Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Midsummer a hoot even in French !

Background notes to solstice :  Saint Eligius (d. CE 659) is said to have warned early French Christians against "dancing, leaping or diabolical chants" on the summer solstice. Pagans built huge bonfires on Midsummer Night to drive away the evil spirits thought to roam freely about the fringes of the night when darkness took hold during its inexorable march toward winter. Shakespeare considered the Midsummer Night magical, as his play with its multiple revelries and goblins and faeries attests. And just a short while before The Bard's time one John Mirk of Shropshire noted ruefully : "At first, men and women came to church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long. In the process of time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery and gluttony turning the good, holy devotion into sin." The veil between good and evil is never so gossamer as on this particular night, he suggests.

A script & plot quicky : Clearly playwright David Greig had the morose Mr. Mirk's mischievous merrymakers in mind when he scripted the show he named Midsummer (A Play With Songs). What else could he have been thinking when in an Edinburgh wine bar he paired a hard-drinking adulteress divorce lawyer named Helena with an ex-wannabe rocker and once-upon-a-time high school year book editor who's now a petty bumbling crook named Bob. Both of these "likely candidates" are in their mid-30's, and they join fast and furious for a lost Midsummer Night week-end once Helena's married boyfriend stands her up. Wysiwyg : drunken revelry, a lengthy toss in the hay with a talking Elmo as witness, lots of vomit in a maid-of-honour dress, a bit of Japanese rope bondage, plus $15,000 stuffed into a tattered plastic shopping bag from the sale of a stolen pink Mazda convertible with Big Tiny Tam Callaghan in hot pursuit of Bob to get the dough before knocking him off. (Bob has other way-more-fun ideas how to spread Tam's criminal profits around Edinburgh.) If this isn't zany enough, what say we think about a life together after it all....

Oh. And a musical, too, you say. Well, not so much. More like a schmoozicle, a refreshing lollipop of a summer script even when performed in French by theatre L'Seizieme to this reviewer who knows not one word of French beyond bon jour. The music is incidental, lit. & fig. As the play's title suggests, more a play with songs that hi-lite the stage activity and dialogue.

What makes Greig's play (music by Gordon McIntyre) more than just a tuneful re-run of When Harry Met Sally that collides in the middle distance with Beautiful Losers ?  Because let's face it : 30-somethings adrift in an alienating and neurotic world -- mostly of their own idiosyncratic rendering -- is hardly new stage territory for North American audiences. Why would a 2015 crowd care whether these two misfits find a "happily ever after" ending of the kind Puck magically conjured for Shakespeare's criss-crossed lovers Helena and Demetrius? The show's director, Metteur en Scene Phillipe Lambert, is why. He draws every possible ounce of energy & wit & comic clout out of the show's two actors Isabelle Blais and Pierre-Luc Brilliant. And as a result the absurdity of their Midsummer Night week-end romp sucks us into its goofy and almost believable charm. 

Plot & dialogue cues : Booze creates bedmates. A time-honoured tradition over the centuries. Followed by hangovers, toilet bowl monologues, regret, and fond memories from people "dazed and dumbfounded from lost sleep". (N.B. These lyrics helpfully provided by an upstage scrim that scrolled the English being spoken and sung in French by Helena and Bob.) Telling each other they'll never see each other again, they chirp : "Give me tonight, give me a drink, then in the morning take it all away." And when morning comes they sing a hangover duet to one another : "If my hangover were a film it would be Greek with Czech subtitles", Bob moans. 

Interspliced with these scenes is Helena's sister's morning-after wedding that 6-time maid-of-honour Helena, the wretch, manages to miss. She hisses hussily at the locked chapel doors : "It's an internet date / I give 'em a year!" M. Brilliant does a very clever turn as Helena's nephew Brendan who's a bit o.c. and freaks when Aunty's vomity mess outside the church splashes on him. "Love breaks your heart / But basically that's what you want!" is the ballad of boffo bitterness Helena and Bob sing at each other three times during the show. And not to be forgotten is the hungover Bob's chitty-chat with his still-erect penis  from the night's gambol : "Bob, you and I are not young men anymore. Add our ages together and we're 70. I'm fed up with being in different beds in different places. Our adventuring days, they may be over." Then there's the show's theme that Bob sings at the end to his now-college-age soccer player son Aidan whom he'd abandoned as a teen-age dad : "We all come from the past and we are going towards the future. This is it, this is what happens. You are where you came from and you go where you go."

