Friday, 31 March 2017

The Train Driver seeks solace & redemption
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)
Train driver Roelf (Paul Herbert) and gravedigger Simon (Pasi Clayton Gunguwo) read the news report of a woman who suicided by jumping in front of Roelf's train outside Cape Town. She and her infant's bodies were never claimed at the district morgue.
Photo by Nancy Caldwell
From the footlights : Two actors, one primary voice. An Afrikaans train driver, traumatized by a black woman with an infant strapped to her back who jumped onto the tracks in front of him. The train driver Roelf Visagie is beset with grief and guilt. He finally stumbles across a black squatter's camp where nameless folk are buried in hopes of finding her grave. There he encounters lone gravedigger Simon Hanabe. Roelf tries desperately to disencumber his soul to Simon about what part of the collective guilt as a South African white he suffers over its apartheid past. Not to mention his personal guilt as the driver of the death train.

How the play came to be :  The play by Athol Fugard stemmed from a 2000 newspaper report he read in the Cape Town weekly Mail and Standard about a woman and her three children whom she herded onto the tracks so all would die. Fugard was subsequently interviewed in Cape Town by Celia Duggar of the New York Times in March, 2010 about his play The Train Driver set to premiere there. The article was titiled, aptly, "Driving Out Apartheid's Ghost".  (N.B. As noted in BLR's review of Valley Song, the correct Afrikaans pronunciation of the word apartheid says it all about the intent of South Africa's racist political policy : apart-hate.)

Fugard told the Times "I cannot fathom a darkness so deep that a human being can finally say 'There is no hope'."  The play was written, he said, as a symbolic, metaphorical act of "claiming" the memory of the desperate woman from the Cape Town squatter's camp who suicided 10 years earlier, one Pumla Lolwana. But all his plays in fact aim "to claim people," he said, "to not allow them to pass on into oblivion, trying to bear witness." (Simon's second job is to protect the "sleeping" from packs of feral dogs who are ravenous and want to eat their remains. These, the nameless ones never claimed from the morgue, not even mamas who had babies in tow.)  

To affirm his artistic intents Fugard shared with the Times a letter sent him by an American theatric friend from L.A., Stephen Sacks. Sachs wrote to Fugard that his oeuvre represents "a life long internal struggle" about being of Boer heritage during the apart-hate years. "White guilt," Sachs said, "white shame. Digging up the bones of the nameless black dead. Trying to make sense of it. Give it meaning." He meant it endearingly, not laying on guilt or sarcasm.

What the show brings to the stage :  Empathy can result from the act of stepping into another's shoes and walking their journey a bit. But probably not possible, say, for Auschwitz survivors to do vis-a-vis their Nazi deathcamp guards. Analogously, playwright Fugard is betimes assailed by critics for focusing so much on white S.A. guilt rather than shining more light on the plight and the experience of the country's blacks. Not a "theft of voice" issue in the least. Rather a bio-racial impossibility. 

Thus the show that results. Focused more on Roelf's agonies than Simon's repression. There is more dramatic monologue and soliloquy by Roelf than actual dialogue with Simon, but enough of both to make it all work. Train driver Visagie -- its Latin loosely meaning "look at us" -- tries ardently, anxiously to get his soul closer to guru Adyashanti's timeless challenge : "No more battle against yourself. No more battle with life. No more battle with others. No more battle with God."

But expiation and atonement don't ever come easily. Roelf (Paul Herbert) is possessed by the death of the woman he calls Red Doek. That name he's given this unknown woman because of the red scarf he spotted her wearing just before the locomotive crushed her and her infant babe strapped to her back. That image continues to haunt and plague and obsess him, keep him up night after night, give him tremors and wicked painful dreams. His dreams cause him to terrorize his family at Christmastime shortly after Red Doek's horrific death. Mom locks the kids behind her bedroom door. 

Gravedigger Simon Hanabe (Pasi Clayton Gunguwo) fears for Roelf's safety as the lone white in the desperate squatters' shantytown cum graveyard. Teen-age gangs from the tin-&-paper shacks next door will surely cause trouble, he frets. Still he is a kindly chap and provides a sounding board for Roelf's doleful cries and protests to bounce off of. Vintage stuff. Trying to plea bargain his people's sordid and shameful past Athol Fugard has been doing -- prolifically -- since 1956 : The Train Driver is his 35th play script.

Acting pin-spots : Background reading about The Train Driver from productions elsewhere did not prepare me sufficiently. I got considerably more from the UPV tonight than I had anticipated would be up for offer. 

What no review or Fugard interview prepared me for was the anger train driver Roelf Visagi felt at his nameless victims. He storms into the Shukuma burial ground outside Port Elizabeth once he learns from the district mortician that his victims were buried there just a month before.

