Saturday, 21 April 2018

Me and You is a sisterly tale spanning seven decades 
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 : Two sisters. Seventy years. Twenty masques. Eighty minutes. That's what's at play in Melody Anderson's original script Me and You. Sisters Liz (Patti Allan) and Lou (Lois Anderson) are classics of family types. One's bookish, organized and orderly, a biologist who planned her marriage and children and her life as if straight out of a lab workbook. The other is an abstract painter, got preggers spontaneously at art school, leads a life of whimsy and creative flow describing her seemingly erratic footsteps through this world.

How it's all put together : Playwright Melody Anderson cut her theatre teeth making masques (the spelling I prefer). These are big numbers : more than 3,000 masques for 50 productions and counting. Her skills are part of theatre costuming college classes across North America. She's composing a book on it all to help apprentices learn her craft. Earlier this decade she turned her talents to playwriting as a way to extend her theatric reach.

The result now on show is a two-hander featuring elder sister Liz and four-year-younger sister Lou from elementary school days to their post-retirement final days.

The kids Liz and Lou hamming it up with their bulbous cheeks and cheekiness.
Photo credit : David Cooper
We watch them as chunks of years skip by starting in the 50's : mock atom bomb hide-under-your-desk drills; teaching each other to dance; Lou meets tampons for the first time; hair dyeing gone amuck; boyfriends; the moon landing; babies; rebellious teen kids; 9/11; Dad splits from Mom; history repeats itself on this front-- and so it goes as Vonnegut told us repeatedly it would.

Classic riffs with Liz the elder who of course must wag her finger and forever set younger sister straight. But Lou is no pushover, she can give as well as take : "I didn't 'traipse' through Europe," she protests, "I 'traveled'. I saw the Mona fukken Lisa!" True to form she names her out-of-wedlock love child Serenity. When after standing on her head Liz finally manages to get preggers by hubby Wayne, another biologist, theirs will be named Anne Agatha. "She'll hate you for life!" Lou warns her. Liz promptly flips back some Dr. Spock-isms at her.

Fresnels on the show production values : Once more the versatility of the 1st Avenue stage is realized. Bleacher seating faces an acting space some 40 feet across. Angled walls reach upstage : their panels feature a geometry of countless dozens of drawer handles.  But not attached to drawers alone : to a bed; to doors; to a biffy; to clothes wardrobes -- they also serve as climbing rungs for variety-blocking -- while boxes pop up from the stage floor and clothes betimes drop down from above.

Sister Liz heads off to college in the 60's while younger Lou, nudging toward hippiedom as an artist, both welcomes getting sis's room but knows she's also going to miss having her mentor / tormentor around, too.Photo credit : Daivd Cooper
The music soundscape is richly-wrought electro-pop whose tunes match the various epochs on view -- they change with each of the masques the sisters sport as they age. Engagingly, almost spookily, each new masque emerges out of backlit sepulchres that extend from both walls. Nice effect indeed !

Acting pin spots : Playwright / masquer Melody Anderson's script is excellently cast by Director Mindy Parfitt. As a boy who grew up with three older sisters -- and whose wife has a sister five years her senior who lives in our town -- I can vouch for the accuracy of the taunts & teases & zingers & put-downs & regrets & sweet-sweetnesses Patti Allan and Lois Anderson flip and flick back-&-forth across the years. 

Can also vouch for the deliberate silences, like Lou's bitterness after she nurse-maided Mom for years. Then of course Mom died before Liz managed to get herself back to the homestead for a final visit. The inevitable spat over who had rights to Mom's precious ruby-&-emerald ring. A contretemps about Mom's ashes that Lou kept in her artist's paint can closet. "Mom would have happily spent eternity in the garbage dump if it meant you and me got along," Lou scolds Liz when the silent freeze finally starts to thaw a number of years later.

Who gonna like : This is touching comic drama. Mindy Parfitt's blocking of this talented twosome is deft and sure. They angle in on every bit of the stage as their actions befit the various ages they're displaying. Their talk-over snipes when each projects selfishness on the part of the other are pricelessly precise. 

Single kids can learn, enjoyably, some of the dynamics that having the siblings they never did can bring about. As can brother-sister twosome families : the relationships girls in a family have are different than theirs, gotta be no question in that respect if my life experience is any measure. 

The prominent word in all of this, again, is "charm". Worthy looks, worthy emotions, a genuinely worthy wander out for an evening of expressive and touching live theatre.

Particulars :  Script by Melody Anderson. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the BMO 1st Avenue Stage.  Run-time 1 hour, 20 minutes -no- intermission.  On until May 6, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Melody Anderson, Playwright -&- Masque Maven.  Mindy Parfitt, Director.  Amir Ofek, Set Designer.  Barbara Clayden, Costume Designer. Conor Moore, Lighting Designer.  Owen Belton, Sound Designer.  Cande Anrade, Animation.  Angela Beaulieu, Stage Manager.  Koh McRadu, Apprentice Stage Manager.

Performers :  Patti Allan (Liz).  Lois Anderson (Lou). 

Addendum #1 :  Director's notes by Mindy Parfitt : [from the program]

I come from a big family, six kids altogether. Of my siblings, my sisters hold a special status. I have two : one nine years my senior and the other 10 years my junior. They shape who I am as much as who I am not, and there is a depth and complexity among us that undoubtedly makes me a better person.

