Sunday, 29 October 2017

Honour : impressionistic look at a Mumbai brothel

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 : There is irony -- somewhere, somehow -- that a PhD in molecular biology who does prostate cancer research at USA's Sloan Kettering centre also stars in the solo-show she conceived, created, and wrote called :   

Current Cultch website ads for this dynamo named Dipti Mehta refer to her script as "a fun and poignant look at the exotic and dangerous life of Mumbai's real-life brothels".  One could be forgiven for coming away with the notion Honour will be about as light and escapist as Casablanca. It decidedly is not.

Through dance and narrative woven seamlessly in both Hindi and English, Mehta stitches together the stories of six people who are "married", as it were, to a brothel. The two main characters are teen-ager Rani whose prostitute mother Chemeli is grooming her to follow Mom into the trade. Her entry will occur when Mom sells off her "honour", i.e. her virginity, to the highest bidder. [Current bidding some 100,000 rupee, or about Cdn $2,000]. Mom's hope, meanwhile, is that Rani will become a "paramour" and an "adventuress" as a pampered "kept woman" rather than spend her life as a whorehouse slave like she has.

What the show brings to the stage : One year back, also as part of Diwali in BC, Anusree Roy's Brothel #9 took over the Cultch Lab. It, too, was a look at Indian prostitution from the perspective of a young woman (played by Adele Noronha) who was sold into the trade by good ol' Dad. (She thought she was going to work in an uncle's light bulb factory.) Roy's character was ennerved by the dramatic excellence Noronha gave the script : she brought on tears.

Not so much with Honour. It, by contrast, is more an interpretive dance and performance art approach to the same themes. One relates less viscerally to the storyline as Mehta tries on for size the show's various roles serially. Joining the teen-age virgin Rani and her mother Chameli are Shyam, a pimp, son of Chameli's late pimp; the stereotypical fat, old rich guy Laal; a Hindu brahmin satyr; a eunuch / transgender whore known as a hijra who is a superb creation by Mehta; and an American anthrojournalist she talks to off-stage who is trying to write about India's red light districts. 

Dipti Mehta does interpretive dance from Hindi tradition to punctuate depictions of life in a Mumbai brothel.
Kyle Rosenberg photo
Production values that hi-light the action :  Aside -- As a 40-year-old I escaped White Rock after 20 years to take up work in DTES Vanvouer. Shortly on the heels of Expo I learned quickly how "dignity" and "integrity" and "honour" are not innately defined virtues. Learned quickly how street people have their own litmus tests of character and probity that demand equal respect as do those who amble along the pier in Semiahmoo Bay. 

It is this recurring dramatic theme -- respect & recoupment & redemption -- that Mehti seems to want to project through her ambitious and at times sparkling one-woman show. The production demonstrates more than anything else just what empathy looks like in real time in the charnel reaches of Mumbai.

A simple set provides Dipti Mehta much opportunity to improvise and imagine the moment.
At one point in the voice and persona of the pimp Shyam she takes a shot at the peeping-eye American journalist:  "You think you are all Mahatma Gandhi. Huh. We are just a small people with big dreams." Rani's big dream is to marry the boy Nandu whom she loves. When he is found out, Shyam breaks his bones and threatens to kill him.

For their part, Shyam and Chemali's big dreams are to make money from Rani's deflowering, which, of course, ultimately happens. No surprise, in the end she becomes the courtesan that fate and caste and fortune conspire to inflict upon her -- "insulted, disgraced, objectified, discarded" -- same as the mythical character Karna from the Bhagavad Gita story "Mahabharata".

BLR take-aways :  Part referential-&-evocative dervish-type dances. Part performance art. Part stream of conscious nightmare. Part didactic moral outrage and feminist rights advocacy that is utterly intuitive -vs- expository.

The creative mix of characters riffing off one another in rapid-fire frequency between Hindi and heavily-accented English is a sense-adventure one "experiences" here rather than sees and hears and feels and cogitates in the normal Western dramatic manner. 

As an introduction to Bhagavad Gita thought on the concept of moksha (liberation), this is a more immediate and impressive and immersive baptism than any college world religion course could ever aspire to be. 

Acting pin-spots : The solo dramatist in all of this -- creator & imaginator, writer, performer -- Dipti Mehta is simply astonishing. The couple on my right in Row 3 allowed as how they were in Mumbai a year back and said that this show, in essence, summed up their whole month there. Not just as a brothel / fate story, but on every level -- a script & production that tries valiantly to explain comprehensively, succinctly to the Western mind just what India might be all about behind its veils of history and mythos.