Production values : Not quite enough, probably, can be said for the tour de force performance Isabelle Blais gives as Helena. This is sheer raw talent afoot with eyes and facial expressions and singing voice which combined are wholly engaging and exciting, vomity scenes et al. Eminently capable on the guitar, she brings her mic'd up ukulele to an even deeper level of subtlety. As Bob (pron. "Bub", mostly a bit of a doofus-like "Boob"), Pierre-Luc Brilliant is largely the understated goof of wannabe \ has-been his part calls for. But not to be fooled : his Ha! routine during the mimed Japanese bondage scene coupled with his Nephew Brendan meltdown and his clever finger licks on guitar throughout the show betray a large and generous talent. 

Who gonna like : Gotta say it. While a francophile but no francophone, I and any other English mono-linguists were at a distinct disadvantage on opening night, the show's French production premiere in Vancouver (following mounts in Montreal and a tour across the land). Because this script is all about badinage, action and messages both wrapped up in lyrics -- sort of slam poetry meets two stand-up comics meets duets sung and spoken in riffs of dialogue and echo. These features are central, considerably moreso than the blocking and stage business and casual choreography. And with all the night-clubby haze effect, the scrolled English lyrics were at times hard to read. Still, the energy and antics of Ms. Blais and Mr. Brilliant overcame my francodeaf ear deficit. Probably 10 minutes too long at 100 minutes with no intermission, Midsummer is nevertheless some choice boutique small-stage acting writ large. 

Particulars : Written by David Greig. Music by Gordon McIntyre. Translation by Olivier Choiniere. A La Manufacture production with artistic direction from La Licorne presented by Theatre L'Seizieme at the Studio 16 stage, 1555 West 7th Avenue, through May 2nd, 8 p.m.  Go to for tickets -- site has English or Francais options --  or phone 604.736.2616. English subtitles Thursday & Saturday for this performance. 

Production crew : Director Phillipe Lambert.  Assistant to the Director Jean Gaudreau.  Costumes & accessories Josee Bergeron-Proulx.  Lighting Andre Rioux.  Musical arrangements Pierre-Luc Brilliant.

Performers : Isabelle Blais.  Pierre-Luc Brilliant.


Thursday, 23 April 2015

Stationary is sassy & fresh & chirpy...!

Flashback memory : In Tennessee Ernie Ford's only pop chart mega-hit, 16 Tons from 1955, he moans that a shift of hard labour gets you nothing but "another day older and deeper in debt".

As a 20-something, she's too young to remember TEF and his hokey cowboy ditty, but Christine Quintana's script of Stationary re-tells this tale nonetheless. This time out it's about desk-stuck Millennials. And the fun of it all is that while they push paper and tap keyboards with their left hands, their right hands are never far from a musical instrument, their feet and voices just a grace note away from song-&-dance. A perfect metaphor for peoples' left-brain drudge work -vs- their right-brain creative juices.

Backdrop to the script : "Stationary". That's what the Millennials feel is their lot in life. Particularly in Vancouver, Quintana suggests. High student debt loads, an extremely competitive and tight job market, little if any prospect of owning real estate while their parents are still alive -- this is the recession-era life she writes about in lyrics put to music by her friend and UBC Theatre School classmate Mishelle Cuttler. Imagine Avenue Q without the puppetry and you're pretty close.

The current mount by Delinquent Theatre is its third in three years. On the eve of its 2012 launch, Quintana tweeted both pointedly and poignantly : "Instead of naming the tabs of my spreadsheet 'budget' and 'actuals', they say 'DREAMS' and 'REAL LIFE'." And it is this challenge she throws out anew for 2015 audiences : how to keep hope and enthusiasm alive while plodding through the day-to-day rituals of life tied to a desk. New? No. But a genuinely fresh and sassy look at an old theme with tres clever music to boot.

Co-founder of Delinquent, Quintana describes her troupe's mandate as one "that brings socially relevant theatre to modern audiences, and creates and disperses new Canadian theatre. We like to make theatre that is elegant, subversive, intellectual and ruthless. We believe in good theatre and good times." Stationary delivers Delinquent's mission statement well indeed in their current run at the Cultch.

