Saturday, 28 June 2014

Roe's Tempest kicks up a storm of superlatives

Nothing messy here, just glorious : Bard's 2014 production of The Tempest is what she terms a "re-creation" by director Meg Roe of her 2008 version -- one she characterized as achieving a "messy and glorious result". She muses in the program Director's Notes what this outing may have in store : "Am I any closer to the moment of release Prospero encounters? A deserted island contains the perfect recipe for freedom : a few fairies, a couple of tears, guts and a darn good storm. The very thing to send us all into something new. Into ourselves."

Well, Ms. Roe, you definitely sent this viewer into "something new" with this production. Its superlatives will forever rain down on Bard's 25th Anniversary season. Breathtaking. Spellbinding. Visually stunning. Musically charming. The adjectives could crescendo into a symphony. 

Fact is I was a bureaucrat gearing up for an impending province-wide strike most of 2008 and thus didn't see the earlier show. But there is no question Meg Roe's staging of The Tempest in 2014 is as close to perfection as contemporary productions of William Shakespeare can get. You have until September 18 to treat yourself to this rich and sumptuous feast of creativity, imagination and just outright magic that dances across the Bard mainstage for two delicious hours.

Okay, now that I've damned the show with faint praise, lol, let's take a collective breath and stitch together some of the knots that hold this whole cloth together so seamlessly. 

Quicky plot & character review :  An island near Bermuda occupied by three people. The deposed Duke of Milan Prospero, his daughter Miranda plus the unnatural son of a witch, a "savage and deformed slave" named Caliban. Caliban dreams & schemes his master dead. Set adrift in a rowboat a dozen years earlier by his usurper brother Antonio, Prospero and 3-year-old Miranda were expected to perish. They didn't. And now Prospero has divined that the King of Naples Alonso and his court plus Antonio are due to sail by the island where, unbeknownst to them, he and Miranda live. A journeyman sorcerer, Prospero causes the ship to wreck and its inhabitants to be dumped unceremoniously but safely onto his island thanks to the sprite Ariel, his "airy spirit". He wants to rectify the coup de tat and familial grievances he has harboured all these years. Miranda says she's never seen him so belligerent and fierce. During the ensuing actions, King Alonso's son Prince Ferdinand meets Miranda and they fall instantly in love. Will Prospero prevail over the past via pride & punishment -or- find a future for his family through forgiveness ? Yes.

Scholar's cut at it : For his part, Shakespeare expert F. E. Halliday back in 1952 cited The Tempest as a perfect example of WS's "wild, irregular genius". The play is categorized as a "romance" -- not a comedy, not a tragedy, not a tragicomedy -- but something of all three, something more subtle and sublime. Halliday calls Billy Bard a renegade playwright who over the years has inspired whole movements of artists to fight back "against the rule and cult of reason : liberty, variety and emotion set against the restraint, unity and reason" that characterize continental Europe's true believers. To that cross-pond clique, classical conceits were evermore favoured as reflecting their more "cultured" enclaves. Not so much, for them, the rough-cut environs that country-boy Shakespeare brought to life in Elizabethan England much to the delight of his beer-swilling fans. Well, in The Tempest it's gallons of wine that tittle the folks, not beer, but the effect is the same : hilarity; spontaneity; wild dreams and visions; fun-fun-fun in the Vanier sun and creeping dusk. "Liberty, variety and emotion" run rampant in this script.

Production values abound : It's probably not often that choreography, blocking, and actors' stage business get the primary nod for excellence in reviews other than in old Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly stuff. But in Meg Roe's hands through choreographer Rob Kitsos these are the production values that jump out at viewers lit.-&-fig. 

The same stage that I found somewhat wanting a week ago in AMND tonight was transformed by Roe and Kitsos' daring and inventive use of every level, every rounded corner, every square centimetre of the seashell-like set -- up, down, over & around -- plus its myriad steps up-&-downstage, its front pony wall, its centre-stage trapdoor, the auditorium aisle from on high.

The opening shipwreck sequence was as clever and fresh staging as I have ever witnessed. The ship's crew and passengers mime a rolling, roiling, rocking deck about to splinter with just a long thick rope to act as the ship's rail. The footwork reflecting each wave's pitch and toss of the dozen or so bodies behind the rail was superb as was the actors' flapping canvas of a sail, not to mention the "swill sisters" and their omnipresent wine glasses and twirls. 

The choreography never waned or worsened one iota throughout, with Ariel's moves and those of her sister sprites perhaps the most engaging, along with Calaban's simian knuckle-&-knee-dragging, his hops and drops. And of course the sisterly hand-slap twirly dance-gig BFF routine by Stephana and Trincula that one sees teen gals often do got much deserved huzzahs and handclaps each time they pulled it off.

