets jibed. The Celine Dion parody in silver-sequins was spot on as was the old Stardust-like marquee that descends from the desert heavens.

Then there's the schmaltz. Idle and Du Prez cannibalize Python's Life of Brian for a remount of "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life" that Arthur's sherpa, the eponymous Patsy, croons him with in Act 2 and the Company closes the curtain with. In Brian it was sheer satire : Brian is condemned to a long and painful death and is "serenaded" with the song to lift his spirits. In Spam the irony gets lost in all the funnery. Irony resurfaces, however, when Arthur moans "I'm All Alone" to Patsy who's been there all along and arches an eyebrow repeatedly at his clueless master. "Because I'm working class I'm just the horse's ass!"

Cleverest sequence of all was Lancelot's coming out to the nearly-betrothed Prince Herbert who loves Rufus Wainwright-y lugubrious music. His bullying father positively hates the stuff and repeatedly orders the orchestra to "Stop playing!" The colourful gay spangles of the men's dance troupe when celebrating ol' Lance having joined their ranks, replete with a Village People "YMCA" riff as a rainbow shimmery chorus line, was simply a sight to behold. "Lancelot's in tight pants alot who likes to dance alot..."

Production values : To this viewer the primary take-aways most folks will remember from director Dean Paul Gibson's show will be the ever-so-clever castle and Vegas sets by designer Marshall McMahen that serve as great backdrops for Rebekka Sorensen-Kjelstrup's riot of colour and texture and pizzazz in the ensemble's various dance routine costumes, particularly. Together they're a delicious eyeful. But choreographer Lisa Stevens' work is but a step-ball-change away from stealing top honours as well, with lots of kick and spunk and pirouettes and tap and twirl to delight eyes and ears both. 

As Sir Robin and the French Taunter, both, Josh Epstein gets highest huzzahs and bravos for his breathless and artful night. Jonathan Winsby as Gallahad was inspired in his eager bravado and ironic social commentary both. As Prince Herbert and Not Dead Fred, Scott Perrie tore into his roles -- as laughably infectious as a group of stoners lying head-to-tummy playing Ha! Ashley O'Connell as Galahad's mother then shrub-monger was a nifty piece of work. These were the stand-outs. But full-mark efforts by the rest of the company too, no question, who scampered and sang and giggled themselves all across the Stanley stage with enthusiasm and wonderful endeavour. 

Two minor hiccups : In absolutely every depiction I have ever seen in drawing, paint, sculpture and film, Arthur's famed sword Excalibur is h-u-g-e -- a wondrously long and wide implement of domination that invites endless Freudian and patriarchal comparison. Here the sword is smaller even than the Black Knight's, more a long knife than The Sword of the Ages. Howcum?

French Taunter needs to retard his delivery a bit so the audience gets all his wonderful original idiotic metaphors that are so pure-Pythonesque. While the penis-helmet-rubs and horking at Arthur were great sight gags, the genius writing of Idle in this schtick needs to be heard without straining to be fully appreciated. (See Favourite Quotes below for a close-approximation.)

Who gonna like : This show pulses with nonsense, verve and vigour that might, just might, meet Artistic Director Bill Millerd's prediction during his Intro on opening night that Spamalot "will become the stage hit of the summer" in Vancouver in 2014. It's riotous, inane, and serves no useful purpose other than to deliver laugh-a-minute asininity by a highly energized pack of performers.

Favourite quotes :

Dennis Gallahad : What I object to is that you automatically treat me like an inferior!
Arthur : Well, I am king!
Dennis : Oh king, eh, very nice. And how d'you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By 'anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society...
[Moments later Arthur explains about the Lady of the Lake handing him the sword Excalibur, which prompted this exchange]
Dennis : Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
Arthur : Be quiet!
Dennis : Well, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
Arthur : Shut up!
Dennis : I mean, if I went 'round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!
Arthur : Shut up, will you. Shut up!

*  *  *  *  *

God : Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don't grovel! One thing I can't stand it's people groveling.
Arthur : Sorry.
God : And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it's 'sorry this' and 'forgive me that' and 'I'm not worthy'... and stop looking up my skirt, I'm God you tit, Jesus!