The show's plotline : Nine young people work for a company called Northern Light Communications. Not as Mad Men knock-offs, for sure. NLC's primary work is to sell contracts to companies for print-ad placements in periodicals -- hardly creative, mostly mechanical and repetitive exercises in phone sales. True "day job" stuff. Notionally Stationary sets up some dramatic tension : who will get the assistant manager position and the dubious chance to work as subordinate to Anna (Mishelle Cuttler), a snoopy neurasthenic nincompoop who talks in contemporary office psycho-babble. Mel (Meaghan Chenosky) describes Anna as "expertly passive with a dose of low self-esteem". 

Along the way pet jealousies & snivelry play out, office romance gives rise to a flirtsy song or two, conspiracies are chewed over how the deskers might get even with Anna who utters numerous gems like "I wasn't looking to open a dialogue, but I always appreciate your feedback." (Aside : As I reflect on nearly 45 years spent mostly in human resource bureaucracies, all this sings a very familiar tune indeed. Whining and whinging graduate to complaints, then to overt criticism, and finally to grievances [whose root comes from "grieve" and "grievous" -- as in "grievous bodily harm".] That Millennials are not free from this familiar workplace algorithm is comforting to me in an ironic and mildly cynical way.)

75 minutes of wit await : As the lights come up, the workers traipse in to NLC on a Monday morning led by Britta (Claire Hesselgrave) who is nursing a monstrous hangover and announces she's "one day closer to death". On her heels is the newby kid Aiden (Anton Lipovetsky) who says their jobs encourage "The kind of getting-by you learn to fake." Together the group choruses : "Keep calm and stay in line, tell yourself you're doin' fine" [though Britta chimes in she needs to "stop to puke and cry" on occasion].

From their simulated sales calls, the cast flips into song-&-dance mode playing a variety of instruments including ukulele, piano, violin, cello, electric bass, faux synthesizer, glockenspiel, trombone, trumpet, tambourine et al. Adding a contempo-indie voice, the Mr. Schmooze salesman character Brad (Brian Cochrane) performs a couple of sets of rap lyrics he wrote to Aiden's accompanying breathy mic-beats. 

Cuttler does a turn in the song "Sorry -- 8-year-old me" that is touching : she sings of always being an in-charge gal and head of her class at UBC's Sauder School of Business who forever had lunch alone. "I'm the friendly neighbourhood bitch next door, the boys club should have room for me," she laments. 

Mild-mannered receptionist Lizzie (Christine Quintana) tells Aiden, whom she's smitten by, that the weekly stationery order is the hi-lite of her week. She enjoys a wee epiphany at the end : "Why is it we try to protect ourselves from the fact that life is shitty sometimes?", while Britta proclaims "All that's ever coming is weight-gain and death!"

The show's closer is a kind of millennial anthem or coda to the night's showcase of contemporary angst and edge : "Tomorrow never comes too soon / Tomorrow you're my best friend!" the troupe sings ensemble, instrument solos galore. "Tomorrow I can start over, but it might turn out the same!" Aiden frets, adding "I'm too old to just let go, too young for regret." It's a surge of triumphant madcap laughing sorrow, like drunks playing Ha! Then out they march on Friday night, single file, solo, set to start their same old sales calls all over again come Monday mourning. 

Production values aplenty : Stationary is a chirpy, chipper, and sassy mini-musical that grabs. Kudos to playwright / lyricist Quintana and music score composer Cuttler for a clever contemporary cut at how life looks to today's Echo Boomers. 

Chief acting nod clearly goes to Claire Hesselgrave (Britta), the wasp-tongued redhead complainer non-pareil whose singing pipes are on a par with both Quintana's and Cuttler's, too -- though all musical the performers turned in fine sounds -- but whose sheer zest for her role claimed the night's top honours (followed closely by Lipovetsky and Cochrane).

Kayla Dunbar's choreography was nifty and tight for the diminutive and personal Cultch Historic stage. Lauchlin Johnston's set of office cubicles and fluorescent overheads was spot-on, the characters' spy-hop antics a delight.

