Sunday, 28 January 2018

SHIT is DTES grit : large & ugly & poetic
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 : It is said that anger stems from fear and fear ultimately leads to hate. If that is the case, then the three principal women prison inmates of Oz playwright Patricia Cornelius's play SHIT are soul-deep in fear. Because they hate. And hate big. But not only.

With few if any of the occasional soft sidebars offered up by the t.v. magnet-show Orange Is the New Black, Firehall's pre-show publicity puts what SHIT is about so bluntly I couldn't improve on it if I tried :

"What about women with foul mouths and weathered faces? What about women who spit, fight, swear, hurt and steal? What do they have to say?...Watch in uncomfortable awe as angry, unrelenting, terrifying, damaged women discuss fist fights, foster care, babies, their moms, crying, and what it's like to believe in absolutely nothing."

Samantha (Yoshie Bancroft), Billie (Kayla Deorksen) and Bobbie (Sharon Crandall) are tough uncompromising foster care & group home grads who've landed in prison together after committing a vicious assault. As the play title suggests, they give not much of a shit for anyone or anything, except each other perhaps.
Firehall promo photo

How it's all put together : Meet 20-somethings Billie, Bobbie and Sam. Not only are they from the gender repressive patriarchy that for centuries has wanted to "keep women in their place". They are also victims of their own parents' neglect, serial foster care placements and group homes. They have suffered a general banishment into a seething under-underclass realm where personal survival drives them deeper into desperation and despair.

Together they are in prison now after swarming a girl passing by who  "was in the wrong place at the wrong time", they claim. The parallels with the Reena Virk tragedy in B.C. are immense. In lock-up the women swap their personal verbal "herstories" as victims while kicking about Oz's foster care system. Like pack dogs that circle and taunt their challengers, they do so in endless attack mode via a stream of abuse, vulgarity, violent outburts and sexual innuendo that screech both in the ear and the heart. 

It is not, however, naturalism. It is reality-based but unreal. Imagined. Dramatized. Poeticized. Choral. Choreographed. Starting with Scene 1 that in just 8-10 minutes produced (I attempted to count them) some 79 repetitious shouts of the word "Fuck!" -- usually as a verb but also as noun, adjective, adverb and the plain ordinary hoarse and hoary expletive which is how most of us use it. 

What the show brings to the stage :  Introducing the show for its Canadian premiere performance, Director Donna Spencer quotes playwright Cornelius : "I never want to write a moment in a play where a woman succumbs to coquettishness or is sexualized in any way, or has to be grateful or apologetic, or is there to serve some male protagonist. For women, being grateful all the time is exhausting."

No question the sexploitation they've suffered is huge. Samantha at 15 was hustling truckers just for kicks but now pines to have a baby : "If you have a baby, you just have to love them!" she says to taunts from her buddies. For her part Bobbie hates her body and all its "bits", none of which are "me", she says. She imagines herself a man in woman's flesh until her pals disrobe her, lit.-&-fig.

As if mimicking Edvard Munch's 1893 The Silent Scream, Sam Billie & Bobbie cry out their frustrations at how life, "the system" and society's foster care services have treated them over the years.
Emily Cooper photo
Each of these bitter scared souls cries out to be saved. They conjure an imagined totem -- Caitlin they call her -- a mother-figure who might, as Billie says, "pick me up and carry me off somewhere, someone who gives a shit, someone who says 'You mean something to me...'." Still, she says, she can't cry. "I don't feel pain," she protests in a lie about as big as her phantasy St. Caitlin.

Production values that shine : To appreciate SHIT, I think, viewers have to suppress all urges to literal-ness with this script. Its cadences are what drive it. It must be heard, like a poetry jam or rap or choral duets and choruses sans music. One Oz reviewer pointed to 19th century romantic American poet Walt Whitman's magnum opus called Song of Myself. Nudged in the direction of Stanza 52, I consulted it. 