Who gonna like : Honour is edgy, biting, and "poignant", yes, but one would not call it "fun". It is an impressionistic piece. An evening of light and colour and sound that creates a dramatic gestalt in a way altogether different from Mr. Roy's more traditionally-structured drama Brothel #9 from 2016.

Part of the show's profits go to two enterprises that are working to free women and girls from the enslavement of brothel life in India, Honour Her and Last Girl First. Tuesday's performance is the last of the run that is not sold out. 

Nothing like it have I ever experienced on stage anywhere, anytime. Quite an adventure it truly is : one can only sit back and absorb its inspired invention.

Particulars : Created, written & performed by Dipti Mehta.  At the Cultch's VanCity black box Lab stage, Victoria @ Vennables. On with limited seats available only until November 4th. Tickets by phone at 604.251.1363 or on-line at

Production team.  Original score Rhythm Tolee.  Choreography Monica Kapoor.  Sound design Matt Bittner.  Lighting design Jason Flamos.  Costume consultant Scott Westervelt.

Addendum : From the Show Info page in the program : 

HONOUR : Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan, is a coming of age story of Rani, a young girl in a brothel. While the play is completely fictional, Dipti was shocked to find that she was telling stories of real people when the saw a video on BBC about an organization called Kranti that is helping daughters of prostitutes from India. And there she was in that video on BBC, Rani, a 16-year-old telling her story. HONOUR is a movement to break social stigma against brothel dwellers, a movement to build bridges and connect humanity that exists in brothels to the world, a movement to bring all the Ranis out of their circumstances and become wind beneath their winds.

HONOUR is grateful to return to Vancouver this year and for the opportunity to make a difference through art. HONOUR is our humble attempt to connect theatre with a cause. A portion of the proceeds from the artist fee will go to Apne Aap, an international aid organization doing grassroots work of rescue and rehabilitation of trafficking victims. To follow the show's journey link to Honour.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

King Charles III riffs on Brit monarchy rift

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 :  In the original London production of KC3, the lithograph poster featured Charles with an outsize X-bandage taping his mouth shut. In the current ACT production, the artististic team out of Burnkit graphics in Vancouver's DTES depicts Charles with a crown too-big-by-half : gravity dictates the weight of the crown shutters his eyes and droops it unceremoniously on his royal proboscis.

Those graphics coupled with ACT's program teaser "The Jovial Political Satire -- Long Live the King?" -- while clever -- are nevertheless a bit of a miscue. We are expecting to kick back for a cheeky peek at all things House of Windsor. Instead we're treated to a serious-y soap opera. It starts with QE2 who has just launched to Heaven : playwright Mike Bartlett calls what follows "a future history play" with lots of ironic twists less lordly than rogue. Dialogue reveals she served 70 years. Thus the time-frame is 2023 or maybe a bit later.

No question this is a saucy little potboiler. In his first audience with Labour Prime Minister Tristan Evans (Simon Webb) we find Charles (Ted Cole) threatening to withold Royal Assent from a so-called "privacy bill" already passed in Parliament. The bill would give government invasive authority over UK media news. The free press would, in other words, be muzzled to "protect" the public's privacy. This act of bravado? foolishness? whim? by Charles to singlehandedly thwart or veto Parliament occurs even before he is officially installed on the throne through coronation : he is, foretellingly, the king in name only, an apprentice or acting king.

Whether from dithery or moral pique or hubris, Charles' motives are in full paradoxical view throughout the night. For their part Prince William (Oliver Rice) and Kate (Katherine Gauthier) fear Dad's brazen affront to ceremonial tradition will cost them the throne a few short paces up the road and will deny Georgie & Charlotte the silver spoon life. 

Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant), the ginger one, meanwhile, decides this is precisely the right time to spice matters up : he gets randy and raunchy with a commie-leaning commoner named Jessica Edwards (Agnes Tong). 

Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant) swaps a smooch with commoner Jess (Agnes Tong) while his unapproving Dad (Ted Cole) looks askance.
David Cooper photo.
What the show brings to the stage : Not many would disagree that the world's 40-some monarchies are all an anachronism whether individually or collectively. Not one enjoys much more than figurehead or ceremonial status. And yet they continue to grab at our imaginations : the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death produced a wodge of reminiscent publications, confessatorials by her sons, a mute run-for-cover by Chuck-&-Camilla.  

