Thursday, 29 March 2018

The Humans is a bittersweet family Thanksgiving reunion
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 : Aboriginal American Thanksgiving paintings almost always show images of pointy-hatted Massachusetts Puritans swapping turkeys for sweet corn with the local Algonquin natives. This chummy scenario is central to the USA "exceptionalist" mythos. And fact is the last week in November has the heaviest annual air traffic volume in the States : "Come home for Thanksgiving!" is a national compulsory ritual. 

To spice up all holiday dinners, what families don't have a litany of grievances and dirty little secrets they can't help but share at such gatherings? Playwright Stephen Karam doubled down on this point by naming it The Humans -- plural and inclusive -- rather than the more obvious title of The Family. 

All members of the Blake clan stare off into space as if hoping, vainly, that some new guiding light will deliver them back to their more innocent days of yesteryear.
Photo credit : David Cooper
The above facts, in juxtaposition, are the stuff of this show. Its setting is a post-9/11, post-Hurricane Sandy sub-basement flood-clean-up re-do : a NYC Chinatown apartment that was knee-deep in sludge in 2012. It has a spiral staircase up to the 2nd-floor basement level.

Together Karam describes the apartment -- with its clamourous next door laundry room, a murderous trash compactor and some wee critters skittering across the floor -- as "effortlessly uncanny". Outside, the Local 6 Train to Canal Street clatters by as if mere inches away. Strange haunting thuds thunder down, intermittently, from the flat above them.

How it's all put together : In but 100 minutes of drama in one act The Humans is a slice-of-life snatch of the loving Blake family. Thanksgiving finds their habitual Erin go Bragh! funnin' back-&-forth limned with entropy -- life's inevitable decline into nothingness. It's as if "blake" is but the future past-tense of "bleak" here.

Mid-20's daughter Brigid and 38-year-old south asian boyfriend Richard have just moved in together a few scant blocks from Ground Zero. Her post-grad dreams of a music career are in descrescendo despite her Ivy League pedigree from Brown University next door in Rhode Island. She bartends at two joints to nudge down her student debt (that under U.S. law cannot be dodged even by declaring bankruptcy). 

Richard is a perpetual master's degree student in social work who fights bouts of depression. Still, he has his Nana's trust fund to look forward to shortly when he turns 40.

Sister Aimee is a lawyer from Philly. But she suffers raging ulcerative colitis and has just been bumped off the firm's partner-track due to her constant sick days. She not only faces imminent "dehiring" at work : to boot, her longtime soulmate Carol has just dumped her and is dating other gals. Aimee tries gamely to mock her sorry state, but her laughter is like thin gravy for sure. 

For their part, parents Erik and Deidre have driven the 125 miles from Scranton, PA's rustbelt to NYC in the snow to celebrate Brigid & Richard's new digs. They've brought with them his mother, Momo, who's in a wheelchair with Stage 4 dementia. Dad's been a maintenance / facilities manager at Scranton Catholic High School for nearly 30 years. His pension is iffy and he's hitting the beers with undue gusto this day. Mom's a do-gooder in the best sense : her latest church gig is helping Bhutanese refugees settle in. She blithely makes plans to invite them all over to sing Christmas carols a month after Black Friday. 

Production values that enhance the show : The set by Drew Facey is compelling. From the chipped paint to the 50's circular ceiling lights to the 100 amp circuit board protruding its functional ugliness, this is Dylan's subterranean homesick blues brought up to date. Both Adrian Muir's sketchy short-circuity lighting effects and David Mesiha's heart-of-Manhattan soundscape add terrific mood.

Daughter Aimee makes a vehement lawyerly point as the Thanksgiving dinner at her sister's apartment in Chinatown begins to fray around the edges.
Photo credit : David Cooper
Acting pin spots : Dad Erik (Kevin McNulty) and mom Deidre (Nicola Lipman) yield up the most heartrending performances on the night as their tightly-wound world of 40 years unravels before them. Nothing like generous doses of ethanol, good ol' Christian guilt given full voice and the sheer inevitability of karma ultimately visiting this family, like all of ours, for better or for worse. Still, Erik pleads out to them each & all over the night, self-in-the-mirror included: "It's all okay. It's okay, isn't it? It'll all be okay. It's okay...".

Nightmares of delivering Aimee to a paralegal job interview at the Twin towers on 9/11 -- she fresh out of high school -- still haunt Dad, yes, but fresher nightmares a decade down the road haunt worse. And wife Deidre won't let him forget them for a second : any grace being preached by Father Quinn in Scranton is falling on deaf ears as far as she's concerned. She prays for herself, not the infidel.

