Thursday, 31 March 2016

Killers Bonnie & Clyde set to music, dance

From the footlights :  Almost no one born before 1960 cannot remember the '67 sold-out s.r.o. smash movie by Arthur Penn, Bonnie & Clyde. It featured A-list actors Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons. And nosiree Bob, it warn't no consarn goofy musical neither. So that is the kind of challenge facing the theatre company Play on Words' production in the chummy Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive.

What you get is 15 actors participating in countless shoot-em-ups in banks, grocery stores, cops & robbers drawing a bead on one another while onlookers scramble & freeze. Doing so with song-&-dance routines to boot. Marry that action to a coupla sets of outlaw lovers in their 20's who share countless squeezes and a bunch of squabble, too. The question from all this that arises is simple : can such a show possibly inspire 2016 audiences 50 years after Penn's iconic motion picture. Answer : Yes! it can. And does, produced with zing and style by the POW troupe under challenging stage conditions.

How it's all put together : Clyde Barrow (Charlie Deagnon) has just bust out of prison with brother Buck (William Ford Hopkins). They meet Bonnie Parker (Sherry Freeman) along the road sniping over her broken down oil-burner of a car. They fix her ride, she agrees to hustle them into Dallas. And so the tale of USA's most notorious gangster lovers begins.

Script author Ivan Menchell described the pair for Playbill in 2011 : "Clyde had a penchant for mischief even as a young boy. Poverty made him into a criminal, but it was prison that turned him into a killer. As one inmate put it, 'Clyde entered prison a school boy but left a rattlesnake.' Bonnie, on the other hand, was motivated by an almost desperate need for attention and the determination to escape the profound poverty of her life." A waitress from Rowena, TX, Bonnie dreams big, says she wants to be in pictures, be a singer, be a poet. Not all that askew from what her grammar school teacher described as "a beautiful...little girl, she possessed seemingly a desire to do good and build for herself an ideal station in life." But soon she got the hots for life on the run instead, and the headlines, and editors who published her poems and some pix.

Enter composer Frank Wildhorn. He takes Menchell's description and cranks out some show tunes, a couple of rhythm-&-blues charts plus some solid gospel call-&-response sing-alongs whose titles and lyrics (by Don Black) sum up both the script and the sentiment of the story : "How 'Bout A Dance?" "This World Will Remember Us". "You Love Who You Love". "God's Arms Are Always Open". "Too Late To Turn Back Now". "Raise A Little Hell". "Dying' Ain't So Bad".

What the show brings to the stage :  With mild rebuke NYT's critic Ben Brantley four years back termed the play "a modest, mildly tuneful musical biography". In the Hollywood Reporter David Rooney echoed BB : "trite storytelling" whose "characters and their relationship never acquire much depth". "Many individual scenes engage, but overall the show is stubbornly unexciting," Rooney concluded, calling it "a crime spree [that] doesn't describe the drama's absence of vigor."

In part that might have been because they saw the show at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in mid-Manhattan where there's seating for 1,079 butts, just slightly less than ACT's 1,216 seat Stanley Theatre on Granville Street. The Havana house, by contrast, holds 60-some. With entrance aisle, only 40 feet across by just 13-feet deep, roughly 500 square feet in all.

Maybe it's the frisky Play on Words troupe. Or perhaps it's Director Ryan Nunez's co-conspiracy with Choreographer Lyndsey Britten that energizes the cast under Musical Director Marquis Byrd. But POW has put together a production that is anything but! "stubbornly unexciting" or suffering an "absence of vigor". The show has verve and pizazz that small-theatre fans will find engaging, even though the meta-message delivers a cautionary tale for our times.

Redux Arthur Penn. His publicists crafted this catchy ad tagline : "They're young, they're in love, they kill people." Trouble is these days those descriptors apply, in real time, to violent jihadislam-cult killers like the San Bernardino couple or the Canada Day family picnic plotters, those desperate and pathetic wannabe bombers from nearby Surrey still on trial.  In such a world, no question one needs a super-charged suspension of disbelief to watch any kind of theatrical violence whatever, even when it's sugar-coated with "some show tunes, a couple of rhythm-&-blues charts plus some solid gospel call-&-response sing-alongs" on the side.

Production hi-lites of POW's show : No small feat to squeeze 15 actors and a 5-piece live band into 500 square feet in a narrow rectangle for virtually the entire 130 minutes of show. But between them, as noted above, Director Ryan Nunez and Choreographer Lyndsey Britten sussed out their stage, their characters, and the musical script well indeed. They filled the stage spaces with vignette settings where the supporting actors stayed universally in-character doing bits of stage business while the main action occurred centre stage. Nunez had Bonnie and Clyde plop onto the stage deck repeatedly, leaning against one another and nuzzling, to fine effect. 

The costume design by Marci Herron was a cross between Grandma's attic and Sally Ann, pretty well spot-on to depict the times. Jessica Snook's set design was a serviceable mix of scattered opera chairs and brocade furniture and fixings. The Model-A Ford, for its part, was endearingly risible, purposely designed no doubt to be as if on loan from the grandkids' summer backyard show.

Two numbers particularly by choreographer Britten were eye-grabbing pleasures : the "God's Arms Are Always Open" gospel with a weaving arms-to-the-heavens Sunday service ensemble in Act I, and the sarcastic, bitter "Made In America" protest anthem by the troupe to kick off Act II. Very capable and resourceful design well executed by the cast.

Musical Director Marquis Byrd no doubt had a direct hand in selecting the singers of the Wildhorn / Black songs. His choices, to a person, did not disappoint in the least. Smart singing by all.

Acting pin-spots : Leads Freeman and Deagnon as B-&-C of course carried much of the script, and delightfully so. Both held character with loving facial repartee throughout; their visceral spats, hissing atop one another, were crisp & poignant acting. 

In support, brother Buck, William Ford Hopkins opposite Cassady Ranford as wife Blanche were both as compelling as their siblings. Ranford particularly evinced great poise as the conflicted, God-fearing hairdresser wife who found herself dragged into the Barrow Gang only because her love for Buck trumped -- if in today's world that's not now a poisonous verb -- her fear of God's wrath. 