All three of us call Vancouver home. In fact I even share a house with my older sister. But life is busy, so I look forward to our annual tradition : the three of us get together at our family's old cabin on Gambier, we drink G&T's on the porch, and play three-way racing-demons until our fingers bleed. It's heady stuff -- a direct link to childhood, and an important reminder that their love and loyalty allow me to get beyond myself.

Lest I mislead you, let me be clear : we are competitive and can be mean. We can agitate and annoy each other (and they hate that I always win at racing-demons). But ultimately, I love having an older sister I look up to and whose opinion matters, and I love being an older sister, being the one to extend a hand.

So, I dedicate this to my two incredible sisters. Without you, I would not be me. 

Thank you.

Addendum #2 : Playwright's notes by Melody Anderson : [from the program]

I remember, as a child, thinking that if I concentrated carefully enough while looking at myself in the mirror, I might be able to catch a specific moment when I changed and became older. I also remember staring (probably unnervingly) at my grandmother and struggling to make sense of the face that she was once an infant.

Perhaps it was this fascination with the aging process that drew me to mask-making. Throughout my career I've often mused about the idea of seeing a character age on stage over the course of an entire lifetime.

When I shifted my creative focus to writing, I decided to try my hand at exploring this idea. Since a sibling relationship spans a lifetime, I thought : why not write a series of vignettes about two sisters, each vignette a snapshot of their push-pull attempts at connection as they grow older together?

I se the early vignettes in the 1950's because I was interested in examining the cultural shifts that have happened during my own lifetime, especially with regard to attitudes toward women.

Aside from the historical/cultural backdrop and stylistic elements, though, I wanted Me and You to simply be a story about the relationship of two sisters -- a celebration of their ordinary and yet uniquely remarkable lives.

Addendum #3 : That I saw the show on the 2nd anniversary to-the-day of my own sister Anne's too-soon death a couple years after her retirement, no question that for me the coincidental timing made this afternoon just that much more poignant. 

Until her passing, Annie was BLR's most loyal & vigorous & vehement & immediate critic and editor (she a former text-editor for Ortho how-to-books.) I would post a review at 02:30, and when I dragged myself up at 10:00 later that morning, hers would be the first response on-line.

One time particularly I remember I had used the literary expression "bitch goddess". Lots of silence ensued from my feminist sibling -- she a year my senior -- at minimum a two-month vacuum after I stubbornly refused to change that reference. 

Annie, from one of your three younger brothers -- the one you grew up with, to you who most directly helped grow me up -- this review is dedicated with all the everlasting love and gratitude only you could possibly know.


Thursday, 19 April 2018

Osage is like no family you'd ever want to meet -- except on stage
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 : High camp. Burlesque. Potboiler. These are words to bear in mind before going to see playwright Tracy Letts' soap opera August : Osage County at the White Rock Players Club.
A more impaired and dysfunctional American family saga would be hard to conjure. Particularly so because the matron, mom Violet Weston, is metaphorically like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs -- her 6 1/2 decades in life have made her into a take-no-prisoners bitter vicious thrasher and slayer whose vengeance against her brood knows no bounds.

The clever but uncredited White Rock Players Club program banner for this gothic tragicomedy
depicts a family whose home and lives are utterly uprooted and buried in their own well-deserved grave.
But why not have some fun along the way? In the immortal words of critic Clive Barnes a decade back : "A family that shouts, rants, throws plates, smokes dope and drops into unwitting incest can't be all bad...". This is Mamet meets Albee meets Roseanne -- a troubled bunch of misfits as if on loan from a deranged vaudeville troupe that's has wandered unwittingly into Pawhuska, OK.

How it all launches for better or for worse : Loaded with foreshadowing, Osage starts with a charming chat between the Dad guy, a university prof and once-upon-a-time poet named Beverly. He's interviewing Johnna, a local Cheyenne who he wants to bring on as housekeeper -- or possibly more as peacekeeper between himself and Violet. "My wife takes pills and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck of the bargains, just one paragraph of our marriage contract...cruel covenant." Admitting such frailties to a youthful stranger he's known but for five minutes foretells there will be melodrama ahead.

If there were any doubt it is dispelled within seconds when Violet stumbles into the scene, addled and rattled and juiced. When Bev suggests "Why don't you go back to bed, sweetheart?" she spits back : "Why don't you go fuck a fucking sow's ass?" Seconds later Bev tells Johnna, without a hint of irony, that if she comes to work for them "I doubt you'll be able to maintain any sort of healthy routine." Bev hires her with a final ironic riff at T.S. Eliot, observing "My last refuge, my books, simple pleasures, like finding wild onions by the side of a road, or requited love." With that charming and touching bit, exit Bev, stage left. Forever. And that's when the play truly begins.

What the show brings to the stage : Turns out Violet has cancer of the mouth along with myriad other malaises for which she pops packs of pills incessantly, perpetually. Between the countless cigarettes she still consumes. When Bev hasn't returned home in a handful of days, the family descends. 

Unmarried middle daughter Ivy, 44, arrives first : she's hung around Pawhuska looking after Mom and Dad's needs for years. Mom zeroes in on her : "You always look like such a schlub. Your shoulders are slumped and your hair's all straight and you don't wear makeup. You look like a lesbian." Her life-choice partner, held secret nearly all script long, will turn out to be anything but gay.