He is hyperventiling : "I want to swear at her and let her know she is a piece of black shit. So her ghost will hear me, so she'll know how she has fucked up my life, the selfish black bitchHelp me!" he demands of the threatened and bemused gravedigger. Director Adam Henderson in his notes makes a seemingly paradoxical observation that may be true here : "It is hard not to despise someone you know you have wronged. I think we struggle (even if unconsciously) with this dissonance between our self-image and our history."

Reolf then collapses on the sandy, rocky burial turf and emits agonized cries that go on & on & on & on. His performance in this, right at my feet, was more convincing & true-to-life despair than I believe I have ever witnessed on any Vancouver stage in 40 years. By the end of the play, meanwhile, he has softened and mellowed and is beginning to embrace Adyshanti's challenge. Simply superb, sustained character acting by Mr. Herbert, a previous Jessie nominee.

For his part, Mr. Gunguwo's two most priceless moments were his giddy description of catching the beeg fish with his two dogs when he was a kid. Also the lullaby his mama sang to him "Toola, mama, toola, toola mama...!" that he sings to soothe Reolf's tortured and confused and wondering self along with its accompanying voodoo-esque dance.

A word or two on the production : Three minor bickers with the show. (1) My customary kvetch that Vancouver actors shout-out and and overemphasize swear words. Gosh, if only they'd effen learn this [instead of effen learn this...]. (2) While just 75 minutes of dramatic action in the entire play, inexplicably there was a 15 minute intermission some 50 minutes along into the piece. The break should be axed to preserve the dramatic arc & energy Fugard intended. (3) Why the choice to have most of Simon's final two-minute soliloquy done by recorded play-back while he stands mute on an overturned bucket. This made no dramatic sense to me -- it was gimmicky & distracting. 

Still, mere quibbles each and every point raised here.
Director Henderson's casting choices and staging of his 2-man troupe were otherwise keenly done.

Who gonna like : When the esteemed Mr. Fugard told the NYT his entire career was intended to crescendo and climax with this script, he was spot on. The Train Driver projects powerful pain that attempts to extinguish itself at first through rant and rage but, ultimately, finds a bit of redemption. Redemption that starts through the recognition of what sheer untempered futility looks like in the few final seconds you stare at it face-to-face. And to acknowledge your role in creating that life-ending futility and hopelessness that you at last recognize. 

These are gripping, moving moments of small-stage theatre that are rich & compelling and find Fugard, no question, at his finest.

Particulars :  Written by Athol Fugard.  Produced by The United Players of Vancouver. At their home venue the Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  From March 24-April 16.  Tickets & schedule information via 604.224.8007, Ext 2 or CLICK HERERun-time 90 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

Production team :  Director Adam Henderson.  Set Designer John R. Taylor.  Properties Designer and Producer Linda Begg.  Technical Director and Lighting Designer Michael Methot.  Sound Designer Zakk Harris.  Costume Designer Catherine E. Carr.  Stage Manager Maria Denholme.  Technical Manager Ryan Yee.  Assistant Director Alan Brodie.  Sound Assistant Aya Yuhura. United Players of Vancouver Artistic Director Andree Karass.

Performers : Pasi Clayton Gunguwo (Simon Hanabe, gravedigger).   Paul Herbert (Reolf Visagie, seeker).


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Angels in America has demonic messages
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)

Trigger warning / safe space alert
Due to the sensitive nature of the commentary of the show being reviewed -- thanks to its contents and current events -- not all who proceed are likely to be comfortable about what they read re: the USA politics involved related to this script.
(P.S. In case you missed it, the above "warning" was meant 100% in jest.) 

A heavenly Messenger spooks three generations of the Prior Walter family in Angels in America.  Photo: David Cooper
From the footlights : First staged in 1992-1993, Tony Kushner's Angels In America : A Gay Fantasia on National Themes comprises two 3-hour halves. "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika". "Millennium" is currently on display,  ACT will present the second half "Perestroika" with the same cast this Fall. 

Angels was written to explore the extent to which gay men were still mostly-closeted and denied public acceptance in mid-80's America. To expose how not only reluctant but openly resistant the Reagan White House was to the HIV / AIDs crisis infecting America's cities. And to display the hypocrisy of a society in which some of the loudest voices condemned the gay community : J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, and Roy M. Cohn, legal hitman for Sen. Joe McCarthy during his 1950's Communist witch hunt. Cohn & Hoover were themselves homosexuals who refused to exit their closets and expose themselves. Because absolute power corrupts absolutely. And their fear was forfeiting that power. So for them America's repressed sexual culture was just fine. 