Who gonna like : A young company founded by Capilano U. drama grads, POW is theatre that should be seen by young actors and musicians and stage performers of all variety who want a first-hand look at what imagination and creativity and focus and concentration on detail can accomplish in minimal space with minimal resources and even fewer dollars. The Havana stage is literally, not just figuratively, coffee house theatre. 60 seats! My long legs and big feet in Row 1 almost tripped the actors more than once they were so close as they rambled and danced across the stage. Older folk who know the story of The Poet and The Bandit -- B.C.'s Susan Musgrave and her ex-con bank robber husband Stephen Reid -- will find some lyrical parallels afoot here as well. The future of B.C. professional live theatre is alive and well and growing and prospering. This show is proof!

Particulars : Bonnie & Clyde the Musical.  Composer Frank Wildhorn. Lyrics Don Black. Book by Ivan Menchell. Produced by Play On Words Productions. Presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International. At Havana Theatre in the Havana Restaurant on Commercial Drive across from Brittania Park [my favourite Vancouver street]. Until April 9th. Tickets via Eventbrite as well as at the door on the night of the show ($25 g.a. \ $22 provably students -or- seniors).

Production Team : Producers Sabrielle McCurdy Foreman, Theo Budd, Ryan Nunez. Director Ryan Nunez.  Musical Director Marquis Byrd. Choreographer Lyndsey Britten.  Fight Choreographer Sylvie LaRiviere. Costume Designer Marci Herron. Set Designer Jessica Snook. Props Master/Design CJ McGillvray.  Sound Designer Clare Wyatt. Lighting Designer Andrew Chu. Stage Managers Kaja Jean, Ziggy Shultz. Front of House Coordinator Chloe Rowat. 

Orchestra : Marquis Byrd (Keyboard). Jamison Ko (Percussion). Clarice Scop (Fiddle). Adrian Sowa (Guitar). Joanna Yoo (String & electric bass).

Performers :  Jessie Alvarez (Deputy Hamer / Guard).  Henry Beasley (Ted Hinton / Fight Captain).  Nathan Cottell (Sheriff Schmid).  Charlie Deagnon (Clyde Barrow).  Sabrielle McCurdy Foreman (Preacher / Judge). Sherry Freeman (Bonnie Parker). William Ford Hopkins (Buck Barrow). YooRa Kang (Stella / Shopkeeper). Steven Masson (Henry Barrow / Joe / Bud Russel / Bob Alcorn). Taylor McKee (Young Bonnie Parker / Customer). Cassady Ranford (Blanche Barrow). Chloe Rowat (Cumie Barrow / Governor Ferguson / Front of House). Jason Sakai (Young Clyde Barrow / Archie). Stefanie Stanley (Emma Parker). Annastasia Unger (Trisch / Teller).

Addendum -- Director's Notes [from show program]

It's for the love of a man that I'm gonna have to die.
I don't know when, but I know it can't be long.  - Bonnie Parker

The idea to mount this production of Bonnie and Clyde : The Musical in Vancouver came from a side comment I made while listening to How 'bout a Dance. "We should do this show!" I said. Now, a year or so later we're opening here at the wonderful Havana Theatre. Frank Wildhorn creates such an incredible score and script, telling stories of the real events from the lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. What I love about this show is the fight between what is right, and what is wrong. The hope is that the audience should feel confused on why they are rooting for these cold blooded killers. The cast that we have assembled have brought these historical characters back from the dead and shine a light on a time where America would do anything to be on the front page.

I am completely floored by the talent we have accumulated for this production. From the amazing young cast, to the hardworking crew. Many people in this production are making their debuts; from fighting and sound design, to music direction and direction, I am proud to be a part of a company who offers chances to young people who deserve them. Working with young professionals who are in the same boat as myself has been a rewarding and creative experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

You've read the story of Jesse James, of how he lived and died.
If you're still in need of something to read,
Here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde. - Bonnie Parker

Ryan Nunez, Director

Auditory caution : In the diminutive Havana room it is strictly festival seating.  Thus best to arrive 20 minutes early to secure a perch to the east of centre aisle. The band is downstage right, and sitting too close to these talented and eager players will cause, on occasion, some difficulty hearing the singers' lyrics when they are positioned close to stage left.

Foody recommendation : If you have not had the pleasure of dining at the Havana on their sidewalk deck, do so. A Cuban rice-&-red bean bowl and side salad with avocado vinegarette was scrumptious and only about $12. 


Thursday, 24 March 2016

Onegin is a shimmery sparkling gem of a show!

From the footlights : Albert Einstein surely was seeing Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone in his crystal ball when he said, almost offhandedly : "Creativity is intelligence at play."

Because play the two of them do with snap! originality! & fun galore! in their original musical Onegin (pron. uh-NAY-gen) that had its world premiere last night at the BMO Theatre Centre on 1st Avenue. 

Their script is based on both the original Aleksandr Pushkin novel-in-verse Yevgeny Onegin written in serialized chapters between 1825-1835 and on the 1879 opera anglicized as Eugene Onegin by Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky that Wiki insists is "one of the most commonly performed operas in the world".

The Arts Club media release sums up the Gladstone / Hille script succinctly and with lots of winks : "Life is quiet on the Larin family's Russian country estate -- until the charismatic Evgeni Onegin ignites the romantic longings of its residents. Poet Vladimir Lensky dances with jealousy when Onegin flirts with his fiancee, Olga, and even the reclusive Tatyana Larin finds herself falling for the handsome rogue. But will Onegin embrace real love or simply skim its surface?" 

Spoiler alert : Onegin will only skim it. But getting there is the thrill of this piece. And in doing so the high-talent package who deliver the show's snap! originality! & fun galore! dazzled the crowd into a universal standing-o -- wholly deserved -- at its end.

How it's all put together : Having read translations of dozens of Pushkin's 14-verse stanzas to-day as well as Tchaikovsky's libretto, I can report two conclusions : (1) the Gladstone/Hille script is an honest tracking of their predecessors' works, and (2) it is a whole lot spunkier and silly.