Aimee (Briana Buckmaster) does a marvelous job being a loving teasing older sister to Brigid (Samantha Rose Richard). She's family mediator as well -- at least until Dad drops his guard and all his pretences and Mom can but weep at his visceral betrayal. There is likely little light at the end of the Blake family tunnel. Not soon. But ultimately, little doubt. Because family will out. Despite ad hoc pissy and scarring incidents. Even this bunch -- because they do, ultimately, love one another dearly. And they're all the glue they've got.

Who gonna like :  This is life today for many if not most of middle America. Millennial kids and their parents who together suffer giant mal de vivre. Okay, not like being a Syrian refugee in a tent on the Turkish border. But the fabled American Dream certainly eludes both their reach and their grasp. The stuff of the long-gone and short-lived 50's world of Norman Rockwell isn't ripe for resurrection any day soon. 

Image borrowed from Norman Rockwell's Post Magazine archives.

What makes the script compelling is its ordinariness. Its commonplace themes. Its "it is what it is" melancholic fatalism offset by large helpings of humour and irony. They suggest that folks are still driven by faith and nostalgic hope in The Dream that the American middle class is brought up to believe in, regardless of true life pinches and bites or the oxymoron / paradox of a reality t.v. president. 

Stephen Karam is a voice on stage to be reckoned with. He may pull his punches with so much humour along-the-way that the pathos of the final scenes catches the audience a bit unprepared and unnerved in the result. Still. Utterly nuanced dialogue delivered by an excellent cast makes this an engaging and embracing, if slightly sorrowing, night out at the theatre. 

ParticularsScript by Stephen Karam. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Stanley Theatre on Granville @ 11th.  Run-time 100 minutes without intermission.  On until April 22nd, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Stephen Karam, Playwright.  Amiel Gladstone, Director. Drew Facey, Set Designer.  Jennifer Darbellay, Costume Designer. Alain Hamer, Assistant Costume Designer. Adrian Muir, Lighting Designer. David Mesiha, Sound Designer. Jan Hodgson, Stage Manager.  Peter Jotkus, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Briana Buckmaster (Aimee).  Nicola Lipman (Deidre). Kevin McNulty (Erik). Samantha Rose Richard (Brigid).  Parm Soor (Richard Saad).  Gina Stockdale (Momo). 


Friday, 23 March 2018

Chelsea Hotel rhymes off favourite Leonard Cohen charts
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 Since first performed in 2012, Chelsea Hotel that champions the muse of Leonard Cohen has packed houses to the rafters in 250+ performances locally and across Canada. Conceived and directed by Tracey Power, the current iteration of this show will, sadly, be its final resurrection. 

Loosely, the story-line involves songwriter Cohen stumbling over writer's block. He comes to New York's iconic Chelsea Hotel seeking through memory to be provoked into epiphany : surely another song is in there somewhere. By conjuring memories of The Mighty Three -- Suzanne, Marianne and the one he "didn't trouble with", Jane -- he is forced to confront what the woman in his life now, for real, means to him. Symbolically, if awkwardly, she is given no name.

Through re-jigged musical arrangements by Steve Charles of some two dozen songs -- involving 17 instruments, solos, duets, choruses, a capella numbers -- the somewhat contrived storyline is an improvement over the original, no question, more dramatic arc now. But no script however it's manipulated or finessed can ever outperform the lyrical tunesmith genius that Is. Just. Plain. Remarkable Leonard to his fans (a "dreary drone" to his dour detractors).

Everyone but the Cohen manque himself joins in one of Chelsea Hotel's choruses, "Everybody knows!", led by the show's musical arranger Steve Charles on guitar with the giddy Ben Elliott artfully & athletically blowing the pipes out of the accordion behind.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper

How it's all put together :  As noted previously by BLR, melancholy, loss, romantic dread and love's wreckage are never far from the tip of Cohen's quill & inkwell. There's also the metaphoric mirror Cohen holds up to look both at and into himself. "I am the one who loves / Changing from nothing to one," is a perfect example from "You know who I am". It is the show's leitmotif. The cast's three men and three women twizzle about doing flicks and scrambles through Cohen's songs -- a line here and there, a stanza, once in awhile a whole number. Often returning to just a single line commingled with another line or two from a similar song.

"If you want another kind of lover / I'll wear a mask for you" : the show's women Kayla Nickel, Marlene Ginader and Krystle Dos Santos mock Cohen with 20's cabaret whiteface & Freudian cigar kazoos.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper

Cohen in "Chelsea Hotel #2" recalls a night of sharp drugs and limp sex with Janis Joplin there in the late 60's : "You told me again you preferred handsome men / but for me you would make an exception." His irony and ache are the stuff central to Cohen's every chart. He asks his muse Ben Elliott : "How can I begin anything with all of yesterday in me?" 

