Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Mountaintop an engaging phantasy trek

Personal remembrances :  Martin Luther King, Jr. (birthname : Michael) was assassinated during my final year of college in Michigan. Where I had fled back to from Hollywood after witnessing the smoke from the Los Angeles Watts ghetto riots three summers before. Like most of my classmates, I had seen the news clips of Dr. King's "I have been to the mountaintop!" speech -- his Promised Land promise -- from the day before at the Mason Temple on Walter Cronkite's CBS news. And despite being a self-described skeptic about public idols, I had been moved by the passion of his oratory. The speech was electrifying theatre, no question, made moreso by references to the constant threats that circulated menacingly wherever he went.

And while a giant of a man at only 5' 6" tall, King's down-to-earth personal habits -- particularly his wandering eye from wife Coretta Scott King -- had already been well-publicized. To this day I have no doubt it was FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover who saw to it Dr. King's peccadilloes were leaked from their confidential surveillance files to the press. Hoover was nothing if not spiteful, possibly to masque his in-the-closet self while condemning others who had equal power to him in the public eye. But that's for another time, another play.

And so it was that by the time Dr. King was shot dead I did not apotheosize him the way millions of idolizing adults did. I was a college kid. As a free speech exemplar and existential change-agent, King was a political hero of mine, just as Bobby Kennedy was. But I believed I saw them both -- then, as now -- for what history has proven they were : men of tremendous vision and courage and ambition and a full complement of ordinary human foibles, too. For his part King, like the Kennedy boys, was a womanizer. Unlike them, King smoked (unfiltered Pall Malls), and that weakness endeared him to me. Unlike them, he ate too much and carried a sizeable midriff bulge. From a family with a history of weight issues, I liked that about him too. He was, in a word, real in ways those jocks, the cavorting Ivy League Kennedy boys, were not.

Plot overview background :  Rising star playwright Katori Hall wrote The Mountaintop in 2009. Ms. Hall was born in 1981, so King in fact had been dead forty years when she decided to write about him, inspired by her mother's stories of the man. Mom Hall lived only a block away from the motel in Memphis where he spent his last hours. She was tempted to go to his Mason Temple rally, but Katori's grandma waved her off, fearing violence, as King was there to confront the city's mayor over a strike by some 1,350 civic employees, many if not most of them black. King dignified and elevated and championed these workers. He insisted, repeatedly, that they be referred to as "sanitation workers", not "garbage men", analogous to how the word "prostitute" has given way to "sex trade worker".

By the time Hall took to writing the play, 9/11 had long since come and gone. George W. Bush had come and gone. Wall Street had imploded a year before. Obama was now President and staring the Tea Party right in the eye trying not to blink first. The world economy was in the tank. A perfect time to look back wistfully and creatively at the King years.

But Ms. Hall, a Master of Fine Arts graduate from Harvard, knew she needed a contemporary hook to mount a play about this dead American hero. To her Gen Y contemporaries and the Millennials who followed, MLK was known mostly from glossy photos and YouTube cuts of his famous speeches. And so her hook became to imagine a real-time blood-&-guts Martin Luther King, 39, on his last night in Room 306 of the scruffy Lorraine Motel off Mulberry Street where lunch diners and saloons and dry cleaning shops were its closest neighbours.

King smokes, check. He drinks, check. He cusses real good, check. He has an eye for sexy women, check. Let's imagine all these habits together with a maid who comes to King's room with some Pall Malls and some coffee and see where all that takes us. 

How it all plays out : If viewers know the 1996 Nora Ephron masterpiece film Michael, what awaits them in The Mountaintop will not particularly surprise by way of technique. In Michael, John Travolta is the archangel of the same name who is sent to earth one last and final trip by His Master. He has some jobs to attend to, some folks whose wounds need t.l.c. before he is "sent home" for eternity.

In The Mountaintop there's an angel come to earth, too. Camae (Crystal Balint) is sent by Her Mistress the night of April 3rd to prepare Martin/Michael (Dion Johnstone) for his "cross-over" that's about to occur once the fateful gunshot rings out on the Lorraine Motel balcony the next morning. Like the movie angel, Camae is a rough diamond for sure, lots of cuss-words, packs of smokes at the ready, a hip-flask. The flip here is she's just a day-old-angel with a shapely body and a checkered past who came to an untimely end and now must rescue King as Task 1 for Her to forgive Camae of her earthly sins. 

But this angel scheme does not become obvious to playgoers until half-way through the 95-minute one-act performance. Until then, what is presented narratively and naturalistically are the two characters of Camae and King riffing on one another coquettishly, sharing smokes, spiking King's coffee, challenging one another about the drift of upcoming speeches and the future of the civil rights movement generally. But unless there were "something up" in the play, the continued presence in Room 306 of a motel maid on her first shift at The Lorraine would make zero dramatic sense whatever. 

Their byplay unfolds. If King frets about his next speech -- "America is going to hell!" he pencils in -- Camae prods him toward the rhetoric of the late radical Malcolm X instead : "Fuck the white man, we should kill the white man!" This she urges in faux-MLK oratorical flight while jumping up and down on his bed in his shoes and suit jacket. King is intrigued : "You have a weakness for violent words." Camae replies : "You speak of love, you die by hate." Ultimately he talks himself down : "They hate so easily and we love too much. One thing we have in common -- we're scared -- and fear is what makes us human."

