Sunday, 29 January 2017

Sunday...with George entices and amuses
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)

The point of it all : Pointillism. A 19th Century paint-by-dots technique that even Van Gogh mimicked. When designed as music the technique is called punctualism. Individual notes that when totted together create an intimate if occasionally gnarled soundscape. Sunday In the Park With George is the musical collaboration of Stephen Sondheim / James Lapine focused on the French painter George Seurat. It could be subtitled "Portrait of the Artist as A Young Obsessive Compulsive". Only 25 at the time he started it, Seurat's iconic 10-foot-wide "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" is now in the proud possession of the Art Institute of Chicago.

After two years of struggle and some 60 draft sketches of folks dilly-dallying on Ilse Grande, all of this was brought vividly to life on canvas by Seurat. While conceiving and composing and refining pointillism that would become known as neo-impressionism, he struggled both artistically and personally. Was life to be the subjects he painted -- like his model and girlfriend named, a bit too cutely, Dot. Or is the act of painting just a medium, a means to understand and embrace the community who are the target audience of one's handiwork? Painting is work that creates a product. Audiences respond, humanly, to what paint-&-brush hath wrought. Where do these forces intersect in the creator's heart?

From the footlights :  Order. Design. Tension. Composition. Balance. Light. Harmony. These are the watchwords of George Seurat, his daily mantra to himself as he developed the craft of pointillism. Words that if applied to one's personal relationships -- analogously -- would not be bad values to include in the reach of one's personality. 

But for George Seurat (Brandyn Eddy) as imagined by Sondheim / Lapine, his love of paints and colour and canvas prevent him from requiting the passion Dot (Martha Ansfield-Scrase) has for him. The dramatic tension between them underscores the entire script, including her marrying the local baker and moving to America despite being pregnant with Seurat's love child.

Nazareth and their classic song "Love Hurts" could easily have been the show's anthem. Because the hurt of love is always and ever ripe fodder for drama. Add to Dot's pain and George's confusion some terrific tunesmithing by Sondheim and the result is an evening's outing utterly worth the effort and break from the reality-t.v. occurring second-by-second S. of 49.

What the show brings to the stage :  Director Ryan Mooney blocks and choreographs his 15 actors (in their 28 roles) well indeed to maximize the up-close-&-personal Jericho acting space. The subjects (objects?) of Seurat's magical Ilse Grande painting come refreshingly and engagingly alive as they fill out the roles one might imagine for them after pondering his painting.

Mooney is aided and abetted by a wonderful monochromatic set of outsize blank paint canvases designed by Sandy Margaret. Her vision works so well, meanwhile, largely because of CS Ferguson-Vaux's splendid array of costumes. From the wall-to-wall wash of white summer get-ups to start, then all the colours of the finished-painting costumes at the end of Act 1. From there to the sea of black outfits in Act 2 when the clock hurtles forward 100 years to an art gallery in NYC. Smart, distinctive stuff, this. [On synthesizer backing up all this visual energy afoot before us, for his part, Kevin Michael Cripps blows the bejesus out of that rig -- a big Wow! there.]

What Sondheim / Lapine achieve is accomplished because of the universality of their themes. Love and pain and the whole damn thang. Our need to "self-actualize" as Maslow talked of -vs- the intimacy that relationships demand of us. How to reconcile our self-y-ness drives with the love we feel, sometimes fleetingly, other times compellingly, for those closest to us. Put another way, what is the perversity of soul that tends to drive us away from those who probably see us most clearly for who and what we are and want us to share our souls freely and unflinchingly?

Acting pin-spots : Act I completes the consummation of the Ilse Grande painting with the final scene, sung to the rich harmonies of "Sunday" to herald the painting's finish after two long years. Act II opens with to this viewer the truest delight of the night : the characters on Seurat's canvas kvetching "It's Hot Up Here" where they've been immortalized on his ginormous painting. As if two-dimensional painted characters could talk. Sheer fun!