Shortly he and Suzanne (Krystle Dos Santos) meander "down to a place by the river" accompanied sweetly, brilliantly by banjo (Steve Charles) and cello (Kayla Nickel). He's all about "love, love, love / come back to me" while Marlene's character with the curlicue papers in her hair would be happy with him in the here and now.

"Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my say to be free" Adrian Glynn McMorran sings with pain and regret and just a hint of humble pride to Marlene Ginader who wins his love -- for awhile.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
Production values that shine through :  Writer Tracey Power and musical arranger Steve Charles have re-worked the script and added more punch both musically and dramatically. Once more the Marshall McMahen set with its paper-thin walls and mountains of crumpled-up rejected white composition pages provide visual impact. All this contrasts nicely with the red notepaper messages on which Cohen writes sweet nothings to his current love -- whom in reality he can't seem to get less of fast enough. Still he is redeemed by realizing his antics amount to the epigraph "That's no way to say good-bye".

Barbara Clayden's costumes are noteworthy x3 : muse Ben Elliott's harlequin-esque white tails atop Converse hi-tops; the cocktail waitress cum burlesque outfits of the old girlfriends; and the dowdy nearly sexless get-up for his current companion straight off the set of Les Miserables.

But mostly it is Mr. Charles' dynamic musical stitchery that binds the ever-compelling Cohen lyrics together : the 17 instruments and the myriad stylings from country ballad to rockabilly to cacophonous rock to some latter-day Dylanish riffs to the prayerful lamentation blending "Bird On a Wire" with "Hallelujah" at the end.

Acting pin-spots :  Top honours drop squarely between Ben Elliott as the writer's muse and genie and conscience and the superb vocal power brought to this production by newbie Adrian Glynn McMorran. Elliott's March Madness height emphasizes his character's wizardry and impishness that he excels at portraying. McMorran's voice is rich & resonant & subtle, the best yet for this role. 

But not to detract one iota from the others. Ms. Nickel's soprano opposite Ms. Dos Santos's mezzo were a treat all night. And Ms. Ginader once again attracts every viewer's sympathy for trying to catch-&-keep the "beautiful loser" Lenny could at times be to the women whose hearts he melted.

Who gonna like : As Coach Jimmy V. famously said : "When you consider it, any day you can think and laugh and cry has been a very good day." Such it is with Chelsea Hotel. It will make you do all three and just that much more in part due to Leonard's passing a year back.

This is creative theatre that is bold and impudent and cheeky but that captures deliciously the essence of Leonard Cohen as man, as loner, as lover, as poet, as seeker. The musical smorgasbord and the chops of the performers who deliver it are a wonderful tribute to his memory. If at times they may be musically an 1/8th-note sharp or not quite altogether in-sync rhythmically or harmonically, mere quibble.

No matter in the least. The couple in front of me said this was the 3rd or 4th time they'd seen the show since its mount in 2012. Through my tears I said in response "Lenny does it to me every time." 

And the Power \ Charles collaboration is just the kind of live theatre excitement that would compel me to go again-&-again to celebrate and immerse myself in a poet-songster whose stuff is so much more than his studio recording compromises. The man had heart, soul, guts, poetry, love, lust, imagination, magic. What possible reason not to go and be swallowed up by all that?

Particulars : Chelsea Hotel : The Songs of Leonard Cohen at the Firehall Arts Centre theatre, 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until April 21, 2018.  Box Office 604.689.0926.  Tickets & schedule information @ Firehall.  Run-time 120 minutes, including intermission.

Production Team :   Creator / Director / Choreographer Tracey Power.  Musical Director and Arranger Steven Charles.  Firehall Arts Centre Artistic Director / Producer Donna Spencer.  Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden. Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Sound Designer Xavier Berbudeau.  Stage Manager Emma Hammond.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.

Featured Actors :  Steven Charles.  Kristine Dos Santos.  Ben Elliott.  Marlene Ginader.  Adrian Glynn McMorran.  Kayla Nickel.


The Vancouver connection in the Janis / Cohen story

The dubious get-on between Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen occurred shortly after Janis's final Big Brother and the Holding Company concert here in Vancouver at the Coliseum in October, '68. The band formally dissolved at midnight. Warm-up for them that night was a newbie group called Chicago Transit Authority. Their big-band instrumentals, reminiscent of David Clayton Thomas's Blood, Sweat & Tears, excited the crowd. Soon CTA would become, simply, Chicago, after the actual bus & elevated train company CTA sued them over name copywright. Personally I enjoyed the band CTA much more than I did Big Brother : Janis was uber-pissy on a quart of Southern Comfort bourbon, a x3 or x4 margin above her normal altitude and cruising speed. I can still hear the words "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz" : they sounded mushy, sort of like "Lorne, wonja buy me a moozhiging frien'?". It wouldn't be long before 27-year-old Janis's last gig was a heroin needle stick in Room 105 of the Landmark Hotel in L.A. -- pictured below -- the most notorious landmark it ever "enjoyed" before it changed its name to Highland Gardens.