But Camae persists in her goading, calling King a "bourgie Negro". She makes flip comments about God. King cautions her : "Gods don't like to be laughed at!" Camae shoots back : "God's one funny motherfucker. She even likes dirty jokes." About then King collapses on the floor for the umpteenth time when thunder crashes outside. Camae grabs him : "Michael, Michael, just breathe, I'm going to get you through this night." Hearing his birth name Michael at first sends him into uncontrolled rage suspecting her of being an FBI "spook". But shortly he learns of her Heaven-sent purpose. "I read your Blessings file and it's bigger than your FBI file, and that's bigger than the Bible!" she tells him.

Hall's trick here lies somewhere between Rod Serling's popular Twilight Zone from the 60's and Steven Spielberg's brief mid-80's phantasy show The Mission that in one episode featured a trapped WW II gunner who's an aspiring cartoonist. He imagines wheels being drawn Disney-like on his doomed aircraft and proceeds to land it safely. [?!]

Here there's a goofy phone call between King and Her where he pleads that She give him more time. That's followed by an even goofier pillow fight between angel Camae and King. I was put to mind of Travolta in Michael having his game of chicken with the bull out in the pasture. Because part of the trick is how the characters switch between "real" time and "God-time" back-&-forth. Many critics assail all this as juvenile and over-reaching nonsense by playwright Hall. I, for one, "believed" it all in Efron's Michael and I "believe" it in Hall's The Mountaintop, too. 

Camae finally relents in a way to King's desperate wish to be "given more time" to finish what he started. He says he is prepared to end his time on earth if only he can have a glimpse of the world to come once he's dead. King speaks repeatedly of the civil rights "baton" that needs to be passed off, not unlike John McCrae's plea to those who survive World War I : "Take up our quarrel with the foe.  / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch -- be yours to hold it high." 

Here Hall injects her final, clever conceit : the beds in the Lorraine Motel spread part and a series of black-&-white photos in stage-wide collage are projected onto the scrim showing scenes from life in USA over the ensuing 40 years. From 16-year-old Larry Payne being killed by police in the summer of 1967 whose death King recalls painfully and repeatedly, not much progress between then and the summer of 2014 when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Such seems to be the leitmotif of the photos scattergunned onto the screen. All the while Camae rhymes off the names of the dead and their surrounding event markers just like Billy Joel did in his classic song-elegy "We Didn't Start The Fire".

Production values : Director Janet Wright made wise cast selections in both Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Each has considerable stage presence and perfect pipes to project MLK's real and imagined words. Johnstone particularly was convincing in his depiction of a sick and weary and wounded and beaten but unbowed King ready to face down Memphis mayor Henry Loeb. That said, King's throwing himself prostrate and writhing in seizure each and every time the outside thunder rolled was, to this viewer anyway, a bit of a stretch even for a stage play.

Wright's blocking for Johnstone seemed a bit more complete and convincing than Balint's, for some reason. Her stage action struck this eye as somewhat wooden by comparison much of the night. But her moments of juice and sass and her tender touches were terrific. 

Resident ACT veteran set designer Ted Roberts aced the Lorraine Motel bedroom accoutrements. One could almost smell the Lysol and bedbug spray and the mold on the curtains and twin double beds. Sound designer Brian Linds' thunderous weather clamour joined Marsha Sibthorpe's customary lighting prowess for great effect. Candelario Andrade's projection design of all the scattergun photos was excellently executed.

Who gonna like : The Mountaintop resonated particularly with me given the personal remembrances noted up top. This is not a play of action. This is not a play of character development. These are characters and caricatures both that Katori Hall has created. 

Hall's foreshadowing comments about King's impending death are altogether too frequent and heavy-handed -- the audience knows the history here, after all, no need to keep swacking us with "hints". But that's just quibble. The pace of her script is gentle and humane and charming and convincing. The result of it all is a play that provokes serious & reflective thought rather than buzzy excitement. We giggle and titter along the way, but we come away musing on what could have been-might have been-should have been -- and what's perhaps to come.

In the end the crowd exits sharing some wee sadness that as a people and as nations we lucky first-world folk haven't progressed as far as we might have hoped or wished since Dr. King's brave and remarkable and memorable trek among us so many years ago. And that isn't a bad take-away by any measure.

Particulars :  Written by Katori Hall. In performance at ACT's Granville Island stage February 12-March 12. Performance time 95 minutes without intermission. Tickets via or at 604.687.1644.

Production crew : Director Janet Wright.  Assistant Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Sound Designer Brian Linds.  Projection Designer Candelario Andrade.  Stage Manager Marion Anderson.  Assistant Stage Manager Lucy Pratt-Johnson.

Performers :  Crystal Balint.  Dion Johnstone.

Addendum : A hand-out in the show bulletin announces the 1st Annual Rights and Freedoms March this April 17th.  

April 17th isn't just the 33rd anniversary of our Canadian Charter, but also the day when Dr. Martin Luther King's torch of equality and understanding arrives in Canada for the first annual 'Rights and Freedoms' march. A peaceful celebration, it begins at 9:30 am from Canada Line's Olympic Village. Join us as we walk eastward along the seawall towards the Science Centre, around False Creek past Canuck Place, arriving at David Lam Park.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was intended to be a source for national values and unity, where people share fundamental principals [sic] based on freedom and equality.

Don't be a spectator -- be a participant. Take Dr. King's torch of understanding and pass it to your fellow man [sic].

If you didn't march in the 60's, it's not too late. Mark your calendar. Be part of history. Be part of this movement.


Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Foreigner is dated but still goofy fun

Plot quicky overview :  The Foreigner is a 30-year-old script by the late American playwright Larry Shue. It is daft and wonky and full of plot coincidences. The word hokey comes to mind. Ironically, it is being staged by ACT on tour at the same time the in-town troupe at G.I. is putting on The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King.