The actors exceeded all expectation : There is not a weak performance in the lot. This is a team of inspired individuals who click spontaneously with each rehearsed move. 

As Prospero, Allan Morgan grows into his part wonderfully as the evening plays on, a bit stiffy at first, more contoured and nuanced as the scenes rolled by. I was confused why his blocking was so stock-still most of the night, until the end. Only when he was "liberated" did he jangle in his walk. Nice touch well executed.

As Miranda his daughter, Lili Beaudoin smit me. Roe had her bounding up and down the stage risers like a typical teen-ager at a party. Her grasp and delivery of WS's always-tricky dialogue was crisp and easy on the ear. She was just charming.

I have to expect that Jennifer Lines as Ariel will get the largest share of kudos because she is note-perfect in every respect. Her breathy, knock-kneed, finger-pointy stabs at creating her fairy persona were altogether compelling and convincing. And man does she have the pipes. Her singing was just stunning.

As anticipated of him each time out, Todd Thomson knows how to deliver WS's dialogue to people more accustomed to t.v. drabble.
As Caliban, Thomson wraps his voice and his passions around each noun, verb and adjective he grabs hold of. And as noted above, his baboonish crawl-walking was consistency of movement that's a sight to behold.

No question Naomi Wright as the dipsomaniac Stephana and Luisa Jojic as sister-swiller Trincula were the comic show-stealers of the night. Oh Roe & Kitsos had fun with them and the actors with their direction & inspiration. Public drunkenness is not really p.c. these days, but they killed all such bias with their inspired antics. Their Shh-hhh-hhh!! scene with Caliban when conspiring to rob and kill Prospero was simply superb. And Trincula's 4-leg bit with Caliban under the blanket was tres clever, dirty and hilarious all at once.

As Miranda's love, Daniel Doheny as Ferdinand was a convincing young buck whom Cupid strikes spot-on with a golden-tipped arrowhead. His swooning over Miranda reminded me of some high school moments that now live fondly where they belong. Great in-the-moment "I'm in love!" acting. 

Solid performances from the whole repertory troupe. But as usual I find myself charmed by Bernard Cuffling, this time out as Gonzalo, counselor to King Alonso. For his part, Alonso (Scott Bellis) was convincing in his grief and kingly sniping at Gonzalo. Sebastian by Andrew McNee and Antonio by Ian Butcher did precisely what Shakespeare wanted them to do -- be their duplicitous and thugly selves. [Regrettably, I overlooked Ian Butcher last week in my AMND review where he was a delightful duplicitous and thugly Oberon.] 

Back to Mr. Cuffling's cut at Gonzalo. Gonzalo is the conscience of the play. He may be a lugubrious ol' communist in his old age, but he's the one who stocked Prospero's exile rowboat with vittles, clothes and the magic and empowering sorcerer's books. It is his tears-in-his-beard speech which Ariel relates touchingly to Prospero that turns Prospero's heart away from vengeance and toward redemption. And as he always does, Mr. Cuffling nails this role. His hug with Prospero at the end was choice.

And now for the support stuff : I could go on for pages about Christine Reimer's costumes. Absolutely stunning, brilliantly colourful, courtly and scruffy both. Prospero's sorcerer's cape of turquoise-green-gold stripes was heavenly, as were Ariel's peacock wings in the diss-Alonso sequence. But the Sprites' costumes and the silly sisters' get-ups stole the night for me.

Scenic designer Pam Johnson teamed with lighting designer Gerald King to populate the bare, tiered set with a great mix of rock outcroppings, reflection pool, and vortex-lighting during the trapdoor sequence that were ace. Classic, the spots on Prospero during his final soliloquies. Really focus'd me on his quiet reflections. The wedding scene that filled the stage north-to-south with textured cloths and fronds and silver confetti was unforgettably rich in sight & feel. And hilarious how a once-again-irritated Prospero had the actors disappear it all in a finger-snap.

Many many viewers at half-time remarked on Alessandro Juliani's original music and sound design. As well they should have. From cacophonic storm shrieks to hints of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sad Songs in parts, nice nice execution by Mark Beaty and his quartet of youthful and talented partners.

Who gonna like : Since mounting BLR 2+ years and some 50 or so plays back I cannot remember a Vancouver performance I have enthused about as much as I do this one. Which is why I have rattled on even more, probably, than I usually do. 

So I will end with what I said at the start : "There is no question Meg Roe's staging of The Tempest in 2014 is as close to perfection as contemporary productions of William Shakespeare can get. You have until September 18 to treat yourself to this rich and sumptuous feast of creativity, imagination and just outright magic that dances across the Bard mainstage for two delicious hours."