Soon however we meet George 2, Seurat's great-grandson, also an avant grade artist who's stuck both artistically and professionally trying to peddle his light-show creations to reluctant galleries. His duet "Move On!" with Dot to end the show is touching and fetching and tear-jerking.

Martha Ansfield-Scrace as Seurat's model and sometime lover is utterly winsome and captivating. She possesses control of character and facial expression dynamism that her engaging British accent highlights, or maybe that should be noted in reverse order. Regardless : sheer pleasure to be charmed by such a performance. (In Act 2 as George 2's 98-year-old grandma Marie she was a sweet sweet soul.) 

Opposite is Brandyn Eddy. While as George 1 in Act I he is convincing in his confliction and compulsion, as George 2 in Act II Eddy lights up the stage with his art gallery lamentation confronting his artistic "stuckness" and the egregiousness of having to market himself, to fawn and toady and truckle amongst NYC's self-appointed Congress of Scorn.

Ian Farthing as fellow artist Jules and his wife Yvonne as struck by Mandana Namazi were a choice pair. Thomas King as the Boatman turned in a nuanced bully-boy shot, while Peggy Busch as both Seurat's snooty mother in Act 1 and art critic Blair Daniels in Act 2 was consistently convincing. Capable and committed performances by each of the other 10 actors in all their roles and guises. 

Who gonna like : This is a choice Sondheim score and Lapine book, no question. That it will be remounted in NYC next month starting February 11 on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre with Jake Gyllenhaal as George speaks to the show's universality and engagement of eye and ear, heart and mind. 

[N.B. Of a concert-cum-reading of the script featuring Gyllenhaal last October, NYT critic Ben Brantley enthused : "This is the 6th or 7th version I've seen of this musical, which won the Pulitzer Prize in the mid-80's, and on each occasion I've felt thoroughly moved and admiring." That's big praise indeed from one of USA's premier drama critics.]

And while United Players of Vancouver Artistic Director Andree Karass is inclined to promote her club as "amateur", they are not. The actors run the gamut of professional, semi-, up-&-coming and amateur. But what they do in this production under Mr. Mooney's deft and clever and engaging hand is precisely what live theatre is supposed to achieve : divertissement and absorption and escapist moments that bring on smiles and laughs and tears. They got all three from me, and I thank them. 

Particulars :  Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine.  Produced by The United Players of Vancouver, Artistic Director Andree Karass. At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street. From January 20 - February 12. Run-time 150 minutes (two acts), including intermission. Tickets & schedule information 604.224.8007, ext 2 or

Production team : Director Ryan Mooney (a.k.a. Artistic Director, Fighting Chance Productions).  Executive Producer Andree Karas.  Production Manager Fran Burnside.  Technical Director Kianna Skelly.  Music Director Clare Wyatt.  Set Designer / Head Scenic Painter Sandy Margaret.  Costume Designer CS Ferguson-Vaux.  Sound Effects Designer Zakk Harris.  Live Sound Richard Berg.  Make-up Designer Sharon Grogan.  Stage Manager Jessica Hildebrand.  Assistant Stage Managers Lois Boxill, Amber Scott, Shannon Groenewegen.  Properties / Set Decoration Josina de Bree.  Costume Assistants Teresa Bussey, Barb Haverstock, Samantha Maddaugh, Elizabeth Nixon-McKeller.

Performers : Martha Ansfield-Scrase (Dot / Marie).  Peggy Busch (Old Lady / Blair Daniels).  Charlie Deagon (Franz / Dennis).  Paige Dean (Celeste #1 / A Waitress).  Brandyn Eddy (George).  Ian Farthing (Jules / Bob Greenburg).  Jeff Hoffman (Louis / Billy Webster).  Keren Katz (Louise / Waitress #2).  Thomas King (Boatman / Charles Redmond).  Ranae Miller (Celeste #2 / Elaine).  Steve Mulligan (Mr. Lee / Randolf).  Mandana Namazi (Yvonne / Naomi Elsen).  Keri Smith (Frieda / Betty) [Smith's understudy Ashley Siddals].  Duncan Watts-Grant (Soldier / Alex).  Tristin Wayte (Nurse / Harriet Pawling).