Now 25 years old, the script takes on new prominence in an America that thanks to angry aging white men & angry aging white women who think they will Make America Great Again by going back to the values express & implicit in the Hoover / Cohn epoch. By expanding the U.S. war machine, by actively eliminating climate change mitigation, by ensuring that the 1%-ers who command the bulk of the nation's wealth get fatter and richer at the expense of the country's poor & enfeebled & disenfranchised. The feminist expression "The personal is political" was never more pertinent than here and now.

 How it's all put together : Parallel stories intersect throughout Angels. Gay lovers who when one contracts AIDS his partner deserts him in his hour of need. A married Republican Mormon yet to come out watches his wife hallucinate from the Valium she takes to soften the blow of their failed union. Roy Cohn's power in the innermost legal circles of DC's beltline such that he could manipulate the US judiciary to ensure Ethel Rosenberg's execution alongside her husband Julius for treason, in her case largely speculative. But in the end Cohn cannot escape the avenging angel who eventually catches up with him.

Conceptually, the "well" gay lover Louis (Ryan Beil) suggests in his Act 3 soliloquy that what Kushner really is driving at is the central challenge to each human being set out so compellingly by Gautama Buddha 2 1/2 millennia ago : "It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell." 

And when it comes to angels, America is nothing if not paradox. Start with Emma Lazarus's 1883 poem written to inspire fund-raising for the Statue of Liberty, the angel overseeing New York Harbor  : "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I light my lamp beside the golden door." In 2017, alas, more a solid steel door than gold. Ban Muslims. Deport aliens. Build walls. 

But more gently one must also consider how at the end of the nearly genocidal American Civil War 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln declared graciously & hopefully : "We are not enemies, but friends... The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Will such angels again manifest themselves or remain aslumber as they seem to be now?

In Tony Kushner's script there is no charming archangel like the one portrayed by John Travolta in the film Michael. And if social policy in America was seen as bad theatre being acted out in real life pre-Millennium, pre-9/11, pre-Trump, one can only imagine what a Kushner Fantasia On National Themes might look like if re-scripted 25 years hence.

What the show brings to the stage : The old quote "If God is good he is not God, if God is God he is not good" seems to be the leitmotif in Angels. People make life choices, and no God rescues them. The only essence in humans is what they act out, what to do. One hand holds entropy as god : all things decline and die. On the other there's the hopeful view of the black nurse drag queen Belize (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) that a world of "softness, compliance, forgiveness and grace" is possible. 

Aside from its daunting 190-minute length (including two intermissions), Angels (Part I) is a rich, rewarding display of theatric inventiveness & excellence. The classic Greek amphitheatre with its fly gallery gossamer scrims by Ken MacKenzie was superb. Clearly it was designed to reflect the universality and historic relevance of classic themes like plague and corruption and human frailty as Director Kim Collier points out in her program notes.

Video Designer Sean Nieuwenhuis employs hand-held videocams shot up on the back curtain to terrific effect. His efforts were aided and abetted by effective lighting and great sound moods. 

Acting pin-spots : To this viewer, the two most powerful actors in the piece were Damien Atkins as 34th generation Prior Walter whose Karposi Syndrome welts and blood defecations drove away his lover of 4 1/2 years Louis Ironson played by Ryan Beil. Absolutely a perfect match : Atkins was plaintive displaying his fears and sadness and rage over how his 30-year-old body was attacking him. Beil as the rationalizing ironic "Sid the Yid" boyfriend, as he calls his character, was also superb. Their Act 2 final scene is reason alone to go see this show for its poignance and pain and pathos, as well as Mr. Beil's Act 3 soliloquy about there being "no ghosts, no angels in America, only politics".

As Belize, Mr. Jackman-Torkoff turned in an endearing and whimsical and playful performance each scene he did. The fated Mormon couple of Celine Stubel as the Valium-junked-up hallucinating wife Harper and Craig Erickson as her tormented gay husband Joe joined company in the noted Act 2 final scene. Their simultaneous counterpoint with Prior and Louis was stunningly blocked and choreographed. I escaped to the lobby in tears.

Kudos to Director Kim Collier for her keen & discerning eye in casting this show. Utterly embracing and often breathtaking performances by all.

Who gonna like : On our way home my wife and I recalled the fears and paranoias that had society so edgy and anxious in the mid-80's when HIV / AIDS hit our society so dramatically, unexpectedly, confusingly. How LGBTQ folk were often shunned by people who previously might suggest over a beer that stale condescending apology "Some of my best friends are gay...". 

Angels in America : Millennium Approaches demonstrates three things primarily. What a devastation AIDS was back in the day : a whole generation of people lost from its ravages. How much "our better angels" have grown wings in the years since so the stigmas once attached to LGBTQ are largely gone in polite society. And, finally, how the current politics -- S. of 49 particularly, but elsewhere worldwide as well -- remind us how fragile and delicate the wings of angels can be. 