That reviewer didn't mention it, but I found Verse 2 compelling. It seems to sum up Cornelius's script and her characters perfectly: "I too am not a bit tamed -- I too am untranslatable / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." Billie the most of the three propels her "barbaric yawp" irrepressibly, relentlessly, even when she does push-ups on the jail floor or kisses Samantha and tells her she loves her. 

Set designer Conor Moore has produced a series of three side-by-side jailhouse cages that work effectively especially with lighting designer Kyla Gardiner's consequential shadow spots and overlights. This jail ain't no SPCA shelter : the cats flurry about hissing relentlessly at the echoing footfalls of the guards, at each other, at what life has dished out for them.

Acting pin-spots : Seen in a late preview performance, these three as blocked and choreographed and vocally directed by Donna Spencer are utterly in sync with Patricia Cornelius's script. They are a chorus of solo spirit dancers looking, each one, for that evasive and elusive talisman of hope that will liberate them from their core misery and anger.

Of the three the bitterest and hardest and crudest and toughest was without doubt the character Billie. Kayla Deorksen's portrayal was completely captivating and compelling. But hard to repress a tear at Yoshie Bancroft's wanting, wanting, wanting -- a duvet, a comfy bedroom, a baby. And Sharon Crandall's abject pain at her gender, her body, her personal entrapment was wholly engaging.

Who gonna like : All readers by now should probably know, intuitively, if they are one "who gonna like" this intense, in-your-face, profane, challenging, irreverent shout-out of pain & suffering & abuse.

Exiting Firehall we encountered a DTES resident shouting wildly at various demons and threats. The shouting was a man's but could easily have been one of any gender who's suffered life's deprivation and loss and want in our otherwise comfy and smug 1st world. When Billie heard herself referred to as one of life's Forsaken! by social workers, her reply was simple and straightforward : Fuck them! 

If any or all of this strikes an Amen! chord with you, you will go see SHIT and learn some shit, no question. Dramatically. Poetically. Viscerally. I would go again in a heartbeat. 

Particulars :  Produced by Firehall Arts Centre.  On until February 10th.  At the Firehall Arts Centre @ Gore and Cordova. Run-time 50 minutes, no intermission. Tickets & schedule information via 604.689.0926 or

Production crew : Director Donna Spencer (Artistic Producer of Firehall Theatre).  Set Designer Conor Moore.  Lighting Designer Kyla Gardiner.  Stage Manager Susan D. Currie.  Fight Co-Ordinator Sylvie La Riviera.

Performers : Yoshie Bancroft (Sam).  Sharon Crandall (Bobbie).  Kayla Deorksen (Billie).


Thursday, 25 January 2018

Topdog / Underdog : karma, fate & race
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 : Suzan Lori-Parks' 2001 play title reflects not only the sexual positions when canines fornicate. Urban Dictionary says a top dog "navigates the social or business world with the perception of having everything under control" while an underdog, by comparison, is "kind of the opposite of popular or the best, but not exactly the worst".

And so it is with the two black brothers who temporarily share a murky walk-up crib in a single-room-occupancy (SRO) tenement. [Residents on each floor use a common toilet and sink at the end of the hall.] As boys the brothers were abandoned by their parents for reasons still a bit sketchy. The elder was named Lincoln (now late 30's), the younger Booth (now early 30's). Only folks with bottomless sardonic wit would do this to their black children. But so be it. Kicked out by his wife Cookie, Linc bunks in with Booth whose wannabe girlfriend is named Grace. He will win neither the girl nor such any such peace by show's end.

Older brother Lincoln (Michael Blake) tutors kid brother Booth (Luc Roderique) in the scam of 3-card-monte to hustle tourists. The bet doesn't pay off well in the end.
Mark Halliday photo
Lincoln's top dog status started when he became a 3-card monte sharpster on USA big city sidewalks. He gave up this 20-year career of hustling hundreds of bucks each day from tourists and suburban dads and welfare moms only after his buddy Lonnie got shot a year or so back. Now he's taken a job at an arcade shooting gallery. An imitation job from real life.  Or in his case maybe vice-versa.