Musicians :  Mike Allen (Reeds).  Kevin Michael Cripps (Synthesizer).  Sarah Ho (Violin).  Pauline Lo (French Horn).

Friday, 27 January 2017

As I Lay Dying a gripping throwback parable
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)

Whither the script ? :  William Faulkner is never an easy read. His 1930 novel As I Lay Dying spans some 59 chapters. Over a dozen different characters deliver monologues to tell this tale. The tale of how mom Addie Bundren's dying wish is to be hauled back to Jefferson, Mississippi for burial. And how her husband Anse, four sons and a daughter manage, somehow, to pull off the caper of carting her unembalmed corpse cross-country for nine days come hell and high water and the stench of rotting flesh in summer's heat.

Faulkner's technique in the book was a stream of consciousness script structure. Through it he reveals the characters' often-selfish motives as they nevertheless join together in common cause to honour Mom's last wishes. ACT's program describes Dying as "The Evocative and Absurd Southern Gothic Masterpiece".

From the footlights : A 40-mile-trek on a mule-drawn buckboard with a ripe cadaver surely lends itself to physical and emotional clutter of all sorts. And the script adaptation by former clown mavens Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in USA Depression times hi-lites those theatrical characteristics. 

Put another way, the show does not attempt to represent or depict Faulkner's more broad artistic intent that looks piercingly and darkly through the Southern glass of his times. Rather it is pathos, mischief, and ironic intent that inform Theatre Smith-Gilmour's theatricality here. For two hours the hypocrisies that lurk in the hearts of the notionally Christian characters Faulkner conjured up cavort before our eyes in a stunning, unique and poetic danse.

The title is taken from Homer's Odyssey, when Agamemnon tells Odysseus : "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades." I.e. we are promised an epic funeral cortege, and Smith-Gilmour certainly deliver.  In Chapter 52 of the novel son Darl proclaims : "Life was created in the valleys. It blew up on to the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That's why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down." A more succinct descriptor of Faulkner's purpose, such as it was, could not be imagined. Dramatizing that theme for a 2017 post-Christian theatre crowd, however, was a challenge writ large indeed.

WYSIWYG :  As in Faulkner's novel, the scenes range in duration from almost split-second snapshots to countless minutes of mime and burlesque and exaggerated footwork. But not just a farrago of family feuds is on feature here. Altogether some 19 characters are brought into the piece by the seven actors who perform. Fake noses on the ancillary characters and a host of voiceover sound effects add to the general cacophony. 

Interior monologues, side stories and seeming random departures of all sorts require of the crowd probably one of two approaches : try to absorb and digest each theatric morsel, or just let the clutter fall willy-nilly at your feet and let it make of itself what it will by show's end. I tried both. Both worked. No trickster or contriver could more capably call up the spirits on display here. Simply put, I was utterly smitten by the singularity and eccentricity of this show. That William Faulkner was its original author was, quite frankly, almost incidental. What Theatre Smith-Gilmour did with his characters was the fun, the thrill, the sheer creativity afoot on the night.

Production values of note : A compressed scrunched-up performance space with scrims narrowing the boards. The stage floor blank & black. Characters braced only by suspenders and hyperbole and bare feet. Precious few props -- a kid's kindergarten chair; a picnic basket; a metal bucket -- nothing else but creative choreography and gesticulation and charade drawn up large to join the voiceovers and amplified profundo sound effects.

Character pin-spots : Imagine from one family : an aloof, lazy, sniveling excuse for a father who demands others act with Christian generosity of spirit while he pays only lip service. An adulterous mom who cuckolded dad with the local minister. Four sons : the eldest an accident-prone but accomplished carpenter, another bi-polar, the bastard boy who is all attitude and horse-crazy, the youngest a simpleton. A sister who at 17 is pregnant by a local farm boy. Classic 1930's stereotypical Mississippi gothic.

Not to forget what Tolstoy so famously noted in his opening to Anna Karenina : "All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But still, this clutch of misfits somehow manage to pull together to get mom home to Jefferson and final resting place.