Oh yes. BLR's customary kvetch.  Actors : you need not do Shout-outs! each time you utter the F-word or the S-word or the B-word. No one I know would say something like : "Who cares, it doesn't make any fucking difference!" They would say "Who cares, it doesn't make any fucking difference!" Minor boeuf for sure, but an irritant in this production same as I find it in most I see.  

Who gonna like : There are laughs and smiles and the odd tear galore to come from this original score and script. While contemporary workplace existential angst as a theme is not new in the least, fact is the struggles Millennials face in the marketplaces of work and home life and personal accomplishment are different from what we their parents faced. This show is fresh and witty and charming and worth every minute. 

Particulars : Produced by Delinquent Theatre (Vancouver) in presentation with The Cultch at its Historic Theatre site on Venables. Through May 2nd. Run-time 75 minutes sans intermission. Contact or phone 604.251.1363 for performance schedules and tickets.

Performance crew : Book & Lyrics by Christine Quintana.  Music by Mishelle Cuttler.  Rap Lyrics by Brian Cochrane.  Associate Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Original Director Laura McLean (co-founder of Delinquent Theatre).  Stage Manager Dani Fecko.  Choreography by Kayla Dunbar.  Musical Direction by Mishelle Cuttler.  Music Supervisor Sean Bayntun.  Percussion Consultant Sam MacKinnon.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Kaitlin Williams.  Lighting Designer Darren Boquist. 

Performers :  Meaghan Chenosky.  Brian Cochrane.  Mishelle Cuttler.  Claire Hesselgrave.  Anton Lipovetsky.  Christine Quintana.  Alex Hauka.  Molly MacKinnon.  Arlen Kristian Tom. 


Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Duchess spins a lively tale for all time

Background scribblery on Wallis Simpson :  In his 1999 biography of Wallis Simpson, Greg King notes a rueful comment from Simpson late in her life : "You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance."

And that observation perhaps sums up the dynamic tension that underlay the frantic assignations and marriage, ultimately, between Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor and Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, a.k.a. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. 

Every Boomer and beyond knows their iconic love story : how King Edward VIII abdicated the British monarchy to his brother who became King George VI (dad to current Queen Elizabeth II). In the fateful radio broadcast announcing his abdication on December 11, 1936, "David" as his family knew him, said ; "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love." Oh my. The great American romantic F. Scott Fitzgerald could not have penned it better. 

Fact is, though, their "great romance" might be the stuff more of myth than of diary. And to "live out" such a story might in reality be more mere diary than endless drama.  Such as the fact that Simpson was disallowed the "style" of being referred to as Her Royal Highness. Her Grace is what kindly Brits would call her in sanguine moments, "that woman" in their more acerbic moods. 

But no mere diary this, I hasten to add, in the hands of Ruby Slippers Theatre director Sarah Rodgers who re-drafted the original 1998 script by the late playwright Linda Griffiths (who succumbed to breast cancer last September, at 60). Griffiths embraced Rodgers' new version interspliced with her own and championed its UBC re-mount in 2012. This is the script currently being replicated at the Cultch and, note, must close this Saturday April 18.

Much is known about the late "Mrs. Warfield" as was her legal identity after her second divorce -- interesting : she reverted to her maiden name but kept the address "Mrs." She was born at a hotel resort straddling the Pennsylvania / Maryland border in 1896 seven months after her parents married the previous November. When she was but five months old, her flour merchant dad from Baltimore died of tuberculosis. Thus from Year 1 Wallis commenced life on "the dole" -- gilt-edged dole, mind you -- supplied by family and friends, lovers, husbands, folks whose favour she curried in social circles from New York to Paris to London to Peking and beyond, but not before she matriculated at Maryland's most expensive and prestigious preparatory school, Oldfields. Biographer Phillip Ziegler (2004) wrote of her at this time of her life : "Though Wallis's jaw was too heavy for her to be counted beautiful, her fine violet-blue eyes and petite figure, quick wits, vitality and capacity for total concentration on her interlocutor ensured that she had many admirers." 

Structure of the play :  Griffiths' script is told as a flashback after The Duchess's death in 1986, and if ghosts could talk, as they do here, what a tale they might tell. Facts, factoids (tidbits that stand a 50% chance of being, or not being, true), anecdotes, fibs, favourable and unfavourable concoctions -- all of it is on display in this show that is done cabaret style with a narrator, flashy garish costumes, and lots of choreographed song-&-dance.  

