Monday, 26 February 2018

The Code examines teen angst via social media
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 :  Social media bullying is so prominent a topic it seems almost trite. But with Pink Shirt Day this Wednesday, now is a perfect time to consider its effects yet again. Forty-plus years doing plays for schools, Green Thumb Theatre continues its mandate. This time it is assistant artistic director Rachel Aberle's world premiere of The Code

Her communication cum integrity messages are currently on a chautaqua around BC high schools. Aimed mostly at Grade 8-9's, the show plays to senior highs too. A one-nite-only outing + talkback for the general public was presented at The Cultch tonight.

Aberle's script demonstrates admirably various applications of a favourite Boomer quip : "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am afraid what you heard is not what I meant."  

On its face it's an old storyline : "the suits" in school admin want to dictate a dress code for the girls for the upcoming school dance. Along the way the dance organizer is mocked and pilloried on social media and a key friendship crashes and burns as a result.

Best buds Connor (Mason Temple) and Simon (Nathan Kay) snigger over some share or other on Simon's phone. Later a cut-&-paste photo-patch of their friend Moira turns out to be a fake news mock-up with costly consequences.
Photo Credit : Leah Gair

How it's all put together : In response to the dress code threat, dance organizer Moira (Elizabeth Barrett) and friends Connor (Mason Temple) and Simon (Nathan Kay) decide, fatefully, to stage a rally in protest. Their catchy tag-line is "Our bodies, our clothes, stand up, break the code!" The rally is a huge success with their classmates whose smartphones buzz their Huzzah!s at Moira's defiant stand @ #breakthecode. Until the dance is canceled by way of school admin's response to / revenge for the students' protest rally. In the result the expression for Moira surely must be "Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer!" Never truer nor more apt.

Dance organizer Moira (Elizabeth Barrett) uses an old-tech / analogue bullhorn to spur the student body into righteous indignation over the school administration's dance dress code for girls while her ostensible friend Simon (Nathan Kay) captures it on on his smartphone.
Photo Credit : Leah Gair
Ideas & social values at play : The prominence -- physically as well as emotionally -- of smartphone devices and their manipulative messages is timely. The latest brain research shows how '+' messages such as Twitter like's release euphoric dopamine that pumps followers with an instant nearly addictive high. 

But when '-' messages are decoded by the user instead, dysphoric secretions known as dynorphins flood the brain equally quickly : feelings of social rejection, isolation and even depression instantly snap to attention, alas. (Of all addicts, gamblers perhaps best know -- intuitively -- the bipolar seductions of this paradoxical plus/minus algorithm.)

Add to all this device-driven amygdala activity the customary hormonal urges & desires & constant messaging that occur within teens that they act out. Hoo-boy! that kind of cocktail mix can be not just volatile and stupefying but can cause permanent damage quickly, research tells us.

Production hi-lites that add to the script : Ruth Bruhn's brick high school outdoor playground wall as backdrop coupled with Elizabeth Wellwood's various contemporary costumes and her oh-so-clever sound design embrace one another symbiotically. Together they generate the proper gestalt for all the suspicion and angst and instantly-changing emotions that run riot in this script. Eminently capable cast blocking, voice-work and emotive highlights are elicited well from the actors by 30-year GTT artistic director Patrick McDonald. The dramatic result evinced by the trio is haunting and unsettling. Just as designed.

Acting pin-spots : Together the three 20-something actors pull off being 16-year-olds with fetching and winning allure. (During the talk-back they confessed this was the toughest part of their assignment.) As Moira, Elizabeth Barrett had the most challenging emotional role. Her becoming "woke" to women's victimization -- worst of all at the hands of one of her BFF's -- was commanding and potent. "Why when men behave badly do women get blamed?" she asks more than once. 

Nathan Kay's Simon was one-part nerd, one-part naif, one-part typical male chauvinist. He revealed an almost too-easy access to ego-driven retaliation and payback. His falsely thinking that friend Moira was starting to hot-up to him -- instead of theirs being a strictly platonic friendship -- was the result of myriad texts, selfies, emoji's and offhand teen lingo : the prospect of their agreeing to go on a "date" completely threw him over.

As he did in Satellite(s) last fall, Mason Temple once more showed growing emotional capacity as a young actor. Gotta say his rage attack at close chum Moira when the dance was canceled was a shock due to its suprising over-the-top vehemence. But it was scripted thus and he was directed so.