*  *  *  *  *

French guard (at castle) : You don't frighten us, English pig-dogs. Go and boil your bottom, sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so-called Arthur King, you and all your silly English k-nnnnniggets. Thppppppt! Thppt! Thppt!
Gallahad : What a strange person.
Arthur : Now look here, my good man--
French guard : I don't want talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries! Monsieur Arthur King you have the brain of a duck, you know, you son of a window-dresser.  I wave my private parts at your aunties, you cheesy lot of second hand electric donkey-bottom biters.

*  *  *  *  *

Brother : And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, 'O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayest blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.' And the Lord did grin, and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats and large chu--
Arthur : Skip a bit, Brother.  [Brother skips in place.]

*  *  *  *  *

Arthur : Where are we going to find a shrubbery?
Patsy : Maybe we can build one out of cats.
Arthur : Arggh, where are we going to find the cats?


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

RIP! needs to rip through its riffs, not wander

Quicky overview : Axis Theatre's RIP! A Winkle in Time at the Waterfront until May 17 is an energetic pastiche of various stage actions lumped together and captured by what a stage-play lexicon would likely call "physical theatre". Its primary design feature is all its vigorous blocking, choreography and, telle surprise, the very physicality of the actors mounting the event. Dialogue in physical theatre is often thrown in as a bit of an add-on or afterthought. Not so in the Axis production, however. Words chase words here faster than Laurel could chase Hardy.

Riffing on Washington Irving's famous Rip Van Winkle story, this Rip (Randall Irving Parson) has been asleep for the last 117 years, not just 20, and the action's set in Canada's Gold Rush Yukon Territory not New York's Catskills. To escape his "battle-axe" wife Flora for awhile, Rip goes hunting for fauna in 1897 outside his Yukon town of 500 souls. He meets up with ghosts from the ill-fated Arctic Franklin Expedition of 50 years previously who entice him with a potion from an oak keg and promptly (well, slowly...) huck him into an ice cave after a too-long pilates-ish dance sequence to get him there. He slumbers on until 2014 when suddenly he awakens to Hoo-boy! a brave new world indeed. Biggest comic hook to signal the time-lapse focuses, of course, on an iPhone, its photo-capabilities, selfies and such -- Rip thinks it's a cigarette case people are talking into.

The words of co-directors Wayne Specht and Kathryn Bracht explain why the group known as the RIP! Creative Collective both aimed-&-shot somewhat long-&-wide of their artistic target for this script. Mr. Specht says that playwright KC Brown "took what became a bushel of images, musings, outrageous speculation and much more and wrote us a play that explores the 'What if' [theme] in a very unusual way." We agree on that. Bushels of stuff were stacked on top of one another, no question. For her part, Ms. Bracht says "It has been a crazy journey and I've found the trip to be wildly inventive, messy, and ultimately gratifying." On the first two adjectives we're in sync, not so much on the last. 

Admire as I always do the creativity and verve of stage folks, RIP! brings to mind the old comic of the convoluted schoolyard jungle gym designed by bureaucrats. It juts out willy-nilly in all directions up-down-over-around and would surely kill some poor bloke if used. All the schoolmarm asked for, meanwhile, was a truck tire at the end of a rope. 

Analogously, at 110 minutes of run-time, RIP! needed to rest in peace after 80-90 minutes max. Having said that, however, know that there are scads of redeeming moments and comic brilliance in the piece that drew giggles and guffaws aplenty from the appreciative albeit sparse Tuesday night crowd.

WYSIWYG : RIP! brings you Cirque du Soleil-ish acrobatics, puppeteering, dance, shadow play, slapstick schticks, silent film snippets, vaudeville, and music hall revue. Frankly these stage antics all worked out quite well indeed -- if a bit messy and chaotic at times -- thanks to the raw talent of their performers. But it was the prologue and exposition during what seemed an endless first act that needed not just snipping but wholesale amputation. 