As bastard son Jewel, Benjamin Muir was nonpareil in his constancy of character and vivid persona, he his mother's favourite, he whose name she shouted with her last breath. His opening taming-the-horse mimicry was stupendous and Muir maintained that acting excellence across the night. Daniel Roberts as Vardaman was captivating as the naif and mentally challenged but ever-loyal youngest sibling. But consistently strong performances by each and every actor in this piece, no question, terrific faithfulness to character interpretation by all throughout the show.

Who gonna like : We live not only post-religion and anti-truth in a social media world that champions "my opinion" as paramount. And given the name William Faulkner is largely unknown to those born later than the Boomers, who will warm or thrill to a script built on a Southern gothic footing from 1930? Acting fans, that's who. Those who like storytelling spun up large. Folks for whom the magic of choreography and mime and vaudeville cartoon antics -- much of it in wonderful slo-mo cadences -- these are for whom Dying will incite a re-birth of stage enthusiasm in Vancouver. 

Artistic and Executive Director of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival Norman Armour puts it best :

"Old stories, new guises...the PuSh Festival is deeply invested in the thespian tradition of adapting and re-telling enduring tales from literature, myth, and folklore. This interest is equalled by our mission to tell venerable tales of human folly, ambition, grief, and love in ways that are notably contemporary, and of these times... On the stage, these re-told tales often highlight the theatre's unique sense of agency and power; a power that speaks of the human condition."

Dying is an electrifying and effervescent and resuscitating dramatic adventure. This show is simply not to be missed.

Particulars :  Script adapted from the novel by William Faulkner by Theatre Smith-Gilmour. Produced by Arts Club Theatre in collaboration with Theatre Smith-Gilmour in a presentation for the International PuSh Festival.  At the Goldcorp Stage, BMO Theatre, 1st Avenue at Columbia. On until February 12, 2017. Run-time 140 minutes, including 20 minute intermission. Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning ACBO @ 604.687.1644.  

Production team :  Directors Dean Gilmour & Michele Smith.  Set & Costume Designer Teresa Przybylski.  Lighting Designer Andre de Toit.  Stage Manager Heather Thompson.  Assistant Stage Manager Kelly Barker.

Performers :  Julian De Zotti (Darl Bundren; Samson).  Dean Gilmour (Anse Bundren; Rev. Whitfield; Moseley; Quick).  Nina Gilmour (Dewey Dell Bundren; Littlejohn; Lulu).  Eli Ham (Cash Bundren; Tull; Gillespie; MacGowan).   Benjamin Muir (Jewel Bundren; Mr. Peabody).  Daniel Roberts (Vardaman Bundren; Armstid; Vernon).  Michelle Smith (Addie Bundren).


Saturday, 7 January 2017

The (Post) Mistress sings of small-town Canada
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)

Editor's note : As we are unable to attend this year's On Tour production, the following is a re-working of BLR's February, 2016 review of the play from its BMO Goldcorp stage presentation.

From the footlights : The (Post) Mistress brings to life Marie-Louise Painchaud ("hot bread"), postie-extraordinaire in the town of Lovely, ON. Lovely is near the copper mining mid-size city of Complexity an hour away at the northern tip of Lake Huron. Through what seem to be cosmic & heavenly juices in her veins, Marie-Louise absorbs all of Lovely's inhabitants' secrets just by holding the townsfolk's mail in her hand.

Subtitled "The Small-Town Musical of Sealed Secrets", the show is a single-actor piece that features a dozen songs with English, French and Cree lyrics. The layered stories of Lovely's residents are filtered through Marie-Louise's yeasty and risible imagination. Neither cabaret pastiche nor full-on musical, The (Post) Mistress engages musically what it might lack a bit by way of compelling dramatic arc. Still, anyone who's lived small-town rural life will remember how the expression "You've got mail!" once meant receiving an actual paper envelope with a 6-cent stamp on it. 