Vi's sister Mattie Fae, eight years her junior, arrives next with her nice nebbish hubby Charlie. Their doofus layabout kid, 37, is still called Little Charles. He lives with them at home 90 minutes away but they're fretful he can't be relied upon to even let the dogs out and fetch them back successfully. 

Eldest daughter Barbara and philandering husband Bill plane in from Boulder, CO with 14-year-old Jean who is eagerly in search of herself. She likes pot. Youngest of the three sisters Karen comes up from Florida with her 50-year-old shady businessman boyfriend Steve. He's a pedophile, thrice-married. 

So. No question Mr. Letts is reaching out for Tennessee Williams' New Orleans in all this. Also no question his theatrical grasp -- entertaining and canny and sly, but more superficial -- is quite a bit closer to David Jacobs' Dallas.

Past commentary on this show : When it first hit the NYC stage and took the 2008 Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Osage was cited as a "new American classic" by many. But not all. "Contrived", declared Hilton Als of The New Yorker, to which playwright Tracy Letts responded in an interview with Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail : "Fuck Hilton Als...he's an asshole," sounding word-for-word like his protagonist Vi Weston.

And while I may side toward the Als camp in this -- he is one of my favourite S. of 49 reviewers -- fact is the White Rock Players Club production directed by Ryan Mooney provides a show that presents with zing and pathos and sardonic humour all three. (Oh yes, another "three" or two in the mix : with its three acts and two intermissions, it runs three hours-fifteen JSYK.)

This is a show that by rights should toggle in repertory with the Mom's The Word series that Vancouver's ACT produces. Not only because it is 100% the exact opposite in tone and temper and cadence, but it features seven women all with strong and precisely-aimed stage presence -- gothic or no -- as crafted by the clever Mr. Letts. To wit his mother Billie, an author, quipped in the Dallas Observer in 2003 : "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead."

Fresnels on the production : The Robin Maggs / Andrea Olund set design is one of the best I've ever witnessed on the WRPC stage. It grabs the eye from the get-go. Finding a way to intersect thirteen actors on three floors of an OK farmhouse -- including eleven of them cluttered around the squidgy funeral wake dinner table -- takes some imagination. Brava! stuff here indeed. 

Diane Grant Booth's costumes suited each character with appropriate variety and idiosyncrasy from frumpy to dumpy to sexy to same old plain old. Lighting by Richard Smith isolated the various individual scene locations with imagination, while Gord Mantle's soundscape -- particularly the scratchy Clapton vinyl -- lent a further okie vibe to all the family shenanigans on show. 

Acting pin-spots : In Osage the script "belongs" to mother mayhem, matriarch Violet Weston (Cindy Peterson). In the program she admits she has lusted after this role from her first reading the play some years back. And deliver the goods she does indeed. From droll to drugged to been-there-done-that stoic cynicism, she is every kid's squiggly nightmare of their mom. 

Second protagonist in the piece is eldest daughter Barbara (Alaina Holland). She belts out pain and venom and teen-mom irritability with equal measure. Both long-suffering middle sister Ivy (Katherine Morris) and largely estranged, self-absorbed naif youngest sister Karen (Samantha Silver) are robust in their portrayals -- all three evince the kind of "betrayal syndrome" only siblings are capable of. Special mention to Alina Quarin as the 14-year-old daughter Jean : nice riffs as another challenging teen trying to stake her claim among the pusillanimous men in her family vis-a-vis the women who are to a person wounded warriors.

Solid performances across the piece by this eager ensemble of local talent. To keep a full-house of mostly seniors engaged with laughter and groans and tears for 3+ hours of a Wednesday night is no small feat indeed.

Who gonna like : The preceding descriptors should tell the tale. American gothic melodrama with lots of verbal violence, eff-words, a nifty synonym checklist for Mom's vagina -- a good start there to see whether you're a Who gonna for this kind of play or not. [Me Yes! my wife n.s.m.]

The Ryan Mooney direction of the actors in their talking-over-one-another group scenes was superb, one of the best examples I've witnessed on Vancouver boards. For their part, playwright Letts and Stephen Karam (see BLR March 29, 2018 review of ACT's The Humans) are often mentioned in the same breath as current USA dramatic wunderkind

This is bitey, chewy stuff, but dark dark dark. How else could mention of their Dad who apparently loved Mom -- "But then committed suicide!" -- bring forth gales of laughter from the crowd. No, Tennessee Williams this decidedly ain't. But for a witty and gritty get-under-your-skin look at Family Dysfunction Writ Large, a lot to entice and excite the wondering and willing here.

Particulars : Written by Tracy Letts.  At the White Rock Players Club Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Road, White Rock.)  On until April 28, 2018.  Schedules & ticket information from WRPC or box office at 604.536.7535.  Run-time 3 hours 15 minutes minutes including x2 15-minute intermissions.

Production crew : Producer Colleen McGoff-Dean.  Director Ryan Mooney.  Set Designers Andrea Olund / Robin Maggs.  Costume Designer Diane Grant Booth.  Lighting Designer Richard Smith.  Sound Designer Gord Mantle.  Assistant Producer Jackie Grant. Assistant Set Decorator Laura McKenzie.  Stage Manager Kathleen Allisen.  Prop Maven Naomi Mitchell.