Backdrop to the show's title

The Chelsea Hotel in NYC has been a famous and favourite drop-in home for artists of all sorts ever since it opened back in 1885 and was, for one brief shining moment, NYC's tallest building. Joni Mitchell's chipper & cheery "Chelsea Morning" gave the place rock star status, though its fame had earlier been marked, darkly, when poet Dylan Thomas died there on a grey November day in 1953 after bragging about the 17 or 18 or 19 whiskies he'd just finished polishing off at his favourite watering hole the White Horse Tavern up the street. Wikipedia cautiously? euphemistically? lists pneumonia as his causus demiso.

The 250-room 12-storey Victorian gothic with iron brocade balconies gained further notoriety when punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there in 1978. (Out on bail, Vicious himself would die in Greenwich Village of a heroin overdose just five months later. The investigation into the murder in Room 100 at The Chelsea was promptly abandoned by NYPD and never proven or solved.)

Cohen stayed at The Chelsea in the late 60's along with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, when Cohen was chasing them around The Big Smoke to absorb their genius. This was around the time the Canadian National Film Board championed the emerging Montreal persona. His metier was poetry in those days that he shared both in books and in coffee house gigs. The NFB put out a 16mm black-&-white bio-pic I used to show my senior high English students, Ladies and Gentlemen : Introducing Mr. Leonard Cohen. Clever and amusing, the flick includes Cohen bathing in a clawfoot tub at a seedy Montreal hotel while he smirks at the lens and writes the words caveat emptor on the bathroom wall as a kind of warning to viewers about all this precious fooferaw over him. But music was bursting in Cohen's breast, too, not just poetry, and NYC was where those times were a-happenin' and a-changin'. 

Best description of the hotel from Cohen's time there came from someone named Nicola L. in a 2013 Vanity Fair article by Nathaniel Rich entitled "Where The Walls Still Talk". Quoth she : "Anything could happen... It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can't remember which. It was a crazy time." 

"Hallelujah" out-take : 

Cohen's iconic 1984 spellbinder "Hallelujah" reportedly had some 80 (!) original verses to it. After years of slashing and re-writing, Cohen managed to bring it down to just seven. Its final two verses perhaps say all Cohen himself might, ultimately, want to conclude about his life as a writer and performer:

"There's a blaze of light in every word / It doesn't matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.../ I did my best...I've told the truth...And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before The Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

k.d. lang's performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is probably unmatchable among some 300 other covers of the song that media journals report as having been recorded, one of the more recent by Rufus Wainwright in his best-hits album "Vibrate" from lastyear.  

From Rolling Stone magazine  [re-printed verbatim sans permission]

By Daniel Kreps
August 7, 2016

Leonard Cohen penned an emotional final letter to Marianne Ihlen, the woman who inspired his "So Long, Marianne" and "Bird on the Wire," just days before her July 29th death, Ihlen's friend Jan Christian Mollestad revealed to the CBC

According to Mollestad, after he informed Cohen of Ihlen's looming death from leukemia, the legendary singer-songwriter-poet responded two hours later with a "beautiful" letter, which Mollestad then read to Ihlen.

"It said, 'Well Marianne it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine," Mollestad told the CBC of Cohen's letter.

"'And you know that I've always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don't need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.'"

Two days later, Ihlen "lost consciousness and slipped into death," Mollestad said. Her funeral was held Friday in her native Oslo, Norway.

Cohen met Ihlen in the Sixties while vacationing on the Greek Island in Hydra; he ultimately invited her and her infant son to live with him in Montreal. Ihlen and Cohen remained together for the next seven years, with their relationship serving as Cohen's inspiration for Songs of Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and Songs From a Room's "Bird on the Wire."

Cohen's verified Facebook page also remembered Ihlen with a series of written tributes from her friends and Cohen biographers as well as a letter Mollestad wrote to Cohen informing the singer of Ihlen's death.

"Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her. It gave her deep peace of mind that you knew her condition. And your blessing for the journey gave her extra strength," Mollestad wrote.

"In her last hour I held her hand and hummed 'Bird on a Wire,' while she was breathing so lightly. And when we left he room, after her soul had flown out of the window for new adventures, we kissed her head and whispered your everlasting words: So long, Marianne.

My personal favourite

Of all the Cohen I have heard & read, here remains my personal favourite, Poem #339, The Music Crept By Us from his 1964 anthology Flowers for Hitler.