Here's the opening scene from Pushkin : "My uncle, a most worthy gentleman / When he fell seriously ill / By snuffing it made us all respect him... / But, God above, what crushing boredom / To sit with the malingerer night and day... / To amuse the half-dead codger."  

Compare this : Crowd involvement starts before the show as actors and musicians mingle with patrons chatting cheerfully. The opener tells the crowd "We have a love song we sing to you / We beg that you might hear it / We hope to break you open!" Drinks (Potemkin vodka) are passed to the audience to hoist each time the word "love" (pron. lyoo-BEET) is heard. "Dear Father up in Heaven / look down upon us smiling / Let this play be goddamn good / Let this play begin!"

"Look around / Do you see someone / worth dying for?" the troupe sings with peppy irony as Onegin (Alessandro Juliani), drinking out of a flask, circles smugly about dying uncle (Andrew Wheeler) collapsed scruffily in aristocrat threads on a day bed. When uncle finally gasps his last, Onegin drinks to his own health not to uncle's. Evgeni later recalls of that moment : "He looked me in the eye and said / 'When will the devil come for you?'" 

Meeting the Larin family and friends for the first time, everyone's fawning over the newcomer to the valley, calling him a "catch" and drooling "He's fucking gorgeous!" We know we are not in St. Petersburg, Kansas any longer. 

What the show brings to the stage :  In 1984 Tina Turner famously sassed, "What's love got to do with it?" Writers Hille and Gladstone, who's also the show's director, think the answer to that question is "Everything!" as they unpack and repackage the Pushkin / Tchaikovsky originals in their 2-hour piece that is a mix of vaudeville, cabaret, silent movie choreography and circus all at once. Gladstone reveals "We wanted to do something about connection, something romantic. Onegin felt like the perfect piece to adapt for modern audiences because these characters' missed opportunities show us what happens when we don't embrace love when it comes to you."

Vancouver theatre fans will recognize the writers as the original team behind Craigslist Cantata from the 2012 PuSH Festival. At the time Hille identified herself as a composer of "eccentric musicals". Of this script she says "When we started writing Onegin, I was ready to dive into grand romance. This show has let me feel things I haven't felt in ages. Sprawling messy feelings that led to soaring melodies and hot dreams and some pretty fervent singing. We have a fantastic gang of players, and I can't wait to finally unleash these songs." And unleash this company truly does. 

Some necessary plotty details :  As the jilted would-be lover and wannabe future wife, late-teen Tatyana (Meg Roe) is obviously the scriptwriters' favourite character. Bookish, innocent, shy, elder sister of Olga (Lauren Jackson), she writes Onegin a love letter and sings, poignantly, touchingly "Let me die, let me die, as we all must die -- but let me live first!" Onegin, a half-dozen years older, responds with a dull lecture how marriage would be hell on earth for him. Tatyana flees, mortified, crushed, broken.

Closest buddy is a younger romantic poet Vladimir Lensky (Josh Epstein). He's grown up with the Larins and has loved Olga, only 13, since they were kids. Despite Evgeny's obvious rejection of Tatyana's advances, Lensky tricks Onegin back to another party at the Larins with a swack of local folk invited, too. Onegin is miffed. Gets even by dancing every dance with Olga and flirting madly with her. 

Lensky is outraged. Challenges Onegin to a duel. Lensky is shot dead. The characters disperse. When Onegin next sees Tatyana, a half-dozen years hence, she is Princess Gremina, married to a greying ex-soldier. Despite a heaving bosom -- "Like some restless ghost / his passion awakes my eyes" -- she represses her true feelings and shuns him for the prince she has married.

But not before the two of them share a delicious duet, telling one another : "If I wanted to live in love / then you are who I would choose." Which is quite different from Tchaikovsky's version where she sings waspishly "Farewell forever!" and Onegin rushes offstage crying "Ignominy! Anguish! Oh my pitiable fate!"

Production hi-lites : The Gladstone/Hille script is scintillating. Recurring musical themes and solo lines are revisited throughout the show, with the Roe/Juliani duet "Let me die..." at the end a genuine tear-jerker, each of their finest moments of the night no question. Tracey Power (of Chelsea Hotel, Miss Shakespeare and EastVan Panto pedigree) does an exceptional job hurtling these performers around every inch and in every corner of the horseshoe stage as well as out into the audience proper.

Director Gladstone had terrific fun with cast and audience both. When the star-crossed lovers sent letters to one another at the start and close of the story, Gladstone introduced a schtick of asking the front-row audience to pass them along, patron to patron, to each of Evgeny and Tatyana on their upstage left platforms while the actors egged the audience to do it More quickly! please. This was a unique and wholly fun bit to break down traditional arms-length 4th-wall staging.

Set Designer Drew Facey engaged the eye from the start with stacks of Tatyana's books anchored in each corner of the stage and down the sides. His St. Petersburg-y velvet 15-foot high drapes behind the orchestra upstage were rich and symbolic of the times both.

Acting pin-spots : As the ill-fated poet Lensky, Josh Epstein grabs top honours among the men, to this eye & ear, while coincidentally Lauren Jackson as fiancee Olga revealed utter charm and coquettish playfulness throughout, just a delight to watch. Playing the part of birthday entertainer Triquet, Andrew McNee put on a camp-&-vamp performance nonpareil, worth going to see the show a second time for his turn there alone. Like Wheeler, he played many other bit parts throughout the show. Good turns from them as well as from Caitriona Murphy as Ma Larin plus chorus parts.

Musical chops galore : Three instruments have always been my utter favourites. Cello first and foremost. Then oboe. Then piano. Not only did the creators feature the melancholia inherent in the cello to terrific effect, player Marina Hasselberg finessed her instrument wonderfully well. Co-creator and musical director Veda Hille, as always, blows a terrific! piano & keyboards, as they say in jazz, even while her singing and eye-traffic and verbal shout-outs throughout the evening also add to the fun. Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar had both instruments fully at his command. 