Performers : Paul Cowhig (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau). Alaina Holland (Barbara Fordham). Cassidy Hryckiw (Johnna Monavata).  Pat McDermott (Charlie Aiken).  Katherine Morris (Ivy Weston).  Chris O'Connor (Steve Heidebrecht).  Fred Partridge (Beverly Weston). Cindy Peterson (Violet Weston).  Alina Quarin (Jean Fordham). Heather-Jane Robertson (Mattie Fae Aiken).  Samantha Silver (Karen Weston).  Cale Wald (Little Charles Weston).  Andrew Wood (Bill Fordham).

Addendum #1 : Reference is made in the play to Southern novelist Carson McCullers whose coming-of-age novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and its 1951 follow-up The Ballad of the Sad Cafe were de rigeur reading for high schoolers and young college preppies back in the day. And of course To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee particularly after it was made into a black-&-white movie, lit.-&-fig., in 1962 starring Gregory Peck as the steely-eyed but compassionate lawyer Atticus Finch.

On Page 7 of the Dramatists Play Service, Inc. 2009 publication of Tracy Letts' script for August : Osage County, Letts included a lengthy squib from yet another southern writer, Robert Penn Warren of Kentucky -- he the author of my all-time favourite existential poem "Waiting". This from his most famous novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1947,  All the King's Men :

The child comes home and the parent puts the hooks in him. The old man, or the woman, as the case may be, hasn't got anything to say to the child. All he wants is to have that child sit in a chair for a couple of hours and then go off to bed under the same roof. It's not love. I am not saying that there is not such a thing as love. I am merely pointing to something which is different from love but which sometimes goes by the name of love. It may well be that without this thing which I am talking about there would not be any love. But this thing in itself is not love. It is just something in the blood. It is a kind of blood greed, and it is the fate of a man. It is the thing which man has which distinguishes him from the happy brute creation. When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to use a hame trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can't get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can. And the good old family reunion, with picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium. 

And finally, one of my all-time favourite quotations from yet another Southern novelist, Alabaman Walker Percy. His 1971 piece Love In The Ruins is a science fiction morality piece set in USA's dystopian future. Percy writes :

What must be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past : the past that is gone and grieved over and never made sense of.

As I watched the final scene of Osage last night when eldest daughter Barbara abandons her mother Violet for good and Violet seeks solace from Johnna Monevata (English : "Youngbird") -- the Cheyenne cook and family caregiver -- Percy's quote jumped instantly into mind and I found myself shedding some tears that Letts and the WRPC cast had helped pend up in me over the course of the night.

Addendum #2 :  Before attending the WRPC performance, I was chatting with a friend about Vancouver theatre. I mentioned that one goofy but repeated frustration I find is in how actors hereabouts swear on stage. Almost always Wrongly! I said to him. As in saying "What is your fucking problem?" to a sibling, rather than the way the language is actually used, which is "What is your fucking problem?" 

The only time the word fucking was emphasized rather than the noun after it -- which is how we speak -- was Alaina Holland exclaiming about Violet's "fucking pills". That was right. In that instant, the emphasis on "fucking" was right. 

The rest of the time each and every of the cast for the balance of the night used the adjective "fucking" as the throw-away word it is, emphasizing instead the following noun or adjective or verb, as in "Are you fucking kidding me?" 

Touche! Ryan Mooney and cast. My faith that good directing and good actors can pull this little bit of dictional accuracy off now has a base-point that I can refer folks to down the road. Thanks!


Sunday, 15 April 2018

Cabaret reminds us that was then this is now. . .
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 :  Entr'acte. The space and time between acts. The time between the end of the Roaring 20's in America and the crash on Wall Street. In Germany the demise of the Weimar Republic under the weight of WWI reparations. Coupled, not coincidentally, with the rise of Ernst Rohm's Brown Shirt beer hall thugs. In their shadows is Hitler's growing Nazi collective of just-plain-German-folk : they skulk brilliantly in the dim light.

As Charles Dickens said of the French Revolution, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Thus many who remember the 1972 Bob Fosse film Cabaret starring a glittering Liza Minelli tend to remember her personal glitz-&-glamour. We might be guilty of thinking the show's hit song as intended straight, not ironic -- that life is short, so why sit at home and fret, why not just go play? Fact is the racy raucous nite club times at the Kit Kat Klub were more akin to Sodom and Gomorrah than to the burlesque of the Folies Bergere whose images were so richly embroidered in the Montmartre lamplight posters of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Screen-grab off internet.
As Royal City Musical Theatre's Artistic Director Valerie Easton writes pointedly and insightfully : "The late 20's and early 30's were a very liberal time in Berlin, the government of the day having cancelled all censorship. Nothing was taboo. Drug use was rampant, alcohol and sexual conduct was 'anything goes'. No one was paying attention to the political climate and along came racism, greed, hatred, prejudice, the Nazis and radical change."

Thus from the opening number led seductively by the show's polysexual Emcee (Andrew Cownden), "Wilkommen", oppressive thunderclouds loom within striking distance. Even most high-flying Berliners no doubt sensed the decadence and free-spiritedness being indulged in at KKK were shallow and sham and shameful despite appearing to reflect what Europe's post-WWI zeitgeist was "supposed" to look like. 