Particulars :  Written by Tony Kushner. At The Arts Club Stanley Theatre.  From March 23 through April 23.  Length : Three actsRun-time 185 minutes, including two intermissions. Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning ACBO @ 604.67.1644.  

Production team :  Director Kim Collier. Set Designer Ken MacKenzie.  Costume Designer Nancy Bryant.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Original Music & Sound Designers Torquil Campbell and Alessandro Juliani.  Video Designer Sean Nieuwenhuis.  Assistant Director Cameron Mackenzie.  Assistant Costume Designer Jessica Oostergo.  Stage Manager Jan Hodgson.  Assistant Stage Manager Peter Jotkus.  Apprentice Stage Manager Geoff Jones.

Performers :  Lois Anderson (The Angel; Emily; Sister Ella Chapter; Woman in the South Bronx).  Damien Atkins (Prior Walter; The Man in the Park).  Ryan Beil (Louis Ironson).  Craig Erickson (Joseph Porter Pitt; Prior 1; The Eskimo).  Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (Belize; Mr. Lies).  Brian Markinson (Roy M. Cohn; Prior 2).  Gabrielle Rose (Hannah Porter Pitt; Rabbi Isadore Chemelwitz; Henry; Ethel Rosenberg).  Celine Stubel (Harper Amity Pitt; Martin Heller).


Saturday, 25 March 2017

Valley Song sings of hope & sweet sorrow
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)
Veronica reassures Grandpa Buks that the bright lights of the city are for her. Photo Credit David Cooper
Editor's note : As we are unable to attend this year's mounting, the following is a re-worked version of BLR's February, 2015 review of the play from its original Gateway Theatre production. The principal actors are the same, and most of the production team as well.

Quick background sketch :  In his mid-80's now, playwright Athol Fugard has created some three-dozen stage plays across the decades. He acts. He directs. He writes novels. He's big. He's a white of Boer descent. And he never lets himself stray too far from a self-imposed grip of guilt over that fact. 

From his earliest days script-writing in the 60's he assailed South Africa's colonialism with its nearly five decades of official apartheid . (Interestingly the correct pronunciation of the word speaks to its inherently nefarious purposes : apart-hate.) As well, only 9% of its population are white but control nearly 100% of power, money and wealth. What the late US Christian theologian Marcus Borg termed "the powers that be", Fugard in Afrikaans calls the "groot kokkedorre", the great bigwigs.  

As a result of his impudence and daring, he was under regular surveillance by the Buro vir Staatsveiligheid, the secret police -- the S.A. stasi to whom Western journalists applied the easy acronym of "BOSS" -- and regularly had to produce his plays abroad to avoid detention and imprisonment.

Post-Robben Island : the Mandela years :  Once Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress achieved power in 1994, Fugard stopped writing polemics so much and concentrated more on "personal memoir" type plays. Valley Song fits neatly into that category. Because in it but for a few references to "white" and "master", there are virtually no political out-takes whatever. 

One would hardly know his setting in the Great Karoo from rural Ireland or England or India. Dirt-farmers, peasants, feudal serfs wherever they were stuck were still what and where they always have been : stuck. But some of them at least seem to have developed a love, almost a lust, for the fecundity of Mother Earth despite, or perhaps even because of, their modest circumstances. 

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

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

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

Veronica is a lyric soul. She sings spontaneously, putting the day's events to song as they happen, and is the joy of Opa's heart. But she has dreams. To be wreathed in shimmering green and trill to adoring crowds instead of taking hand-outs singing pedestrian ditties she's made up to passerby whites in the local town square. 

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

Author warns Veronica : "I don't want you to be hurt by your dreams, the 'Big Dream' that doesn't come true. Dreams don't do well in this valley, pumpkins do." 

Production values : Drew Facey's set features stacks of fruit & veggie crates and weatherbeaten wooden skids that face each other floor-to-ceiling E/W on Pacifica's alley stage. Perpendicularly the N/S facing banks of auditorium seats lend the set what regular playgoers will recognize as that "familiar forceful Facey effect". 

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

Who gonna like : Valley Song is a self-conscious and reflective and apparently autobiographical period piece from South Africa in its early post-apartheid moments. One reviewer said it was less play than "tone poem". 

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

A well-executed performance for sure, this, that will appeal to thoughtful folks wanting some wee insight into the world of South Africa, old and new.

Particulars. Produced by The Gateway Theatre.  At Pacific Theatre, 12th @ Hemlock. Performances March 24-April 8th.  Schedules and tickets contact the Box Office @ 604.731.5518 -or- online @ the Pacific Theatre website.

Production crew. Written by Athol Fugard.  Directed by Gateway Theatre Artistic Director Jovanni Sy.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer Chengyan Boon.  Original Music and Sound Designer Cathy Nosaty.  