Simpson was a collector of jewels and lovers and husbands and reputations equally so. The play commences with the auction of her jewels, many of which were thought to have been pilfered by the Duke by way of revenge for his family rejecting royal standing for his twice-divorced wife (one of those factoids...). Actors pop up on stage depicting the jewels being auctioned off gayly by none other than Noel Coward, no less, acting as piano-&-sax-man-cum-narrator but mostly as foil for Wallis and "David". 

In short order the 10-member cast flips the audience through some 30 different roles of the numerous characters and situations that featured strongly in Simpson's storied life tale : her jewels-come-to-life; King George V and his wife; Wallis's two husbands; David; various lords and ladies; Count Von Ribbentrop and Hitler; brother-in-law Bertie and queen (KG VI and Elizabeth I).  Griffiths in the program notes describes her theatrical oeuvre as one "to dance between the personal, the political and the fantastic", and The Duchess, a.k.a. Wallis Simpson achieves all of these objectives not just admirably but oh-so-cleverly and entertainingly and joyously despite the dark times in which the action takes place. Consider a cabaret-style seduction scene on a floor-drawn map of Europe between a pants-challenged Hitler and Simpson. The show cavorts in that kind of realm throughout.

Not for Griffiths or Director Sarah Rodgers the more typical views of these particular Windsors. In various books and critiques, Wallis Simpson is often depicted as caustic, pushy, risque, impertinent, impudent, demanding and dismissive. Rumours circulated that she was heterosexless (with all three husbands) but meanwhile is reported to have been mistress of a half-dozen or so dashing characters before, during and after her times as a Warfield, a Spencer, a Simpson and a Windsor. Wallis (Diane Brown) tells the audience : "He was begging me to give him something that I could not, so I bewitched him instead." 

For his part, "David" (Craig Erickson) is often dismissed as being a naif, a momma's boy, a hopeless romantic subject to wimpering ga-ga-isms, over-apologetic but politically an unapologetic Fascist to boot. In a New York Daily News squib in December 1966, the Duke stated : " was in Britain's interest and in Europe's too, that Germany be encouraged to strike east and smash Communism forever...I thought the rest of us could be fence-sitters while the Nazis and the Reds slogged it out." In the play he calls Simpson "Peach-ems" and repeatedly asks to lay his head on her lap, same as he did with his nanny as a kid in short pants. Still, he wasn't 100% a wuss : Winston Churchill banished him off the sceptered isle to be Governor of the Bahamas and went so far as to threaten him with military court marshall if he so much as set foot on Blighty soil again during WWII after rumours circulated both the Duke and the Duchess were feeding military secrets to the Nazis. 

What the characters bring : It's trite, granted, but a "willing suspension of disbelief" when worn by the audience as a vestment will allow the sheer spunk and zip! and satire and spoof of the cast to shine through. One needs to forget the "seriousity" of the times as a history buff once labeled it. How the abdication almost brought down the monarchy and the government along with it. How Simpson was reviled and shunned when Edward VIII forsook his kingly duties to marry her. How the myriad gentry Simpson introduced to dirty dancing and endless martinis turned tail on them abruptly, unforgivingly and permanently. 

The Griffiths script in the hands of Rodgers and her troupe is simply a stitch, a giggle, a night's breezy divertissement not intended to be one wit serious, nor is it. Not even when Simpson snaps at the Duke : "You're a wimp, a faggot, I hate your love, I'll kill it!" after the abdication trauma. She claims to be "a force, a gale, a tornado, not an English breeze" and is immediately corrected by Coward (Xander Williams) : "You have no idea of what love is. That diamond has more heart than you." More typically, the scene where each of Edward and Simpson and QEI debate with their partying friends over gallons of gin who has ruined one another's life more -- each claiming 1st prize -- was simply priceless good fun. As if to sum up the "point" of the evening's gambol, Simpson declares at the end : "It's a wise woman who knows she's a fool!"

Production values prevail : As Noel Coward / narrator, Xander Williams came nigh unto stealing the show out from under the principals Brown and Erickson. His Coward-esque ditties pounded out on the baby grand making endless fun of the scenes behind him were tight and thrifty and perfectly executed. Craig Erickson turned in a delightful "David", matching each of the descriptors noted above with nuance and split-second timing.