How it's all put together : Three tales are told simultaneously. How a young American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Tim Howe) has come to Berlin to finish writing a novel. There he meets Sally Bowles (Lauren Bowler) who is a British singer who slept her way onto the Kit Kat Klub stage. Despite being ambiguously gay, Cliff is smitten by her charms. They couple up after KKK's hyper-jealous owner Max kicks her out once he sees them flirt across his dance floor. 

Sally moves in with Cliff at the rooming house owned by lifelong spinster Fraulein Schneider (Cheryl Mullen). A neighbourhood widower, Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schulz (Damon Calderwood), is sweet on her. They plan to marry until Nazi rainmaker Ernst Ludwig (Gavin Leclaire) declares peremptorily how this would be unwise for her in these unsettling times. Soon would come Kristallnacht and crowds of bullies yelling Heraus mit Juden! at folks who used to be their neighbours & friends.

Tying these threads together is the seemingly omniscient Emcee who with his Kit Kat troupe entertain the guests with song and dance numbers. Their acts simultaneously tell the stories of how all these characters are faring outside where the Brown Shirts are assaulting and disappearing people daily. 

Emcee Andrew Cownden encourages his burlesque troupe to Wilkommen! the patrons to the Kit Kat Klub cabaret, inviting them to "leave their troubles outside" and join them inside where life is "real".
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
What RCMT brings to the stage : After the Fosse & Minelli 35mm. wizardry that championed the original Masteroff / Kander / Ebb script, watching a stage version at the high school auditorium at New Westminster Secondary School presents no end of challenges for the theatre company and audiences both. We come to Cabaret with a demanding set of expectations. 

Suffice to say Director Valerie Easton & Co. executed their Pflicht as the Germans would say -- their duty -- with eagerness, aplomb, energy and insight that are trademarks of Easton's RCMT. Particularly ept was the blending of the upstage rooming house scenes into the KKK stage arena, as if many of those scenes were in fact being acted out in front of the Klub's slavering patrons.

How life appeared to many at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin's pre-Hitler daze.

No question the blend of RCMT's "It's showtime, folks!" exuberance with the serious sobersides of a world that was post-Black Friday in the failing Weimar democracy -- both of which were symbols of "Money, Money, Money" after all -- was struck well indeed. 

Production values that hi-lite the action : Curious that Set Designer Omanie Elias is plunk'd into 7th of 12 listings for the design crew. Her transformation of the Massey Theatre proscenium stage is remarkable and rich. The sidebar KKK bistro roundtables and bentwood opera chairs coupled with the upstage rooming house sets behind billowing sheer curtains wove the scenes together effortlessly. Not to mention the semi-circle catwalk around the orchestra pit that allowed the song-&-dance troupe to parade its stuff right smartly.

And how Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier wound up one spot below her for acknowledgment in the program is another mystery. Outrageous! costumery in this show, particularly for the Emcee role.  

Also delightful turns by the 12-piece orchestral ensemble. This reviewer's ear, however, does require shout-outs to go to Ross Halliday on drums/percussion for his subtlety and finesse -- no wood-chopper he. Also ringing particularly true were Tom Walker's trombone and Shawn Hillman's viola riffs. Subtle silky stuff. Altogether a very well-wrapt sound by one and all.

Acting pin-spots :  When first I saw Fosse's film with M.C. Joel Gray I remember remarking to friends at the time as a 20-something : "No one will ever do as good a job with that role as he does." 

"As good a job" is, quite frankly, the wrong choice of expression. Because what Andrew Cownden does for RCMT with Ms. Elias's clever staging -- and Director Easton's ever-ingenious choreography and blocking -- is (oh! how trite to put it...) worth the price of admission alone. Cownden embraces the saucy character of Emcee same as he embraces the privates of both the women and the men in his stage gang. He wears Emcee's role and persona and costuming like a man who first performed this gig as a nerdy kid 20 years back in Granny's farmyard -- he's just embellished-&-glitzed it professionally over time.

Lauren Bowler as Sally Bowles does a remarkable Brit accent and impersonation. Fine chops indeed. Albeit maybe not quite sleazy enough at times seducing stiff Cliff Bradshaw, her rendition of "Cabaret" at show's end was breathtakingly blue and nuanced and still naively-&-charmingly hopeful.

No review of this show could possibly not mention Cheryl Mullen and Damon Calderwood as the late-life ill-fated lovebirds. Oh how touching their words, their songs, their dances, their fateful engagement party. 

Who gonna like : As a student teacher at NWSS in 1969 under the school's English master Sam Roddan, I used to hate having to attend assemblies in the vast auditorium there. I feel little different 50 years on. What an impersonal and stadium-like room to have to work.

But work it Valerie Easton and her crews of performers and production talent do to marvellous effect. Cabaret is as Easton says so well : "Cabaret is a special show, one of the few thought-provoking musicals. The script is clever and the music raunchy, smart, tender, and most of all unforgettable."

Today's show was sold-out. Wise pursuers of an utterly delightful nite of song, dance, thought, laughter-&-tears will want to punch their ticket early so as to not miss out.

Creators : Book by Joe Mastoff.  Based on the play by "I Am a Camera" John Van Druten.  Selected narrative taken from "The Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood. Music by John Kander.  Lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Produced by : Royal City Musical Theatre. At the Massey Theatre, SW corner, 8th Street & 8th Avenue, New Westminster.  On until April 29, 2018.  Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.521.5050 or on-line at RCMT tickets. Run-time Two hours, 15 minutes plus intermission.