Anticipating this, playwright Bartlett includes repeated appearances for Diana (Lauren Bowler). Her troubled soul is footloose in KC3 -- clearly the show's leitmotif -- absolutely no question Diana remains a beguiling ghost who still haunts the family enclave at Kensington both in Bartlett's script and in real life. 

Back to KC3 the play. Notably Charles' interminable hand-wringing "What should I do, what should I do...?" -- like the script's chunks of dialogue in blank verse -- has powerful and purposeful links to Shakespeare. Almost as if Mr. Bartlett was channeling Billy Bard's most famous waffler, Hamlet. Never mind the "To be..." soliloquy, think instead how in a moment of existential insight Hamlet mused : "There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so." 

Good? Bad? Whatever. Fact is when the public learns of Charles' purpose-driven contretemps with Parliament, unrest descends into riots. Fleet Street, for its part, hunts Harry and his commoner lover Jess with the vicious zest of hyenas both in words and racy photos. Not to be outdone, the republicans and the monarchists and the rabble scratch and claw one another mercilessly under Buckingham's balconies trying to lay claim to both history and the future.

Plotting & canoodling, Kate (Katherine Gauthier) and Prince William (Oliver Rice) are not the smiley simpletons they sometimes seem. Well she, at least, is not.
David Cooper photo.
Sequestered in Buckingham, Charles may be stuck but he is not alone in his troubled and vexed cerebration. William & Kate do a lot of thinking, too, much of it outside the royal box. In the end they force a showdown with the king and wife Camilla (Gwyneth Walsh) that changes the monarchy in UK forever : whether for better or worse is left up-for-grabs. But it's done in a way only possible in a constitutional monarchy of British hue. (E.g. USA would not be capable of a similar political outcome : a ballot-box or military coup would be what they face.)

Script features that shine through : Much of the entertainment in this Bartlett script (writ when he was but 35) lies in two directions.

One the fact that these folks he writes about are facsimiles of the forever-public, forever-private royals : we see all the staged and rehearsed glitz-&-glamour, but we can only imagine their down-home dialogue. Still, suckers for them that we are, we drool over all the gossip that bridges the gaps. E.g. I can name no single Canadian friend who is not opinionated about Diana, Chuck & Camilla nor would anyone question whether '97 was truly annus horribilis or not. 

The other direction is the Shakespearean lilt of Bartlett's script : it's almost as if Tim Rice and Billy Bard got tiddly at The Old Thatch in Stratford and scritched out some of this stuff together :

Sometimes I must confess I 'magined if
My mother hap'ed to die before her term,
A helicopter crash, a rare disease
So at an early age I'd be in charge --
Before me years of constant stable rule.

Oh such delicious self-absorption, such delusion, such lofty piddle -- precisely the kind of cheesy curd many think Prince Chas. probably is at core. (Others say emphatically "Not so!" -- a warm, endearing and thoughtful chappy thru-&-thru they insist.)

King Charles (Ted Cole) stares wistfully at the crown that kept him "ling'ring" in Mom's shadow for decades. He'll discover with abject pain that his future as a royal won't be all ermine and gold braid.
David Cooper photo
Production values of note : Must start with a caution overheard from more than one ticket-buyer at Intermission. The 25-metre-wide Stanley Theatre stage is not chummy enough for this script. Many if not most of the scenes are 2- and 3- and 4-hander exchanges that take place downstage centre on a squatch of stage just 2-3 meters across and the same deep. That leaves too much parking space for the other actors to have to jockey about in : no way they can fill it up, much like the Carolina Hurricanes' hockey arena.

Other first-impression oddities : the royal family on stage before opening curtain as attendees at the Queen's funeral. They kibbitz with the audience members, wave to the cheap seat crowd up top and generally banter off-handedly and jump through the 4th wall to chum with folks. Seemed utterly awkward and contrived and out-of-character for royals.

On the costume side, diminutive as Simon Webb might be, outfitting him as the Prime Minister for the Queen's funeral in a bland off-the shelf skinny-version brown suit rather than in the customary all-black mourning ensemble was a visual clanger that rang loud. Only white sox would have made more noise.

These idiosyncrasies aside, Director Kevin Bennett manoeuvred imaginatively his cast of twelve (playing 22 characters) along the upstage scrim and in their crowd and chorus scenes. The spare set prop-wise with its oversize stockade palace gate the primary visual effect had punch. Regardless of being too-fat-by-far, the stage, symbolically, was adorned with a ginormous British flag underfoot that everyone involved trampled on all night long.