How it's put together : Accomplished dancer, performer and singer, Patricia Cano is Marie-Louise (though Cailin Stadnyk will do select performances). Cano has long accompanied playwright Tomson Highway as  singer/performer in the various cabaret shows he's traveled around the world. 

Brazilian guitarist and composer Carlos Bernardo is her long-time friend, meanwhile, and in 2008 she spent six months absorbing the Carioca sound scene in Rio with him. Thus cross-pollination being what it is with creative folk, quelle surprise Mistress features tango and bossa nova beats along with a couple of South American storyline detours. 

But also a host of Berlin cabaret stylings -- Highway once jokingly referring to himself as the Cree version of Kurt Weill -- as well as French cafe chanson and pop renderings to boot. 

What the show brings to the stage : For BC viewers this is a singular piece because of all the Central Canada native Cree, French-Canadian, and Metis influences that converge in the unique Lovely time and place way-&-gone back east.

With Western influences being a mix in recent years mostly of WASP, South Asian and oriental folk, to hear stories and tales that spring from post-contact native generations who mix and cohabit and populate with French immigrants and their descendent Quebecois is eye- and ear-opening in a rich and colourful way. 

Mistress may be called a "small-town musical" but really it's just a fleshed-out series of cabaret tunes starting with the Cree ballad "Taansi, Nimiss" (Welcome, sister!) that sets the stage for "songs we're going to sing". 

Eleven songs in all by the Highway / Cano collaboration that each tells a tale of love, loss and sizzling snatches of sex : "It was so hot in Rio de Janiero they wore nothing but dental floss to go shopping!" Cano sings of one such letter-writer's escapade. 

Letter after letter, story after story : widow Eva Pocket who hooked up, fatefully, with Marly Fitzsimmons from N'Awlins. Diane Gagnon who ran back to mom's in Lovely to escape her boring taxi dispatcher husband and the kids. He writes plaintive futile pleas for her to return. 

From a younger perspective there's eight-year-old Babette whose mom, madly estranged from her dad, has 100% forbidden Babette to see him out West. So Babette writes of her pain from a Grade 3 hand. She cries out as she gazes up at Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in the song "Oh Little Bear". Exquisite ache.

Acting pin-spot : Patricia Caro as Marie-Louise Painchaud is a one-woman force majeure. While her original forte was as a dancer and then a community theatre player, singing she added to her repertoire through her connection with Carlos Bernardo plus a sojourn a decade back to South Korea to study with a voice master. 

Luxuriant in size, beauty and presence, Caro's blocking, choreography and inspired dance footwork hopping atop and around the various stations and platforms at the Lovely post office were all quite exhilarating to behold. Whimsy and humour and controlled exaggeration informed every step, every pirouette, every pounce. Caro's vivre ballroom break-dance is reason enough to see this show.

On the songstress scale, Caro is an accomplished cabaret balladeer with a rich and resonant contralto though not always equal to the higher register notes. But her dusky smoky basement blues joint sound -- sexy and edgy both -- brings out the best from Highway's tunes and lyrics. That a majority of the house on opening night gave her a standing-o reveals the enthusiasm her performance attracted.

Production values of note : Director John Cooper and Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg grab top-spot honours for the rigour and inspiration they brought to Patricia Caro's Arts Club debut performance a year back. 

As well, Ted Roberts turned in yet another superb set, lighting and visual design performance. The current Canada Post m.o. banality of countless mailboxes -- but done here rising to the infinity of space in a sworl design -- was effective. 

Music accompaniment limited to piano and sax/flute was crisp and lively and just-right subtle, too.

Two Hmnnnn...! script reservations. (1) The plot revelation at the end about Marie-Louise. Quite artificial and contrived and unnecessary to the stage magic. The mystery of her cosmic mind-reading would work better remaining a tease. (2) Preaching. Telling the audience straight-up "I hope people will learn to stop hurting each other and learn to laugh..." is flat-out patronizing despite its good intention. 