As Wallis Simpson, Ruby Slippers Theatre Artistic Director Diane Brown projected a corn-fed homespun American gal fresh off a Mason-Dixon farm with lines such as "Wait a cotton-pickin' minute...!" and her later protest about being a taker, not a doer : "I worked : it's work to be the belle of the ball", sounding for all the world like a pouty Scarlet O'Hara fast-forwarded 75 years. Such self-insights were amusing, as was "I'm a crass ambitious American trying to make her way through the complexities of British society!" that she announces early on. This only moments after dissing the House of Windsor she was soon to marry into as "the whole horse-faced, jug-eared lot of them". Not the Wallis Simpson more commonly described in biography (see Addendum below), but a believable caricature in this script for sure.

Kamyar Pazandeh as each of the African diamond, Ernest Simpson and the stuttery Bertie (King George VI) was choice. Great character clips, too, from Eileen Barrett as Lady Elizabeth, Georgia Beaty as Lady Colefax and the Queen, Raugi Yu as the goose-stepping but horny Von Ribbentrop and Matt Reznek as Hitler, though it must be added that each and every actor in their myriad characters on stage was crisp and droll in all their parts.

Costume Designer Mara Gottler deserves highest kudos on the production side, but lighting, sets, props & soundscape were also first-rate. For her part, musical Stage Manager Kelly Barker delivered choreography for the songs and dance numbers that was simply exceptional -- sheer delight !

Who gonna like : As indicated above, this is a wholly fun and whimsical production aimed to poke fun at the stupid human tricks otherwise sensible and sober people are quite capable to produce.  The Cultch Historic Theatre is the ideal venue for the night's fun-&-games, an intimate room that lends itself to the actors poking holes in the 4th wall to communicate with the audience and earn their cheers and huzzahs, very deservedly so. 

Particulars : A Ruby Slippers Theatre show sponsored by The UBC Department of Theatre and Film, produced by arrangement with The Talent House Inc., Toronto. Through this Saturday, April 18. Run time 180 minutes including intermission. Contact or phone 604.251.1363 for tickets.

 Production crew :  Director Sarah Rodgers.  Assistant Director Alen Dominguez.  Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Costume Design Assistant Jessica Oostergo.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Set & Props Designer Michael Bock.  Sound Designer Scott Zechner.  Technical Director and Production Manager Alex House.  Stage Manager Kelly Barker.  Assistant Stage Manager Jenny Kim.  Musical Staging Shelley Stewart Hunt.  Assistant Musical Staging Courtney Shields. 

Performers : Eileen Barrett.  Georgia Beaty.  Diane Brown.  Craig Erickson.  Joel Garner.  Melissa Oei.  Matt Reznek.  Kamyar Pazandeh.  Xander Williams.  Raugi Yu.  

Addendum :  In a article in February of 2012, reviewer Katherine Jose provided an extensive overview of the recently-published book by Anne Sebba, That Woman : The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor. In her closing paragraphs Jose writes, poignantly, words that contrast with the Griffiths script on certain levels, but not on others :

"Sebba devotes only 30 pages to the lives of Wallis and Edward after the war, for the rest of their lives. She paints a drooping picture of two figures floating between France and New York City, entertaining and occasionally lending themselves to charitable events. Their lives were defined by each other, the past, and aesthetics : decorating, shopping, holding formal dinners, being noticed by the newspapers. They were bitter toward the royal family, and Wallis was eternally frustrated that she no longer held the interest of people at high levels of society, government or the arts. Her wit grew sharper, and meaner. They wrote their separate memoirs, they ate next to nothing, and they drank a lot. Sebba cites reported opinions of Wallis that range widely, from vain and harsh to kind and thoughtful, while the Prince was primarily known only for his devotion to her. It's a spare description of a great deal of time that, actually, doesn't feel out of sync with the myth of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were immortalized in the moment of abdication.

'Nothing else in his life gave him any sense of achievement other than his marriage to Wallis,' Sebba writes. 'For her, the slavish devotion was at times claustrophobic and she was not afraid to show it. But love is impossible to define and in their case especially so. Few who knew them well described what they shared as love.'" 


