Thursday, 29 September 2016

Stranger to Hard Work is idiosyncratic Newfiness
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  At just 18 years of age, Cathy Jones joined up with comedian Tommy Sexton and fellow Newfoundlander 21-year-old Mary Walsh plus a couple others to form the comic crew Cod Company a.k.a. Codco that showcased their silliness sporadically over the next decade. Until their self-deprecating Newfie humour and sociopolitical satire were scooped up by CBC t.v. to toggle opposite Kids In The Hall from 1987-1992. Jones and Walsh played sketchy characters such as the "Friday Night Girls" whose lives of tedium and aimless bus rides were positively Pinteresque in banality and nonsense. From there she helped found This Hour Has 22 Minutes with Walsh, Rick Mercer and Greg Thomey. Stranger To Hard Work is Jones' third one-woman show of self-exposing comedy she is famous for N. of 49. Fresh into her 7th decade of life, Jones relies on whimsy & post-menopausal pottymouth to drive her script. 

WYSIWYG : Caricature. Embroidery. Hyperbole. Autobio-stuff limned with truthiness aimed at the audience's shits-&-giggles zone. Still, despite 40 years howling week-after-week as she and her comedy mates riffed on life, Jones admitted to CBC a year back she suffers "wobbly confidence" sometimes. So at 60 she decided put on stage a kind of self-help "book" particularly designed for the CPP/OAS crowd : "I think, like the Buddhists, there's a middle ground. And I think the human realm is about the middle ground. It's about there not being so much suffering that you can't take the time to work on yourself and that things not being so great that you also don't care about working on yourself," she told interviewer Natalie Dobbin.

What Jones's schtick brings to the stage :  Cathy Jones is famous for comic sketches. Multiple characters mimicking their accents & idle banter is a staple in such shows. For Jones, it's nostalgia for Newfoundland and its generous but at times in-your-face local folk. Blunt jokes about her aging, slightly bulgy body that still dreams juicily of getting it on again after years as a single : anyone 30-something to 90-something will do, thanks, even "a 54-year-old who's had his first heart attack." The existential angst and quirky loneliness that come from being, she claims, a punctual procrastinator and social misfit. These are myriad mirror-moments for ticket buyers who on opening night were primarily Jones' vintage or, like me, a decade or more well past that. Reminiscent of the quip "The older I get the better I was."

Snippets & snatches : The book she imagines writing would be titled "Get Help! You Sick Fuck", but she quickly reassures the audience : "It's not for you, it's for the person who came with you!" Her cadence, clearly her own, nevertheless reminded me of singer Jann Arden when doing comic bits a la her Live With The VSO show. Funnin'. About herself and all the sillies she meets. The massage lady who instead of providing breathtaking news "like Donald Trump died last night or we're going to save the boreal forest", no, "apparently her husband has difficulty trying to buy shoes...".  

Lamenting the decade's corner-turn, she refers to "60 years old, what I call The Nobody Wants You To Sit On Their Face Anymore years old", which brought down the house. Followed by a priceless crotch-slam at her ex- : "He thought sex was like doing the dishes : if you did it bad enough you wouldn't be asked to do it again." Jibes at snootish married Newfie friends who feel they need Conde Naste-style h'ors d'ouvres at house parties instead of basic earthy garden veggies. Too-familiar St. John's Tim Horton's staff selling her Roll Up The Rim coffees who demand to share her winnings. The upset gramma heard shouting at her grandson : "Nan loves you, honey, nan fukken loves you!" 

Best-for-last was when she donned her trademark Miss Enid octogenarian outfit -- a character from THH22M played opposite Mary Walsh's equally hilarious Miss Eulalia. A terrific go at the St. Jude's Nursing Home she finds herself in follows. Still -- always -- horny, she drools over Brendan the male nurse who gets her cockles tittled : "Oh my god he brought tears to my eyes : if eyes could only cum oh. my. god...!"

Who gonna like : Clearly no stranger to hard work, Cathy Jones doing a string of stand-up squibs is true codfish and maple syrup and a double-shot of rye whisky all at once. Her comic wit is quintessential Canadiana across its 75 minutes that brings to mind not only the CodcoTHH22M shows but is redolent of other downhome chummy English Canada variety gigs the country has loved from decades past like good ol' Don Messer's Jubilee. This is a Hudson's Bay blanket wrapped around a wet Newfie dog in front of a cackling fire. Not always even or 100% consistent in pace or content, Stranger To Hard Work is nevertheless a zingy tongue-in-cheek stand-up love song about growing older-ish in Canada. Jones fans will cheer gustily during the inevitable teary sentimental standing-o they give her.

Particulars :  At Firehall Arts Centre (Cordova @ Gore, DTES).  From September 28 - October 8.  Schedules & reservations via by phoning Firehall Box Office @ 604.689.0926 during normal business hours or through their website

Production crew :  Written and performed by Cathy Jones. Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr. Stage Manager Jenny Kim. Young Man David Lees. 


Sunday, 18 September 2016

Baskerville is big theatrics, Sherlock as slapstick
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  A diabolical spectral hound from Devon named Yeth is reportedly the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's serialized novel The Hound of the Baskervilles published in 1902 that ranks as his most popular Sherlock Holmes / Dr. John Watson story ever.