Actors :  David Adams.  Sereana Malani.

Songs For a New World haunt & honour our extreme 1st world good fortune
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)

Cast of SFANW reveals what the new world in Canada looks like in 2017.

From the footlights : First "the new world" of 1492 : Spain puts Columbus to sail and simultaneously expels all its Jews. In Canada and USA, indigenous native original migrants here in settlements from 10,000 years back face disease, war and cultural genocide. Centuries later would come Dvorak's New World symphony. Then Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The fall of the Berlin wall follows, and a mere decade later the so-called Arab Spring. Here we are, now, in yet another "new world order". The expression has indeed had many versions and iterations. And not all of them positive. 

In the hands of musicman Jason Robert Brown, Songs for a New World is a set of some 17 songs + a couple of "transitions" around the theme of change. Change in the sense of cataclysm -- change events after which one faces breathtaking circumstances : a whole new world of needs, demands, challenges for better or for worse.

In announcing SFANW to BLR back in February, Fabulist Theatre co-artistic producer Damon Jang wrote : "SFANW is...a collection of songs strung together by the central theme of life (being) about one moment, taking a step, and hopeful optimism toward a brighter future."

How it's all put together : Normally SFANW is performed by just four actors donning various persona throughout the show. Fabulist Theatre co-founders Mary Littlejohn and Damon Jang, however,  have created a clever "re-imagination" : "We have expanded the cast to 16, ranging in age from 11-62, making it immigrant-focused and reflecting our own diverse cultures and communities here in Canada and the United States. We have even made the only straight love duet between two men."

Fabulist embellishes on the concept : "SFANW is a rare kind of show, neither a musical nor a revue, but a song cycle exploring immigration, war, motherhood, poverty, and the singular moments that transform our lives." 

Four musical predecessors jump immediately to mind : Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel, Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim. Songs of purpose. Songs of protest. Songs of hurt. Songs of reconciliation. That the script is most often produced by college and community theatre groups connects it to other similar favourites such troupes regularly perform like Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat or Annie

What makes his show work : Not having seen a production of SFANW with but four actors playing all the roles, I have nothing to compare. But I can imagine. The choice to expand the cast and flesh out scenes with 11 additional actors and harmonies and costumes and staging was inspired. The choreography or "musical staging" as Damon Jang calls could not help but add visual depth and breadth to a spare, 4-person performance, no question.

Many of the songs highlight military moments. Taken together they are redolent of Buffy Ste. Marie's iconic "Universal Soldier" theme. The other leitmotif, understandably, involved invocations of The Almighty. In the world's most active conflicts today that have direct religious connections, another Canadian songster Danny Michel is brought to mind via his plaintive ironic ballad "If God's on your side / Who's on mine?" 

Tying it all together, Anne Meeson's eye for costumes brought this 20-year-old script into today's world with good visual effect. The projected images shot up on the overhead screen were adroit and ept -- everything from burning teepees in native villages to shots of Syrian refugees en masse to the recent women's protests where they sported pink pussy hats and stars-&-stripe burkas.  

Performance pin-spots : Generally, it is Act II where the musical numbers show off both Mr. Brown's and the cast's talents the best. The two males whose voices stood out the most were Aerhyn Lau and Frankie Cottrell (whose "King of the World" was superb), while Isabella Halladay and Cheryl Mullen were probably the strongest women's songsters. (Mullen's "Surabaya Santa" was some necessary comic relief interjected into the show by Mr. Brown : she was simply delightful as Mrs. Claus bidding ol' Nick good-bye from a lonely marriage.)

The tight PAL stage makes live music a disadvantage, in a way, because it is difficult to mute live instrument accompaniment particularly when limited budget would not permit mic'ing up the actors. That said, I was wholly impressed both with Angus Kellet's musical direction and his piano prowess, while for his part Will Friesen finessed his drum-set well : no irritating woodchopping, nicely subtle stuff.

Who gonna like : The words that sprang to mind watching this show were three : earnest & ingenious & charming. With newcomer talent alongside more seasoned performers -- coupled with the technical drawback of the singers not being mic'd  -- the show presents somewhat unevenly in vocal projection and confidence, particularly. 

The fact of Jason Robert Brown's ear for tuneful songs coupled with good blocking direction and choreography make this a pleasurable outing where Vancouver theatre fans can witness up-&-coming talent as they test out their chops. Not 100% slick & polished & expert, Fabulist Theatre's inaugural production nevertheless holds promise of an exciting future for cast and production team both. 

Particulars :  Produced by Fabulist Theatre [inaugural production]. Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  From March 23-April 1. At PAL Theatre, 8th Floor, 581 Cardero Streeet. Tickets $28 / $24 students & seniors. Tickets available @ Brown Paper Tickets.