Made-up in white face, he plays his namesake re-enacting over-&-over that fateful April '65 night in Ford Theatre when Abe was watching the English farce "Our American Cousin". People pay to shoot him in real time but with cap guns. Tight-lipped white housewives, he says, tend to shoot him again and again and again.

For his part, brother Booth says he wants to be a card sharp too, but he's more Texas-flop instead : two left hands, brother Linc taunts him. So boosting stuff -- shoplifting -- becomes Booth's forte. "I stole and I stole generously!" he brags.

What the show brings to the stage : Just one year into his reign, it would be too facile to blame every social ill in USA on President McDon. But there is no doubt that Ms. Parks -- the first black woman playwright ever to win a Pulitzer -- wanted to play the American bigotry card lit-&-fig back in Y2K just like McDon prides himself doing today. Just for opposite motives.

Abandoned black male brothers trying desperately to outwit, outsmart, outhustle, outrowdy one another and all whom they meet. Are their personalities as masque'd as Lincoln's character at the gun arcade? Is Booth still the helpless, hopeless deer in the headlights he was when Ma deserted him at age 11? Jealous of elder brother's topdog status, Booth nevertheless sniggers at his bro's day-job "dressed up like a dead president so some cracker-ass white man" can shoot him with a cap-gun. Still, Linc tells him, "it's a sit-down job with benefits".

Brother Booth makes fun of Lincoln's tophat and tails while trying to figure out how to out-hustle him.
David Cooper photo.
Luckily, Ms. Parks brings forth comic relief to dilute the aura of deterministic fatalism that enshrouds these likeable but desperate men. Maybe it's their pathos we laugh at. But without the verbal prattle between them jabbering over money, women and life's inevitable hustle, this could be just another dark and dreary Cain and Abel story writ au reverso straight out of any one of today's USA ghettos. 

Fact is as orphans who've fetched each other up on mean street, they know intuitively how the con often gets you more than being true or genuine : most troublesome when the con governs your life. Your life outside, your life inside. It's a form of irony. And irony often ends abruptly, usually about the time destiny plays itself out, Parks suggests.

Linc tells how one arcade patron put it this way : "Does all this stop when no one's watching, or does the show go on?" When Booth laughs, Linc reminds him of a core life truth : "You're only yourself when no one's watching." 

Production values that shine through :  One need but walk the stage-side aisle to appreciate set designer Shazuka Kai's naturalistic reproduction of a seedy single-room hovel that is home to this show. The details of such an orderly pigsty are astonishing to behold. Add to that environment the Carmen Alatorre costumes that match each mood and moral moment and there is no end of appreciation to not just their work but that of lighting expert Itai Erdal plus the unstoppable efforts put in by stage manager Rebecca Mulvihill. 

Acting pin-spots : As 3-card-monte mentor and older brother Lincoln, Michael Blake turned in what has to be in this season the most spectacular dramatic performance yet seen. His drunken tumultuous victory stumble in brother Booth's room after re-booting his card skills on the street outside Lucky's tavern went on for countless wholly-in-character minutes of believability and genuineness. The only word that comes to mind is Gosh! what focus'd sustained embracing characterization.

But not to take anything away from Luc Roderique as Booth. He was classic little brother. Bravado. Braggadocio. A wanker. A cowardly brute. His final scene with brother Linc clutching Booth's stocking-stuffer "inheritance" from Mom who deserted them 20 years back was as gripping as it was ghastly.

Who gonna like : This is naturalist drama. The 140 minutes of dialogue and action may not be altogether "necessary", theatrically, but they are what they are because Suzan-Lori Parks wants the audience to live each second of her characters' imagined realities.