Acting pin-spots:  Good solid performances by the whole troupe, no exceptions. Ted Cole crafted a steady if bemused and engaging Chas 3 who quite likely does spend his time talking to the garden plants while sniggling out random sing-songs to cheer them up. His self-controlled engagement except when emotional with his two sons was as we would expect. For her part, a wholly Brava! capture of Diana by Lauren Bowler.

The show's Duchess Kate was utterly different from the Katherine Middleton on display in today's media : cunning and conniving and pushy and altogether Lady Macbeth-ish. As Camilla, similarly, not "of the horsey set" as the paparazzi and press like to peg her, Gwynyth Walsh was another grasping schemer like Kate, if less steely and more vulnerable.

Plenty of sexy beery fun between Charlie Gallant as Harry and Agnes Tong as Jess. His ghost-faced dismissal of her at play's end was somewhat scary : the power of royal politics can cut the heart in two. Finally, a wee shout-out to Christine Willes as Maude Stevens, the Maggie Thatcher wannabe character in voice and gesture and bluster. Fun to watch for sure.

Who gonna like :  As suggested, preliminary out-takes invited an expectation that there would be satire and silliness setting us up for giggles in this piece. Not in the least. The 19th century Crown legal advisor Walter Bagehot concluded that the monarch's roles vis-a-vis Parliament were simply three, no more : to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. Testing the limits of those roles was the subject matter here that played out quite seriously (see Addendum) : not much yuk-yuk in all this. 

Given the world faces a future that is less secure, less predictable, likely with fewer "better angels" at our beck and call -- given all of the political upheaval happening worldwide -- King Charles III embraces our brains and ties our guts into knots of recognition. The play's relentless foreboding makes for a contemplative and rewarding night of live theatre, no question.

Particulars : Written by Mike Bartlett. Original production London, 2014. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Stanley Theatre, Granville @ 11th.  On until November 19, 2017.  Run-time two-&-a-half hours including intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Kevin Bennett.  Set Designer Kevin McAllister.  Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier.  Lighting DesignerDarren Boquist.  Sound Designer Ben Elliott.  Stage Manager Rick Rinder.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Voice, Text & Dialogue Coach Alison Matthews.  Assistant to the Director Seamus Fera.

Performers :  David Bloom (James Reiss).  Lauren Bowler (Ghost / Sarah / Newspaper Woman / T.V. Producer).  Chris Cochrane (Speaker / Butler / Sir Michael).  Ted Cole (King Charles III).  Charlie Gallant (Prince Harry).  Katherine Gauthier (Kate).  Shekhar Paleja (Spencer / Butler / Kabob Vendor / Sir Gordon / Archbishop).  Oliver Rice (Prince William).  Agnes Tong (Jess).  Gwynyth Walsh (Camilla).  Simon Webb (Mr. Evans).  Christine Willes (Mrs. Stevens).

Addendum : What follows is an editorial that appeared in The Guardian from Manchester, England on May 12, 2017. It provides an interesting realpolitik lens through which to view Mike Bartlett's play.

King Charles III, Mike Bartlett's play set in a future shortly after the Queen's death, aired on the BBC this week. Its trim new television version was directed by Rupert Goold and starred, in what turned out to be his masterful swansong, the late Tim Pigott-Smith, who died suddenly between filming and broadcast. The drama, the stage premiere of which was agt the Almeida in London before runs in the West End and on Broadway, is about a constitutional crisis precipitated by the new king's refusal to sign a new bill into law.  As the country descends into riots and unrest, a subplot also emerges about a romance betwee Prince Harry and an ordinary London student (their idyll reudely interrupted by press intrusion). And the Duchess of Cambridge reveals a steely interior life quite different from the benign exterior projected by the real Kate Middleton.

Mr. Bartlett's blank-verse drama is a riff on the Shaklespearean history play : he has given a Prince Charles tinged with Lear and Richard III; a Duchess of Cambridge perfumed with Lady Macbeth; and a Prince Harry very obviously drawing on his namesake, Prince Hal of Henry IV, who hangs around tavernsl with his raffish pals only to abandon them brutally when duty calls. The royal family are, as Alan Bennett has pointed out...a gift to write about.They are endlessly seen while essetially unknown, and so provide blank slates on to which one can project imaginary life.