Who gonna like : This show is not the compleat stuff of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, but it has many comparable moments. Patricia Caro's vigour & enthusiasm & deft fancy dancework and singing prowess are a package of talent to leave viewers breathless. This is a show that brought out grins of enthusiasm and standing-o clappers from the seats a year back. No question it will appeal to cabaret lovers who are open to some poignant Canadian history lessons put-to-music. 

Particulars :  Book & Music by Tomson Highway.  On Tour by ACT's : at The BlueShore @ Cap College, January 7 [604.990.7810].  Surrey Arts Centre, Jan 11-21 [604.501.5566]. The ACT Arts Centre, Maple Ridge, January 22nd [604.476.2787]. Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, January 24-28 [604.927.6555]. Kay Meek Centre, West Vancouver, January 30-31 [604.981.6335]. Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Burnaby, February 2-3 [604.205.3000]. Clark Theatre, Mission, February 4th [1.877.299.1644].  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644 or contacting the On Tour venues directly.

Production team :  Director John Cooper.  Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.  Set, Lighting & Video Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Kirsten McGhie.  Musical Director Michael Creber.  Sound Designer Scott Zechner.  Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Apprentice Stage Manager Linzi Voth.

Performers (music) :  Michael Creber (Piano).  Chris Startup (Saxophone).

Performer (actors) : Patricia Cano (Marie-Louise Painchaud).  Cailin Stadnyk (Marile-Louise Painchaud -- select performances).

Addendum #1 : Musical highlights of the show :  Listening to Marie-Louise recite so many tales of marriages suffering loss, abandonment and bitterness, the words of the playwright from a 2015 interview are recalled pointedly (Highway at that time celebrating nearly 30 years with his life's love Raymond Lalonde, "the kindest man on the face of the earth") : 

"I always say I get treated better than the Queen. When I look at all these heterosexual men who have gone through these tortured marriages, with the hatred, the cruelty, the alimony payments, it's like a battle zone. I thank God every day that I'm not heterosexual. I thank God for that privilege."

To wit. In the song "Love I Know Is Here", Marie-Louise tells the tale of a couple who live 10 miles outside of Lovely and write charming letters to one another. Only at the end do we learn "How can you not be happy even if they are two men living together in sin?" Marie-Louise asks ironically, winking at the crowd. The song, likes its successor to end Act I, is wholly reminiscent of the Kurt Weill style.

And that would be the other Weill / Jacques Brel look-alike "The Window". It tells of Rosalind Johnson, originally from an innocent town called Kirkland who ventures to TO. There she meets sexy car mechanic Gus Cassidy. And despite a bloody violent end to their marriage, Rosalind spends the next 60 years still pining for "the man of 20-something standing in the window" where she first laid eyes on him moonlighting as a sexy, coy department store model.

One final song that deserves a shout-out. "When Last I Was in Buenos Aires, Argentina" kicks off Act II with the randiest, raunchiest number of the night. It's a saucy tango titillater that Marie-Louise acts out demonstratively, hornily. All about a lover's summer there with Ariel "of the dark eyes and the flaring nostrils" and his suppers of el spaghet with a Sriracha style sauce flown in from Paraguay. Needless to say the affair with Ariel was more than equal to his el spaghet once the jungle jiggery-pokery factored in.

Addendum #2 : Background on playwright Tomson Highway : Tomson Highway is the 11th of 12 Cree children from northern Manitoba. He was born in a tent on a snowbank, son of a caribou-hunting dad and a quilter mom. Highway unabashedly credits the Roman Catholic Guy Hill Indian Residential School in Clearwater, MB near The Pas with his becoming both tri-lingual and a piano-playing musician during his nine years there. Playwriting he took up when he turned 30-something, and cabaret-style shows are what he seems to favour most these days. The current show has also been produced in Cree, Kisageetin as well as in French, Zesty Gopher s'est fait ecraser par un frigo (that sings the song of a man & his wife & their fridge that's in transit to new digs).