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Bard's Dream has moments of brilliance

Why this play still rocks 410 years later : No question why A Midsummer Night's Dream remains one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies. Simply because the line between reality and phantasy, between truth and distortion, between perception and reflection is usually wavy. In each one of us.

And no more so than each time we lay our heads down to snooze. Up! pops the moist and fertile landscape of dreams that lurks behind our prefrontal cortex. Dreams that often take on more seeming-reality in their vividness than, say, drudging through dull chores on a grey and chilly Vancouver June afternoon. Hippocampus-spawned movies that usually involve lots of action and fecund visions, seldom anything reasonable or rational.

As brain researcher Rober J. Hoss put it about our dreamscapes : "We are essentially paralyzed, and much of the logic we depend on to construct the perception of a rational world is off-line." [Science of Dreaming, (Innersource), 2005.] My oh my. Seems Shakespeare got all this intuitively & poetically four centuries back.

The persona we become in our dreams -- are these our alter egos, our repressed desires, our fears given face and shape? Psychologist Carl Jung seems to think so -- all of the above. "Nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day." [Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Vantage), 1963.]

Did Shakespeare intend to promote these concepts? Well, his intuition notwithstanding, mostly I go with the view WS simply wanted to make people laugh and squirm and fret a bit and then have everything come out hunky-dory in the fullness of time. And maybe make a few pence for Lord Chamberlain's Men, his hand-picked thespian troupe.

Plot & character refresher : Greek myth-guy Theseus conquers the Queen of the Amazons Hippolyta in battle but now is to wed her. Enter four horny mortals : Hermia. Lysander. Helena. Demetrius. Hermia loves Lysander and he her. Helena is Hermia's BFF. She has the hots for Demetrius, but he is also all aswoon over Hermia. He can't stand Helena's persistent fawning and begging. But Hermia's mad Dad has vowed to kill her or send her to a nunnery if she doesn't marry his choice for her, Demetrius. To escape, the kids run away into the woods. Demetrius takes up breathless pursuit with Helena galumping behind.

The local bower happens to be the realm of king fairy Oberon and queen fairy Titania. They are dead stuck in a mutual marital hissy-fit. Lots of yada-yada blowback between them. Seems Titania kidnapped an orphaned Indian boy. Oberon wants the changeling to be his chief hunter. Titania says not in this lifetime. Enter Puck, Oberon's maven mischief-maker. Oberon sets Puck off to gather pansies because their juice is magic. Obie has plans to trick Titania out of her preoccupation with the changeling by putting a spell on her so she falls in love with an ass.

But he has heart, too. He eavesdropped and heard Helena's plaintive cries over Demetrius. So he also tells Puck to juice the sleeping Demetrius's eyelids because pansy spirits make people fall in love with the first person they see upon awaking. Who will just "happen" to be his unrequited pursuer Helena. But Puck mistakenly squirts Lysander instead. And when Lysander wakes up, he too "quite coincidentally" sees Helena first-off. Dumbstruck thanks to the pansy-potion, he dumps fiance Hermia in a nanosecond and slathers attention on Helena.

So to un-match and re-match these many mismatched lovers, Puck next squirts Demetrius. Who also "just happens" to see Helena first upon waking up. Now both of these gentry dandies are under the same spell -- "in love" -- with the previously-spurned Helena. Hermia's got nothing & nobody. With this abrupt and surprising 180 degree turnabout x2, Helena for her part thinks all three of them are in cahoots simply to humiliate her ("bullying" in today's jargon). Puck finds all this great fun, sport & amusement, Oberon not so much.

Into this mix throw a ragtag clutch of local tradesmen who are wannabe actors when they down tools. Puck thinks them fools. In Elizabethan lingo he refers to them as "a crew of patches, rude mechanicals". They hope to perform a comedy at Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding reception.

They're in the woods, too, to rehearse, ostensibly in secret. Puck stumbles on them and transforms their goofiest member, a verbose weaver named Bottom, into a donkey. Upon rousing out of her lunar / loonie / pansy snooze, Titania sees Bottom and falls arse over teakettle for him.

Sorting out these silly shenanigans so the pursuers all snag their quarry in the end -- with hugs and squeezes and marriage vows -- is how AMND plays itself out.  (N.B. Until Thursday this week I had never read AMND, nor until tonight have I ever seen it performed on stage or film. So my commentary needs be seen through that lens.)