Mr. Bennett has also written of fiction's peculiar way of prefiguring the future -- "write it, and it happens".  Since its premiere in 2014, King Charles III has come to look rather prescient. The year after it was first staged came the revelations of "the black spider" memos, lobbying letters from the Prince of Wales to various government ministers. And last year, Prince Harry issued an unprecedented statement condemning what he called the "wave of abuse" breaking in the tabloid press and on social media over his girlfriend, the actor Meghan Markle.

The broadcast of King Charles III came a few days after the news that the Duke of Edinburgh had decided to step down from official duties. A frisson of anxiety had gripped social media in the hours that had elapsed between the notification that an announcemnt was imminent and public circulation of its actual contents -- a tiny foretaste, it seems clear, of the real shock that will attend the passings of the senior members of the royal family.  It was, perhaps, such anxieties about the future that made King Charles III something of a hot potato in the press, with rave reviews in some quarters -- and in others, somewhat laughable accusations that it was virtually treasonous.

Even staunch republicans can allow themselves to admit that in a time of great political uncertainty, the death of the Queen, when it eventually comes, is almost certain to provide a further jolt to an already shaken country. Only 1% of today's population were adults when she was crowned; 83% of us have spent our whole lives with her as Queen.  King Charles III, like all the best drama, touched a raw nerve. And it provides a gentle reminder that when the mnoment of succession does arrive, it will behoove everyone -- citizerns, politicians, royals -- to go carefully.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Happy Place it is not, but stupendous !

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 :  With some trepidation BLR focuses on south Asian Pamela Mala Sinha's script Happy Place. Largely because it is about seven women of mixed racial origins with mental health issues. They find themselves in a temporary sorority because each of them has attempted suicide. This, in mental health parlance, is the ultimate act of "decompensation" we're told. I fit none of those descriptors. Thus I can only approximate Sinha's voice even in a review. 
How the show is put together : It was helpful to read indigenous Canadian author Lee Maracle who was quoted in Vancouver Metro this week. Her characters don't evolve or perform or even speak in traditional linear fashion, she said. Western writers tend to favour scripts that lead to resolution in their plots & characters. By contrast her stories, she noted, are more open-ended, uncertain, indeterminate : the action simply stops where it does. Why? Because that piece has ended. More story is sure to ensue.

Such it is with Happy Place. The six inmates and their doctor explore somewhat fitfully the women's individual breakdowns that led them to the edge so they now are on suicide watch at a $1,000 per day private care facility. 

Prime Vancouver talent Diane Brown, Nicola Cavendish, Sereana Malani, Adele Noronha, Colleen Wheeler, Laara Sadiq and Donna Yamamoto are a wholly rich ensemble of women in a private mental health care facility whose stories tear each of them apart and bring them together, too. 
Their crises are varied : a stepmom fears losing her stepson when his dad deserts her for another. A middle-age woman has had a hysterectomy trauma. Another fusses constantly about a pregnancy that could be phantom. A former cocaine partier can't forgive herself a babysitter's molestation of her 3-year-old son. A rape victim struggles, vainly, to find the courage to move on after a half-decade of repressed memory. Then there's one who, perhaps saddest of all, finds depression just clings to her as if from congenital melancholy -- i.e. when the blues hit they hit her hard and long and true.

What the script brings to the stage : Whenever institutional mental health treatment arises in the arts the Ken Kesey character Nurse Ratched from Cuckoo's Nest invaribly jumps into view (her name a hybrid of "wretched" and "ratshit"). Happy Place is less a self-contained story than Kesey's and has no diabla character up-close-&-personal. Rather the play is a series of linked monologues and narratives that are teased out across 90 minutes. By the end the Why? and What next? questions are never fully satisfied or resolved -- a dramatic structure Lee Maracle would understand intuitively. Experts say this is typical in real-time, too : mental illness sequences are most often situational and transactional, not transformational.

Production values that shine : The current script is a vast re-write by Ms. Sinha of her 2015 original that ran on for some 130 minutes. For its length and lack of crispness it was slammed by critics -- even from those who otherwise liked her take on the somewhat amorphous topic of what mental health is, and isn't.

At the hands of Touchstone artistic director Roy Surette who hand-picked the cast, the result is as the hed above states : stupendous. Stunning. Brilliant. Inspired. Sublime.