Highway is outspoken on many fronts in ways that are often not politically correct. He does not, for example, subscribe to the liberal fuss over "appropriation of voice". In a September 30, 2013 interview with Maclean's magazine, he noted:

"I'm part of the first wave of native writers in this country and we had to be aware of political correctness; it was kind of forced upon us. For the next wave of native playwrights, they should be afforded the freedom to let their imaginations fly. And we all need to help them get there. If a black, Chinese lesbian ends up being cast as the chief of an Indian reserve, then that is the choice of the writer, director and producer and it's nobody else's business.

"I don't particularly want to work with people who are scared, for whatever reason. And people who think that way [about appropriation of voice] are scared, they're chickens! I feel most comfortable with people who are brave and courageous. Who are politically incorrect, for goodness sake. I love politically incorrect. I mean, it's essential for art."

On the subject of residential schools, Highway told Huffington Post's Joshua Ostroff in late 2015 : "All we hear is the negative stuff, nobody's interested in the positive, the joy in (Guy Hill Indian Residential) school. I learned your language, for God's sake. Have you learned my language? No, so who's the privileged one and who is underprivileged?

"You may have heard stories from 7,000 witnesses in the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) process that were negative. But what you haven't heard are the 7,000 reports that were positive stories. There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn't have happened without that school."

Highway cites two primary influences on his artistry : his remote northern upbringing with his family on the Barren Lands Indian Reservation and on the "cosmology" of mainstream native thought. "The most privileged boys in Rosedale and Forest Hill are lucky if they get 20 metres of lakefront for two weeks every summer. We had 50 lakes for two months year; we had entire islands to ourselves, just us. It is unbelievably beautiful up there and nobody sees it but us because it's inaccessible. The older I get, the more I realize what a spectacular childhood it really was. My father was the king of this enormous domain; we grew up as princes of the north. This country has royalty, too," he asserted to Ostroff in December.

As for his spiritual underpinnings, in his Maclean's 2013 interview he declared : "I like to convey joy. I want to convey that our primary responsibility on planet Earth is to be joyful : to laugh and to laugh and to laugh. I do not believe what I was taught as a child by Roman Catholic missionaries that the reason to exist is to suffer and repent and that the more of that we did, the more deserving we became of happiness in the afterlife. I mean, depressing, or what? I'm of the opposite opinion : the way the my native culture works is that it teaches that we're here to laugh, that heaven and hell are both here on Earth and it's our choice to make it one or the other."

In a similar vein in a December 10, 2015 interview with Martin Morrow of, Highway related the following : "Highway agrees that writing about [women] has been a lifelong obsession; but it has nothing to do with modern social movements and everything to do with his ancestral beliefs. 'Pantheism, which is the basis of native mythology and cosmology, sees God in nature. And the centre of native cosmology, certainly in Cree culture, is feminine. So I write obsessively about that. For Highway, the root of our problems is monotheism, the belief in one God, particularly since that God is perceived to be male. 'It's a patriarchal superstructure and it leads to fascism : 'If you don't believe in my God, I'll kill you, I'll destroy you...' Why did [God] come alone? Where was his wife? Where was his girlfriend? And the answer to that question is that she was here all the time. Our father art in heaven, but our mother is here on this planet. And if we don't recognize that, and that we need to preserve this planet, we're doomed.'"

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

And Bella Sang... catches 1912 DTES flavour

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)

A bit of local context : 1912 DTES & Chinatown, Vancouver. Four years before women's suffrage would become the law in B.C. Five years before B.C. would introduce wartime alcohol prohibition. A raw wild west resource-based economy run by men for men for better or for worse. Women and whisky quite the lifeblood here, cops and politicians often the most regular of patrons in the saloons and bawdy houses under their watch.

Following a Portland, OR initiative in 1908, Vancouver Police were the first in Canada four years later to decide they needed a couple of women constables to help out ministering to the city's "wayward girls and women". Referred to as the "women's protective division", their purpose more "morality enforcement" than busting chops. Enter Lurancy "Lou" Harris (Leanna Brodie) and Minnie Eakin Miller (Sarah Louise Turner). No uniforms, no guns, just little purses to carry their little badges worn atop their skirts and petticoats. Their beat? The beaches, taverns, dance halls, and gambling dives of Vancouver's Hogan's Alley where women were often prey for men, particularly come payday.