Who gonna like :  On a continent where wee tots and high schoolers alike are wantonly slaughtered en masse, a play about the broad topic "communication" & cyberbullying may seem slightly tardy. But Porgy sang "It ain't necessarily so." Because violence begins with words. And communication is neither an abstract nor a toy. Not a toy despite how our myriad devices might have us believe so given all their playful-seeming apps. But once out there in cyberspace it's all for real and forever no matter how contrived or fake. How perverse.

So. Rachel Aberle's script asks, implicitly, how to get people to understand that every nanosecond they choose their very thoughts and emotions. Choose. An active verb. Choice. The results. It always comes down to that. 

Plus, Aberle warns, the fact the old adage "Actions speak louder than words" is not true. Because our words now are so instantly permanent out in cyberspace. Words and the images we so whimsically and gleefully and cheekishly append to them now are actions. 

Ms. Aberle's reflections on how one achieves personal agency and integrity in such a world will never likely be delinquent or untimely or irrelevant. Her script The Code is a powerful reminder of this.

Particulars :  Written by Rachel Aberle.  Produced by Green Thumb Theatre.  On tour performances at various mainland and Vancouver Island high schools this spring.

Production team : Director Patrick McDonald.  Assistant Director Bronwyn Carradine.  Stage Manager Tessa Gunn.  Set Designer Ruth Bruhn.  Costume/Sound Designer Elizabeth Wellwood. Interim Tour & Education Manager Amy Lynn Strilchuk.

Performers :  Elizabeth Barrett (Moira).  Nathan Kay (Simon).  Mason Temple (Connor).  

Addendum : A Note from the Playwright by Rachel Aberle

It feels to me that we are in the middle of a global conversation about consent. About what it is, how you define it, how one obtains it, and the intense and dire ramifications of what can happen when things happen without it.  think this is good -- it's an important conversation, especially for young women and men to have as they begin to engage in their own relationships -- romantic or otherwise.

What strikes me about the current conversation however, is that it feels reactionary. It feels like something we talk about after something bad has already happened -- like a report of harassment or assault. With The Code, I wanted to roll that conversation back earlier in a relationship, to before anything irreversible has taken place. Specifically, I wanted to look at how seemingly healthy and positive relationships can fall apart when communication breaks down.

So I wrote a show about friendship, and about what happens when people have different ideas about the nature of their friendship. Our main characters, Simon and Moira, are best friends -- but Simon has been secretly hoping that they will become more. When Simon suggests that he and Moira go to the Spring Dance together and she says 'yes', Simon is over-the-moon to be going on his first official date with Moira. But when it becomes clear that she thought he meant they'd go as friends, their friendship starts to break down. The two of them fight over whether she misled him or he misinterpreted her, and it becomes clear that everything he's put into their friendship, the energy and care, has been -- in his mind -- an investment. When de doesn't receive a return on that investment, he feels like it's all been a waste of time.

I can't tell you the number of times in my life I've heard someone complain about feeling like they've been stuck in the "friend-zone". But is romance ever a fair thing to feel entitled to. How do we deal with rejection when it comes? In a situation where one person feels led on, but the other feels misinterpreted, who is right?

It's important to note that I don't think Simon is wrong to feel hurt. Handling rejection is really hard, and finding out that someone you like doesn't feel the same way about you is painful. The question is -- what do we do with that pain? How do we navigate the bumps in a relationship without doing things we regret?

The questions this play prompts are tricky. There is no easy answer tony of them, but I think that's the point. It's only having these complex and sometimes uncomfortable conversations that we can begin to move forward.


Saturday, 17 February 2018

Saltwater Moon a taffy-tug of love
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: 1926 Newfoundland. When it was its own country with dominion over its people and their life opportunities. Thousands dreamt of escape from The Rock to go see the lights of big-city T-O. Most who left never came back. Some who stayed had guilt, others felt grief and held grievances against those who fled.

Such is the backdrop of this love story, one of playwright David French's quintet of "Mercer stories" -- the tales of two generations of a former Newfie family who opted for Canada and struggled to make-do. This is a flashback chapter to some previously-produced Toronto stories of the Mercer clan that take place a couple decades hence.

Mary Snow (Mayko Nguyen) lights up the blue star of Vega for the man she's not sure she loves anymore Jacob Mercer (Kawa Ada) in this Romeo-&-Juliet with a happy-ending script.
Photo credit Joseph Michael

The show is magnificently simple and timeless : how love, actually, can manage to blossom, wilt, then rebloom between two feisty proud teens. Errant Jacob Mercer has returned to Coley's Point in Conception Bay to claim his true love Mary Snow he abandoned for Toronto. Left spontaneously, whimsically, more break-out than break-up. He has returned a year later almost as offhandedly and instinctively as he left -- once he heard from Mom, that is.