Thursday, 9 April 2015

Farewell, My Lovely aims for laughs

Background to the script : The word noir is ever bandied about when the works of Depression-era US crime writer Raymond Chandler are raised. A fancy French word that means "melodrama" more or less. Black-&-white characters, black-&-white plotlines, black-&-white motivations. Not unlike the t.v. series Mad Men whose final season's seven episodes I just binged out on the past two nites thanks to Netflix.

Farewell, My Lovely is a script that is a patchwork quilt of three earlier, smaller Chandler pieces he stitched together in 1940 to produce a novel featuring a mostly out-of-work private eye named Philip Marlowe. From probably a handful of characters in each story, Chandler wound up with a dizzying sum of 30 or so in FML. They all chase about to cover off the novel's half-dozen plots Chandler was also trying to serge into single cloth. Not always easily. Often not very successfully. 

In real life, Chandler had plenty of noir himself. He died four years after the love of his life wife Cissy -- 17 years his senior -- succumbed in 1955 to lung disease. With her death Chandler augered into a pit of booze and self-destruct. He tried suicide four times before being committed to psychiatric care. In the end he died going gentle into that good night from congestive heart failure. The L.A. Times later reported : "Seventeen people attended his funeral service at Mount Hope Cemetery." The once-wealthy and highly regarded Chandler would no doubt have appreciated the ironies at play here.

Chandler was about style, not precision. As quoted in the Frank McShane 1976 biography of him, he admitted it : "My whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn't matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style." 

And style Chandler clearly has, somewhere between Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard. He starts FML thus : "It was a warm day, almost the end of March, and I stood outside the barber shop looking up at the jutting neon sign of a second floor dine and dice emporium called Florian's." Now how can you miss with that ? It just reeks of 1941 Los Angeles, somewhere on the fringe near Watts. A seedy gambling joint. Lit by a rectangle of neon. Where one can "dine", sure, no doubt.

After that scene's opening shenanigans inside Florian's, Marlowe  tells us in his same laconic voice : "I ate lunch at a drugstore, bought a pint of bourbon, and drove eastward to Central Avenue and north on Central again. The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk." Gotta say : from the six months I spent in L.A. in the Spring and Summer of 1965 trying to sell encyclopedias door-to-door, I can see and smell and taste all this like it was yesterday. 

The Bushkowsky challenge : Vancouver poet / novelist Aaron Bushkowsky wasn't certain he was up to adapting Chandler's FML into a stage play for a variety of reasons. Condensing all the above-noted material into a cohesive whole was just one. For starters, he sliced and diced the novel's 2 1/2 dozen characters down to just 10 players performed by seven actors.

The story finds Marlowe (Graham Percy) being hired by a goon named, wait for it, Moose Malloy (Beau Dixon). Moose still has the hots for his ex-gal Velma who was a singer at Florian's but disappeared after Moose was sent to jail some seven years back for his part in robbing Block's jewelry store of a wodge of diamonds. In trying to track down Velma, Marlowe bounces ideas off an old flatfoot detective buddy Sam Nulty (Stephen Hair). Along the way Marlowe gets hired by Lindsay Marriott (Anthony F. Ingram) ostensibly to retrieve a stolen jade necklace. 

As part of all these goings-on he gets kidnapped briefly by a wacko psychic named Amthor (Ingram, redux). He's rescued from certain death a few times by one Annie Riordan (Emma Slipp) who's the daughter of a suicided ex-cop buddy of his from back in the day. Annie falls for him kerplop! There's also the dead Florian's widow Jessie (Lucia Frangione), now a hopeless drunk, who drools over him too. Then last but not least of all is the siren Helen Grayle (Jamie Konchak), a mysterious femme fatale who is an absolute clone for Kathleen Turner's sultry Matty Walker in the Lawrence Kasdan classic film Body Heat.

Mixed genres tend to clash : Chandler, as noted, was a noir writer. Humour in his work was mostly incidental and accidental. Not unlike some Peter Falk moments in the late-great Columbo t.v. show. But mostly Chandler was about himself as portrayed by his character Marlowe : "scarred by the Depression" the same Times article noted. Albeit horny and grabby to the core, Marlowe was "a simple alcoholic vulgarian who never sleeps with his clients while on duty", Chandler said, adding "Marlowe is a failure and knows it." Then, speaking perhaps more for himself than about his romantic "hero", Chandler added : "Marlowe and I do not despise the upper class because they take baths and have money. We despise them because they are phony."