Who gonna like : The headline says it all. This is a shimmering, sparkly gem of a show. It is utterly original, cheeky, charming and (like Turner) sassy in its update of the original Pushkin who told his publisher P.A. Pletnyov back in the day he intended his piece to be "half humorous", an objective Tchaikovsky only barely managed in the early scenes of his opera. In the hands of Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, meanwhile, the Onegin story keeps the audience laughing and clapping and cheering and crying throughout even as their ears are tickled with great tunes masterfully arranged. 

If you haven't been to the 1st Avenue ACT venue as yet, this is your last chance for this season. A more charming musical review cast, directed, choreographed, and delivered by the actors would be hard to imagine. Is there anything Veda Hille does that I don't bust my chops praising ? No. There isn't.

Particulars :  By Amiel Gladstone & Veda Hille (based on the verse-novel by Pushkin and the opera by Tchaikovsky). At ACT's new 1st Avenue / Olympic Village stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, 162 West 1st Avenue.  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission.  On until April 10th.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director/Writer Amiel Gladstone.  Musical Director / Writer Veda Hille.  Choreographer Tracey Power.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Costume Designer Jacqueline Firkins. Assistant Costume Designer Nicole Bairstow.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Allison Spearin.  Apprentice Stage Manager Sandra Drag.  Copyist James Coomber.

Performers (music) :  Veda Hille (Piano & keyboards).  Marina Hasselberg (Cello).  Barry Mirochnic (Percussion & guitar).

Performers (actors) : Josh Epstein (Vladimir Lensky).  Lauren Jackson (Olga Larin).  Alessandro Juliani (Evgeni Onegin).  Andrew McNee (Triquet, Zaretsky and others).  Caitriona Murphy (Madame Larin and others).  Meg Roe (Tatyana Larin).  Andrew Wheeler (Prince Gremin and others).


Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Out Vigil is coffee house cabaret charm

From the footlights :  A straightforward story on its face. A young fisherman desperate for money exits fish-lite Newfoundland, initially to tap into Fort Mac's once-rich tar sands future. No luck there : no skills at-hand to market. On a tip he heads to Alaska where he scores a last-minute king crab fishing gig in Dutch Harbor. He is pursued there by the gal who loves him. With Cape Breton / Newfie music fiddling its way throughout, the story tells a tale of love and guilt and nature's power and redemption as seen, timelessly, through the eyes of contemporary 20-somethings, just so the name of their theatre troupe. Promotional materials describe the show thus : "A modern fable steeped in maritime lore, The Out Vigil questions our ability to accept the natural world for all that it is, both beautiful and terrifying." As the hed above declares, this world premiere of TOV is coffee house cabaret charm writ large in a chummy room made for its intimacies.

How it's all put together :  Vigil. Wiki denotes its purpose : "a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching". Thus the word carries with it not only heavy portent but churchly epithets as well. Meanwhile "out" in this case has nothing to do with gender politics -- rather with fishboats departing safe shores. The original vigil in the piece was brought in two senses by Danny MacEachern (Matthew MacDonald-Bain). He lost his best buddy Ian Brown in a rogue wave storm mishap out there fishing for the elusive cod, or maybe just to catch the colourful sunrises. Poised to commence a full-ride hockey scholarship at a Boston college, Danny's rising hockey stardom crashes thunderously when he obliterates his knee desperately trying to save Ian who's swept away by that ugly unforeseen wave. 

Two vigils here : one for the loss of the charming lad Ian and the second Danny's 6-week hospital purgatory after knee surgery. Since grammar school he's been a teasing tormenting chum of Ian's young sister Lizzy (Stephanie Izsak). The two of them discover the spark of love during their ongoing fevered exchanges as she tries to make sense of her darling brother's death -- mostly stuck in denial -- while bosom buddy Danny tries his best, innocently, to comfort and console her but also convince her there's no hope whatever that Ian might, miraculously, have somehow survived. Emotionally piqued, both of them, not surprising that they connect intimately.

Later, when Danny abruptly flees Little Harbour, NL because there's no work on the horizon, she pursues him across the country where the rest of the show's next vigil plays out. This one starts when Captain Cal (Zac Scott) somewhat spontaneously and precipitously takes Danny on as fifth crewman on his crab boat. Last vigil now involves watching it disappear over the ever-dangerous horizon for a month or more in the frigid Bering Sea.

Through flashbacks and shanties, roving chronicleers Christina Cuglietta (violin) and Alison Jenkins (accordion, tin whistle, vocals) employ their musical warp-&-woof cleverly to weave the saga of hope and doubt and shame and fear that often attends to la belle passion.

What the show brings to the stage :  Old enough to be these actors' grandfather, I confess to the thrills and chills that coursed my spine watching these talented performers tell their Millennial tale of the trials their generation's characters face. 

Written by Julie McIsaac, the show has been workshop'd and fiddled with, lit.-&-fig., for two years under the direction of Twenty Something Theatre artistic producer Sabrina Evertt. It's described as "poetic naturalism" : the audience is treated to a purposeful collapse of the usual fourth wall, starting with the five performers doing an Irish folk jam session in the lobby pre-show. 

Every culture has folklore and traditions and myths that drive them. They might be deist such as the Abrahamic traditions describe or possibly pantheistic -- a God who is immanent and lives in all things. In TOV reference is made to a "She" who governs the sea, who can be evil (Ian's death) or good (successful harvest). Jews, for example, have a "vigil tradition" called kaddish that requires family to sit and pray for 365 days(!) after the death of a loved one. 

In TOV the belief or superstition or trepid trembling the folks share from down the ages is the prospect of She doing fishers harm. To ward off She exercising her yang rather than her yin while they traverse the seas, a candle must be lit and a Gaelic song of invocation for safe travel be sung. 

In her notes Director Evertt conjures just such a Gaelic song as this (that Google suggests to me is roughly my English translation on the right):

A Mhathair shiorai                    O Mother everlasting
Deonaigh cosan                          Grant us a path
Slan sabhailte do                        That we may be safe.

To amplify the point, Evertt notes in the program as well : "Home can be a place on a map. It can also be a person. Or, the feeling you have when your work has purpose. Home can be many things, to many people, but one thing we all share is the feeling of being in harmony with our surroundings."