Production team :  Directed by Mary Littlejohn and Damon Jang [Fabulist's co-founders].  Musical staging by Damon Jang.  Music Director Angus Kellett.  Stage Manager Jasmin Sandu.  Costume Designer Anne Meeson. 

Performers :  Frankie Cottrell,  Michael Czyz.  Allyson Fournier.  Isabella Halladay.  Maria Herrera. Damon Jang.  Rema Kibayi.  Aerhyn Lau.  Kate MacColl.  Cheryl Mullen.  Arta Negahbah.  Regi Nevada.  Charity Principe.  Shina Likasa.  Arielle Tuliao.  

Addendum #1 :  Jason Robert Brown plopped himself in New York City when he was just 20. He was determined to write Broadway musicals. But of course he had to do the preliminaries. So he took up saloon-singing, just like Billy Joel's iconic piano man. 

In an expansive look at Brown in his book Rebels With Applause : Broadway's Groundbreaking Musicals (1999), musical history explorer Scott Miller tells how Brown got to chatting up a gal who kept coming back time after time to take in his saloon schtick. Her name was Daisy Prince. Who just happened to be the daughter of Broadway director / producer / impressario Hal Prince. Talk about slipping the lines and sailing to a new world!

Ms. Prince helped Brown piece together the show over the course of a few years. Gradually a kind of theme emerged to link old tunes Brown had written with the new ones designed just for the embryonic show. It was first performed off-Broadway in 1995. 

When SFANW was released as a musical album by RCA Masterworks in 1997, the liner notes declared : "It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." Wiki cites a source that describes the play as "an abstract musical, a series of songs all connected by a theme : 'the moment of decision'."

Fabulist Theatre co-artistic producer told Postmedia's Shawn Connor this week : "There's one song called Just One Step that's usually done by a sort of over-the-top older Jewish lady. We had a few options to cast it traditionally. But the best person for the part turned out to be this woman named Charity Principe. She's Canadian with Filipino ancestry. We got to ask, Why can't this character be Filipino. There's no reason. That number in particular is a new way of doing it."

Addendum #2 : Personal reflections. Fifty years ago I became an emigre to this country with my first family : daughter 6 months old, son in the womb to arrive 6 months later. 25 years later, a second family included a new daughter, adopted from T'bilisi in the Republic of Georgia, an ex-Soviet Union satellite. Thus I know intimately on more than one level over the years what a "new world" looks like and how heart-stopping it can be to go there. 

In my Canadian citizenship swearing-in group, meanwhile, there were 82 of us. From 23 (!) countries of birth -- almost one different country for every three seats. Of the 82, there were eight Caucasians, five of them from one family from Denmark. The rest were, to use the expression, "people of colour". At our family \ friend brunch celebrating afterward, among the six of us we discovered : two 2nd generation Canadians. One 1st generation Canadian. Three immigrants. We concluded this is a young and diverse country indeed.

Addendum #3 : Song-list, descriptors supplied by Fabulist Theatre program + Wiki.

Act I

"Opening Sequence: The New World".  The company sings of the evening's central theme: that even when everything seems stable and certain, there is "one moment" that can upend and change anyone's life. Set at various airports, various times.

"On the Deck..." – On the voyage to an undiscovered country on a boat in the Pacific Ocean.

"Just One Step" – Wife climbs out onto the window ledge of her 57th-story apartment in an attempt to get her neglectful husband Murray's attention.

"I'm Not Afraid of Anything" – A young woman reflects on the fears of the people she loves, and comes to realize how they have held her back. Backdrop insurgent-controlled territory, Somalia.

"The River Won't Flow" – The cast swap stories of woe and ill luck, concluding that for some, bad luck is just fate. DTES Vancouver.

"Stars and the Moon" – Recounting the stories of two poor suitors and the rich man she eventually marries, a woman comes to realize what she has sacrificed in exchange for wealth and comfort. A Shaughnessy mansion with a soldier in camou as foil.

"She Cries" – A man describes the power the women seem to have over men.

"The Steam Train" – A teenager from a poor neighborhood in New York boasts of his future as a basketball star. The Bronx, various locations.

Act II

"The World Was Dancing" –  Tells the story of how a young man's father bought, then lost, a store, and how the experience influenced his decision to leave his fiancĂ©e for his gay lover. A party at Princeton University.

"Surabaya-Santa" – In a parody of the Kurt Weil torch song Surabaya Johnny, Mrs. Claus sings a scornful, teutonic kiss-off to her neglectful husband Nick. The North Pole.

"Christmas Lullaby" – A woman reacts with wonder and joy to the discovery of her pregnancy, comparing herself to The Virgin Mary. Lapu Lapu, Philippines.

"King of the World" -- A man demands that he be freed from prison and returned to his rightful place as a leader. A North Dakota prison.