Mary, of course, has meanwhile resigned herself to a lifetime of local outpost living. Resignedly she engaged herself to balding, pipe-sucking high school teacher Jerome Mackenzie. He has introduced her to astronomy. She may have stars in her eyes, but Jacob meanwhile can barely suppress a blood grudge he holds against Jerome's dad Will. Has he come home to win back Mary's love or get even with Jerome's dad ?

How it's all put together : This is not a Gateway mount, it's a traveling road show brought west by Toronto's Why Not Theatre in a production by Factory Theatre. WNT's artistic director Ravi Jain quotes Kenyan dramatist Ngugi we Thiongo to proclaim "alternative visions of existence" are the "bedrock" of everything WNT produces.  E.g. whereas playwright French's 1984 script had precise set, costuming, and stage directions for Toronto's mainstream actors, Jain goes one better. In the opposite direction. His teen lovers Snow and Mercer (1) are non-white actors Mayko Nguyen as Mary and Kawa Ada as Jacob, and (2) they don't even try to fake Newfie accents. They are universal, not provincial.

Jain also strips the show of its detailed sets, of the usual telescopes that squinch down the sky's constellations as well as the called-for formal costumes -- all of which playwright French detailed meticulously in the script's margins. For costumes the cast wear the kind of day-to-day kick-around duds like they might sport just hanging out. But all the other complex set and stage directions are not lost completely. 

"Please join me...!" Jacob Mercer pleads of Mary Snow whom he jilted by walking out on her to  "escape" to Tornto a year before. 
Photo credit Joseph Michael
Because Jain introduces a narrator for the show, singer / guitarist Ania Soul who is perched upstage right on a music stool and recites French's script details off her Manhasset songsheet stand. Thus we learn the house is 19th century. That it is near the great big sea "to make easy access to the waters where they make their living". That Mary is designed to be get up in "a short-sleeved yellow satin dress".

And because the stars are so central to the plot and set, obviously they've got to be here. But in a nifty visual and thematic reversal, their brilliance emit from a dorado of slow-burn candles on the stage deck -- from the earth up instead of from the heavens down. And in a nearly 10-minute zen ritual while Soul sings to open the show, Mary draws long-neck matches delicately, almost reverently, out of a paper caisson. Ever-so-slowly and touchingly she sparks the 40+ tapers that have star power here.

Music alights with stars afoot as Jacob and Mary search out each other's hearts to the backdrop musical muse of Ania Soul behind. 
Photo credit Joseph Michael.

Production values that hi-lite the script : The stripped-bare minimalist stage design by Mr. Jain is inspired. It draws the audience's rapt attention to the dialogue and the nuanced interplay of the lovers with Ms. Soul as their muse and balladeer. Stage directions introduced as monologue. Clever !

WNT's resident production manager Kayleigh Krysztofiak designed a high-low sword-play of spotlights whose effect is as magical as it is simple. 

Blocking for the cast, for its part, is a study in understated rich intimacy. While Ms. Soul reads out the complex stage directions and the details Mr. French wished to see play out on the boards, the actors often remain as if frozen in aspic there but for their telling dialogue and facial expression.

Acting pin-spots :  Talk about equals. Ms. Nguyen and Mr. Ada are a perfect complement. As mentioned : Feisty. Stubborn. Righteous. But such delight to be had in Jacob's ironic commentary and playful toying with Mary about Jerome and his claim to be potent as well as the mythical? maybe? girlfriend Rose-of-Sharon in Toronto who he took to see Tom Mix movies. 

For her part Ms. Nguyen as Mary was punchy and proud and persuasive in her reluctance to re-engage, as it were, with the smart-ass folk-singer heartthrob Jacob. 

Balladeer / narrator Ms. Soul lived up to her name. Her humming aria during Mary's tale of her sister Dot sequestered in St. John's in some sort of girls' residential dormitory was elite stuff. My goodness.

Who gonna like : Are you a romantic? Did Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet smack your heart? Did you ever have a teen crush / love that you may wonder -- somewhat hopelessly and forlorn and melancholy on a blue Monday -- Was that the true love of my life? 

Even if these markers aren't quite on, this is one of the most charming shows I have seen in some time. Ravi Jain was ingenious & visionary & consumed with insight to mount this old David French / Mercer family chestnut in such a compelling and refreshing way. 