Acting pin-spots : Stephanie Iszak as Lizzie positively Wow'd! this reviewer. She is pure and simple spitfire antic words and actionWith a nice sustained NL vocal "d"-nuance throughout (e.g. mudder for mother), she rips off her fears at the prospect of losing Danny on Cal's boat given this is Cal's maiden voyage as skipper (Dad got drunk and drowned, at the dock, in three feet of water a year earlier). "It's good being scared," she spits at Danny, "it keeps you from being stupid." Iszak is clearly a rising star, a brightly lit rising star on the Vancouver horizon. (I look forward eagerly to her one-woman musical Swan Song that will premiere as part of the SHIFT festival late May at Firehall.)

As her lover Danny, Matthew MacDonald-Bain obviously derived energy and verve from Iszak trying to keep up with her snappy-&-zippy pace. He talked over her, she over him, but he shone particularly in revealing his character's empathy. Of the shipping-out vigil that once was missed by Lizzy and she grieves over, he says : "They've done it [the out vigil] forever, and missing it once she thinks she's gone and messed up the whole order of things." Utterly engaging and exuberant chops on the acoustic guitar by McD-B throughout. 

Production values that shine : Julie McIsaac has an unflinching and intuitive, incomparable ear for her original Irish and Cape Breton and Newfunlan's tunes & cadences & rhythms & harmonies & textures : they are a marvel and complete joy to listen to. I'm an uneducated but vigorous fan of virtually all ethnic beats. So just a big Yowsa! for her work and integrity here.

As Set & Lighting Designer, Ian Schimpf puts together a completely engaging stage presence from the tiered shipside pallets to the representative NL window-frames behind gauze to all the fishing accoutrements. (I confess I found the hazer smoke a bit dense for the tear ducts, though its visual effect smogging the scene, even into the lobby, worked well.)

Who gonna like : Cabaret theatre junkies. Fans of new talent who energize and compel. Irish-style music aficionados who like it best when it's live and right-in-your-face. TOV is smart. Lively. Original. Crisp. Engaging. Loving. Laughing. Kudos to each and every creator, producer and performer for a show that probes how our myths and beliefs are so easily overwhelmed by Ma Nature at a snap of Her fingers. And why, therefore, our compensating myths and beliefs are so important to us.

Particulars : The Out Vigil.  Written by Julie McIsaac.  Produced by Firehall Arts Centre in association with Twenty Something Theatre. At 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until March 26, 2016. Box Office 604.689.0926 for nightly & matinee performances.

Production Team :  Director Sabrina Evertt.  Dramaturge Peter Boychuk. Producer Donna Spencer (Artistic Producer Firehall Theatre).  Music Director / Original Composition & Arrangements  Julie McIsaac.  Set & Lighting Designer Ian Schimpf.  Costume Designer & Props Sabrina Evertt.   Associate Costume Designer & Props Kaitlin Williams Gordon.  Sound Designers Jason Clift & Julie McIsaac.  Stage Manager Melanie Thompson.  Volunteers [final chorus &c.] Heather Blais. Sara Andrina Brown. Cindy Fedora. Rose Jakobs. Carly Le. Lisa Penz. Jan Tse. Nevada Yates Robart. Taninli Wright.  

Performers :  Stephanie Iszak (Lizzie).  Matthew MacDonald-Bain (Danny).  Zac Scott (Cal).  Christina Cuglietta (violin).  Alison Jenkins (accordian, tin whistle, soprano). 

Addendum : One (recurring...) kvetch : I have remarked on this previously, and I must do so again. And btw I fault the directors of shows in this more than the actors, who after all follow their lead. 

There is no need whatever to overemphasize swear words, particularly the eff-word. To do so is orally-&-aurally quite off-key.   

E.g. describing his dad's demise, Cal (Zac Scott) states it this way : "He drowns in three feet of fukken water." The danger of deep-sea excursions for king crab and the hearsay reports of two men lost-at-sea per week in Alaska comes out as "It's just a fukken numbers game." Same emphasis throughout all his cursing jags in the show.

No, madame director, with respect. As a 6-decade profanity champ, I say this is how I learned it proper on the Grade 6 playground back in the 50's. 

Think of the quizzicality and and befuddlement in the reaction to his dad's death -- quite stupefied as to its ridiculousness. Intuitively it would be articulated thus : "He drowns in three feet of fukken water...?!!"  Same with the ongoing debate about the number of fishing season deaths by drowning in the Bering Sea. Surely, trying to minimize the dangers, the comeback pops out as irritable frustration : "Oh, c'mon, it's just a fukken numbers game.

In short : deaden \ soften \ make more flatly-conversational the modifying F-word. Hit the subsequent adjective or noun after the cussword to bring out the poignancy that drives these lines.

But, alas, after four years doing BLR I've concluded my perpetual nattering over this common & communal cuss-word fault on Vancouver stages just falls into dead air space. Directors in this town -- and their actors-who-should-know-better -- seem to have a tin ear when it comes to cussing and its oral \ aural nuances. So it goes.

Still, hope springs eternal : perhaps Ms. Evertt can effect some remedial in-service here for future shows if practically speaking it might be too late for this one. 


Saturday, 12 March 2016

The List rhymes off our frailties poignantly

From the footlights : "I didn't lay a finger on her. / I didn't hire anyone / To sneak in and murder her. And yet it's as if / I killed her."

As if. Those two short words pack considerable wallop in life. But to "as if" oneself to surrogate murderer is some step indeed. Still, the concept of guilt is powerful. Probably for us all.

The premise of The List is rather simple. A 30-something woman, curiously un-named, is beyond neat-freak. She is obsessive-compulsive. (For convenience, I shall name the anonymous housewife "O.C.")

An escapee from the noise and lights and frantic activity of big city -- Montreal one assumes -- O.C. has compelled hubby and sons to relocate to a rural village in Quebec. A long commute back to the city for him, not fit company when he drags himself home. She grinds inside. Misery still stalks her, just differently. So she orders her life around her daily tasks. And makes lists.