Never mind the inevitable climax, given the names and roles the brothers play. This is a total immersion slice of poverty. Of life in a black American ghetto. Of a fractured black family whose siblings hold it together by habit and 20 years of co-dependence but whose symbiosis turns out to be as brittle and thin as a puddle that quick-freezes overnight. 

At show's end on opening night the performers were both visibly exhausted. And no few members of the audience, too. Because this is theatrical energy and creativity and imagination that is utterly breathtaking. Weary of rom-com stuff or Big Production splashes? Think for a change you might welcome total immersion baptism into the kind of morally dubious world Ms. Parks has created? 

If so then no question. You will thrill at the acting and the in-your-face theatrics on display here. You will find yourself shouting Bravo! and Bravo! and Bravo! yet again. 

Particulars : On until Februiary 11th @ BMO Stage, 1st Avenue.  Run-time two-&- a half hours including intermission.  Tickets & schedule information @ or by phone @ 604.687.1644

Production team : Director Dean Paul Gibson.  Set Designer Shizuka Kai.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting Designer Itai Erdal.  Lighting Designer Julie Casselman.  Assistant Director Marie Farsi.  Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.

Performers :  Michael Blake (Lincoln).  Luc Roderique (Booth).


Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Inside / Out is a poignant peek @ prison life
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 : Ask most British Columbians to single out a notorious bank robber with B.C. links and they'll come up with one or two names : "The Grey Fox" Bill Miner from a century back or more recently Victoria's "Stopwatch Gang" mastermind Stephen Reid, husband of Canadian poet Susan Musgrave. Add Patrick Keating to your list if you don't already have him there.

Keating's 80-minute autobiography Inside / Out is remounted this week for the 2018 PuSh Festival following a 3-year hiatus. His first acting class was a "clown class" taught by Richard Payne at Matsqui Prison in the 80's. From Payne's adaptation of Ubu Roi he got the bug that ultimately led to an acting degree from SFU. His first film, according to imdb, was a bit part in the movie ironically named "Robin's Hood". From there he jumped to the X Files series in '98, Smallville in '02 and a host of other t.v. series and films in the decades since.

Hard bench, hard wire, hard time for Patrick Keating as he faces the hard realities about his life as a convict in Canada's prison system in the 80's.
Photo credit Bronwyn Malloy, Main Street Theatre, 2015

His one-man show recounts his time behind bars now nearly 40 years back. The particular insight he brings is his epiphany. It happened at Leclerc prison in Laval, Quebec when a fellow recidivist named John challenged Keating when he whined how he was getting too old for jail-time. "Hey, man, this is what we do," John stated fatalistically in the holding cell, "in-&-out, back-&-forth -- life outside may be fun -- but this is what we do!" And that's when the epiphany started to light up. The idea that illuminates all existential thought : choice. Life. Is. Choice.

Simple stuff, Keating now realizes. We choose to rob banks. We choose to do drugs. We choose anger, laughter, tears. We choose to suppress those emotions Inside just to survive. What we cannot do is indulge ourselves with the belief \ excuse : "Why does this shit keep happening to me?" Whether Inside or Out, we choose.

What the show brings to the stage : Keating does his autobiographical monologue in a folksy style like he's chatting over coffee at Joe's Cafe on Commercial Drive. The style hi-lites the show's leitmotif : that con's are broken people who need help. If no posse exists Out, then the only cheering section will be from those still Inside when one gets busted again and is sent back. As happened repeatedly to him in those years when the brain's amygdala ruled his every waking moment.

Weed, hash, acid, speed, heroin -- he had done them all in Montreal even before he hit the often treacherous teen-age turf. Truant. Vagrant. Hustler. The next dozen years of his life were spent more Inside than Out as a result of chasing his drug demons. Offered rehab by a paternal judge, he sings out "No! No! No!" just like Amy Winehouse. And promptly gets four years instead. "I thought 'Hmmnnn, maybe I chose the wrong door!'" he now quips. Not long after release he is caught preparing to rob another bank to support his lifelong habits, this time gun-in-tow : now it's hard time, not just juvie jail.