While faithful readers know I am a big fan of gritty gut-biting theatre, Gosh! it was nice to be swept away this afternoon by such an expressive and absorbed troupe & their take on this classic script. I would do this all over in a heartbeat. 

And -- btw -- I'd happily go again if for no other reason than to witness anew Mayko Nguyen's zen candle-lighting ceremony / celebration done to Ania Soul singing "I could cry me an ocean / It was all in my head / My heart asked me why?" : amazing how such simple bits of live theatre can grab one and not let go.

Particulars :  Script by David French.  Produced by Factory Theatre on tour with Why Not Theatre. At the Gateway mainstage in Minoru Park through February 24th. On at Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond thru February 24, 2018. Tickets & schedule information via box office phone @ 604.270.1812 or on-line @ Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission.

Production crew : Director Ravi Jain. Lighting Designer & Production Manager Kayleigh Krysztofiak. Stage Manager Tamara Protic.  

Performers : Kawa Ada (Jacob Mercer).  Mayko Nguyen (Mary Snow).  Ania Soul (Music & Narration).


Thursday, 15 February 2018

Fun Home a sad, fun musical photo album
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 footlightsPersonally I prefer graphic novelist Alison Bechdel's original subtitle to her 2006 book of memoirs -- A Family Tragicomic -- to what Lisa Kron has called her 2013 stage play adaptation, A Coming-of-Age Musical. Kron scripted the book and lyrics for the 27 songs tunesmith Jeanine Tesori wrote for the 2015 Broadway production. And the two were the first all-woman tag-team to ever win a Tony Award for best musical score. So maybe I'm a half-note or more flat on this.

Alison (Sara-Jeanne Hosie) will spend her entire adult life as a lesbian looking for the keys to unlock her upbringing in Pennsylvania after her gay father suicided her second semester at Oberlin College.
Photo credit David Cooper
But the reason I prefer "family tragicomic" is because it conjures up tasty synonyms such as "melodramatic" and "burlesque" and the elegant "harlequinade". A host of theatrical antics most of us can relate to when reflecting back on various instants in our own family histories. "A coming-of-age musical" is so blasé it captures to-a-T such comparatively easy and anodyne scripts as Peter Pan and Avenue Q.

But mere quibble. Fact is Bechdel's story is of smalltown rural Pennsyvania. Her coming-of-age is code for a gal who comes out and embraces her lesbian spirit in 1979 at age 19. What makes her autobiography so compelling is that along the way she learns that her father -- the local undertaker as well as high school English teacher -- is gay. Dad is destined to have his life snuffed out in a heartbeat by a truck roaring along rural Route 150 four months later at age 44. No note left. But on the heels of mom filing for divorce and Alison's coming out, suicide seems to fit. So the show is how Alison comes of age in the telling of this tragicomic tale.

How it's all put togetherAkin to the original novel, the musical is here in its Canadian premiere. It tells its story from three age-perspectives. Small Alison (Jaime MacLean), Medium Alison (Kelli Ogmundson) and grown-up Alison (Sara-Jeanne Hosie). Among their dialogue and songs they spin out the saga of how life played out for Alison on Maple Avenue in Lock Haven, PA starting about 1968 or so when she was in grammar school.

The three Alisons join together in the finale "Flying away" that sums up on many levels what growing up and losing our parents -- in order to find ourselves -- is all about.
Photo credit David Cooper
Reading about the script I was put-to-mind of Kentucky novelist Walker Percy's indelible line from Love in the Ruins about family histories : "What must be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past, the past that is gone and grieved over and never made sense of." The ambiguity families are stuck with. The confusion. The opaqueness. The paradoxes. 

Indeed, how does a daughter coming out in Ronald Reagan's America embrace the realities of her Roman Catholic upbringing, her distant teacher/actress mom Helen (Janet Gigliotti), a life shared funnin' as a kid with two brothers (Glen Gordon & Nolen Dubuc) and her "gay" and loving but obsessive-compulsive tyrannical dad Bruce (Eric Craig) whose former students are often the objects and targets of his lust.

Director Lois Anderson probably sums it all up best : "A tension exists between a daughter coming out, coming of age, flying, soaring, and her father simultaneously falling, spinning, plummeting, much like a modern-day Icaraus." 

What the show brings to the stage : The title suggests the chumminess of a state fair pavilion or a circus sideshow. Perhaps a traveling carny's hall of mirrors. In truth the expression was the family's easy and ironic abbreviation for the family funeral home dad inherited from Gramps and runs on-the-side in their small town of less than 10,000 souls.