She makes so many lists they are not only the centrepiece of her life, the writing & reciting & repeating of them become the actual purpose of her life, it seems, instead of the activities and tasks the lists refer to.

Fundamentally agoraphobic, O.C. ventures out seldom. She calls the village women "nosy bitches" and curses the drab field outside her window instead of welcoming each season's colours and smells. No. The tree in centre field instead seems to suck the air from her lungs, she complains, not induce seasonal joy at its changing.

Forced by her family, she reluctantly goes to the annual village picnic. There she meets plucky & free-spirited Caroline, a hippyish earthy messy artsy sticky mother of four and soon expecting #5. They befriend. Caroline asks her a favour : I'm anxious about our village Dr.  He's old, clumsy. An asshole, she says, apologizing for the cuss-word. What is your doctor's phone number back in Big City?  O.C. makes a note of it. Then omits to actually do that task over the next 7-8 months.

When Caroline dies from an embolism -- the end result of a pricked artery during her C-section -- O.C. obsesses that her failure to carry out this one simple task for Caroline makes her not just a grieving neighbour, but possibly complicit in Caroline's death. Worse. She is blameworthy. At fault. Directly responsible.

How it's all put together : A one-woman show, it's obviously a monologue. Is O.C. talking to herself? Talking to her dead friend Caroline? Talking to the audience? Talking to God? Yes.

And talking, always, through her memory of the countless lists she made hour-by-hour, day-after-day. Reminders of birthday parties to attend, pay the credit card bill, get insurance renewed -- the myriad domestic chores that tot up her day.

In the Afterword to the published script, playwright Jennifer Tremblay (no relation to Quebec favourite son Michel) writes: "The List is to my mind a long, unending question, although one that is never explicitly formulated : 'In your opinion, ladies and gentlemen, am I culpable in my neighbour's death?'"

The challenge for Tremblay in this 2008 Governor General's Literature Award play is for O.C. not to be written off as a neurotic self-pitier. Is she having a genuine dark night of the soul, a true existential crisis? Or is she simply neurasthenic, her brain & heart a stifled and sorry mess from some sort of self-designed and self-fulfilling character fault?

Mamet meets Munro : The List is a bit of a throwback piece. Translated into English by Shelley Tepperman, the script sounds at times like Alice Munro as filtered through David Mamet : gritty core women's pain and guilt spit out through rapid-fire, repetitious-ever-repetitious short bursts.

"Let me find her number, it must be here somewhere, I'll find it for you, find the doctor's number!" she assures Caroline, making a new list item.  "I can't shirk these responsibilities, I must succumb to them. But one's mood affects the lists. Still, I love to be precise with lists, be rigorous with lists. I copy lists from one to another over time. I have 'floating lists' like Paint the fence! Sew on buttons! Phone 4-1-1 for the doctor's number! I have treated this as a 'floating list' kind of task. Find the doctor's number!"

When Caroline brings her baked truffles at Christmas, she pleads : "I want that number, I want that number, please!" Indeed, Munro meets Mamet.

Fast-forward to our own iPhone universe. Compulsive txtng. Instagram. FB. Twitter. Distracted preoccupied virtual thoughts and flip throwaways. In lists. In electronic quickly-forgotten catalogues of separation from true, real, face-to-face connectivity. "I feel good at your place!" the robust and rosy and mother-earthy Caroline tells her.  Mentally O.C. adds this note to her list.

Thematic punch brought out on stage : As directed by Jack Paterson, this 55-minute show works exceedingly well. With one wee but notable exception : a rhetorically ad nauseam and extraneous digression enumerating each plot detail of a cinema melodrama O.C. and Caroline went to see. The point of all this needed but one line, not 4-5 minutes of on-&-on-&-on. But Paterson is to be congratulated that the pace of the Gateway production is some 20 minutes shorter, apparently, than other productions previously performed back east. I recommend Ms.Tremblay / Ms. Tepperman edit this section considerably to maintain the emotional flow of the script. 

Aside from that, the show impacts viscerally. The funeral description scene of the kids lying atop Mommy in the open casket kissing and hugging her and saying "'Bye, Mommy!"  had me wet with tears. 

Many of us live in our heads. In thoughts and words, not up close and personal in deeds. France Perras is quiet, forceful, embracing and compelling. Truth and love flow from her richly in the end. Her arriving to insight comes to her almost as a surprise but, ultimately, with new-found warmth as she drives home to the heart what genuine means. She executes this transformation with grace and subtlety. But most importantly, with believability.

How preoccupied we get. How life is a blitzkrieg of trivial pursuits for us, not a fleshy full-on face-to-face grab of the moment and the people in our orbit. Rather more often a lot of abstractions strung out sequentially.

Production values galore : Perras's flip-about of the white fibreglass / chrome kitchen chair and her pirouettes around it draw us into the poignance and pathos of her life's plight. "Why am I hung up on life's 'forms' rather than its 'content'?" she seems to be asking herself. 

Lighting / Set Designer John Webber presents an intriguing set of strung-down family staples : bits of Lego, a rubber boot, father's shoes, a colouring book, kitchen stuff, envelopes with opaque address windows. A deft hand on the follow-spot rheostat as well. 

Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler mixed some wonderful children's playground joy! with moody electro-zounds at just the right timing throughout.

Who gonna like : Self-reflective people who enjoy the occasional self-jab of guilt how their lives seem spinny and zany and too reactive rather than either engaged or responsive will love this hour's reflection on all those themes. France Perras is nuanced and subtle and poised and pained as she struggles with her guilt, anger and hurt at her friend Caroline's untimely and likely preventable death. This is tender touching theatre.

Particulars : The List produced by Ruby Slippers Production in association with BoucheWHACKED! Theatre Collective. Written by Jennifer Tremblay. Translated by Shelley Tepperman. At Gateway Theatre, Studio B. Until March 19. Schedules & ticket information at or by phoning 604.270.1812.

Production crew : Director Jack Paterson.  Lighting/Set Designer John Webber.  Costume Designer Drew Facey.  Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler.  Technical Director Mark Eugster.  Stage Manager Lois Dawson.

Performer : France Perras.


Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Gay Heritage finds laughs, history, no "home"

Quicky version

No question. It is trite to observe how "gay" has morphed from its earlier meanings "carefree", "happy", "bright & showy". The fin d'siecle era Gay Nineties or Jacques Offenbach's 1941 lite opera Gaite Parisienne are a far cry from today's idiom. Today "gay" points to a rainbow of lifestyles that are alternatives to more traditional ones known by the antiseptic clinical research term "cisgender", i.e. people who are comfortable with the traditional sexual roles and orientation in the male or female bodies they were born with.

A 3-hander written and performed by Toronto thespians Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir, TGHP tells of these gay men's individual life experiences through song, choreography and clever deconstruction in a cabaret format of bizzy buzzy ditz and soap and some sad snaps, too.

Meaning. Belonging. Community. "Heritage". These are age-old quests for people throughout world history. In this play the question zeroes in on what one's sexual identity might be, and is there any continuity or legacy across time for those who are decidedly not "cisgender"?

That TGHP as conceived and performed by three 30-something white gay men of privilege manages to open our eyes and ears and minds through hilarious and poignant sad song and story to even a soupçon of recent gay history -- a history in search of a white male gay heritage -- is a tribute to the show's collective courage, brilliance and charm.

Wordy version

From the footlights : No question. It is trite to observe how "gay" has morphed from its earlier meanings "carefree", "happy", "bright & showy". The fin d'siecle era Gay Nineties or Jacques Offenbach's 1941 lite opera Gaite Parisienne are a far cry from today's idiom. Today "gay" points to a rainbow of lifestyles that are alternatives to more traditional ones known by the antiseptic clinical research term "cisgender", i.e. people who are comfortable with the traditional sexual roles and orientation in the male or female bodies they were born with.

Indeed, I chanced upon the York University 2015 Pride Week website invitation to-day. It demonstrates how difficult a challenge it is to capture non-traditional personal identity in a tiny 3-letter word : for its celebration, York U. reached out its hands to those who identify as being "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited and pansexual". Missing only an invite for those who present as "asexual". Regardless, the alpha version now most common to embrace all these options is LGBTQ2S+.

Thus that TGHP as conceived and performed by three 30-something white gay men of privilege manages to open our eyes and ears and minds through hilarious and poignant sad song and story to even a soupçon of recent gay history -- a history in search of a white male gay heritage -- is a tribute to the show's collective courage, brilliance and charm.

How it's all put together : A 3-hander written and performed by Toronto thespians Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir, TGHP tells of these gay men's individual life experiences through song, choreography and clever deconstruction in a cabaret format of bizzy buzzy ditz and soap and some sad snaps, too. 

Imagine a re-do of The Wizard of Oz in 90 seconds (by Atkins alone) that finds the Kansas entourage in search of an elusive gay heritage that binds each of them inexorably as a community. Toto included. The Wiz tells them their hunt is futile : their collective gay-ness is a recent phenomenon, he says, not an historical imperative or even a cultural diaspora they can claim as their soul's home. Aghast, they challenge : "Meaning this historical existential loneliness is not a 'heritage' but something you choose ?"

Growing up as Millenials in the first post-AIDS gay generation, the three undertake to give the audience meaningful snippets from queer history. From the commonness of ancient Greek and Roman homosexual assignations; followed by Christian violence and torture of "sodomites"; to Ralph Klein's Alberta where Atkins and Dunn were fetched up and where Kushnir, later, took his theatre training -- all of this is but a short toss of the ball of history.

What the show brings to the stage : Meaning. Belonging. Community. "Heritage". These are age-old quests for people throughout world history. In this play the question zeroes in on what one's sexual identity might be, and is there any continuity or legacy across time for those who are decidedly not "cisgender"?  What Canadians can be found to champion the cause? 

A great bit of stuff, Atkins leads off with a chummy pre-teen version of skater Brian Orser's 1988 Olympic long show in the family living room, to which his sister, knowingly, responds : "Again...?!

Kushnir goes on a thorough but fruitless search for gay Ukrainians, his family's roots. Notta nibble on google, even of the concept of a gay Ukrainian. Only on a trans-Ukraine train trip does Kushnir encounter a couple fellow travellers. They have sorry tales to tell. 

Throughout the show Dunn is the prime researcher. To him falls the task to tell the grim, tortuous history of homosexual death-camp prisoners in Nazi Europe. 

The playwrights also personify and anthropomorphise concepts to examine gay life. HIV is on trial against humanity. Atkins reveals in a theatrical victim-impact statement that being a gay Millennial means his generation is made up of a "community of ghosts", not unlike postwar Europe where millions of kids'  dads had perished. 

Then there's Gay Identity. To become acceptable in straight society, did G.I. suppress the grittier sides of the earlier in-the-closet lifestyles of Gay Desire along with his tag-along buddies Drag and Camp* [*Factoid : the word "camp" is said to be from the original police blotter acronym "kamp", for "known as male prostitute"].

As a self-conscious but honest nod to the other sexual variants York U. identified in addition to gay, the show brings forward dramatic complaints in the completely compelling Gay Bus scene. The disabled gay woman, the transgendered former man, the macho lesbian all reveal their disgust how white gay males are too exclusive, too mainstream, not marginalized enough to speak their truths. These other folks with their even-more distinct personal and unique identity needs can't, won't, refuse to be "represented" by the likes of the TGHP troupe. 

In the world of queer, in other words, college-educated professional white gay male actors from Alberta are decidedly "1st world" in the geography of pain, exclusion, angst, discrimination, and alienation these others suffer so much worse. E.g. Try a google search on the twin concepts of "transgender+feminism". It will produce a catalogue of angry, often cataclysmic conference on whether the two words can even be uttered together in a single breath with moral honesty. 

Production values that shine : This show is painfully rich in theatrics and themes. "To further our claims of legitimacy!" is the spoken and underlying leitmotif

The primary drama is a spare set using a dozen or more oak spindle-back chairs. These are hustled to-&-fro, up-&-down, back-&-forth across the set. The actors plop in the chairs and do spin-about 90-degree flips left-to-right and back again as they switch from one character's voice to another. These are snatches of dialogue with others from their personal biography or maybe point out in rapid-fire staccato voce some historical note of pertinence.