The Pam Johnson set utterly befits a wealthy private treatment facility -- rich-y touches throughout. Adrian Muir's lighting effects, for their part, are arresting, e.g. his muted pin-spots on the sleeping inmates' faces is a unique dramatic touch never before seen and completely compelling. Costumes by Christine Reimer are befitting each character's personality and their various social steppes.

Acting pin-spots : The women's stories emerge in staccato and syncopated fashion through "reveals" and "tells" that creep forth word-by-word, line-by-line : it is difficult, therefore, to embrace any of them as a wholly developed persona

That said, of course Nicola Cavendish commands her role as the group's neurotic and waspish mama-bear. She never fails. She never disappoints. Beyond that it would be unfair to single out one actor over another. Each contributes wondrous excellence to the piece. Suffice to say this is altogether stellar Vancouver stage talent. That they are gathered in one place at one time is pure blessing. As an ensemble they are organic and symbiotic and simply not to be missed. 

Who gonna like :  People who like serious small-stage drama with flicks of comic sidebars are ripe for this. Want a flavour of what mental illness looks like, how random and sporadic and asymmetrical it can be? Sinha's script is your starting point. If, like me, there has been suicide among family and friends, Happy Place will bring on many moments that put you in a sad and tearful place instead. 

Make no mistake : this is truly a marvel of intense dramatic immersion in a topic that is evermore timely in the scattered world we all seem to inhabit. We may wish it not but our attention spans are now program'd to inhabit just the nano-second social media requires.

So try this instead. For an embracing and enveloping evening of "strangers are but friends you haven't met yet", you'll come away not only enriched but almost stunned by the experience this troupe delivers. No nanoseconds here. It will all linger.

Particulars :  Produced by Touchstone Theatre in association with Ruby Slippers Theatre -&- Diwali in BC.  At the Firehall Arts Centre, Gore @ Cordova. Until October 29th. Tickets & schedule information via or by phone at 604.689.0926.

Production team : Director Roy Surette (newly returned to Touchstone Theatre as its Artistic Director). Set Designer Pam Johnson.  Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Lighting Designer & Production Manager Adrian Muir.  Original Music & Sound Design Dorthy Dittrich.  Stage Manager Susan D. Currie.  Assistant Stage Manager Denay Amaral.  Props Carol Macdonald.  Technical Director Scott Zechner.  Head Scenic Painter Justus Hayes.  Scenic Painter Lauren Gorlewski.  Head Carpenter Kyle Sutherland.  Carpenter Jesse Hendrickson.  Scenery built at Great Northern Way Scene Shop.  Publicist Jodi Smith.

Performers :  Diane Brown (Joyce).  Nicola Cavendish (Mildred).  Sereana Malani (Celine).  Adele Noronha (Samira).  Laara Sadiq (Nina).  Colleen Wheeler (Rosemary / Krista).  Donna Yamamoto (Dr. Louise Stratton).

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Thanks For Giving is intriguing timely stuff
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 : Kevin Loring's play Thanks For Giving is a clever riff on five words designed around traditional Thanksgiving family gatherings. The word thanksgiving (and its connotations) to start. But the title also suggests how forgiving is central to relationships. And how acts of giving to one another invite us to give thanks when so blest. 

TFG is ACT's 12th Silver Commission -- meaning it's a custom-ordered script. Using a variety of vernacular, Loring is native, indigenous, first nation, aboriginal, Indian. He hies from the Lytton area where the South Thompson and Fraser Rivers merge. His band's reach is from Spuzzum to Ashcroft and they are known as the N'lakap'amux. 

As if in the manner of Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian, Loring's target is the smug, self-appointed Eurocentric / domination take on Canadian history. Where better emblemized than in the recent delirium over this country's "Canada 150" celebrations ?  I.e. this country's entire existence, qua Canada, is but one per cent of the life of the land's aboriginal occupants whom experts estimate arrived 15,000 years ago or more. 

What the show's about : Stories, and how they're told. Symbols, totems, folklore and how such beliefs and mythologies intersect with "the real world" of 2017. To get us there, Loring follows oral traditions that resist strict linear timelines and organized plots from exposition to rising action to climax. The style is more roving and oblique and migratory, skipping across generations, linking bits of one group's stories with another's and back again. 

The script's protagonist is the elder Nan (Margo Kane) who married, on the rebound, second husband Clifford (Tom McBeath). He's white, just happened to show up at a Cariboo pow-wow decades back all tricked out in Canadian Navy dress. They fell riotously in lust and soon marry despite the fact Nan, with twin young children, is of the earth while Clifford wants it to be for him. 