The Music Crept By Us
by Leonard Cohen

I would like to remind
the management
that the drinks are watered
and the hat-check girl
has syphilis
and the band is composed
of former SS monsters
However since it is
New Year's Eve
and I have lip cancer
I will place my
paper hat on my

concussion and dance


Saturday, 17 March 2018

I Lost My Husband a femme Peter Pan farce
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 are two ways to look at I Lost My Husband. Director Diane Brown of Ruby Slippers calls it a "subversive comedy". The alternative is to see it as "full-on farce" from a femme fatale perspective, but really with no social purpose whatever except to incite giggles.

The lead is 30-something Evelyn (Meghan Gardiner). She owns a frozen yogurt shop but mostly she's a barfly at the Capri where she does non-stop karaoke almost every night until closing time or until her beer money dries up. She has ongoing hissy-fits with 20-year-old bartender Melissa (Agnes Tong) who is, by her own admission, beautiful beyond mere words.

Evelyn bets Melissa over lyrics to the song "Black Velvet", assuming Melissa won't get the 3rd verse right. If she loses, Melissa's prize is Evelyn's mid-50-ish husband Peter who owns the local BMW dealership. (Evelyn stole him away from Marriage #1.) "That's the only thing you own that I'm even remotely interested in," Melissa taunts her. And promptly wins. And Peter equally promptly vacates home to join her.

Karaoke queen Evelyn (Meghan Gardiner) belts out for the 4th time the Alannah Myles chart "Black Velvet" while bartender Melissa (Agnes Tong) does the iPhone 6 video capture.
Photo credit David Cooper

What the show brings to the stage :  Playwright-in-Residence at Gateway Theatre Leanna Brodie translated Quebec playwright Catherine Leger's original 2014 script and re-set it in B.C. just before marijuana is legalized. The result as directed by Ms. Brown is non-stop hilarity as we watch Evelyn execute the bejesus out of her juvenile You-go-girrrrrlll! ego right through to the end of this 80-minute show.

We learn that Melissa, unlike Evelyn, can cook. Her pot roast thrills Peter. Quite a change from "Costco generation" Evelyn whose hand at the stove is limited to prepackaged frozen dinners. Still, never mind the old adage of to-the-heart-through-the-stomach, after two weeks Peter hasn't even tried to hustle Melissa into bed despite her beauty. Maybe her being a Police Academy student puts him off.

Evelyn monologues with an off-stage couples' therapist. She writes confessional letters to Peter as counseled, but they're less bridgehead toward better times than endless bitching about him not giving her $150,000 to open a Tim Horton's franchise. She smokes weed with stepson William (Curtis Tweedie) and shares brain-fogged riffs about capitalism with William's drug dealer "independent entrepreneur" Steve (Raugi Yu). In the end, urged on by Steve, she arsons her frozen yogurt shop and puts the insurance vig toward her own hoped-for dopey clients.

Stepson William (Curtis Tweedie) challenges drug dealer Steve (Raugi Yu) about the wisdom of his advice to Evelyn for her to torch her failing frozen yogurt shop and blame it on "feminist hate crime".
Photo credit David Cooper
Production values that shine through : For its part Gateway's Studio B blackbox set is the perfect venue. Designer John Webber puts together on centre stage a Jordan's living room matching leather chesterfield and chair ensemble that befit a smug party-boy BMW dealer. Opposite, downstage left, the diminutive Capri karaoke bar. Webber's lighting design toggles nimbly between scenes in each. 

Hannah Case's costumes were ace for their variety and grabbiness. Sound designer Cuttler's raucous guitar rips were choice, but from my front row seat stage left I found the t.v. background chattery made Melissa and William's centre stage dialogue frustratingly hard to hear.

Acting pin-spots :  Why mix words. Meghan Gardiner is the show. She kills the role of Evelyn with one of the most dazzling and energized and engaged bits of comic self-satire I've witnessed on Vancouver stages in six years of doing BLR. All the others -- no disparagement here -- are but foils for her knock-out riff on a 30's brazen wife-stealer who never wants to grow up. She's dead-set on becoming Peter Pan all dolled up as Alannah Miles in black velvet magnified through the lens of Jon Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer".

William dopes his way through a mid-college "gap year" watching reality t.v. shows that dim his already fizzy-&-amateur sociologist student brain a bit further. Tweetie's depiction of him as a stoner and wannabe lover of Melissa is fun indeed. Tong's Melissa for her part is a touching naif who comes of age, finally -- talking all of 20 here -- to realize that Peter is damn-near of grandad age and stuck in a fetal position of neediness. As Steve, Yu has some of the best lines of this Brodie translation trying to convince Evelyn that dope dealers can be businessmen, too.

Who gonna like : As noted above, Meghan Gardiner's take on Evelyn is note-perfect lit.& fig. Her jibe at cop-academy student Melissa about "What would you do if..." someone were just about to step over the line into criminality was absolutely heart-stopping eye-watery laughing gas stuff. Such a risible routine of comic timing and facial nuance is without equal. 