Many dark moments would face Patrick Keating before he would see the light and choose an acting career by discovering poet Robert Frost's truth : the only way Out is Through.
Photo credit Neworld Theatre, 2015

Production values that shine through : Inside/Out is a solo conversation like a radio play. Thus its set, props and costume by Barbara Clayden are struck simply. A metal institutional chair. Denim. A Staples cardboard file box. A line of jail yard lamp posts. Jayleen Pratt's lighting offers up sciaroscuro effects befitting a con's life in the shadows. Haunting sound effects mostly of jail cell doors going "Slam!" by Noah Drew underscore the show's scant action.

Almost surprisingly, however, the Bill Withers classic "Lean on Me" wasn't grabbed. To this eye and ear its lyrics just about say it all : "You just call on me brother, when you need a hand / We all need somebody to lean on / I just might have a problem that you'll understand / We all need / Somebody to lean on…".

Still the fact it is Keating's words, nuances, and the quiet Anglo-Irish riffs learned in his youth north of Montreal's St. Laurent Blvd that carry the night.  [E.g. "that" is almost always "dat" while "ing" words such as "hoping" come out as "hopin'" instead.]

What to make of it all : Touchstone Theatre's promotional web materials say this : "Patrick's honest and engaging delivery of his funny, sad and stirring true story helps dismantle our ideas of what a 'criminal' looks like -- and helps us better understand how language, race and class play a very real part in our lives as Canadians." 

Translated that means despite "the ghosts or the enormity of the silent harshness" jail space and jail time bring, there can be comfort in the relative safety of predictability. At one point Keating's persona declares "You can keep the carrot, use the stick on me instead!"

To close the show Keating admits "I go back to the streets sometimes just to look, just to see if I recognize anyone I knew. I don't know, there's something...." 

It's almost -- but not quite -- a lamentation about those days of yore that are long-lost lit.-&-fig.  Gone, yes, but days that will play themselves out forever in his psyche.

Who gonna like : Do not expect a sermonette on the system and how it fails people. What Keating offers up instead is a kind of Catholic confessional. About a life of perpetual waiting. Waiting for the epiphany. About how waiting can become a prisoner's most sharply-honed skill.

Dr. William Glasser says our lives evince what he calls Total Behaviour. Its components are acting, thinking, feeling and physiology. He concludes "we only have direct control over the acting and thinking components...we can only control our feeling and physiology indirectly through how we choose to act and think."

Patrick Keating's brave insights are summed up in the above principle of Glasser's. His final liberating choice of life as an actor is a remarkable feat. Lucky we are to be able to share with him his rapid-fire memory blitz of jail cell after jail cell. 

This is compelling, embracing, troubling, and touching theatre as up close and personal as it gets. 

Particulars : Presented by Touchstone Theatre with the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Produced by Neworld Theatre Production in association with Main Street Theatre and Urban Crawl. On from January 17-21, 2018. At Performance Works, Granville Island, Wed-Sat 7pm, Sun 2pm. 
Post-show talkbacks after each performance hosted by Pivot Legal Society with Prisoners’ Legal Services.  Buy tickets.

Production team : Director, Dramaturg Stephen Malloy.  Sound Designer Noah Drew.  Lighting Designer Jayleen Pratt.   Set, Props, Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Stage Manager Sandy Cumberland. 
Writer & Performer :  Patrick Keating.


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Pipeline Project is provocative comic polemic
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 : Due to a busy winter schedule of new show openings, BLR will not be able to view the second mounting of The Pipeline Project that is a reprise at Firehall + Anvil Centre of its enthusiastic premiere @ Richmond's Gateway Theatre last winter. What follows in lieu is a refreshed redux of last year's review. 

From the footlights : In her 2014 book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein made the following observation : "The environmental crisis -- if conceived sufficiently broadly -- neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes : it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency."