Bear Dancer (Shayama-Priyah), mom of three cubs about to be murdered by predator Clifford.
Emily Cooper photo.
On surface this is a Norman Mailer Why Are We In VietNam? look-alike as the various memes about male dominion, chauvinism, and colonialism are seen through the prism of a grizzly bear hunt -- or, more accurately, a grizzly murder of a mama bear and her three cubbies for their body parts.

The rest is almost a de rigueur look at family matters across the generations regardless of DNA : alcoholism; gay partnership; repressed death anger; greed -vs- generosity, generational conflict on countless levels just because...

What Loring brings to the stage : As a Canadian-American, I was immediately struck by the nagging question Why? playwright Loring chose the USA Pilgrim story to magnify and amplify granddaughter Marie's enumerated grievances against the myriad Euro-oppressors who have marginalized indigenous folk on this continent for centuries. 

E.g. No question Loring would be fully exposed to the works of the late Richard Wagamese from the Sepwepemc [Shuswap nation] village of Tk'emlups [Kamloops] just up the road from the N'lakap'amux domain. And know, too, of indigenous stalwart Wab Kinew -plus- would no doubt be influenced by superstar Orenda novelist Joseph Boyden (regardless of the blood quantum unresolved issues Boyden attracts). Fact is, there is no debate the historical landscape of Canada is rich-for-harvest of the same themes of exploitation and subjugation as those wrought by Gov. William Bradford of Massachusetts and the Pilgrims back in the 1620's. 

Grandma Nan (Margo Kane) gives pointed advice to granddaughter Marie (Tai Amy Grumman) as they prepare Thanksgiving dinner.
Emily cooper photo.

For its part Wiki tells us that "...French settlers, having crossed the ocean and arrived in Canada with explorer Samuel de Champlain from 1604...held feasts of thanks. They even formed the Order of Good Cheer and held feasts with their First Nations neighbours, at which food was shared." Sounds chummy, but I bet there's ugliness there, too. Iroquois & Huron at the same table? Not even remotely possible in 1604. Not much more likely today I'd wager.

No real matter, any of this, just a curiosity Why? the imported USA Pilgrim model he chooses upon which to sharpen his decidedly-Canadian cultural knife.

Production values that shine bright : Encountering friends after the show I remarked "I've probably never seen a Vancouver play in which the set just about steals the show from everything / everyone else."

As a Silver Commission piece, Loring worked daily with all production crew to create his desired gestalt : overall set; scene particulars; lighting; costuming; blocking. Set Designer Ted Roberts trekked to Lytton and forested some birch and aspen trees to create the main woodsy effect. All individual scenes are done within this overarching backdrop as mini-sets downstage right-centre-left. From simple woodblock to an IKEA kitchen island to a frumpy den settee beneath a hunter's trophy wall above the fireplace -- these are the focal points all set with the powerful woods behind imposingly, impressively as their backdrop. 

In the result Messrs. Loring & Roberts & lighting designer Jeff Harrison have put together a compelling visual space that informs every scene. Behind is a lookalike chiaroscuro scrim as if borrowed from Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson's iconic The Jack Pine. (Must mention too that Harrison's follow-spots on the individual speakers throughout the piece were choice.)

Acting pin spots : Margo Kane as Nan (for whom Loring specifically designed the role) was choice. "You can't choose your family, so why not love them?" she asks poignantly. Her telling of bear stories linked to her grandmother's singing 120 years back -- as recorded then by ethnographers and re-produced on stage here -- was enchanting.

As 2nd hubby Clifford -- step-dad to alcoholic Sue (Andrea Menard) and the twin grandkids Marie (Tai Amy Grumman) & John (caacumhi -- Aaron John Wells) -- Tom McBeath delivered a journeyman performance no question. Redneck mutha who "done his best" and loved Nan "the most beautiful girl I've ever seen". 

A touching after-death rebirth dance between hubby Clifford (Tom McBeath) and the wise wife elder Nan (Margo Kane).
Emily Cooper photo.
Menard as daughter Sue was a strong show with a lyrical aromatic guitar-strung voice. Altogether engaging whether acting drunk or straight. 

Good strong efforts by everyone, but no question a buzzer on the day was Shyama-Priya as the Bear Dancer. Enchanting, magical blocking & footwork, not to mention Samantha McCue's dead-on costume design. Bear Dancer's woozy dream sequence with the drunken Sue plus her end-of-the-the show mesmera with Grandma Nan were both breath-takers.