Ironic? Because The Foreigner is set in mid-80's Georgia, USA, and features some madcap antics (sic) by a gang of local Ku Klux Klan goofs. Historically speaking, meanwhile, it would not be much of a reach to consider the KKK an early 20th century Christian version of today's barbaric Daesh in the Middle East.

Two primary characters drive the play's action. Charlie Baker (John Voth), a proofreader by trade, is of Oscar-stature under the category Boring. He's come to an old Georgia fishing lodge that's gone south in Tilgham County for a bit of respite from his serially unfaithful wife Mary (23 lovers at last count) who is in hospital and may be dying. His friend is a British demolitions expert named, curiously, Froggy LeSueur [lit. "the sweating frog"] (Ryan Scramstad). He's running US Army training exercises in how to blow stuff up at nearby Fort Benning.

Charlie is 99% nebbish : shy, reticent, and socially awkward, he doesn't relish social intercourse. In full-on church mouse mode he sniffs : "How does one acquire a personality?" Le Sueur tells the motherly widow Betty Meeks (Erla Faye Forsyth) who owns the resort that Charlie's a foreigner who doesn't speak any English. This excites Betty. She thinks it's exotic to house a "foe-runner". She reveals this intel to her guests. They, thinking Charlie understands nothing they say, blurt out all sorts of truthiness and factoids and dubious schemes in his presence that Charlie pretends he doesn't understand. Which, of course, leads to countless shenanigans and plot twists.

Along the way the KKK's Owen Musser (Byron Noble), a county property inspector, connives with Rev. David Lee (Mack Gordon) to downgrade the value of the property so David can buy it on the cheap from his heiress fiance, a prematurely pregnant Catherine Simms (Kaitlin Williams). But only if he can also cut her dimbulb brother Ellard (Peter Carlone) out of any inheritance entitlement if Catherine determines he's not kompas mentis enough to manage half of Dad's million dollar fortune. Most folks believe Ellard, a cheery dullard, lights up to maybe 25 watts on a slow rheostat, so the feared KKK acquisition to transform it into a Christian Hunting Cabin appears certain. Unless, of course, they were to storm the joint instead and just take it over lock, stock and barrel. Along the way Charlie fakes learning English from scratch via "extra-circular communication" from Ellard, which is central to Shue's intended comic routines and gigglery. Sound Forrest Gump-ish? Southern stereotypes even further out than those in Deliverance ? You bet. 

How to respond in 2015 : There are probably only two choices when confronting a plot-line and characters such as this in the cruel world of 2015. Either one dismisses and boycotts the script as vaguely offensive in light of current events. Or one wholly suspends one's disbelief and accepts the tomfoolery for what it's worth at face value. Take that attitude regardless of the real-time horrors that slap us almost senseless night after night on our t.v. screens.

Or if, as the New York Times suggested in 2009, the play were to be viewed as "fairytale", maybe it can redeem its utterly preposterous plot and all the silly Southern stereotypes. (Playwright Shue, who died in a commuter air crash in 1985, acted briefly in Atlanta in the 70's. He once reportedly said he wrote his plays out of "embarrassment". As if perhaps he enjoyed making people like himself the butt of his jokes. [He played the role of Froggy in the original 1984 staging of the play in Milwaukee, WI that ran for 686 performances, Wiki tells us.])

Character out-takes : As Charlie, John Voth creates a nifty & comely persona that is part Tom Hanks as Forrest, part Andy Kaufman from t.v.'s Taxi, and part Peter Sellers from Being There. He becomes everyone's listening post and confidante, dispensing simple joys to the "good guys" and masterminding some sci-fi karma for the bad guys in the end with the help of a croquet mallet and a handy-dandy trapdoor. His made-up native tongue that is gobbledygook slavish indi-afro -- "Blahz-nee, blahz-nee, go no rim jambo, vaznozian dotsky!" &c. &c. -- is sheer delight.  The "hoppy skippy minky" story he acts out for everyone across the top of the chesterfield was simply priceless, earning cheers and claps from the crowd.

But Voth's role for much of the play, this reviewer concludes, is to act as foil for the spry lodge matron Bett. Comparisons with someone no doubt a mentor to Erla Faye Forsyth, Nicky Cavendish, cannot be avoided.  All the clever stage business and facial contortions and hippety-hop Ms. Forsyth executes are done not just excellently but perfectly. One of her choicest bits is early on when she yells at Charlie, thinking him incapable of understanding her English. How often folks do just that when traveling abroad or even at home when meeting immigrants who speak but their own tongue. Ms. Forsyth's comic routines and timing alone should compel theatre-lovers to go to this show.

Peter Carlone as Ellard provides a nuanced character who charms : he neither spoofs folks who may be mentally challenged in real life nor overplays the dimmish, loving soul he is. 

As Catherine, Ms. Williams describes herself as a "cutey patooty", referring to her coming out a year earlier. Now an ex-debutante, she says such a social position is "dumb, dumb, stupid, stupid mindless bullshit" (the only swear word I believe I caught in the entire play -- she says "Shoot!" a lot the rest of the time). Catherine concludes, ironically, "I don't think I was cut out to be a decent person!" though of course she is indeed, to the core, and in the end gets her man.

N.B. Each of Voth, Forsyth and Carlone won Jessies in 2014 for their roles when originally performed for / by Pacific Theatre that they reprise for this collaborative re-mount with ACT.

Very solid performances as well by the balance of the cast which was well-chosen and coached by Director Evan Frayne.