A century later on a micro level society sees some cosmetic changes to this familiar scenario, but still much for the contemporary eye to compare and relate to given 2016's news hi-lites of rampant RCMP and Canadian Forces sexism and harassment, not to mention what the Indigenous Women task force will, eventually, unearth about the missing and murdered in recent years from those communities.

From the footlights : This original 75-minute script by local playwright Sally Stubbs tells the imagined-tale of these two real life constables : Harris, 48, the wannabe-man-in-a-man's world, Miller, 34, the Christian-nurse-cop-spinster-do-gooder with a big rich heart from the Central Mission Rescue & Protection Society. Women doing men's work but at women's wages -- hired into the lowliest Constable 4 echelon for $20 a week -- and forcefully kept under the thumb of their male bosses. 

This is a long-forgotten, barely recorded episode in Vancouver Police Department's early 20th century life. Through a series of vignettes strung together mostly by the honky-tonk piano of Patrick Courtin. His plinky-plunk charts underscore the various scenes that sketch out how these women search for the what & how of their work, each with their own "why" at play.

The functional box-crates and skids of Brian Ball's set serve as desks, stools and jail cells. Sound effects props are engaged from upstage tables, while downstage the characters mime the various teacup clinks, handcuff noises, the regular swirl of booze being poured into glasses and slurped up.

What the show brings to the stage : The singing reference was apparently borrowed from a Calgary police tale about a violent woman repeatedly jailed -- what emergency folk refer to as a "frequent flyer" -- who despite her tendency to assault her captors could be quieted by singing. 

In this case the bellicose barkeep Bella (Beatrice Zeilinger) was able to be calmed by Minnie when she struck up the tune "You Great Big Beautiful Gal". 

Simon Webb plays three male characters, the feckless and spiteful Constable Fields, the women's boss. Also Alderman Daniel Crane who lusts after the 14-year-old Chinese prostitute "Mai Ji" (Agnes Tong) whose parents knew her as Maggie Fraser. Webb's turn as the low-grade nasty pimp and hustler Connor O'Rourke was superbly repulsive.

Production values : While the show lacks the visual wizardry of Arts Club's 2014 show Helen Lawrence set in 1948, Bella tells its 1912 tale with simple functional staging ideal for small rooms. Director Sarah Rodgers and her assistant Ian Harmon mix their characters' contrasts well, each of Turner and Webb providing the evening's most compelling performances. 

The choreography of set changes, frequent as they were, was a bit belaboured and fussy at times, but lighting (Kyla Gardiner) and costumes (Barbara Clayton) played off one another magnetically. That the backstory took place originally right outside Firehall Arts Centre's doors came through convincingly & emotionally thanks to their skilled by-play.

Who gonna like :  Coffee house theatre fans will enjoy the simple and uncomplex artistry of Bella that could be performed easily on a stage 1/2 the size of Firehall's with equal effect. Folks who're born and raised in Vancouver will find this snatch of DTES / Chinatown history intriguing. The feminist issues raised in the script are almost as timely and poignant a century hence as they were back then. Back when male chauvinist tendencies in North American society were just that more open, obvious and obnoxious than they are in the New World Order of Trumputin politics now before us. Local history by local talent is what Bella delivers -- the final 10 minutes of the show particularly pull all its pieces together poignantly and touchingly.

Particulars : Produced by And Bella Collective in association with the Firehall Arts Centre. Playwright Sally Stubbs.  Performances January 4-14. Tickets and schedule through Firehall Arts Centre  Run-time 75 minutes, no intermission.

Production crew : Sarah Rodgers, Ian Harmon (Directors).  Patrick Courtin (Pianist). Barbara Clayden (Costume Designer).  Brian Ball (Set Designer). Kyla Gardiner (Lighting Designer).  Breanne Harmon (Stage Manager).  

Peformers : Leanna Brodie.  Agnes Tong.  Sarah Louise Turner.  Simon Webb.  Beatrice Zeilinger.