Production team : [from the program list]  Director & Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Musical Director James Bryson.  Artistic Associate Alen Dominguez.  Assistant Choreographer Jacq Smith.  Producer Chelsea Carlson.  Technical Director Alex House.  Set Designer Omanie Elias.  Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier.  Executive Sound Designer Tim Lang.  Sound Designer Malcolm Ross.  Lighting Designer Rob Sondergaard.  Properties Manager Sharon Zimmerman. Stage Manager Linzi Voth.  Assistant Stage Manager Gerri Torres.  Assistant Stage Manager Zain Khudhur.  Assistant Stage Manager Sophie Jederman. Rehearsal Pianist Patrick Ray. 

Principal performers :  Lauren Bowler (Sally Bowles).  Andrew Cownden (Emcee).  Tim Howe (Clifford Bradshaw). Olesia Shewchuk (Fraulein Kost / Chanteuse).  Cheryl Mullen (Fraulein Schneider). Damon Calderwood (Herr Schultz). Gavin Leclaird (Ernst Ludwig).

Ensemble performers : Callie Anderson.  Britt Bailey.  Daniel Cardoso.  Kurtis D'Aoust.  Isabella Halladay.  Lucia Forward. Jennifer Lynch.  Kyle McCloy.  Jayka Mayne.  Joseph Spitale.  Michael Stusiak.  Rachel Theilade.  Michael Wilkinson.  

Boy Sopranos (Hitler Jugend) : Adrian Asuncion Cuenca.  Oliver Gold.  Andre Kozak.  Owen Scott.

Orchestra :  Andrea Alexandra (Trumpet).  Ross Halliday (Drums / Percussion).  Shawn Hillman (Viola).  Angus Lam (Bass).  Kevin McDonnell (Violin).  Patrick Ray (Keyboard, Violin).  Steve Torok (Trumpet).  Tom Walker (Trombone).  Miranda Wheeler (Clarinet, Saxophone).  Lia Wolfe (Piano).  Kevin Wu (Clarinet, Flute, Saxophone).  Aireleen Zhu (Cello). 

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Nine Dragons is 1st-rate film noir look at racism, assimilation & colonial blues
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 : Buddha noted that in search for the "other" we are almost always in search of "self" as well. "It is better to conquer oneself than to win a thousand battles," he cautioned warriors. Probably no more obvious example of this than in a colonial jurisdiction such as Kowloon, Hong Kong, 1924 when you happen to be a chippy and aggressive Chinese cop stuck in a hostile and racist and otherwise wholly-white-skinned Brit administration : a word like "micro-aggression" would be guffawed and its user promptly booted out of the canteen in this 95-year-back setting.

Gateway Theatre artistic director Jovanni Sy recently told the Straight his intent in creating Nine Dragons was to avoid the classic Charlie Chan detective stereotype of yore. Instead of someone reticent, passive and "inscrutable", his character is designed to be more the "toxic masculinity" type, he said. 

Pit just such a cop against a roaring 20's Chinese wannabe gangster in tuxedos who is chief suspect as Kowloon's serial killer. Vintage cat-&-mouse : a wealthy schmoozy Hong Kong night clubber pitted against a fellow Chinese in khakis who kowtows to a "justice" system that treats him with raw contempt. 

Velvety schmoozer cum gangster Victor Fung (Daniel Chen) is the quarry being chased by Inspector Tommy Lam (John Ng) as the suspected Kowloon Ripper murderer.
Photo credit Tim Ngyuen

How it's all put together :  The show is co-produced by Calgary's Vertigo Theatre along with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre who together launched the world premiere of the show in Calgary last Thanksgiving. Vertigo -- as its Alfred Hitchcock film noir connect back to the 1958 flik suggests -- specializes in the psycho thriller whodunit theatric genre : the company's artistic director Craig Hall once again directs the action. He also helped playwright Sy shape some of the script's intricate timing and cadence.

Until now, the "Kowloon Ripper" as he's being called, has killed only Chinese nationals. This time it's an upperclass English woman. Finally police Chief Inspector Nigel Dunston-Smith (Duval Lang) sits up and take notice -- grumpily and edgily : it is 1 a.m. and he's been drug out of noddyland. This latest victim, like the others, has had her hands chopped off and her tongue ripped out. 

Det. Sgt. Tommy Lam (John Ng) -- the best Chinese crime-buster on the force with a 50% case "kill" ratio -- is subordinated in the case by his boss Senior Inspector Paul Beverly (Scott Bellis). At the order of Dunston-Smith he brazenly appoints a Scotland Yard importee named Sean Heany (Toby Hughes) to tag-team the case with Lam. He's never worked a homicide before. Regardless they promote him to Inspector, as if to demean Lam's street smarts and generally let it seem as if the round-eyes are running the renegade Lam's homegrown show.

The body language between Det. Sgt. Tommy Lam (John Ng) and Senior Inspector Paul Beverly (Scott Bellis) speaks volumes about the underlying themes of racism, colonialism, and stoicism in 9 Dragons.
Photo credit Tim Ngyuen
Completing the team is coroner Dr. Mary Weir (Natascha Girgis) who is Tommy's secret lover. She slides him key case evidence against flashy suspect Victor Fung (Daniel Chen) who is the prodigal son of shady H.K. mogul Sir Hamilton Fung. At dad's insistence, Victor is programmed to assimilate into H.K.'s old colonial world so seamlessly he was never even permitted to speak Cantonese, only the King's English.