Production values : Atypically, a kvetch or two to start. The script is not only thirty years old, it is probably thirty minutes, well maybe twenty, too long. Too much exposition in both the first and second acts. All the jabber between Catherine and Charlie at the end of Act 1 could have been pared in half. In Act 2 the build-up to the confrontation with the KKK bozos diminished significantly the scene's effectiveness : its framework was too obviously and laboriously elaborated on by the characters in advance. There was no guesswork and zero surprise in the climax, though its stagey cleverness was fun to watch regardless. Lastly, changing the royalty reference from Princess Diana and her first son William to Kate Middleton to-day skews the play's time-frame awkwardly : the KKK, nearly moribund in Diana's time, is but a political skeleton to-day.

Lauchlin Johnston's set was spot-on with its faux logs, plaid sofas & throws, solid maple K-Mart dinette set and oval braided rug. Matt Frankish is the show's original lighting designer who is abetted by Ted Roberts for the tour, and between them the effects are exquisite, particularly the lightning sequences and the KKK arrival. Costume designer Sydney Cavanagh was dead-eye with all the characters' duds, especially Owen's muscle shirt, muscle vest and klompy-nazi Daytons.

Who gonna like : Opening night at the Surrey Arts Centre February 18th was greeted with triumphant cheers and Huzzah's! from the 2/3-full house, with many giving the cast a standing-o. A fellow reviewer seated behind me said she thought it perhaps the best comedic performance seen in Vancouver in many a moon. Despite its length (155 minutes with intermission), The Foreigner offers terrific mirth and wit and performance excellence galore. 

Particulars :  Written by Larry Shue.  Produced by Arts Club Theatre on tour in a Pacific Theatre production from February 18 - March 14. February 18-28, Surrey Arts Centre, 604.501.5566.  March 2nd, Capilano University, 604.990.7810.  March 3-7 Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, 604.927.6555.  March 10, Clarke Theatre, Mission, 1.877.299.1644.  March 11, Chilliwack Cultural Centre, 604.391.7469.  March 12-13, Burnaby Shadbolt Centre, 604.205.3000.  March 14, Maple Ridge ACT Arts Centre, 604.476.2787.

Production Crew :  Director Evan Frayne.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Original Lighting Designer Matt Frankish.  Tour Lighting Director Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Sydney Cavanagh.  Sound Designer and composer James Coomber.  Company Stage Manager Louis-Marie Bournival.  Apprentice Stage Manager Shelby Bushell.

Performers :  Peter Carlone.  Erla Faye Forsyth.  Mack Gordon.  Byron Noble.  Ryan Scramstad.  John Voth.  Kaitlin Williams.


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Valley Song sings of hope & sweet sorrow

Quick background sketch :  Playwright Athol Fugard is no question a South African scriptwindjie. In his mid-80's now, Fugard has created some three-dozen stage plays across the decades. He acts. He directs. He writes novels. He's big. He's a white of Boer descent. And he never lets himself stray too far from a self-imposed grip of guilt over that fact. 

From his earliest days script-writing in the 60's he assailed South Africa's colonialism -- then its nearly five decades of official apartheid [pron. in English, appropriately, "apart-hate"] -- plus the fact that only 9% of its population are white but control nearly 100% of power, money and wealth. What the late US Christian theologian Marcus Borg termed "the powers that be", Fugard in Afrikaans calls the "groot kokkedorre", the great bigwigs.  

The drift of his earlier anti-apartheid plays can be grasped from their titles : No-Good Friday (1958); The Blood Knot (1961); Sizwe Bonsi Is Dead (1972); Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act (1972), My Children! My Africa! (1989). As a result of his impudence and daring, he was under regular surveillance by the Buro vir Staatsveiligheid, the secret police -- the S.A. stasi to whom Western journalists applied the easy acronym of "BOSS" -- and regularly had to produce his plays abroad to avoid detention and imprisonment.

Post-Robben Island : the Mandela years :  Once Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress achieved power in 1994, Fugard stopped writing polemics so much and concentrated more on "personal memoir" type plays. Valley Song fits neatly into that category. Because in it but for a few references to "white" and "master", there are virtually no political out-takes whatever. One would hardly know his setting in the Great Karoo from rural Ireland or England or India. Dirt-farmers, peasants, feudal serfs wherever they were stuck were still what and where they always have been : stuck. But some of them at least seem to have developed a love, almost a lust, for the fecundity of Mother Earth despite, or perhaps even because of, their modest circumstances. Such is what Fugard suggests in VS. 

Plot overview : Old -vs- new. Generational conflict. Tradition -vs- progress. Life working dirt -vs- life in the lights. Traditional tropes, these, that are engagingly portrayed in VS. We find Abraam Jonkers, a.k.a. Opa (David Adams), who struggles to keep granddaughter Veronica (Sereana Malani) in his local village and not let her pursue a singing career in Jo'berg, where she desperately wants to go. 

There's a third character. "Author". An artificial but workable interjection of a Fugard alter ego playwright into the script, also played by Adams. When Opa, Adams is stoop-ish and slops a knit tocque on his head and speaks Great Karoo Afrikaans vernacular. When Author, he's military erect and speaks in a crisp private school British mien (at least to my tin ear).

Abraam ("Buks") lost his daughter Caroline twice : first when she ran away from Karoo, and secondly when she died in childbirth bringing Veronica to life. Years back he also lost his wife of 25 years Betty -- whom he talks to "up there" daily. Buks has been raising Veronica on his own since she was a toddler. Buks is proud. He enthuses mightily about his pumpkins and his walnuts and his beetroots and his Sneeuberge arrtappel (potatoes) and his carrots and his onions. To him the re-birth of these earthly fruits each year is a miracle. He worships the Spring rain as if it were holy water.