N.B. note re: the eff-word. Quite frankly I am tired of writing this but I shall do so ad nauseam. If a character is to say "I am fucking sick of you!" the emphasis goes like this : "I am fucking sick of you!" It does not go "I am fucking sick of you!"  In this regard Thanks For Giving is the absolute worst offender in that regard seen in nearly six seasons of reviewing professional Vancouver theatre shows. Please, people, get it right. There is nothing magic about the word "fucking". No one cares. It hasn't been offensive for about 60 years. George Carlin made reference to it popular with his Shit. Fuck. Piss. Cunt. Cocksucker. Motherfucker. Tits. In the result he defused its impact forever. It's just a filler. The word(s) it's connected to are the important ones. Emphasize them not it.  

Who gonna like : The matinee blue-rinse crowd quite liked the performance they saw today. Lots of hoots at the zinger repartee as among Nan and Clifford and the cousins.

Having just enjoyed Thanksgiving at our Cariboo cabin with family, no question all the joys & bitches & frustrations & disappointments & epiphanies occur, as they do every year. Turkey, wine, farts, drop-leaf table mishaps with broken wineglasses, recriminations, reconciliations -- a kind of woeful rejoicing all of us undertake face-on and try our best to take little note of over a greasy cabin breakfast come next morn.

Thanks For Giving reminds us how love is the sinew that binds whatever else shards us. Take in the trees and the lights and the love in this piece. You will bear the rest of the day more peaceably, no question. Huzzah! to ACT for championing Kevin Loring and his rich-&-rewarding insights into native culture in our land.

Particulars : Produced by Arts Club Theatre. On until November 4th.  At the Granville Island stage.  Run-time some two hours including intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.  

Production team :  Kevin Loring, Playwright / Director.  Ted Roberts, Set Designer.  Samantha McCue, Costume Designer.  Jeff Harrison, Lighting Designer.  James Coomber, Sound Designer.  Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg. Angela Beaulieu, Stage Manager.  Colleen Totten, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Leslie Dos Remedies (Sam). Tai Amy Grumman (Marie). Margo Kane (Nan). Tom McBeath (Clifford). Andrea Menard (Sue).  Shyama-Priyah (Bear Dancer).  Deneh'Cho Thompson (Clayton).  caachumi - Aaron M. Wells (John).  

Addendum :  Coincidentally, the day before I saw the play and did my review, the giveaway sidewalk newsie Vancouver Metro ran a feature entitled "Upcoming guide props Indigenous writing style", its subhed "Manual details how to edit traditional stories".  It's fundamentally a review by editor Greg Younging of his own book.  From para's 6-10 this interesting perspective from both Younging and indigenous author Lee Maracle whom he quotes.

Younging says even the way a story unfolds is unique -- while conventional poem and prose formats are largely European, Indigenous Peoples are more often inspired by the oral tradition.

"There's a world of difference about how we express ourselves," says Younging, who began building the guide [Elements of Indigenous Style : A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous Peoples] in 1999 when he was managing editor at Theytus Books.

"You wouldn't, say, have a protagonist and conflicts coming to a resolve at the end. Indigenous stories are often more often open-ended and lead to further storytelling.

"There are examples I give in the style guide, like Lee Maracle's book Sundogs, which she says was written in an oral style, the way an elder talks. Very often when an elder is speaking, he or she may seem to stray off the storyline or the point that they're making and then come back to it later."

The 67-year-old Maracle says she still battles editors over what she considers an Indigenous approach to text.

When a non-Indigenous editor suggested changing the order of a paragraph in her latest book, the acclaimed poet, author and academic braced herself for a long conversation.

"I said, 'That's not the (sentence) that we would put there. We wouldn't put that there. It's a secondary thought. For you it's primary because that's how you are. But that's not how we are,' recounts Maracle, among writers appearing at the International Festival of Authors, starting Thursday in Toronto.

"So we had a long conversation about it. But we have to have these long conversations in order for them to get what we're doing," [she added].

Albeit the end of Thanks For Giving combines Clifford's wake with the birth of grand-twins -- this would seem to bring the show to a "resolve" -- the final mesmera bear dance with Nan leaves the viewer wondering, for sure, whither Nan without Clifford, with new great-grand-kids, with her generations-old embrace of Spirit Bear who Indigenous tradition has it is the twins' "guardian angel" in Euro-speak. Quite open-ended an approach with stories yet to tell.