Oh, and of course, like any good hard-boiled detective yarn, there's always a double-cross or two that have to play out to make whole cloth out of the various plot and theme threads.

Production values that hi-lite the script : Four of the design team who in Spring, 2015 staged the gruff and moody Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely for ACT have re-upped to mount this latest noir effort by Mr. Sy and Gateway. Joining director Hall are Scott Reid on sets, projectionist Jamie Nesbitt, and costumer Deitra Kalyn. Sound designer Andrew Blizzard was challenged to live up to his surname with a blitz of 1920's Chinese influences buffeting about more familiar western musical riffs.

Inspector Lam (Tommy Ng) doesn't always see eye-to-eye with either Senior Inspector (Scott Bellis, left) or Inspector Sean Heaney (Toby Hughes, right) as he tries to head up the Kowloon Ripper investigation.
Photo credit Tim Ngyuen 
As they did in Lovely, Messrs. Reid and Nesbitt work fist-in-glove. Reid's set screens glide and slide effortlessly between a Hong Kong cop shop, the Nine Dragons nite club and Victor Fung's mansion up on Victoria Peak and are sumptuous in rich but crisp detail. Mr. Nesbitt's video projections are once again a wholly intuitive chiaroscuro of out-takes : a murder of crows taking flight into clouds; waves; funicular tracks; slowly oscillating overhead fans. All of it joins together to hi-lite the dynamics that underscore the desperate and villanous gangsters of Kowloon and its drug trade.

Winnipeg Free Press reviewer Randall King perhaps said it best six months back when he quipped "Vancouver playwright Jovanni Sy's hard-boiled mystery Nine Dragons is a play, yes, but directed as it is with a certain cinematic flair, it registers as a screenplay that got lost on the way to the cineplex and found itself on a theatre stage."

Plotline fresnels and acting pin-spots : Playwright Jovanni Sy achieves every objective he set out for himself. The race and sex subjugation of both Lam and Weir intersect cleverly. Lam clearly thrives on insolence and impudence. Nothing better than his face-to-face with Dunston-Smith after being called "chink" : he spits back literally nose-to-nose into boss Nigel's face that he is a "pasty Limey prick!" The exchange elicited hoots and huzzah's from the crowd, not any gasps whatever. The notion of oppressive white privilege -- even among the blue-rinsers at Saturday's matinee -- is at last being accepted at face value one could say. (Yes. Lam got fired on the spot.)

This is a powerfully-cast troupe that Director Craig Hall has assembled. While the central focus is Ng who carries his shoulders and neck as if straitjacketed much of the time -- symbolically -- Chen as the gangster manque Victor threatens to upstage him with his unctous condescension. 

Special mention to Hughes as the clipped Scot partner who is Lam's foil and friend, ultimately. Also to Lang as the egregious Dunston-Smith : he evinced a loathesomeness that might resonate for North American audiences if they but conjured J. Edgar Hoover meets Sen. Joe McCarthy meets Sean Hannity. Just such, only with a pasty Limey prick accent.

Who gonna like : Should the in-your-face racial characterizations on show here either pass over you or just pass you by, fact is this is a first rate whodunit. It has all the usual quantum of coincidences and manufactured plot-twists and ironies and paradoxes that this genre demands. 

And no question, playwright Sy was spot-on in imagining during his five years of putting all this together that a 20's setting in exotic Hong Kong and its Star Ferry over to the intimate confines of Kowloon is a perfect mix. Especially so for West Coast audiences whose proximity to oriental cultures is immediate and embracing.

My personal litmus test for Vancouver theatre is whether I would take a second look or not. You bet I would. This is edgy good stuff indeed.

Particulars :  Script by Jovanni Sy, Artistic Director, Gateway Theatre. Produced by Gateway Theatre in collaboration with Vertigo Theatre (Calgary) and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. At the Gateway mainstage in Minoru Park through April 21, 2018. Tickets & schedule information via box office phone @ 604.270.1812 or on-line @  Run-time 120 minutes, one intermission.

Production crew : Director Craig Hall. Set Designer Scott Reid.  Costume Designer Deira Kalyn.  Lighting Designer Anton de Groot.  Sound Designer & Original Music Andrew Blizzard. Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt.  Fight Director Karl Sine. Voice and Dialect Consultant Jane MacFarlane.  Cantonese Translations Derek Chan.  Assistant Director Jenna Rodgers.  Assistant Costume Designer Elizabeth Wellwood.  Fight Director Assistant Zakk MacDonald.  Stage Manager Michael Howard.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  

Performers : Scott Bellis (Paul Beverley)  Daniel Chen (Victor Fung).  Natascha Girgis (Mary Weir).  Toby Hughes (Sean Heaney). Duval Lange (Nigel Dunston-Smith). John Ng (Tommy Lam).


Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Misery will chill & thrill & scare big-ish
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 : Misery is as misery does. You are a serial 19th century English romance novelist. In the 9th and final sequel you kill off your main character, Misery Chastain. That was months back. Now you are at a favourite Colorado retreat to do up the finishing touches on your first "serious" novel. Your new mode is all eff-word stuff about 1980's street life in NYC. 