Veronica is a lyric soul. She was born singing, not crying, Oma reported to Buks when she brought Veronica home after their daughter's death. She sings spontaneously, putting the day's events to song as they happen, and is the joy of Opa's heart. But she has dreams. To be wreathed in shimmering green and trill to adoring crowds instead of taking hand-outs singing pedestrian ditties she's made up to passerby whites in the local town square. 

"I want adoration. I want romance. What is there here for me? I am bored. It's the same old story, nothing happens here," she urges Opa. He flips back "You are talking too fast! I can't understand what you say!" Referring to Mandela's election, Veronica pleads : "Isn't it supposed to be different now?" Opa scoffs : "I don't need other people to give me ideas !" When Opa extols the virtues of dirt and veggies and their earthy nurture as one's proper and fulfilling life work, Veronica explodes : "The ground gives us food but it takes our lives! You plant seeds and I dream dreams!"

"Author" turns out to be the white "master" (Fugard surrogate) who wants to buy the surrounding Lambert estate on which Opa's hardscrabble vegetable plot and rural shack sit. This plot inherited, by promise, from the previous owner and landlord to Buks' dad Jaap. The place is akin to Fugard's actual home in Karoo, Nieu Bethesda which is a wholly "mixed" community, not just white. Like other Bethesda's world-wide, it was named after the Pool of Bethesda in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem. Wiki tells us : "The name of the pool is said to be derived from the Hebrew and/or the Aramaic language, meaning either 'house of mercy' or 'house of grace'." Appropriate landing spot, without a doubt, for a man of Fugard's history and gestalt.

Author acts as the play's narrator cum plot connector, almost a mediator between Veronica and Opa. He warns Veronica : "I don't want you to be hurt by your dreams, the 'Big Dream' that doesn't come true. Dreams don't do well in this valley, pumpkins do." In the end, however, school chum Priscilla from Jo'berg magnetizes Veronica, and Opa relents with his blessing. He confesses : "I'm not as brave about change as I thought I was. I'm trying to hold onto you." Author gives her a rousing round of hand-claps. It has dawned on him that everyone has to do what they do : He himself, Author, plants words. Opa plants seeds. Veronica plants songs. They all sow what they do and they shall all reap what they do, too.

Production values : As Veronica, Sereana Milani peppers her role with quick hand-action and a powerful voice befitting teen-age passion. She is sheer delight to watch and hear. David Adams flips between Opa and Author splendidly, a mix of grandfatherly concern & temper & empathy aside Author's more removed and analytical bearing. While the script yields up mostly predictable lines and conflicts and resolutions, the actors' execution of them is charming.

Not quite enough can be said of Drew Facey's oh-so-clever pumpkin-skid set that rises to the skies as a symbolic appurtenance to the agrarian milieux in which the story occurs, its valley cabins and mountain peaks rising behind. Tres! effective and successful.

Lighting by John Webber was superb. He and Facey were wholly in sync. Flat blues countered by rich oranges and sunrise reds on the mountain-peaks along with spot-on spots on the actors : 1st-rate design and delivery no question.

Who gonna like : Valley Song is a self-conscious and reflective and apparently autobiographical period piece from South Africa in its early post-apartheid moments. One reviewer said it was less play than "tone poem". Hard to argue there. It harkens back to simpler land-husbandry times and values. Urban threats to generations-old learned and inherited lifestyles were just beginning given South Africa's social ostracism political policies pre-President Mandela. 

The poignance of Ms. Malani, particularly, was stunning, even if her role was limited in characterization by virtue of the play's central and basically simple conflict of Gramps -vs- me. Acting students who need to see terrific individual scenes of delivery would learn much as they absorb Malani's intensity and body language even in such a predictable part. 

Thematically, it was apparent the largely white-head matinee crowd appreciated the trip down memory lane and the natural generational conflict they perhaps recalled from their own and their parents' time tilling 1/4-sections from the Canadian Shield to Saskatchewan to the vast Peace River country. "Once they've seen the bright lights of the city, how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?" is an age-old question only slightly dimmed in our i-Pad social media universe.

A well-executed and thoughtful performance for sure, this, though clearly not written with a view toward contemporary Vancouver audiences who never seem to get quite enough of the fizz & sizzle & sass that is their more customary fare. 

Particulars. Produced by The Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond behind Minoru Chapel. At its main stage from February 5-21. For schedules and tickets contact the Box Office @ 604.270.1812

Production crew. Written by Athol Fugard.  Directed by Gateway Theatre Artistic Director Jovanni Sy. Assistant Director Katrina Darychuk.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Original Music and Sound Designer Cathy Nosaty.  Stage Manager Lorily Parker.  Assitant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.  Production Properties Jennifer Stewart.  Dialect Coach Brad Gibson.  Publicist Chelsea Isenor.

Actors :  David Adams.  Sereana Malani.


Friday, 6 February 2015

The Last Five Years a sad & charming urban song

Background sketch :  New York City. The Big Apple. "If I can make it there / I can make it anywhere!" Frank Sinatra famously sang. Such is the heart & soul of The Last Five Years. It's the story of NYC around Y2K through young eyes : two lovers, then marrieds, then ex's. 

A nascent writer, he, while she nurtures the seed to grow as an actress. But the central conceit of the show is this : she tells the story chronologically in reverse, backwards in time from Month 60. He tells the story forward, from Month 1. Their calendars cross at the time they marry. All of this sung in a dozen-plus songs, most of them solo, two or three together, often in counterpoint. 

Structurally the play is a meta-reflection of its core themes : this is time out of time for these two characters, never really in sync, more twin solos than duet. Always a problem when lives are lived more parallel than tandem. One cannot help but recall Antoine St. Exupery's mandala : "Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but of looking outward together in the same direction." In this story the principals, alas, do neither.