Brothers Christian (Glen Gordon) and John (Nolan Dubuc) ham it up doing a mock-funeral home advertising schtick with sister Alison (Jaime MacLean) called "Come to the Fun Home" during their more innocent days as kids.
Photo credit David Cooper
So memory witnessed through a glass darkly is what Alison struggles with as she tries to grapple and pin-to-the-mat the complex emotions she is now dealing with. Sketching out one of her panels she suggests in straightforward (glib? awkward?) fashion the following as caption to accompany her cartoon : "Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist." 
The word "became" embraces a continuum. And it is along and amidst that continuum of space-&-time we witness the family in their various stages of age, personality, and pathos. But also their fun, their friendly jibes, their fanciful moments. All of which is what family is, family does.

"Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children" is an early Kron / Tesoro ironic piece. A later song is "Let me introduce you to my gay dad". The show ends with Alison's poignant "This is what I have of you" sketches followed by all three Alisons harmonizing in the "Flying away" finale about their dad Bruce that on opening night was a show-stopper. Particularly Alison's ultimate epiphany : "Every so often there was a moment of perfect balance / When I soared above him."

Production values that hi-lite the script : Amir Ofek's set is rich and smart, a wonderful exploitation both visually and mechanically of the Granville Island stage. From its tapestry wallpaper to its crown mouldings 15 feet above, the baby grand piano, the velvet Victorian furniture, the overhead chandelier and the Tiffany table lamps, it clutches and encompasses the senses but also leaves enough open space to serve dutifully as Fun Home's embalming chamber, a college dorm room and a NYC crash-pad during USA's bi-centennial year celebrations. 

Effectively lit -- the back-lighting particularly -- by Alan Brodie plus faithful period costumes by Amy McDougall. Orchestra excellence the night through in modulation and crisp execution but also from its cello and violin solo riffs : together the players added a wealth of audial value to the evening's enjoyment.

Still and all the primary production value hands-down is the exceptional musicality -- songs & lyrics both -- by Team Tesori-&-Kron. Their cadences and harmonies and syncopated solos and tuneful stories are gripping, imaginative and utterly evocative of the powerful emotions mostly "at work" here -- every now and then, thank god, "at play".  

This is how one makes a musical out of subject matter as unique and idiosyncratic as Bechdel's A Family Tragicomic.  Words and notes tripping blithely and neurotically and compellingly over one another : the bitter reprise of "Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue" by Mom was superb, as was "Ring of keys" by Small Alison, each song both startling and wondrous.

Acting pin-spots : Chief narrator is Sarah-Jeanne Hosie as Alison the 43-year-old looking back on her childhood, her coming out, her dad and his pent-up and deep-rooted homosexuality. Director Lois Anderson's blocking and staging of Hosie was wholly effective as she hovered above and among her younger selves -- Jaime MacLean as "Small" and Kelli Ogmundson as "Medium" -- who filled in the necessary narrative details at Senior's feet with vigorous imagination and creative flow. 

As dad Bruce, Eric Craig was stunning in his grasp of being a repressed Rotarian Roman Catholic in a small Pennsylvania town back in the day. He knew as a high school sophomore in 1950 that his sexual and emotional urges would be trained, lifelong, on the male gender. The social demands for Dad Bruce to "go through the motions" as a married man brought out a bi-polar interpretation of the role that reflected tremendous nuance. 

His sad suicide may have provided him relief from how mis-fit he was for his time-&-place. But understandably no end of angst and anger and agony for daughter Alison such that she would have to be nearly his age before she could finally, frontally, confront her family's fateful truths. 

Who gonna like : A more neutral word than "homophobic" for people who prefer traditional interpersonal and sexual and married relationships is "heteronormative", the academics instruct us. Viewers who consider themselves members of that cadre would likely find Fun Home anything but. 

But for others in search of a marvellous and superior and utterly phenomenal theatrical evening, the Tesori/Kron music-&-lyrics-&-storyline collaboration is colossal and monumental entertainment. Its imaginative reach made as profound an impact on me in 2018 as Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story did when it exploded onto the silver screen in 1961. Fun Home is freakishly good stuff. 

Particulars : From the original graphic novel written & cartoon'd by Alison Bechdel. Book & lyrics by Lisa Kron.  Music by Jeanine Tesori. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Granville Island Theatre.  On until March 10, 2018Run-time 100 consecutive minutes,no intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Lois Anderson.  Musical Director Jonathan Monro. Set Designer Amir Ofek.  Costume Designer Amy McDougall.  Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Assistant Stage Manager Koh McRadu.