The songs and medleys arranged by Mr. Kushnir are invariably clever, tight, tuneful and wonderfully harmonized, mostly cappella. The troupe's best outing was a roll call of gay causes and related tunes over the years in a montage including bits re: Act Up; Fight Back, Fight AIDS; "Seasons of Love" (from Rent), even Mylie Cyrus's current shrill offering "Wrecking Ball".

To claim one performer superior to another would be unfair. Each of Messrs. Atkins, Dunn and Kushnir have a season in the sun where they shine. While Atkins perhaps is the most versatile with his catalogue of voice and accent changes, Kushnir's dramatic songsmithing and emotive diary sequences grabbed even more. But Dunn's concluding Irish lament found many a tear right before the final thunderous applause at show's end.

What doesn't work so well : Even though the TGHP troupe openly admits it, fact is the voice of women is notably absent here but for the exceptional Gay Bus scene. And to this viewer at least, the sequencing of the final three pieces was in that respect quite askew. Because it is precisely in the Gay Bus tabloid that the ultimate truth of the show is revealed. 

Fact is there is no one voice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited, pansexual and/or asexual folk. To follow the completely poignant Gay Bus scene with joshing about a Sissy Liberation Front and the silly (though clever) Panty Rovers routines detracted, I thought, from the show's true thematic punch.

And particularly so because there is no one voice, never mind "heritage", for women -vs- non-women. Women, as The Vagina Monologues so clearly demonstrated, have issues all unto themselves that no white male gay could ever fully appreciate or approximate, only approach obliquely and delicately through their heart's access to empathy. 

Still, this is quibble, not condemnation. The show is astounding. Long hesitant on the subject, I now, truly, understand the concept of "either visible, or destroyed". I will never look at a Pride Parade with quite the same jaundiced eyes as I perhaps have in the past. Before last night those eyes squinted toward a view that echoed Trudeau pere : if the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, why should the bedrooms of some in the nation warrant an annual parade? Okay. Now I get it.

Who gonna like : No question gay white Millennial men will relate to this quite astonishing show. But who should be lining up to see it are all those queasy unsettled folk in the land for whom sexual variances are an uneasy subject to deal with. Because TGHP softens one's grip on bias, dogma, disbelief or disrespect. Through exceptionally clever stage action directed by Ashlie Corcoran, even the most hardened resister of the sizeable non-cisgender universe can enjoy, appreciate, and learn empathy from this clever zippy performance. As stated above : "Meaning. Belonging. Community. 'Heritage'. These are age-old quests for people throughout world history." Sexual preference or identity issues will never change this basic fact. All of us need a huddle of folks we can hug. 

Particulars : Presented by The Cultch as Produced by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre [Toronto]. At The Cultch Historic Theatre, through March 19th. Run-time 105 minutes, no intermission. Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning the box office after 12:00 noon @ 604.251.1363.

Production Crew : Created by Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn, & Andrew Kushnir.  Directed by Ashlie Corcoran.  Set & Lighting Design by Kimberly Purcell.  Video design by Cameron Davis.  Sound Design by Thomas Ryder Payne.  Dramaturge & Gay History Research by J. Paul Halferty.  Choral Medley & Arrangements by Andrew Kushnir.  Choreography by The Ghp Collective.  Stage Management by Kristopher Weber.

Performers :  Damien Atkins. Paul Dunn. Andrew Kushnir.

Addendum #1 : Last New Year's Eve reporter Chris Dupuis of the Daily Xtra newspaper interviewed the three principals of TGHP. Excerpts, with Thanks! to Mr. Dupuis and Daily Xtra, as follows :

CD : Since the last presentation (2013), huge changes have occurred in queer life around the world. How have these social-cultural shifts shaped the piece?

Atkins : There are lots of changes to individual scenes, but the overall super-structure remains the same... In terms of specifics, the trans movement has really exploded in a public way since the last run, so we've examined how to include that. Obviously it's been around for a long time, but it's become much more a part of the pop culture consciousness, so we want to reflect and celebrate that.

Kushnir : Many of the questions we've been turning over are of the irreconcilable variety, and are just as lively now as they were before. What does it mean to belong? Where do we come from ? Who may be the heroes and adversaries that define us? What history can we lay claim to? We've [TGHP creators] always conceived of heritage as a verb, rather than a noun, a personal and communal practice, as opposed to something we figure out and present. It's an act of collective imagination and everyone's invited to the table. 

CD When the show had its premiere, there were some rumblings within certain parts of the queer community about the problem of three gay white men creating a comprehensive account of queer history. What are your feelings about this ?

Atkins : I always think it's amusing, perplexing and a bit irritating when people have opinions about a piece before they've seen it. We've really tried to walk a fine line in terms of speaking for ourselves but not speaking exclusively of ourselves. The problem with a project like this is that if you only speak about your [own] experience you're accused of flaunting your privilege, and if you speak inclusively you're accused of appropriation of voice. So you're caught in a kind of impossible situation... What we did with the play is really look at that question head on, while acknowledging we're only a tiny segment of that spectrum.

The show's an invitation, not a kind of lecture. And the invitation is to investigate your own heritage... We've tried to make it as inclusive and invitational and pleasurable as possible, so that even if it's not your heritage being examined, you might find links here and there, and hopefully have a really good time in the process. 

Addendum #2 : From Wikipedia, this squib on The Vagina Monologues that puts in clear perspective how TGHP can't help but be exclusionary despite its best intentions:

The Vagina Monologues is made up of a varying number of monologues read by a varying number of women (initially, Eve Ensler performed every monologue herself, with subsequent performances featuring three actresses, and more recent versions featuring a different actress for every role). Each of the monologues deals with an aspect of the feminine experience, touching on matters such as sexloverapemenstruationfemale genital mutilationmasturbationbirthorgasm, the various common names for the vagina, or simply as a physical aspect of the body. A recurring theme throughout the piece is the vagina as a tool of female empowerment, and the ultimate embodiment of individuality.