Since then -- as ITSAZOO & Savage Society Theatre's The Pipeline Project points out so compellingly -- North America has discovered how profound the expression Plus ca change, plus c'est meme chose is. In USA that country's apprentice president smugly issued an executive order a year back to approve the Keystone pipeline. After years of waffling, Barrack Obama had vetoed it a few scant months before in his dying days in office. In Canada, P.M. Trudeau-fils approved the $7.4 billion Kinder-Morgan twinning project that stretches from Edmonton to Burrard Inlet. Video clips of those two announcements kick off this show and literally set the stage for the balance of the play.

How it's all put together : The TPP script was derived from research reporting on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal previously done by Vancouver Observer. VO's reports were then compiled & extracted into the eponymous book Extract

Three writer/actors conspired over three years on the TPP script : ITSZAOO's co-artistic producer Sebastien Archibald, N'lakap'amux  native Kevin Loring and Musqueam native Quelemia Sparrow. Their goal, the program notes tell us, was to write "A provocative and comedic foray into a firestorm of debate." They are also the show's stars.

Writer/actors Kevin Loring, Quelemia Sparrow and Sebastien Archibald strike a serious pose in front of one of Burrard Inlet's common sights, a tanker from away awaiting off-load in Vancouver harbour.
Photo credit : David Cooper

Under the capable and insightful direction of Chelsea Haberlin and John Cooper, the troupe delivers cleverly and crisply. Polemic is the word that best describes TPP. The writers take to heart the bumper sticker quote attributed, wrongly, to Gandhi : "Be the change you want to see in the world."  

Playing themselves, Loring and Sparrow form a tag-team to challenge Archibald to somehow overcome his place at the pinnacle of an imagined world pyramid. The hilarious graphic projected above the stage shows that on top are White Men. Immediately below is a stratum of "Other First World Assholes". Followed by "Everybody Else" who reside just above "Developing Nations / Dictatorships". As Archibald wryly notes : "First there was David Suzuki guilt. Then came Al Gore guilt. Now I suffer from first nations guilt!"

Flanked by indigenous advocates Sparrow & Loring, Sebastien Archibald thrusts & parries their jabs and swipes at his white patriarchal privilege.  Photo credit : Firehall Theatre.

What the script brings to the stage : Indeed it is the Canadian native community focus of TPP that provides much of the show's punch. Albeit themselves first immigrants to Canada starting some 10,000 years ago, the country's 633 identified indigenous communities continue to challenge Ottawa to respect their centuries-old connection to the land, rivers, sky and oceans. "Canada doesn't exist. It's an assertion made in 1867. We still haven't signed off on it," Sparrow contends without a trace of irony. No flinch from her when goaded by Archibald about the origin of her BC driver's license, her Canadian passport and her Musqueam status Indian card.

A sub-set leitmotif is not explored in any depth but is an important aspect of TPP too.  It involves what is known both academically and colloquially as "blood quantum".  E.g. Loring's father was a white truck driver, his mother native. Sparrow's mom is of Scottish, Irish, English roots, her dad native. (Barrack Obama is called "black" though he really is only 1/2 black : Mama Obama, using her son's words, was "white as cow's milk" and originally from UK roots --it's just that his dad's Kenyan DNA gave him his skin.) 

So how to reconcile all these various forces at play here in the context of Big Oil, that is what TPP sets out to do, and does so wittily and engagingly.  Because there is no one truth here : fact is drivers of every stripe -- Ram duelly machos and Tesla owners alike -- realize their wheels need oil to run.

Production values that add to the show :  TPP is blocked and staged and is visually clever stuff. Giant oil-spurt graphics form screens north and south above the stage. On them countless projections are shot that graphically underscore the show's scrappy and pugnacious points about how we are killing off Earth. Important notable Supreme Court decisions from the Gitskan We'Suwet'En aboriginal title ruling to the more recent oral history support in the Ts'ilqhot'in case; shots of Standing Rock Sioux opposed to Keystone in North Dakota; native presenters at National Energy Board hearings showing aerial evidence of how tar sands development have destroyed vast sections of the Athabasca Delta in Alberta. 