The play opens with a Cirque trope : the stacking of opera chairs downstage left, up the actor proceeds to climb, nimbly, and cap it with a handstand. In RIP! the prop-purpose is to get the show's narrator, Moon (Annette Devick) to perch near a stylized full moon just above her head. Given the historic role of the moon in drama and the arts (lunar : lunacy : muse inspiration), the bit would have been fine thematically without the superfluous handstand. 

F.w.i.w. here's how I would have done that scene and carved off maybe 15 minutes in the process, to no ill-effect (to this viewer's eyes and ears anyhow).

After mounting the chairs, Moon would say, simply : "This is a story you know well but have never seen nor heard before. It's a modern-day Rip van Winkle take-off set in the Yukon in both 1897 and 2014 and has some wonderfully creepy Freudian moments of a 20-something bar hostess falling in love with a 147 year old man. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself a little bit here...".

Then through further clip-it dialogue we would learn that Rip's original land claim for gold in fin de siecle 19th century Yukon -- that great-great-grandson Rip IV now stewards in the 21st century -- has never been mined. That would involve watercourses, sluice boxes, sand screens. As with Irving's character, seems the generations of RvW's continue to be lovable laggards and sloths.

Meanwhile, in 2014, the Evergreen Corporation (hah, hah) wants to squeeze oil's black gold out of the claim instead of Au. And so the notional climate change / environment-slagging theme becomes the contempo thin thread that loosely stitches the 2014 story back to the original 1897 tale.

As both Moon and movie director Frankie, Devick turns in a stellar performance. Her training at the National Circus School in Montreal and recently in Russian clowning (apparently that's not a Putin oxymoron) show through every moment she's in the spotlight, particularly her rope-&-chase sequence pursuing Rip I. She's madly trying to snatch his wallet and capture its original claim-stake documents. If she sells the stake to Evergreen, they've promised her a culture centre and film studio for Parson City for her to be Creative Director of. She and Parson City will be on TripAdvisor and Yelp! and rich and famous and ohmygoshmygolly!

As Rip I, Stefano Giulianetti has just the right blend of Aw shucks Mr. Nice Guy, honour-driven values and affection for his faithful dog Wolf. Speaking of whom, Tara Travis is Wolf's puppeteer, but way more : her Lil / Lillian barkeep turns were utterly fun, as was her stage business stomping to keep her frozen feet warm. Her lines were sheer hokeyness. Simon Webb as Rip IV -- who is now both older and younger than his great-great-grandfather Rip I whom Lil is smitten by -- Webb gives folks a believable run at this somewhat baffled and bemused character. 

Production values : Naomi Sider's set, props and costumes all worked cleverly together, mixing the two epochs the action takes place in quite nicely. The upstage right 3-tier platform with saloon-y accents was a clever piece from which much of the action ran up-&-down. Choreographer Marlise McCormick must still be breathless from all the work she had her people do -- particularly during Devick's chase scenes -- but also the dance hall Parson City Follies routine that was pure fun to watch, as was most of the second act. Bob Buckley's mix of Bonnie-&-Clyde banjo with a singing-saw underscore pleased the ear nicely. Lighting designer Darren Boquist pulled off the moody Yukon landscape convincingly on the painted back-lit scrims. Except for the static northern lights at the end : if you've seen them in real-time you know they wave and roll and whoosh. Surely today's scenic technology could have managed to import such an effect for this show. 

Who gonna like : This is one for diehard fans of physical theatre and loyal Axis (Mime) Theatre patrons over the past four decades under the soon-to-retire Wayne Specht's guidance and inspiration. Knowing now the rough-cut plot, if a person were to attend only the 2nd act starting about 9:10 or so they'd no doubt come away quite entertained and feeling they'd got more than 50% of their money's worth. 


Thursday, 1 May 2014

Kim's Convenience teases, tickles & touches

There are a couple of life truths. We die twice. Once when we ourselves die, and again when the last person who remembers us dies. When we immigrate, we are born again twice. Once in the new culture that we must adjust to ourselves. And again within our families as old world values clash with those of our children's brave new world.

Two decades along, Kim's Convenience does with endless humour tracks what Spike Lee did with biting sarcasm in his 1991 genius movie Do The Right Thing. Lee's film featured (among others) a feisty Korean convenience store shopkeeper in the largely black ghetto of Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy they call it there) in New York City.