"I'd Give It All for You" – A pair of former lovers reunite after attempting to live without each other. The men meet at an unnamed American airport.

"The Flagmaker, 1775" – Betsy Ross, whose husband and son fight in the Revolutionary War, sews the  flag she designed with anger and a bit of contempt while attempting to keep her hope alive and her house standing.

"Flying Home" – A soldier, who has died in battle, sings as his body is flown home to his mother and he crosses over to another life. Kandahar, Afghanistan. [Canadians killed 2001 - 2009 : 159. Wounded in battle : 615.  Non-battle injuries : 1,244.]

"Final Transition: The New World". A Canadian airport.

"Hear My Song".  The company, as if singing a lullaby to a child, express their hope that they have gained by experiencing hardship and how they have gained strength from each other. A Syrian refugee camp in Greece.


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Burkett's Daisy Theatre is a total slo-mo laff-hoot
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)
Esme Massengill was given the night off ON but will amuse Daisy fans in future shows no doubt.  
Alejandro Santiago photo.
From the footlights :  For the fourth time in recent years, Alberta-born Ronnie Burkett from TO brings his marionettes and puppetry silliness to The Cultch where he riffs off the audience to create hilarious vaudeville with strings & sticks & papier mache & exquisite rags of every thread imaginable.

My careworn 1943 leather Funk & Wagnall's defines vaudeville as "a miscellaneous theatrical entertainment consisting of...a series of short sketches, songs, dances, acrobatic feats, etc. having no dramatic connection." Can't imagine a better sum-up for Daisy.

Burkett's 2015 promotional material referred to him as "the renowned puppeteer provocateur", and that moniker still applies to him and the 40+ marionettes in his kit-bag, a dozen of which he breathes life and hilarity into each show.

How it's all put together : As seen also with the muppetry of Avenue Q, use of these animated dolls helps project and masquerade all the little neuroses that normally are squelched, by way of caution, in our brain's prefrontal cortex. 

But when we let them out for a walk through our thoughts, we do trouble about self-image. About secret lusts & urges & spatters of naughty thoughts. About love and loss and "sickness unto death" , about seeking the light and being liberated from darkness -- the whole dang metaphysical thang. 

Stock characters in Burkett's repertoire include what Urban Dictionary thinks might stand for "esteemed douche", Esme Massengill, pictured above. Regrettably, Esme was given the night off ON. But other favourites like good ol' Edna Rural from Turnip Corners, Alberta once more appeared in her cheap imported Sears housedress. Four new songs, a couple of new characters or old ones revisited -- my favourites being Woody the ventriloquist dummy and Ziggy who sweeps up the stage stardust -- and you have a night  that's rife with glee and empathy. 

As noted last time out, it's Burkett's manic, antic and endlesly mischievous brain that brings all these characters to life, gives them personalities crowds latch onto, makes them as real to big-kid audiences as ol' long-nose Pinocchio was to short-pant kids in grammar schools the world over.

What  makes the 2017 show shine : Constant gay references punctuate the performances and give rise to the characters' names that most often have sexual overtones. And Burkett's dialogues, for their part, are a constant double entendre barrage in that vein. [Not a show recommended for the sub-19 crowd.] But wysiwyg. His presence is without doubt commanding. Eighteen months back the NYT in a review declared "Mr. Burkett is a benevolent god : indelicate, a little poignant and kind of fantastic." Part Garrison Keillor, part Lily Tomlin, part the kids Macaulay Culkin / Anna Chlumsky from a quarter-century back, Burkett's verbal and emotional range is exceptionally broad. 

As well it is his Brobdingnagian girth up on the marionettes' bridge above-stage that makes the Lilliputian puppets under his deft hand so vibrant. One set piece involves the aging songstress Clara Dribbles and her grand piano accompanist Ivor Tinkles. This trip Burkett yanked an unsuspecting chap named Erwin Selak out of the audience to do a topless Tinkles routine which he carried off with genial and indulgent good cheer. This as foil to Burkett's booming verbal rendition, accidental or no, of local favourite Alan Zinyk who recently starred in the Cultch's Elbow Room Cafe

No question it is Burkett's range of the stentorian and boisterous but also his faint and enfeebled voices -- the whole of it rattles and prattles on spontaneously and unceasingly and engagingly for more than an hour-&-a-half -- indeed a tour de force performance that nigh unto exhausted me even if some of the riffs weren't quite as compelling as the 2015 show produced. 

The ever-cuddly-but-melancholy narrator for the night is androgynous Schnitzel, a wispy elfin metamorph with a daisy growing out of its head. The puppets' stage manager, France, challenges her at the show's start with tongue firmly in cheek : "We're here for a couple of weeks, take the bus to Seattle. When you get to the border tell them 'I'm a fairy, I'm an artist' -- what could go wrong?" Later, referring of course to The Satanic Twitter S. of 49, Schnitzel declares : "I'm about to go hang out back stage in the dark with my eyes wide open, that's the way we have to live these days. But don't forget when we're turning out the lights, daisies grow in the dark."