That was then, this is now : The key to Shakespeare for most contemporary audiences is to make him "accessible", trite though the word's become. We've been schooled in Seinfeldisms, Letterman's top 10, Pinter, Mamet, Carlin, Maher. Short snappers, not iambic pentameter blank verse. So it's almost always, as in our dreams, robust and snappy action that directors want to spring on today's playgoers to catch their attention.

Director Dean Paul Gibson's remount of his last effort at AMND for Bard in 2006 has, no question, its robust and snappy moments that spring viewers to life. It is a sum of parts, however, that exceed in their momentary cleverness the impact of the whole. Part of the problem is Billy Bard's script. From first reading it Thursday to seeing it performed Saturday, my conclusion is the "rude mechanicals'" wedding reception play featuring Bottom is way, way too much verbiage & silliness way, way too late in a play that should end a dozen or so minutes before it does (2 hours, 15 minutes running time + intermission). But that is a 2014 response from a newby viewer, likely quite out of step with BB's 1594 audience and their tastes + expectations.

Production values : As always, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze's vision of Shakespeare set against English Bay and the north shore mountains is a singular production value that sets BotB apart from other more cloistered iterations in Stratford or Ashland. 

And whether Vancouver's unique Vanier Park setting and this region's typical weather inspired it or not, scenery designer Kevin McAllister's umbrella motif is a superb touch. From the opening rush of blackcoats with brolly's -- like ravens descending on Stanley Park -- that visual hook worked wonderfully well. The oversize (12-foot diameter) and upended stitch-piece version mid-stage right that serves as a sleeping platform saves, nicely indeed, an otherwise austere and bare white arch'd set of risers that work but don't excite in the least.

Highest kudos must go to veteran BotB costume designed Mara Gottler for her sumptuous & spangly & earthy & gossamer & royal & whimsical & Elizabethan-timely & Pride Week-worthy & just out-there costuming with all their myriad colours and textures and contraptions. Best of all was Oberon's sweeping capes. Absolutely stunning and perfect for AMND's King Elf. Just to take in costumes alone might make the trip up the Kits seawall worth it, i.m.o.

Sound designers Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe come in for a round of snaps, too, for the variety of genres (from sitar riffs to hip-hop to country to traditional love song ballads) they punctuate the action with. Very cleverly integrated and eclectic notes as always aided and abetted by overhead helicopters, laughing partyers in the park behind and the Saturday night cruisin' West End street hum like a piper's drone underneath. The Pearl Fishers duet, all six bars, was inspired.

Acting out the script : There is no actor in this version of AMND who just reaches out and grabs viewers as "the" knockout of the night. That said -- the parts exceed the whole, again -- my personal favourite was Sereana Malani as Helena. What I found most compelling about her was her ability do be "hip" in the hip-hop cadence of language that Director Gibson wanted to effect, but also her enunciative clarity of BB's original diction and dynamics, doing them complete justice. Kyle Rideout as Puck had many clever turns, lit.&.fig, rolling around the stage. Major huzzahs at play's end. And Scott Bellis as Bottom did the part proud as both the yabbery-jabbery Pyramus and as the appointed ass. Equal vigour from the folks at curtain. As Hermia, Claire Hesselgrave was a particularly "robust and snappy" presence throughout her time in the limelight.

A few quibbles : To "contemporize" a 4-centuries-old script to me doesn't mean to get over-cute. Which happens here. One scene alone did it for me. Puck, after putting the pansy spell (mistakenly) on the sleeping Lysander, then takes Lysander's limp hand to have him pantomime some dozy masturbating act. After which he hops upstage and gratuitously slaps Hermia on her bum on his exit skip. Why? Such Adam Sandler gimmicks cheapen the production immensely. 

The asides to the audience ("Whatever!" and "Oh, angry!") just diminish a script that works quite well without such Millennial - lip.  

Puck's kiss of Oberon and Obie's slap didn't make it, seemed contrived, but Puck's leap later on into Oberon's arms worked great in its slapstick surprise. 

Best sequence by far : The "cat fight" scene was excellently conceived, choreographed and executed : this is the "bullying" scene where Helena accuses Hermia and Lysander (Chirag Naik) and Demetrius (Daniel Doheny) of conspiring to humiliate her. From blocking to stage business to execution of lines to emotional grasp to humour and overall pathos, this was a wonderful stage moment to witness. Well done all.

Who gonna like : Aficionados of WS surely will enjoy this show and probably find themselves like the majority on opening night in standing-o posture. Would I introduce a teen or a visiting family member unaccustomed to Shakespeare to this show? Likely not. Simply for the length and the lack of an overall compelling presence or "whole". But worth seeing regardless? No question! Go for the various parts and enjoy them piece by piece.