"Why is it you start with a totally normal topic and I always wind up feeling like a piece of shit?" Melissa whines. Because Evelyn is by far her better at chatterboxing -- there but for the lost bet that "won" Melissa husband Peter. 

This sold-out show will only have rush tickets for people who want to see it. But if you can cadge one by hook or by crook or a bit of artful arson, by all means do so. Can't think of more fun I've had in 80 minutes recently than this.

Particulars : Written by Catherine Leger. Translated by Leanna Brodie. Produced by Ruby Slippers Theatre in association with Gateway Theatre. At the Gateway Theatre, Richmond, Studio B. On until March 24, 2018.  Tickets and schedule information through Gateway Theatre or by phone at 604.270.1812 to see if any Sold Out! cancellations are available.

Production team :  Diane Brown, Director.  John Webber, Set & Lighting Designer.  Hannah Case, Costume Designer.  Michelle Cuttler, Sound Designer.  Heidi Wilkinson, Props Assistant.  Lois Dawson, Stage Manager.  Samantha Pawliuk, Apprentice Stage Manager.  Conor Moore, Technical Director.

Performance team :  Meghan Gardiner, Evelyn.  Agnes Tong, Melissa.  Curtis Tweedie, William.  Raugi Yu, Steve.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

A Beautiful View looks fitfully for 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 : The amphiboly "Nothing is enough!" is playwright Daniel MacIvor's attempt to run a wry joke between two women friends in his 65-minute two-hander A Beautiful View. Is nothing -- zero -- enough? Or, had we everything, would that still never be quite enough? 

His repeated play on these words underscores the simple complexities of a decade-plus relationship between Emme (Sandra Medeiros) and Elle (Melissa Oei) that started in their 20's : lots of fun, lots of fibs, lots of sex ambiguity, lots of love and pain and the whole damn thang. A first kiss, a tryst, a skip-&-skedaddle. And then back together "accidentally" again for more of whatever's to come next. 

Elle (Melissa Oei) and Emme (Sandra Medeiros) find nature gives them common footing until life's vagaries trip them up.
Photo credit : Angelo Renai

For an hour and a bit we hear all about the hiccups in their friendship though, oddly, they never refer to one another by name. A host of 20-20 hindsights rhymed off that hi-lite the giggles, the beers, the rock and roll, the camping they share. But mostly their words focus on the confusion and ambiguities and betrayals. The fears. Of bears in the woods and one another in the city : angst of equal measure. The seemingly reluctant reconciliations. As if each of them is trying, desperately, to find "a beautiful view" of themselves they can project, not unlike what weatherman Phil Connors' karmic trek was all about in Ground Hog Day. Just not as successfully.

What the show brings to the stage : MacIvor's script begs this question : can two people who once seduced one another when drunk be lifelong friends in spite of all the lies and hurts and misguided emotions they've shared along the way? Yes -- MacIvor contends rhetorically -- if we can just get past the labels people foist on each other. Does our making love mean we are, or are not, lesbians? Then what about the men we dallied with and/or married? How do those relationships also define us? Trouble with all this is that in 2018 these are no longer particularly vital questions given the more profound and nuanced concerns of 3rd wave feminism.

Founder of da da kamera theatre in Toronto, MacIvor won the 2006 Governor General's Award for Drama for a quintette of scripts that included A Beautiful View. The following year he dropped the curtain on da da kamera for good. He has stated in interviews that he wrote the play intentionally as da da's last show. Also, he hopes ABV is the one of some four dozen he's written so far (and counting...) that he wants the world to remember him for.

Performance pin-spots : There can be no question of the sincerity and energy Naked Goddess Productions have put into this play whose final Preview performance I attended tonight. The character notionally named "Elle" is played with warmth and irony and edge by Melissa Oei. Her counterpart "Emme" is played by NGP co-founder Sandra Medeiros. As scripted by Mr. MacIvor, her character is more stiff, linear and emotionally monochromatic. But Ms. Medeiros pulls from her character all that's there to work with.

Which leads to the question always to be asked of a performance : Does it work for you? as viewer. Despite the pedigree of both playwright and this celebrated show, ABV did not quite "work" for me. MacIvor's constant repetition of the "Nothing is enough!" line between the actors rubbed raw on the ears after it was recited two dozen times or so. 

And then for Elle to parse it -- to explain over and over again in her monologue what its dual meaning is all about -- this was as painful as it was obvious and unnecessary, a kind of dramatic sabotage. And his ending to the show? Utterly artificial and dissatisfying.

As for staging, two primary problems here. One is the 60 x 15 foot rectangle stage in the old church sanctuary of Kits Neighbourhood House. Too wide by half at least. ACT's late-great Granville Island Revue stage would have been perfect for this intimate show. 