While retreating in Silver Creek you and your Mustang wind up in a wicked wintertime car wreck. Your legs are busted up big and your shoulder's kaputt, but ex-nurse divorcee Annie Wilkes sees the crash and rescues you. She carts you off to her isolated mountainside cabin to recuperate.

Meanwhile she discovers you are the famous novelist Paul Sheldon. She thrills at the fact she considers herself your "number one fan" and you're her patient. But she's gobsmacked and venomous when she reads that you have Misery die in childbirth in Book Nine. In short order you realize you've got a Nurse Ratched on your hands -- a gaoler and tormentor, by no means a guardian angel. 

The eyes are window to the soul. Witness "caregiver" Annie Wilkes (Lucia Frangione) who uses knife-sharp wit to keep novelist Paul Sheldon (Andrew McNee) focused on how best to keep Misery alive.
Photo credit : David Cooper
The unhinged psychotic orders you to resurrect Misery in another re-write. Or else. The metronome clacks louder and more menacingly with each desperate second that ticks by. This stranded cabin where you're captive may well be your sarcophagus.

How it's all put together : This is the play version of the 1987 Stephen King novel Misery that Rob Reiner made into a movie in 1990 starring Kathy Bates and James Caan. Screenwriter William Goldman did both the earlier movie and now 25 years later the live stage script -- he of Butch Cassidy and All the President's Men Academy Award pedigree. N.B. Not being a fan of horror stuff, I may be the only adult in the Lower Mainland who's neither read King's American gothic novel nor seen the flik -- so it's fresh eyes for certain on the ACT chiller at play here.

Of the production, outgoing Artistic Director Bill Millerd enthuses about this swansong season show : "Staging a thriller by the master of the genre is a rare opportunity and we're excited to bring something quite different with this show. Director Rachel Ditor has given our longtime Properties Master Michael Gall and his team the chance to really show their talent for special effects." 

When you're a banged-up hostage in a demonic psychotic's mountain cabin that reeks of mildew & mothballs & her long-dead Mama, even autographing a book for your "number one fan" is excruciating.
Photo credit : David Cooper
Production values that enhance the script : The Lauchlin Johnston set by itself is no doubt worth the price of admission here. Various pop-out doors open-&-shut along a proscenium wall to give a single platform the sense of a whole house. The transforming kitchen -- from nurse-y antiseptic to hoarder's pig-sty -- was choice. Cliffhanger black-&-white movies inspire the music that accompanies effective lighting spots. Together they help isolate and enhance Mr. Sheldon's various phases of pain during his ever-so-slow journey to regain the manly strength needed to save himself. 

Plotline fresnels and acting pin-spots : Of the NYC Broadhurst Theater mount starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf two years back, numerous critics complained that the short 90-minute run-time of the show nevertheless dragged. Reason cited was that the live-stage script by Goldman lacks punch and verve and zing.  Zippy dialogue and actors who deliver it crisply are necessary to replace all the moods clever camera shooting can create. 

Director Ditor's ACT stage version manages to stretch 90 minutes into 130, though unlike the NYC version it does have an intermission. So what is gained in fattening it all up?

Here's the difference : casting, blocking, comic effects hi-lited almost panto style. Brava! to veteran Ditor for hand-picking Andrew McNee and Lucia Frangione (who is a Nicki Cavendish clone if ever were one) to wring every ounce of satire and farce and near slap-sticky nonsense out of a book originally designed to scare the pants off readers for weeks after they finished it. 

Even the execution of the nosy throwaway sheriff Buster (Munish Sharma) was goofy good fun in spite of the murderous mayhem that is the stuff of USA front pages every day. As if taking a page from the Coen Brothers' Fargo foolery.

McNee's performance portraying horrific physical pain along with a mental anguish rimmed with irony was stupendous. No question he drops dead, fig., the moment he gets home after each show. As a Kesey-esque "Big Nurse" knock-off, Lucia Frangione's bouncy girly fan-worship was delicious. Inspired offsets to Annie's menace that is her core self. Just a delight, both!

Who gonna like : No question this is different theatre. The crowd was engaged and amused -- riotously! -- throughout the night. Never before have I witnessed theatre-wide applause when a villain's blood spatters the upstage wall. Hard to imagine that in a typical Billy Wilder piece, say. 

As noted above, horror stuff is not this reviewer's gig. Reality bites give me enough. But this is less Wait Until Dark than knock-off Rocky Horror Picture Show or Spamalot. See it enough times and no doubt you'll be rhyming right along with the cast on stage. 

A choice cut at misery-made-chuckly -- not Yech!y gory -- awaits enthusiasts in this remastered and repurposed Stephen King original.

Particulars :  Script by William Goldman. Based on the Stephen King novel. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At the Granville Island Stage.  Run-time 130 minutes, with intermission.  On until May 5, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Rachel Ditor, Director. Lauchlin Johnston, Set Designer.  Stephanie Kong, Costume Designer.  Andrew Pye, Lighting Designer.  Murray Price, Original Music & Sound Designer.  Rick Rinder, Stage Manager.  Shelby Bushell, Apprentice Stage Manager.

Performers :  Lucia Frangione (Annie Wilkes).  Andrew McNee (Paul Sheldon). Munish Sharma (Buster).