In playwright Ins Choi's break-out script KC, by contrast, the setting is Regent Park in Toronto. Nevermind Spike Lee's New York. There's a checklist of similarities between the Regent Park experience of to-day and the Gastown/Strathcona neighbourhoods in DTES Vancouver. Gentrification is not just creeping in, it's on roller skates. Real estate roller skates. The "renoviction" roller derby willy-nilly elbows ethnics and welfare folk out of their SRO (single room occupancy) units by the dozens each month. A similar horde of maniacs is racing through Old Toronto's late-40's social housing projects a few blocks up from Corktown at Dundas.

Plot-&-theme stuff : The Kim family patriarch Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) wants 30-year-old daughter Janet (Chantelle Han) to take over the family biz. She's a professional "picture taker", he calls her, who lives up top the store. Grabbing freebie food on her way out the door is as far as she wants to involve herself in the 25-year old family business. Half-a-life earlier elder brother Jung (Ins Choi) vanishes after stealing cash from the store safe following a violent family falling out. A quick slide down the slope into drugs soon brought jail, now he's out and a bitter, lonely rental car agent in Parkdale whose friends own Beemers while he rides TTC trolleys.

Appa and matriarch Umma (Jane Luk) are being pressured to accept a big-ticket check from a developer for their property. Their Korean-Christian church has already been sold off for $3.9M. But they want to keep KC all in the family, their fractured and fractious family. The clash between generations, the calls to "duty" -vs- the psychic scream for "self-actualization" -- reminiscent of ACT's earlier A Brimful of Asha -- are the set-up here. Selling out would give Appa his "pension plan", but that's it. Just money.

Appa was a history teacher back in Korea. He has encyclopedic knowledge of his country whose significant events and datelines he throws at his kids every spare moment. He also displays a full monty of DNA-hatred for the Japanese stemming from Japan's 1904 invasion and subsequent occupation of Korea and the subjugation of its people until fin de guerre 1945. Such a knee-jerk hatred that if your Honda happens to park by the Convenience store loading zone, TO Police get a 9-1-1 summons off Appa's mobile. 

(Aside: This is Canada. It's okay for ethnic racial stereotypes to stereotype other ethnics. Which is why Little Mosque on the Prairie played so successfully. And okay, too, to laugh at all this paradox. Oh. The Honda? Owned by the developer who's trying to buy KC's shop out, one Mr. Lee whom Appa describes tongue-in-cheek as "that black guy with the Korean last name". One more delight : Appa rails over-&-over at lotto customer Rich that his new beverage on the counter is not bloody ginseng -- that's the disgraceful Japanese word for it -- no, it's Korean insam instead -- so hear me, get it right and call it that, Appa blusters.)

Like dairy farming, convenience store shopkeeping is as much lifestyle as it is a job. In a recent interview, Choi related how setting up a corner store was a relatively easy thing for offshore immigrants with faint English skills to do. (Says Umma of Appa : "His-a English is-a very no good!") Not huge profit margins in shops, but enough to live on when it's the family who're pushing the store's stash of snack foods, smokes, newspapers and lotto tix across the counter. But symbiosis can also occur : Appa says he won't sell because his customers need him. Or is it because he needs his customers -- the kids who graduate from bubble-gum and slurpies to cigarettes and Red Bull, and then their kids in their footsteps.

He tells Janet in a truly poignant scene 2/3 the way through : "What is my story? Hmmnnn... What is story of me, Mr. Kim? My whole life is this store. Everybody know this store, they know me. This store is my story. And if I just sell store, then my story is over. Who is Mr. Kim? Nobody know that. You take over my store, my story keep going." [On a personal note I've always thought the words I've written over 40 years have been my "story". Ins Choi's script forces me to reflect quietly and sincerely and skeptically on that belief. Now that kind of impact is successful play-writing.]

But the script is much more universal than just a Korean-immigrant story launched during the 1980's rush of ethnic groups to Canada. Fact is all parent-child relationships go through growing pains, have stresses and fractures, harsh words that don't reflect the genuine love that underscores the conflicts.