Script origins :  Written by Tony-award-winning playwright, lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown in 2001, the script is an acknowledged elegy to Mr. Brown's own failed marriage to a struggling actress named Theresa O'Neill [about whom Google is dead silent]. Still, O'Neill found the script so true a reflection of their tempestuous relationship that she sued Brown for breach of divorce terms. After its Chicago premier in 2001, Brown changed the play's female character significantly in response. The case settled on the courthouse steps in 2002 on the eve of its NYC debut.

In Brown's script the characters are 20-somethings Jamie Wellerstein (Danny Balkwill) and Cathy Hiatt (Diana Kaarina). Wellerstein is on the verge of breakthrough as a novelist, while Hiatt is a striving minor actor. Both surge with adrenalin, whose hormonal cousin of course is cortisol, the stress poison. But being young and horny and ambitious and full of cortisol -- in New York City -- is trite stuff. 

The characters sing their thoughts rather than speak them, reminiscent of the short-lived t.v. series from the 90's "Cop Rocks". And because for her the story looks back from Month 60, Cathy's opening song is "Still Hurting" that laments the couple's break-up. "Jamie is over and where can I turn? / Covered with scars I did nothing to earn / Maybe there's somewhere a lesson to learn...".

For his part, Jamie's opener is that of a Month 1 bragger. As a Jew, he sings the praises of his goy girlfriend whom he proclaims is a "Shiksa Goddess" -- the title of which sounds like it was clipt straight out the popular but cringeworthy Bryan Fogel play & movie Jewtopia. "I've had Shabbas dinners on Friday nights / With every Shapiro in Washington Heights / But the minute I first saw you / I could barely catch my breath / I say 'Hey hey hey hey!' / I think I could be in love with someone / Like you."

The bitch goddess confronts hope : Anyone past 30 knows how difficult it is to juggle a career, a lover and ambition at the same time -- at any time -- in one's life. Ambition is a particularly insidious bitch goddess because its focus is always, inherently, outward -- not inward or "in the same direction" as St. Exupery counsels. And if success comes early and relatively easily, as it does for Jamie due to his innate gifts with pen-&-ink, chances are any relationship that tries to compete with the goddess will start with sparks, sure, but shortly will fuel lots of explosions and ultimately just smoulder in a heap of ashes.

Along the way there can be compromises and adjustments, of course. Not unlike what big brother told me, mostly kidding, on the eve of my second marriage : "Well, man, all I can say is you weren't too good at this the first time around, so I take this to be a triumph of 'faith' over 'experience'."  For their part, half-way through the show, it's Cathy and Jamie's pre-nuptial bliss put out there to one another over a picnic shortly before they take the fateful vows.  Jamie : "Will you share your life with me?"  Cathy : "Forever."  Jamie : "For the next ten lifetimes?"  Cathy : "Forever." Both : "Till the world explodes / Till there's no one left / Who has ever known us apart."

Why TL5Y works : The cleverness of Brown flipping calendars around as he has done is what makes TL5Y work dramatically. Were the piece written in chrono-order as a kind of roman a clef with a gob of dialogue, there would be no particular reason to watch it other than to catch some new tunes, perhaps. Because ever since 9/11, to watch "Sex In The City" or any other off-the-shelf NYC romantic comedy strikes this viewer, anyway, as phony and cheap and somehow hypocritical. For a couple of 20-somethings to re-tell straight-up their predictable travails, well, that would be redundant -- just more 20-somethings and their own spin of blah-blah. We've all had our own, thanks.

TL5Y, however, is anything but blah-blah. In the hands of co-producers Kaarina and Balkwill -- principals and partners in their company LionFish Entertainment with this their inaugural production -- the show is altogether charming. Script limitations aside, this is a heart-stopping hanky-grabber of a performance, right from moment one of the final Preview performance I saw February 5th.

Three qualities stood out particularly : the actors' strong voices; their excellent blocking and staging; the genuineness of their characters' love and heartache over time despite all their frailties and faults.

Buckle up, feminists, this is Kansas : This script could not possibly have been written by a contemporary North American woman unless she were an Ann Coulter clone. Because playwright Brown reveals his sexist genes from the get-go : Cathy is forever "waiting" for Jamie. She always pines for him. For his part, note, he has been waiting "for someone like you", Cathy, not you, Cathy per se. 

And, like Brown, the character Wellenstein is a writer : "You are the story I should write, I have to write!" he sings to her in what he thinks is a generous and intimate moment. As his literary career starts to arc -- same time as he falls in love with his Shiksa goddess -- he sings out giddily : "I found a woman to love and an agent who loves me." His thrill at earning $2,000 from The Atlantic Monthly printing a chapter from his novel is summed up by Cathy as she laments : "He's off on a trip to Jamie-land / Staring catatonic out the window." In a heartbeat she apologizes and rationalizes, however : "I'm a part of all this / I tend to follow in his stride."  

But clever trumps quibbles : Previous qualms aside, TL5Y works well in the hands of these two actors because of their juice as performers, their attention to stage detail, the embracing and involving theatrics made possible by the PAL stage that's right at the audience's fingertips. That the character Cathy is unliberated and the character Jamie a proper schlub, no matter. When he cuckolds his wife while she's soldiering on as a minor player during a summer theatre gig in Ohio, Jamie sums his dalliance up this way : "All right, I got what I need / Nobody needs to know... / Since I have to be in love with someone / Maybe I could be in love with you." If such sentiments make him more pathetic than his betrayed and self-denying wife, the audience sympathizes and relates regardless. The pathos ends with Month 60 Jamie protesting "I could never rescue you", while Month 1 Cathy sings back : "I will be waiting, waiting, until I crawl to your door." We have come full circle. 