Knowing a bit of Chandler's characters and their jaded but gentle faults and peccadilloes, we come to FML with the expectation of a straightforward detective story. The sub-title of the play is, after all, "The Hard-Boiled Detective Tale". Soft-boiled, alas, is more like it in this interpretation. Mr. Bushkowsky works overtime to make his Marlowe and the FML tale a comedy rather than just the cop mellerdrama it was written as. Trying to contemporize Chandler with lines such as "the Moose is loose" and "looking for love in all the wrong places" and "even dicks have a limp night once in awhile" and [a la Bogart in Casablanca] "you're gonna end up in a cheap gin joint" tended to detract from the rough-cut cop-drama the Chandler piece is intended to be. I understand the attempts to update Depression vernacular, certainly, but the overall effect didn't work for me quite.

Thus, regrettably, the catch of Chandler's original characters winds up a bit lost in the process. They don't intend to be parodies of themselves, but they wind up that way. Their ability to entice and intrigue and seduce us is sacrificed on the altar of laugh-grabs i.m.o. 

Production values conquer nevertheless : The above critique notwithstanding, overall the production of FML provides Vancouver audiences with perhaps the cleverest local staging ever witnessed by this viewer, easily a neck-&-neck tie with last year's triumphant Helen Lawrence produced by ACT as well. 

Scott Reid's set and lighting were outrageous. Angled fluted pillars in grey-green provided tracks for bamboo-like zen screens that the performers in chiaroscuro lighting slid to-&-fro to shape various rooms and settings. And upon those screens projection designer Jamie Nesbitt threw up ever-so-choice black-&-white film clips of southern California from those times -- its bustling roads, grotty pretentious nightclubs and blue collar housing that are contrasted compellingly with LA's nearby seaside dunes and wealth-drenched view properties. 

Costume designer Deitra Kalyn captured the zeitgeist perfectly well with each pair of suspenders, the vests, the suit jackets and their stains, the velvet bosomy dresses, not to forget the hats so prominent and symbolic of men's need to be kings in the city of angels. 

Who gonna like : This is a show for hard-core live theatre fans to see for its scenic wizardry alone. What the script by Mr. Bushkowsky may fail to achieve 100% in verbal or dramatic magnetism is offset admirably by the lights and sliding screens and filmclips and smoke bombs and scene shuttles and costumes and simple set furniture that capture much of the magic Raymond Chandler intended in his gruff and moody views of those times.

Particulars : Produced in association with Vertigo Theatre, Calgary. Until May 2nd at the Granville Island main-stage. Run time two hours 10 minutes with intermission. For schedules and tickets phone 604.687.1644 -or- on-line via

Production crew : Director Craig Hall (Artistic Director of Vertigo Theatre).  Set and Lighting Designer Scott Reid.  Costume Designer Deitra Kalyn.  Sound Designer Dewi Wood.  Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Stage Manager Jan Hodgson.  Assistant Stage Manager Breanne Jackson.

Performers :  Beau Dixon.  Lucia Frangione.  Stephen Hair.  Anthony F. Ingram.  Jamie Konchak.  Graham Percy.  Emma Slipp.

Addendum : FML is a Silver Commission production, which is a program ACT developed in 2006 to give local playwrights an opportunity to develop their craft with direct financial support. In the words of ACT Executive Director Peter Cathie White, the Commission "helps keep artists like Aaron [Bushkowsky] living and breathing members of this community -- telling our stories and contributing to our Canadian culture". Over its 51 years, Mr. White notes in the show program, ACT has developed and premiered some 90 new Canadian plays -- nearly two per season. Clearly a Bravo! achievement, no question.

In a similar and parallel vein, writer David Berry in the April 7 National Post provided a compelling critique of the how-&-what-&-why professional theatre in Canada needs to develop and promote and sustain itself in its continuing sojourn down theatre's yellow brick road into the future. Mr. Berry's article is a must-read for people to whom live professional theatre (and community theatre, too) are vital components of the cultural lifeblood of Canada.  [See also ACT Artistic Director Bill Millerd's comments "New Ways of Working" about his recent attendance at a conference on Volunteerism and the Arts in the FML program notes.]


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Redux : Proud spoofs boring ol' Canadian politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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