Orchestra : Niko Friesen (Percussion). Sarah Ho (Violin, viola). Jonathan Monro (Conductor, piano).  Laine Longton (Cello). [Plus performers below as noted adding their chops.]

Performers :  Mike WT Allen (Sailor; Diner; reeds).  Eric Craig  (Bruce Bechtel).  Nolen Dubuc (John Bechdel).  Nick Fontaine  (Roy; Mark; Peter,; Bobby; Jeremy; bass).  Janet Gigliotti (Helen Bechdel).  Glen Gordon (Christian Bechdel).  Sarah-Jeanne Hosie (Alison [adult]). Jaime MacLean (Small Alison).  Kelli Ogmundson  (Medium Alison).  Sarah Vickruck (Joan; guiitar). 


Saturday, 10 February 2018

Ruined a biting, loving look at Afro-politics
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 : Tantalum.  Colloquially a.k.a. coltan. A chemical mineral prominent and essential to operate cell phones, video games and computers. Its Periodic Table of Elements symbol Ta is derived from the mythological Greek villain Tantalus that means, at core, "wretched". Worth more to Chinese computer producers than pure gold. And wretched is as wretched does. 

Writer Lynn Nottage's Ruined is set in the war-torn Ituri rain forest of northeast Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in central Africa. Fights over mining rights for coltan -- vs. the locals' wish to leave the land alone for traditional pursuits of farming and hunting -- pit the ruling party of the day and its grasping cronies against various rebel groups. All in aid, of course, of "peace, order and good government". 

As almost always in war-stricken countries, it is the women who get "ruined" even more than the landscape the troops of men fight over. Particularly in this war, according to the Congo women whose stories form the basis of this embracing, horrifying snapshot of African historical fiction as imagined by a black American feminist.

Brutalized Sophie (Kikambe K Simamba) sings wistfully for fighters to "douse the flames of fear, my friends, brush aside the judgement" in her touching solo dream sequences that belie her personal war torture.
Photo credit Jalen Laine.
How it's all put together : As ex-Zaire dictator Mobutu Seke Seso's grip on power began to weaken in the early 90's, the subsequent civil war -- often called "Africa's world war" -- resulted in some 5 million deaths. Figure three times that many suffered grievous bodily harm & PTSD. Simple math dictates that more than half of those 20 million victims were women.

In 2004 writer Nottage and friend Kate Whoriskey traveled to DRC neighbouring country Uganda. There they interviewed dozens of Congolese women still living in Ugandan refugee camps about their experiences a decade earlier when the Zaire / DRC civil war was at its peak.

The story woven together was first produced in 2008 when DRC was relatively becalmed. Thus Ruined was never designed to be a platform for political preaching. Rather Nottage wants us to discover how compassion and empathy compete with the women's scar tissue. How despite the horror all around, a piece of humanity & community amidst all the pain and yearning could be found.

What the show brings to the stage : Twelve actors play some two dozen parts to roll out this tale. Chief protagonist is Mama Nadi (Mariam Barry). She runs a saloon cum bawdyhouse for all the district's combatants as well as the tantalum miners. Her one immutable precondition is that the fighters leave their bullets on the bar. And then they must wash themselves. 

Her character obviously brings to mind Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. Nottage quite readily admits Mama Nadi is a knock-off. The central paradox at play is the desire to protect one's children but at the same time be bold enough to profiteer from the bloody violent chaos that surrounds.

Three refugees from the civil war are Mama Nadi's primary focus. Josephine (Rachel Mutombo) was a tribal chieftain's daughter, but nobody cares about her pedigree. She is a favoured courtesan in Nadi's clean and safe outpost in the centre of the conflict. 

Shortly two other rape and pillage victims arrive, for a price, thanks to traveling salesman "Professor Christian" (Tom Pickett). A farmer's wife Salima (Shayna Jones) was kidnapped from her garden and roped "like a goat" to a tree in the woods for five months to be abused and raped at will by a rebel militia. Teen-age Sophie (Makambe K Simamba), meanwhile, was mutilated during rape by a bayonet. 

Production values that hi-lite the script :  This is a script not just brawny and sinewy. Its characters are restitched into ersatz whole cloth after being so hideously torn and abused. To match the colourful clothes designer Megan Gilron chose for them, Corina Akeson's selections of African soukous music -- a kind of rumba style -- quietly underscore the stage action. 