In the hands of Ken Ludwig, this adaptation of Doyle's thriller is less dramatic detective mystery and more Monty Python meets Laugh-In. Sight gags abound as three actors rhyme off some 40 characters, often by doffing costumes on stage or just switching hats. Nudge-nudge-wink-winks at the audience also reveal Ludwig's stated intent that "Baskerville is about the theatre as much as it is about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson." Much more about theatre in the hands of Director John Murphy than about the two leads, and mostly for the better.

Quicky recap of the plot : Sir Charles Baskerville has died at his country estate,  ostensibly of a heart attack. But the death mask look of fear on his face betrays a horrid end. Nearby are outsize paw prints that suggest he was literally scared to death. A nefarious plot against the family perhaps in the making here?  The imminent arrival of surviving son from Texas, Sir Henry, lends urgency to the whodunit. Only the deductive reasoning of Holmes bounced fitfully off his foil Watson will shed some light on the dark recesses of whosever heart is behind it all. 

How it's all put together :  Ken Ludwig wants contemporary audiences to have fun with the at-time dullish, pedantic and o.c. mind of Sherlock Holmes. But remain true to the storyline, too, because, Holmes observes, "there is a feverish quality to this unlikely story that intrigues me".

When Sir Henry and Watson arrive at the Devonshire moors that is home to the dark and musty Baskerville estate, Sir Henry (Kirk Smith) tells Watson (Mark Weatherley) "Talk about gloomy : this place reminds me of my mother's funeral, without the liquor" -- just one of a passle of contemporary send-up lines that would not have been possible out of Sir Arthur's inkwell back in 1902.

In typical Doyle fashion, meanwhile, clues are dropped that point inevitably and inexorably at who the villain might be. But it is the stage tricksterisms that carry this piece and, ultimately, make it work despite some too-long monologues by Watson -- sluggish plot-explainers -- particularly in Act 1.

What the show brings to the stage :  Lots of comic diction drives this production. The housekeepers, Inge Barrymore (Lauren Bowler) and her husband (Mike Wasko) are Germans. Their fractured English -- brother Victor becomes "Wiktor" who is an escaped "conwict" -- is a clever sound-gag reversal of the German tongue where w's are pronounced 'v'. Old vaudeville routines are common throughout -- "Stop calling me 'Sir'!" Holmes (Alex Zahara) bellows at two couriers : of course they reply, instantly and in unison "Yes, sir!" Cheap laughs but still gigglers. 

Neighbour Jack Stapleton (Wasko) and "sister" Beryl (Bowler) provide some of the best comic moments. In his Tilly Endurables get-up replete with pith helmet, Jack chases obscure and elusive Disneyesque butterflies around the stage and into the audience. Beryl flips over Sir Henry with his Texas twang, and, typical Murphy, some body part "up-staging" is the customary result. 

Sir Henry wants to be down-homey. No more "Sir" for him, and Dr. Watson becomes "John-boy". They do fist pumps. You get the drift. 

Production values that hi-lite the action : The set (by ACT's 38-year vet Ted Roberts) features numerous screens that are functionally and collectively the sixth actor on the stage. Designer Candelario Andrade projects the likes of a London hotel, Paddington Station and the Baskerville moors imaginatively and ingeniously onto these screens, along with numerous shadow puppet sequences. Scenery wagons are propelled and flipped almost whimsically by both the actors and production crew to fun effect.

Costume designer Mara Gottler has an unflinching eye for period piece clothing for each character. But it is their spitfire changes from one character to another by the Bowler / Smith / Wasko trio that make the costumes a central part of the madcap silliness staged here.

Acting pin-spots : To this reviewer's eye it is without a doubt the Lauren Bowler / Mike Wasko team that triggers most of the acting fun, sport & amusement across the night. They riff off each other as both the Barrymores and the Stapletons plus other assorted comic characters moment after moment after moment. Never any let up or let down from them. 

If the plot's chronicler and narrator Dr. Watson was allowed by writer Ludwig to drone on a bit too long, Mr. Zahara's Holmes was betimes beset by incidental and momentary rage attacks I found a bit distracting. A pompous and self-righteous Sherlock needn't act shrill or supercilious, just be mildly disdainful of inferiours.  In all, however, the five actors and six backstage movers-&-shakers of the scenery and props acquitted themselves admirably under Mr. Murphy's direction. 

Who gonna like : Some folks love whodunits and build a year's escapist reading out of it. Just as some can't get enough of science fiction. Or others romance stories. Whodunit junkies will find "Doyle updated" quite to their liking no doubt.

Not one of those folks, this reviewer finds the staging and sets and scenery trickery live up to Mr. Ludwig's promise : as much to go see as the plot or the characters, probably moreso.

This is a show whose sum of its parts -- particularly all the antic stage business of the second act -- exceeds the whole of the piece as structured by Mr. Ludwig. But the second act without any doubt made whatever reservations noted about Act 1 seem quite irrelevant to the evening's overall buzz.

Particulars : Produced by Arts Club Theatre Company (53rd season, 582nd performance).  At the Stanley Theatre, Granville @ 11th.  To October 9th.  Run-time 2 hours plus intermission.  Tickets & show times via Arts Club or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel by Ken Ludwig.  Director John Murphy.  Set & Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Sound Designer Stephen Bulat.  Projection Designer Candelario Andrade. Stage Manager Allison Spearin.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tessa Gunn.

Performers :  Lauren Bowler.  Kirk Smith.  Mike Wasko.  Mark Weatherley. Alex Zahara.