The other is the blocking and stage direction by Director Tamara McCarthy. Because the dialogue MacIvor provided her was so self-reflective and diary-like, the actors spent most of the night as if glued rather than animated. Small wonder. All they had to work with was playwright MacIvor's talk. Talk, talk, talk. Talking about talking. Talking about not talking. Trying to talk their way into creating meaning in life rather than just by being. 

Case-in-point : Harold Pinter ["The Last to Go"] created a couple of Limey duffers talking over pints of warm beer -- day-after-endless-day -- who make trite but somehow blithe observations about the local buses going by outside their favourite pub window. His genius was to make their yada-yada both seem and be convincing in its own commonplace way.

Who gonna likeWhether a gay male playwright can adequately infuse two ambiguously gay women with compelling persona is not a question about appropriation of voice. These characters needed more obvious depth than the somewhat glib existential question they pose back and forth ad nauseam.

But because live theatre is so vital and immediate -- an unforgiving medium if ever were one -- the enthusiasm brought to this production and performance by Ms's Medeiros and Oel is noteworthy. As actors their energy intersects even if the words they've been given to work with lack gut-level emotional persuasion. 

In so doing they reflect admirably part of NGP's stated raison d'ĂȘtre for what they do : "Theatre is that honest place where we tell a story in the most truthful way possible. To be authentic while sharing the lives of flawed and genuine people." No question this performance achieves that objective distinctively despite the limitations of the script itself.

Particulars : Produced by Naked Goddess Productions.  Written by Daniel MacIvor. On until March 25th.  At the Kits Neighbourhood House theatre. Run-time 65 minutes, no intermission.  Tickets and schedule information via Naked Goddess Productions

Production team : Tamara McCarthy, Director.  Celeste English, Lighting Designer.  Nico Dicecco, Sound Designer / Stage Manager.  Sandy Margaret, Scenic Designer.  Amelie Love (daughter of Ms. Medeiros), Music & Lyrics for the song Bittersweet Stories.

Performers :  Sandra Medeiros, Emme.  Melissa Oei, Elle.


Thursday, 8 March 2018

Forget About Tomorrow looks @ Alzheimer's collateral damage with faith, hope and charity
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 : To truly live in the "now" requires one to literally "forget about tomorrow". Then there's actor / playwright Jill Daum's approach : write an autobiographical play about her husband John Mann's early-onset Alzheimer's that finds him now, at just 55, in a Vancouver care home. (John was co-founder, lead singer and prime mover of Vancouver's Celtic-rock band Spirit of the West, est.1983.)

Part of the Mom's The Word collective as both co-writer and actor, Daum germinated the idea for her first solo show before John was formally diagnosed five years back. Previously on staff at the Kidsbooks shop on West Broadway, Daum had already started writing an "everywoman" script. Her goal was to tell a tale of how being "just a normal family" provides as many challenges and as much joy and pain as those of the rich and famous.

Husband Tom (Craig Erickson) sings an anniversary lullaby to wife Jane (Jennifer Lines) that speaks of how today is the only day, for now, of the rest of your life.
Photo credit David Cooper
John enthusiastically embraced Jill's idea to morph her play into a story that details his Alzheimer's journey. He did so with the same eagerness he evinced in writing the songs for a solo album "The Waiting Room" in 2009-2010. Morris Panych subsequently made his songbook into a play that ACT produced in 2015 and Mann sang in. It got rave reviews. That story detailed Mann's successful fight against colorectal cancer -- a vicious bout that now is chief suspect as the catalyst for the Alzheimer's that hit him a few short years after.

The last two songs Mann ever wrote book-end his wife's play, the first an anniversary lullaby, the last called "Forget to Forget". "Working on the music was as cathartic for him as the words in the play were for me," Daum notes. 

How it's all put together : Daum wanted to emphasize the ordinariness of the circumstances her characters portray. So she started by giving them straightforward names : Tom (Craig Erickson) and Jane (Jennifer Lines). 

How Jane and their adult children Aaron (Aren Okemaysim) and Wynn (Aleita Northey) grapple with Dad's inexorable and inescapable disease in its early phases is the stuff of the play.  But unlike Lisa Genova's Still Alice which is mostly about the stricken protagonist, here the focus is on the well one -- the person destined to be chief caregiver and survivor -- Jane.

Wife Jane (Jennifer Lines) swaps titillating romantic daydreams with her boss  Lori (Colleen Wheeler) as both women, while married, contemplate the aloneness they feel in their respective worlds.
Photo credit David Cooper
The first word that comes to mind, of course, is fear. Then the whole DANDA algorithm identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. All the energy to aid her failing husband who soon will not even know her name.