Who gonna like : Compared to the fast-twitch phenomena of video and film and t.v. and Internet images, live theatre is inherently slo-mo by comparison as the review hed suggests. With the added punch of marionettes at-hand, Daisy is an evening's outing that lets the audience bask in irony and witty jibe and just plain funnin'. This is Burkett's 30th Anniversary season -- coincidentally the ON show was played on International Puppetry Day -- and he is breathtaking, lit.-&-fig., with a vigour & wit & irony & play that are quite a marvel to behold.

The last three visits to Vancouver were all sold-out shows, so you better act fast to become yet another convert and devotee. This is a unique and cheeky form of live stage entertainment that honours and propels the dissident and mutinous roots from which it hath so richly grown [see Addendum below].

Particulars :  Created & performed by Ronnie Burkett. At the Cultch Historic Theatre, Vennables at Victoria in EastVan, through April 9th. Run-time between 90-120 minutes depending on how responsive "the dark people" [audience] turn out to be. Intermission? No. And no re-admits if you leave to visit the WC.  Tickets & schedules : Box office phone 604.251.1363 or via The Cultch website.

Production team for the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes : Marionette, Costume & Set Design : Ronnie Burkett.  Music & Lyrics & Sound Design : John Alcorn.  Production Manager & Artistic Associate : Terri Gillis.  Stage Manager : Crystal Salverda  Associate Producer : John Lambert.  Costumes : Kim Crossley.  Puppet Builders Angela Talbot, Gemma James-Smith, Marcus Jamin, Jesse Byiers w/ Gil Garratt & Martin Herbert.  Shoes & Accessories : Robin Fisher and Camellia Koo.  Marionette Controls : Luman Coad.  Majordomos : Robbie Buttinsky & Daisy Padunkles [sic].

N.B. The Daisy Theatre was co-commissioned by the Luminato Festival (Toronto) and the Centre for the Art of Performance at UCLA (Los Angeles). It was produced in association with the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes (Toronto), with development support from the Canada Council for the Arts.  

2015 Addendum redux : Some interesting history around puppetry within the Soviet Union and the Czech Republic is provided by the website which features an essay "History of Radical Puppetry" by visual-&-performing artist K. Ruby whose e-mail handle is "wisefool." 

An edited squib of Ms. Ruby's essay is provided below that identifies the Czech "daisies" hook that Mr. Burkett lends to his production.

Under socialism Lenin had said, art would no longer serve the elite, "the upper 10,000 suffering from boredom and obesity," but the tense of millions of labouring people, "the flower of the country, its strength and future."

The design of mass festivals was not just a phenomenon but also an intentional and orchestrated design of the communist party, who were well aware of the power of visual metaphor. 

Early festivals were dominated by avant-garde artists, the futurists. But in the 20's and 30's "fine artists" were dissuaded and themes were simplified and made representational, carried out by the workers and unions themselves. Throughout the years before World War II, May Day and the Anniversary of the Revolution were events filled with elaborate and highly evocative street art, giant statuary, puppets of the evil imperialists designed to denigrate the bourgeois and celebrate the workers.

Indicative of the contradictions inherent to the Russian Revolutional Spirit, is the evolution of the party's relationship to the puppet character Petrouchka. Petrouchka was an underdog and popular hero, a working class trickster in conflict with authority, much like Punch -- a perfect revolutionary. The Red Petrouchka Collective started in 1927 and dozens of others sprang up in the following years. 

But of course Petrouchka's eternal problems with authority soon led the Soviet state to suppress the anarchic and rebellious Petrouchka in favour of a more benign version of the character, suitable only for children -- a parallel to the watering down of puppetry in the west for purposes of education and advertising.

Undisputed leaders of puppetry in Europe, the Czech puppeteers also had a tradition of radical puppetry. When the Czech language was banned by the Austrian Hungarian empire in the 19th century, puppeteers continued to perform in the Czech language as an act of defiance. 

During Nazi occupation, Czech puppeteers organized illegal underground performances in homes and basements with anti-fascist themes, called "daisies". Karel Capek, who wrote the famous anti-technology play RUR and coined the word robot, wrote anti-fascist prose pieces for the puppeteers. 

Josef Skupa, a famous popular puppeteer known for his leading character Spejbl, did wartime tours of adult puppet plays with subtle allegorical points imperceptible to the censor. In the concentration camps, Czech women made puppet shows from scraps of nothing to keep up their morale. Eventually the Nazis suppressed all Czech puppetry and over 100 skilled puppeteers died under torture in the camps.