Production values :  Kudos as noted, again, to Ins Choi for a very clever stage text. Hard to believe it's his virgin script. As Appa, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee riffs off a very believable aging arthritic papa whose gruff and abrupt staccato belches of dialogue mask The Dad lurking underneath. His refrain of "OK! OK! Out! Out!" made me laugh each time. And his use of the ejaculative "a" (pron. "uh") at the end of most words -- as when he accused Honda-dealer Mr. Shim of "pimping the Jesus-a" -- made his Korenglish patois believable. Playwright Choi doing the role of prodigal son Jung had some very rich moments of pain, anomie and angst. He is a skilled character actor. As sister Janet, Chantelle Han's bitchy shortness with Appa will prove v-e-r-y convincing dialogue to contemporary parents accustomed to being dissed by their kids. Jane Luk as Umma turned in a nuanced night as Appa's dutiful "slave", the kids' mom and god-fearing Christian believer. For his part, Andre Sills cracks off four roles, each one believably, though my favourite was Mike-the-stealer. 

This is an on-tour remount by Toronto's Soulpepper group (theatre training academy and professional stage, both). Resident designer Ken MacKenzie replicates a convenience store wonderfully well, though I wonder whether Toronto's Korean shops were as meticulously neat and orderly -- almost o.c.-so -- as MacKenzie would have us believe. Still, I felt I was back in the Soo or Howe corner markets in White Rock from when I moved there in 1968 : I could smell the creased & weathered linoleum and got whiffs of the tins of Black Cat baccy. 

Lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini's fluorescents were spot-on. Sound director Thomas Ryder Payne's opening streetscape backdrop was choice -- I just wish it had crept in each time the shop door opened and its electro-dinger chimed. 

And I would be remiss not to mention fight director Sean Baek for his convincing bits of gongkwon punishment Appa metes out for stealers and suitors both. Writer Choi and Director Weyni Mengesha had great fun playing with those pieces of stage business.

Slight problem :  Primary problem for this viewer was Director Mengesha's blocking, particularly for Han as Janet. In my household when we're snarking at one another, no one stands stock still -- we twitch and roll our eyes and pirouette-in-place. When Janet and Appa are in full-flight-screech-&-grunt at one another -- as they are quite often -- they're nearly rooted to their spots on stage. Curious! And the charming flirt-scene between Sills as Alex-the-TO-cop and former-teen-age heart-throb Janet was positively statuesque, in the worst sense. It was Choi's brilliant "What kind of food you like?" verbal flippery between Alex and Janet that saved that scene. And Alex. Note-to-file. Smooch! Janet big-time triumphantly! while she gongkwon's her groaning and submissive dad Appa, don't peck her like a brother, mon. But these are mere quibbles.

Who gonna like : As many before me have noted, this is an instant-classic-Canadiana-immigrant-coming-of-age script that is worth the entry ducats to hear, nevermind see. Ins Choi captures remarkably the taste-feel-smell-sound-look of every non-caucasian corner mom-&-pop store you've ever wandered into (called a "convenience" or a "variety" back east, more commonly a "market" or a "grocery" here in B.C.) Too-static pace at times to accompany too-static blocking at times do not detract fatally from a charming and idiosyncratic snapshot of an immigrant's corner shop from the inside out.

Comic drama modeled after t.v. sitcoms, there are one-liners aplenty to make us guffaw, but some sentimental tear-jerk moments as well such as the inevitable reconciliation scene of the prodigal son Jung with Pops Appa at the end. (Again! some wonderfully clever Choi dialogue driving that exchange.) More than one critic has said those years-long grievances between the two were dispensed with too quickly and conveniently. Well, to them I say just look at all the drama Billy Bard crammed into the Montague and Capulet households in just a few minutes more...

Kim's Convenience touched me. An immigrant myself, though without the language roadblock, I relate to wholesale relocation, resettlement and reinvention of self. This is moving clever stuff drama fans in BC's multi-clectic social arena just shouldn't miss.

Until May 24th at Granville Island Stage.