Along the way, of course, thoughts about life's meaning : is there any?  Would, could, should the prospect of a romantic interlude with a flirty widower (Hrothgar Matthews) help Jane cope? In a godless world, why-or-why not seem to have near-equal magnetism. (Daum noted in an interview [a] that the romantic interlude piece is a wholly fictional bit, and [b] that husband John, when still compos mentis, found this plot twist both amusing and intriguing).

What the show brings to the stage :  Daum cites her emerging and ongoing and crescendoing fears, certainly.  She describes Alzheimer's as "exceedingly cruel". Because it "doesn't only smother the unique, exquisite minds of vibrant, beautiful people -- it also ransacks families and haunts us all." She also identifies another emotion probably not normally thought of : the "shame" that this "pointless, horrible disease" visits on family members. She seems to be asking an interesting rhetorical question along the way : how do the words "caretaker" and "caregiver" differ, how do they intersect, how and when and why do they seem to switch places with one another?                  

As Mann did years back singing about his cancer and hospital episodes, Daum introduces as much comedy as possible into her script. The role of baby boutique owner Lori -- played flawlessly by Colleen Wheeler a la Rosalind Russell doing Auntie Mame six decades later -- was clearly one of Daum's chief cathartic outlets in writing this show. Not to mention a generous parroting of Daum et al's humour from the Mom's the Word series is at play as well, particularly in reference to Jane and Tom's children. 

Production values that hi-lite the script : Two aspects jump out here, namely the Pam Johnson set with its floor-to-ceiling backdrop of cross-rail panels -- representing Jung's "doors of perception" perhaps -- but most notably the lazy-susan centrepiece with its L-shaped countertop that swivels and toggles between Jane and Tom's kitchen and the baby boutique front counter.

As well, Candelario Andrade's projections onto the upstage wall of the children skyping and sniping and whining from their respective cribs back east were effective. His contrasting black-&-white movie scrim of giant cumulonimbus clouds with an endless sortie of crows launching into them added a clever retro-Alfred Hitchcock punch to the viewer's eye.

Good lighting design and soundscape, too, combined with the just-right contrast of Rodeo Drive glistening threads for boutique owner Lori opposite Jane's Blundstone boots that anchor her everyday Mark's Work Wearhouse denim uniform.  

Acting pin-spots :  Director Michael Shamato's casting was note-perfect for this oh-so-personal play. As suggested above, playwright Daum clearly relied upon so-called comic relief as a primary outlet for her to manage the multiple layers of emotion she dealt with as both the centrepiece of the autobiography and her challenge as a playwright in how to make meaningful and successful drama for others to engage in. "So-called" because at times the character of Lori threatens to upstage the more visceral undercurrents we are being asked to share emotionally with this family.

That is not, however, so much a piece of "criticism" as it is applause to the playwright for traversing such tricky terrain with a dramatic eye and an empathy for this real-life ongoing gut-blow she is describing.

As Jane, Jennifer Lines brought it all : pathos, agony, flirty sexiness, guilt, shame. A big Brava! there. Opposite as husband Tom, Craig Erickson once again demonstrated what power he commands doing serious, emotionally-challenging role portrayals. His depiction of a man utterly fogged and befuddled and desperate in his fading grasp of "now" was not just genuine but grippingly sad to behold. 

Who gonna like : This play has so much comedy to it it would be hard to classify it as anything but. Yet the subject matter of "How do you think you would deal with this agony and disorientation in your family?" is a profound and complex and necessary question to ask. 

There are moral considerations. There are practical considerations. There are, most of all, emotional considerations. How does one balance loyalty and faithfulness and integrity toward a grievously and irreversibly sick loved-one and still remain whole and safe and sane so caregiver does not become caretaker instead?

This is powerful drama with terrific antic moments that ease the underscoring pain. Of what ACT has on offer this season, Forget About Tomorrow is a show not to be missed for poignance, relevance and heart.

ParticularsScript by Jill Daum. Music by John Mann. Produced by ACT in collaboration with the Belfry Theatre, Victoria.  At the BMO 1st Avenue Stage.  Run-time 2-hours,15 minutes -plus- intermission.  On until March 25, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Jill Daum, Playwright.  Michael Shamata, Director [Artistic Director of Victoria's Belfry Theatre]. Pam Johnson, Set & Costume Designer.  Bryan Kenney, Lighting Designer.  Candelario Andrade, Projection Designer.  James Coomber, Sound Designer.  Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg.  Caryn Fehr, Stage Manager.  Ronaye Haynes, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Craig Erickson (Tom).  Jennifer Lines (Jane). Hrothgar Matthews (Wayne). Aleita Northey (Wynn).  Aren Okemaysim (Aaron).  Colleen Wheeler (Lori).