The actors engage audience members from moment one. When not nudge-nudge, wink-winking with the audience, the actors do the same with one another to tease out further aspects of the ongoing oil imbroglio.

ITSAZOO identifies four key mission values : Immersion. Risk. Fun. Community. In part they achieve this by having the second "act" of the show become a town hall meeting headed up by an environmentalist speaker interviewed by Ms. Haberlin followed by inputs from the audience. In polemic theatre this is not just intriguing but almost necessary stuff to tailgate on the messaging of their earlier performance.
Who gonna like : We all depend on oil. No question. But as the Trudeau & Trump decisions display, the need for the world to transition from non-renewable hydrocarbon reliance to WWS (wind, water, solar) sources instead remains a constant challenge. Tax advantages both corporately and personally would go far here.

But also, importantly, the troupe's intent is to have some theatric tricks and jibes that poke at our prejudices with visual and audial delight.

Particulars : Written by Sebastien Archibald, Kevin Loring and Quelemia Sparrow. Produced by ITSAZOO Productions and Savage Society in association with Neworld Theatre and Firehall Arts Centre.  On through January 20th at The Firehall before moving to NeWest's Anvil Centre for three shows January 24-25. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission and "Talk Forward" 2nd act. Tickets and schedule information by phone at 604.689.0926 or via and

Production team :  Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Associate Director John Cooper.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting & Projection Designer Conor Moore.  Sound Designer Troy Slocum.  Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty.  Stage Manager Lois Dawson.  Puppeteer Coach Shizuka Kai.  

Peformers : Sebastien Archibald.  Kevin Loring.  Quelemia Sparrow.


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Onegin's delights now on Western Canada tour

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)

Ed. note : For those who may have missed the ACT On Tour schedule of Onegin that this week is on show in Calgary, its Western Canada schedule for friends & family in those cities is noted for readers to alert them. And for those who may have missed the BLR review, same is appended to the schedule.
Arts Club On Tour Schedule of Onegin


Catalyst Theatre at the Maclab
Jan 18–28, 2018


Feb 1–3, 2018

Feb 6, 2018

Feb 8, 2018

Feb 10, 2018

Feb 13, 2018

Feb 14, 2018

Feb 15, 2018

Feb 16 & 17, 2018

Feb 18, 2018

Feb 20, 2018

Feb 21–Mar 3, 2018

Mar 4, 2018

Mar 6–10, 2018

Mar 11, 2018

Mar 13 & 14, 2018

Mar 15, 2018

Mar 21–Apr 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

Love sought, found, rejected, rekindled, refound, rejected anew. Such is the soap opera  simmering between Tatyana Larin (Meg Roe) and Evgeni Onegin (Alessandro Juliani).
Photo credit : Emily Cooper 
Spoiler alert : Onegin will only skim it. But getting there is the thrill of this piece. And in doing so the high-talent package who deliver the show's snap! originality! & fun galore! dazzled the crowd into a universal standing-o -- wholly deserved -- at its end.

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing continuously with his buddy Lensky's best gal Olga Larin (Lauren Jackson), Evgeni sparks a duel and a host of other life-changing events.
Photo credit (original cast) : David Cooper
Some necessary plotty details :  As the jilted would-be lover and wannabe future wife, late-teen Tatyana (Meg Roe) is obviously the scriptwriters' favourite character. Bookish, innocent, shy, elder sister of Olga (Lauren Jackson), she writes Onegin a love letter and sings, poignantly, touchingly "Let me die, let me die, as we all must die -- but let me live first!" Onegin, a half-dozen years older, responds with a dull lecture how marriage would be hell on earth for him. Tatyana flees, mortified, crushed, broken.