Ultimately the plot is sentimental and charmingly trite once all the violence runs out the door of the bordello. The Carolyn Rapanos set is well-wrought : a clever mix of plastic and wooden chairs as if rescued from the local dump. Round saloon tables like the old B.C. pub standard issue just denuded of their red terry cloth covers. Jillian White's scalloped light ropes above the saloon floor are perfectly faux-elegant.

'Professor' Christian (Tom Pickett) has always had a mad-on for Mama Nadi (Mariam Barry) who he supplies with booze, Fanta soft drinks, condoms and the odd box of Belgium chocolates for her bordello. It is ultimately more than a strictly business relationship of the head, lots of sentimental heart at show's end.
Photo credit Jalen Laine
Acting pin-spots:  The women and their tales grab us first in our throats but ultimately in our hearts. Because as poet songstress Buffy Ste. Marie put it, "God is alive / Magic is afoot" whenever souls reach across the abyss to touch one another.

And indeed it is the three supporting actors playing Josephine, Salima and Sophie who provide the most electric moments of the show, without a doubt, particularly their trio riffs. One-off, Rachel Mutombo as Josephine was an astonishing amalgam of pout, snot, coquette and muscle. Of the men, Pickett's affable and chummy carny-hustler Christian stole the audience's heart from Moment 1.

N.B. It is important to note that Pacific Theatre associate Mariam Barry stepped in on Ground Hog Day to take over the demanding / commanding role of Mama Nadi whose dialogue threads and weaves the whole play together. Brava! Ms. Barry. No script-in-hand. No prompter. No dropped lines the night through. She needs be deservedly proud of her work indeed. 

Who gonna like: Historical fiction fans who read novels will delight at this show. It is episodic. Measured. Develops slowly with calculation. For #MeToo followers -- godspeed! their rightful cause -- this is almost must-viewing to put the subjugation, victimization and violence-against-women incidents of recent history in a particularly raw, non-Western way despite the script's American authorship. Quite astonishing its effect.

Long, yes. At 150 minutes elapsed-time overall it requires patience and focus. It would help, I believe, to know a bit about recent Zaire / DRC history before settling into one's seat. But regardless, the jump-up standing-o the show got last night was testament to its power and ability to magnetize both head and heart. 

Just next week's shows before this unique piece of drama exits into the wings.

Particulars Written by Lynn Nottage and originally directed by Kate Whoriskey. Produced by Dark Glass Theatre in a Pacific Theatre presentation. At Pacific Theatre stage, Hemlock @ 12th.. Through February 17th. Run-time 150 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission. Tickets and schedule information via or by phone at 604.731.5518.

Production team.  Director Angela Konrad.  Assistant Director / Producer Jessica Garden. Set & Properties Designer Carolyn Rapanos. Sound Designer Corina Akeson. Lighting Designer Jillian White.  Costume Designer Megan Gilron.  Properties Assistant Jennifer Jantsch.  Stage Manager Samantha Pauliuk.  Assistant Stage Manager Jenessa Galbraith.  Fight Directors Ryan McNeill Bolton & Mike Kovac.

Performers :  Mariam Barry (Mama Nadi).  Damon Calderwood (Mr. Harari).  Mikaela Fuqua (Musical Director). Shayna Jones (Salima).  Michael Kiapway (Jerome Kisembe / Various).  Agape Mngomezulu (Simon / Various).  Rachel Motombo (Josephine).  Adrian Neblett (Fortune / Various).  Tom Pickett (Christian).  Donald Sales (Commander Osembenga / Various). Kakambe K Simamba (Sophie).  Jacky Yenga (Elder / Cultural Consultant / Musician / Choreographer).


Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Buyer-&-Cellar riffs on ex-babe Babs
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 2010 Barbra Streisand produced a gratuitous coffee table picture book of her stash of dolls, antiques, dresses & such she'd been collecting for nigh unto 50 years since superstardom almost instantly rained down on her when she was but a Brooklyn hotshot @ 18. Some called her homely with a big nose. Others were more kind : "unconventional beauty" they chirped. She titled her weighty tome & memorabilia photo essay "My Passion for Design" ($58.53 /
Barbra Streisand with either a real or stuffed dog from her Malibu museum basement hideaway that is the basis of the whimsical fantasy play Buyer & Cellar.
Promotional book cover photo courtesy of website

How to take Barbie dolls and antiques and dresses and morph them all into a one-man show. That would be a challenge, no question. But playwright Jonathan Tolins did just that. From the book he learned of an underground menagerie of shops and showplaces  and mini-museums Streisand and husband James Brolin built in their Malibu basement to display all these treasures and tchotchkes. A mini-mall sans shoppers. A Potemkin ersatz New England village square built at the foot of a spiral staircase away from the light of day.