Production values : The accompanying 6-piece band orchestrated and directed by piano man Michael Creber from the front was first-rate, but then I've always been a sucker for cello, and there are two of them at play here. Sarah Mabberley's set is a knock-out of function and simple aesthetics. An outsize cut-out mirror frame swivels mid-stage, so the audience is transported to-and-fro in time as the characters step through it repeatedly. Simple and complementary bauhaus scrolls are the backdrop artwork behind the orchestra. Nice. For his part co-director Warren Kimmel makes excellent use of every square centimetre of stage and no doubt exercised considerable influence over the players' blocking and gesticulations, which were tight and convincing throughout.

Who gonna like : While creator J. R. Brown's lyrics are somewhat predictable, his music is engaging and completely accessible in the manner of Les Mis, so folks who like musical theatre, as do I, will agree TL5Y is warm and engaging. The familiar turf of the plot is offset completely by the inventive calendar-switch technique Brown introduced that has just-in-love Cathy pining painfully for Jamie at the end. Meanwhile he's singing to her a final good-bye. Touching, effective, clever. Tears were shed around the house quite liberally. If, like me, you enjoy small stage intimacy and just a few characters you can engage with up close and personal, TL5Y is 90 minutes of charm and sweet sorrow and tunefulness that surely will touch your heart. I predict Vancouver will see much much more of LionFish Entertainment as time goes by. Bravo !

Particulars : Produced by LionFish Entertainment & ARC Works. At the Performing Arts Lodge (PAL) theatre, February 4 - 14, 581 Cardero Street. phone 604.255.4312 for playtimes and tickets. 

Production crew : Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  Stage Direction : Warren Kimmel, Danny Balkwill & Diana Kaarina.  Musical Direction : Danny Balkwill & Michael Creber.  Band : Piano - Michael Creber. Guitar - David Sinclair. Bass - Aaron Andrada. Violin - Kevin McDonnell. Cello 1 - Eva Ying. Cellow 2 - Zhuojun [Chantal] Bian.  Set & Properties Design : Sarah Mabberley.  Costume Design : Katie Murphy Balkwill.  Lighting Design : Stephen Torrence.  Assistant Lighting Designer : Scott Zechner.  Sound Design & Live Audio : Geoff Hollingshead.  Producers : Danny Balkwill, Diana Kaarina & Chris Adams.  Stage Manager : Melanie Thompson.  Stage Crew : Chanel Cairns.  PAL Technical Director : Nathan Hoffmann.  Publicity : Ashley Buck & Danielle St. Pierre.

Actors : Danny Balkwill. Diana Kaarina. 


Wednesday, 4 February 2015

One Man, Two Guvnors is a manic Brit stitch

Background uptake : What is normally summer fluff and silliness is now on stage in Vancouver, all aflower in a pre-Spring burst. Over-the-top slapstick nonsense is the hallmark of this Richard Bean original from 2011 that sends patrons skittering out the exits hooting and frothing.

No question British humour may grate on some thanks to its sex-o-manic tittery, but compared to most North American comedy it nevertheless thrills in its verbal inventiveness and verve rather than just be put out there to mildly amuse us heh-heh-heh-blah-blah. 

If this premise resonates, then OM2G is a laugh track you simply cannot avoid, nor should you. The script has been snitched by Bean from Carlo Goldini's 1743 commedia del arte set in Italy, but it's been repackaged and carted off to 1963 Brighton, England for its resurrection. As a seaside resort and a minor Boardwalk Empire, Brighton was going to seed even back then. While gangsters and their rackets and their molls ran slightly amok there under the bobbies' radar, some innocent mop-tops down the road called the Beatles were providing teens Yeah-yeah-yeah! cheek to taunt their parents with. First-world life was on a cultural cusp for sure.

OM2G plot quicky : You don't go to OM2G for the plotline. It's a twisty-sugary-pretzel-tail snackery of fakes and phonies galore. All about a goofy food-hound down-on-his-luck, a lovable lout named Francis Henshall. He winds up as a working class Brit step-&-fetch-it for two different and decidedly-opposed masters. Neither knows of Francis's duplicity. 

One master is a dead homosexual gangster named Roscoe who's being played in drag by his twin sister Rachel. The other master is a Brit boys school snob named Stanley who's Rachel's lover. Just a week before Stanley stabbed ol' Roscoe to death in a snit. So Rachel is now "covering" for her lover Stanley, lit.& fig., twin brother be damned. The late Roscoe, however, had previously been paired off by parental pre-arrangement to marry mobster Charlie Clench's daughter Pauline who actually loves Clench's lawyer's son Allan, a histrionic actor wannabe. You can follow all this nonsense for pre-Alzheimer calisthenics, no other useful purpose really.

WYSIWYG in this zany show : OM2G is vaudeville, English pantomime, cabaret, melodrama, music hall burlesque, and audience-involving improvisation all in one kaleidescopic piece. Its parts taken individually probably exceed the impact of the whole. Meaning that i.m.o. Act I has laggy & over-drawn-out moments that make one wonder on occasion at the "point" of the play. Until one flips out of such a presumptuous and ratiocinative state and just accepts the premise that WYSIWYG and the fact that vaudeville, English pantomime, cabaret, melodrama, music hall burlesque and improvisation taken together are the "point" regardless of narrative or dramatic arc deficits.