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

Lensky is outraged. Challenges Onegin to a duel. Lensky is shot dead. The characters disperse. 

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

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

Production hi-lites : The Gladstone/Hille script is scintillating. Recurring musical themes and solo lines are revisited throughout the show, with the Roe/Juliani duet "Let me die..." at the end a genuine tear-jerker, each of their finest moments of the night no question. 

Tracey Power (of Chelsea HotelMiss Shakespeare and EastVan Panto pedigree) does an exceptional job hurtling these performers around every inch and in every corner of the horseshoe or thrust stage as well as out into the very laps of the audience.

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

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

Acting pin-spots : As the ill-fated poet Lensky, Josh Epstein grabs top honours among the men, to this eye & ear, while Lauren Jackson as fiancee Olga revealed utter charm and coquettish playfulness throughout, just a delight to watch. 

Playing the part of birthday entertainer Triquet, Andrew McNee put on a camp-&-vamp performance nonpareil, worth going to see the show a second time for his turn there alone. Like Wheeler, he played many other bit parts throughout the show. 

Good turns from them as well as from Caitriona Murphy as Ma Larin plus chorus parts.

Musical chops galore : Three instruments have always been my utter favourites. Cello first and foremost. Then oboe. Then piano. The creators feature the melancholia inherent in the cello to terrific effect. Co-creator and musical director Veda Hille last April turned in a terrific! piano performance coupled with singing and eye-balling and verbal shout-outs throughout the evening also added to the fun. Marguerite Without has big shoes to fill as her 2017-2018 stand-in. Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar had both instruments fully at his command. 

Who gonna like : The headline says it all. This is a shimmering, sparkly gem of a show. It is utterly original, cheeky, charming and sassy in its update of the original Pushkin.

Pushkin told his publisher P.A. Pletnyov back in the day he intended his piece to be "half humorous", an objective Tchaikovsky only barely managed in the early scenes of his opera. 

In the hands of Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, meanwhile, the Onegin story keeps the audience laughing and clapping and cheering and crying throughout even as their ears are tickled with great tunes masterfully arranged. 

Particulars :  By Amiel Gladstone & Veda Hille (based on the verse-novel by Pushkin and the opera by Tchaikovsky).  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission.   Schedule information & tickets via listings above.

Production team :  Director/Writer Amiel Gladstone.  Musical Director / Writer Veda Hille.  Choreographer Tracey Power.  Assistant Choreographer Amanda Testini.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Costume Designer Jacqueline Firkins. Associate Costume Designer Alaia Hamer.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Tour Lighting Director Ted Roberts. Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Allison Spearin.  Assistant Stage Manager Sandra Drag.  

Performers (music) :  Jennifer Moersch (Cello).  Barry Mirochnic (Percussion).  Chris Tsujiuchi (Piano and keyboards, Jan 5-Feb.3)Marguerite Witvoet (Piano and keyboards, Feb 6-Mar 15).

Performers (actors) Jan.5-Feb.3 : Josh Epstein (Vladimir Lensky).  Lauren Jackson (Olga  Larin and others).  Alessandro Juliani (Evgeni Onegin).  Caitriona Murphy (Madame Larin and others). Nadeem Phillip (Many others). Meg Roe (Tatyana Larin).  Andrew Wheeler (Prince Gremin and others).  

Performers (actors) Feb.6-Apr.4 : Megan Chenosky (Olga Larin and others). Josh Epstein (Vladimir Lensky, select performances).  Eric Fraser Gow (Vladimir Lensky, elect performances). Lauren Jackson (Tatyana Larin).  Alessandro Juliani (Evgeni Onegin).  Caitriona Murphy (Madame Larin and others).  Nadeem Phillip (Many others).  Andrew Wheeler (Prince Gremin and others).  Jonathan Winsby (Evgeni Onegin).  

Addendum : Co-creators Gladstone and Hille offered some insights into their intents with this script in notes published in the original BLR review last April worth repeating here :

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

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