From this squib of info Tolins conjured his play's central conceit : that Princess Babs' subterranean collection required a shepherd and guardian angel. Enter Alex Moore (Ryan Mooney). As it's a one-actor show, Mooney does a bunch of roles -- not only Alex, he also channels Babs herself. Then there's his scriptwriter boyfriend Barry who used to worship and consecrate all things Barbra. But now is sick unto death of her once he concludes she's but a spoilt-rich-bitch whose kvetches about an unloving mom and step-dad are wearying stories too long whined about. Horn-rim glasses on, it's Barry, off, Alex. Such is the design at least.

Ryan Mooney plays custodian / curator / cashier at an imagined remake of diva Barbra Streisand's subterranean hand-built village museum of gewgaws at her Malibu home.
Photo credit Allyson Fournier

How & what the show brings to the stage :  When it opened in 2013 even the venerable New York Times critic Ben Brantley was smitten. "I would even go so far as to say that it is just about as profound as seemingly light entertainment can be."  This in a piece in which the solitary actor must constantly flip voice, inflection, eyes, & facial contortions to mimic the unseen character he's talking to or about or quoting. And do so in a way that we may think there's something more than a Barbie doll character at play here, that she and her singular "dream refuge" might have a cubic inch of reality to it.  Or that boyfriend Barry is more than just an angry spiteful voice on a cellphone.  

The envelope, please :  Bad timing can be fatal to the performing arts. When Fighting Chance Productions elected in late 2016 or early 2017 to do this script in 2018, only diehard Oscar junkies would even know the name Harvey Weinstein. Hashtag #MeToo hadn't yet been dreamt up or hit 1,000's of times. Nor had the horrific interface brush fires of early summer scorched the earth and destroyed countless homes in the area. Then the Malibu mayhem that followed just six months later from cascading mudslides. Together all this apocalyptic havoc wrought no end of death, injury and heartbreak not to mention the multi-millions of dollars in property damage and carnage.

No question, then, as matters stand the very mention of Hollywood induces bile reflux in many people who until last year were still fond of the place and what they grew up thinking it stood for. In others just outright and somewhat awestruck sadness. Hollywood. The grown-ups' play place akin to Fanatasyland for kids. Fittingly, then, when Alex is fired from Disneyland's Toontown thanks to an irate family whose younster he had verbally abused, he laments : "I forgot that I was working in an artificial environment -- that won't happen again," he states in vintage naif mode. He's learned zilch. 

And if all this were not problematic enough for the FCP theatre troupe, fact is one of the key backdrop songs they use is the Streisand / Gibb duet "Guilty" that was released in 1980. At the final preview show I saw last night, the crowd was mostly too young or too old to know or remember that pop chart. Or for that matter have given much thought whatever to Ms. Streisand as some kind of icon or ageless princess, she now mid-way through her 8th decade of life. 

Who gonna like : This script is a la David Sedaris, he of Santaland Diaries pedigree. There are some funny riffs, no question : Alex. "Style. Where does that come from? God?  Barbra. No, or Israeli's would be better dressers." Remarking on Barbra's serial lovers over the decades, Alex rhymes off an anecdote familiar to us Boomers who were "witness" : "She shtupped Pierre Trudeau and almost became the First Lady of Canada!" 

This is a play Vancouver actors, particularly the up-&-comers, will surely appreciate. One-hand shows are tough to do. The timing. The variable characterizing line-on-line. The all-important stage business (like the character Barry's horn-rim glasses schtick -- arhythmic last night -- no doubt this choice bit will improve as the week progresses). 

For keen live theatre goers like the local acting cohort I may not be quite so robust as Ben Brantley in my praise. Still I know they'll find both delight and divertissement -- and, importantly, will learn a lot, too -- from all the silliness so eagerly set forth here. 

Particulars :  Written by Jonathan Tolins. Produced by Fighting Chance Productions.  At PAL Theatre stage, Cardero @ Georgia.  Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission. On through Saturday, February 10th, 8 pm nightly, additional matinee cum talkback Saturday, 2 p.m., signing provided for deaf patrons Saturday night. Tickets through the theatre company's website,  

Production crew : Chris D. King, Director.  Andie Lloyd, Lighting Designer.  Angela Steidel, Stage Manager.

Performer : Ryan Mooney.