As Francis Henshall, Andrew McNee turns in a tour de force peformance of breathless manic exuberance that was utterly exhausting, vicariously. But the humour always outs along the way, McNee's high-pitched frantic giggle ringing in my ears still, three days later. E.g. gangster dad Charlie (Gerry Mackay) has a bookkeeper named Dolly (Cailin Stadnyk) who is a statuesque ginger-haired beauty. Francis is smitten and pirouettes around her gaily. But he can't reveal his doeppelganger identity. Still, on & on he flirts. And Dolly winks as she announces to the audience. "I don't know what he's after, but if he carries on like this he'll get it."

When we meet killer / lover Stanley Stubbers (Martin Happer), he reveals his snobbish past : "I'm boarding school trained. I'm happy to have a chair, a bed and no one pissing in my face." Francis doesn't disagree. "You went to boarding school where they held masturbation relay races!" On the subject of marriage he proclaims : "Love passes through marriage faster than shit through a small dog!"

Much of the comic clownery of Act 1 stems from Francis trying to serve a multi-course gourmet dinner to each of his two guvnors and their guests in opposing dining rooms. With the assistance of a couple of waiters -- a Downton Abbey downstairs young snoot (Anton Lipovetsky) as well as the scene-stealing dottery and ancient war vet Alfie (Andrew Cownden) -- Francis feeds the guvnors bits and pieces of what he himself cannot manage to gorf down with his grubby hands to stave off his insatiable food jones.

Watered, fed, satiated at last by the end of the first act, Francis turns to the love interests of all the silly pompous poseurs on stage in the second act to pull the piece together at last. This is how commedia del arte worked back when, now too.

Along the way there are repeated appearances by a skiffle band. It plays before the play starts, during scene changes and ahead of Act II. From washboard knuckles and banjos, the group called The Craze morphs to Beatle-y style charts along the way, though drummer Spencer Schoening, unlike Ringo Starr, does not sound like he's chopping wood with a dull axe. Wowza!

Musical director of the show Anton Lipovetsky does the banjo and lead guitar riffs, the two of them headed by a power talent in Scott Perrie as lead singer, joined ably by Matthew J. Bake on bass. Terrific sounds every scene of the way from this group (named, Benjamin Brantley of the NYT advises, after the Kray brothers who were once London's version of Al Capone Ltd. and equally nasty.).

Production values : Sight gags, physical comedy and slapstick pratfalls -- Stadnyk parodying McNee was stupendous! -- abound in this production by Director David Mackay. Virtually everyone gets a chance to play an instrument and have a moment's spot. Lawyer Harry Dangle (Andrew Wheeler) on xylophone; Happer squawking some antic Ooh-gah! car horns on a pep rally rack; Cownden mouthing a bluesy harp; master chef Lloyd Boanteng (Tom Picket) finger-synching on a Carribbean oil drumhead. All of these bits are entertaining music hall stuff in their own right, no question. And who cares if they make virtually no contribution to the show's dramatic continuity. Fun stuff regardless !

Still, my only beef about the staging would be Director Mackay's seemingly inevitable fart highlight. Fact is Francis starts Act II extolling the joys and virtues of a good smoke after eating. Almost thematically, his puff turns to a drool toward sex where an after-puff on a fag is also common. Somehow in the midst of this there's an amplified fart : it was superfluous and dramatically off-key in context.

As hyped-up amateur actor Allan Dangle, Ryan Beil was priceless. His zen-take on London buses being buses and musing on what "drives" them and motivates them and appeals to them emotionally and their social milieu connections was just choice. 

Second mention must be made of Andrew Cownden whose Laugh-In Artie Johnson knock-off get-up, Einstein hair and impish pacemaker walks-&-scoots and door-slam take-downs and wall-bounces were all spot-on, spot-on. Kudos! writ large to all creators for that exquisite team effort. This was playmaking at its best.

Set Designer Amir Ofek structured a clever and imaginative set whose double-swinging 10-foot doors on opposite walls worked deliciously well for quick disappearing acts, particularly the dining room sequences but throughout the show, too.

The production overall would perhaps have been too big for ACT's Granville Island stage, agreed, but the play's set-back at the Stanley made much of the action too distant from the crowd and lines at times too hard to hear up in the balcony. Let's muse and dream : an orchestra pit scissored-proscenium-platform would have been perfect to bring the action up close and personal to the folks out front. Alas! realities.

Who gonna like : Tired of t.v. re-runs of Breaking Bad, Netflix binging, and find you have no time in the least for CBC's latest groaner Schitts Creek? OM2G is comic relief for what ails you visually, aurally, and emotionally in a world whose daily news drone of doom is disquieting and unsettling if not downright threatening altogether. This is a troupe well-blocked, well-rehearsed, well-voiced and well-suited to bring tears -- the right kind -- to your eyes like no recent show I can think of.

Particulars.  Creator Richard Bean. Music & Songs by Grant Olding. At the Stanley Theatre stage, 11th & Granville Street, through February 22nd. Phone 604.687.1644 for schedules and tickets.

Production crew.  Director David Mackay.  Musical Director Anton Lipovetsky.  Costume Designer Nancy Bryant.  Set Designer Amir Ofek.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Sound Designer Murray Price.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Peter Jotkus.  Assistant Director Melissa Poll.  Assistant to the Director Cory Haas.  Apprentice Stage Manager Sandra Drag.

Actors.  Matthew J. Baker. Ryan Beil. Lauren Bowlder. Andrew Cownden. Martin Happer. Anton Lipovetsky. Gerry Mackay. Andrew McNee. Scott Perrie. Tom Pickett. Spencer Schoening. Cailin Stadnyk. Celine Stubel. Andrew Wheeler.