Thursday, 25 October 2018

BLR long-read
Sweat tells a gritty tale of rust-belt anger run amok
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 : "Don't sweat the small stuff!" was a Bubba Clinton rallying cry just 25 years back. "And remember, it's all small stuff," the smug quip-of-the-day continued. Not anymore. Not in today's Fractured States of America.

Sweat by black playwright Lynn Nottage was written pre-Trump, perhaps, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning script begun in 2011 anticipated in toto the abandonment of the Democratic Party by white blue collar rust-belt workers. How they instantly ditched their Jack Daniels & Coke for a giant slug of Donny-boy's orange-kool-aid on November 8, 2016.

As Cynthia (Marci T. House) muses with Stan the barkeep (Ashley Wright) over her good fortune to become a factory supervisor, tensions in the local after-work watering hole being to fester and boil over.
Photo credit : David Cooper
In a brilliant analysis just last week, Columbia University professor Jeffrey D. Sachs underscored playwright Nottage's capture of USA nativist backlash when he noted : "America's founding credo was that 'all men are created equal'. Yet the founding reality was that white males were far more equal than everyone else. White men owned slaves, denied the vote to women and took the lands and lives of native Americans." And so when Trump demonised NAFTA and disparaged the great sucking sound of jobs disappearing to Mexico, Joe Plumber and his pals responded gustily.

What the show brings to the stage : Ms. Nottage toggles the action between the year 2000 (pre-9/11) and 2008 immediately after the Goldman Sachs collapse and the New Recession kicked in. The primary tale told is of two women, one white, one black, long-time friends employed at the Oldstead metal tubing factory in Reading, PA. A management supervisory position comes up and black Cynthia beats out her white friend Tracey for the job. 

Shortly Oldstead downsizes, sends some production to Mexico, and the workers strike / are locked-out. Ad nauseam. The seething racism borne centuries back emerges, violently, amidst the 40% poverty rate in the town. Both the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal heralded Nottage's script as "explaining" the "landmark win" of the Trump era. 

Now ex-cons, Jason (Chris W. Cook) and Jason (Andrew Creightley) compare notes how their future in Reading, PA looks to each of them while barkeep Stan (Ashley Wright) listens in and mediates their tensions. 
Photo credit : David Cooper
Theatrical highlights : Class, race, culture, loyalty, poverty, drugs all strut and fret their 2.5 hours on stage in Sweat. Tracey's son Jason and Cynthia's son Chris have history, too : both are now ex-cons as a result of a brutal bar-room brawl they took part in back in Y2K. While Chris now dreams of kick-starting his interrupted teacher training, Jason seethes with white hot rage at how his job prospects are even worse given his prison record. He sleeps rough in a tent on Reading's outskirts, adorned with outsize nazi tats.

Jason tells his black parole officer Evan (Anthony Santiago) that all he can see is a "blinding fury" at the new world order. Evan counsels him to the effect of "Most people think it's anger and fear that are behind it all, but really it's shame about who we've become."

In an interview with The Guardian, meanwhile, Nottage -- also a Columbia University prof -- noted : "In the play one of the characters says 'Nostalgia is a disease', and I do believe that it's a disease that many white Americans have. They're hold on this notion of what America was, even though we know it never was that. It's this false notion of America. It was never great, at least from my point of view. It was always problematic. The 'golden age' was for like a handful of people."

And, as if to prove that even a playwright's insights can blind them to the light, Nottage was asked by The Guardian in her February, 2016 pre-election interview about the prospect nine months later of a Trump victory : "I absolutely refuse to contemplate that," she asserted, "I really do not see a future where that is possible." 

Production values that hi-lite the script :  Shizuka Kay’s Pennsylvania tavern interior is visually commanding with its angled laminate beams effecting a narrowed perspective that stares out at the 60-year-old factory wall with its dozens of unrepaired broken windows. As well, Jenifer Darbellay’s factory Carhartts were as one would expect to see : uniforms taken utterly for granted by their wearers, albeit Tracey's fresh-off-the-shelf steel toed Dakota's were altogether too slick. 

But most of all this is a play about and for and by its performers : their poignant dialogue revealing the bitternesses that arise when competition for scarce dollars and scarcer pride come into direct conflict among life-long friends.

Acting pin-spots : Valerie Planche had a keen eye for her characters’ nuances that underscore all the dramatic tension in the piece. As Cynthia, Marci T. House creates an utterly compelling black woman who has dreams and ambitions beyond what her more hapless white friends can muster. Not hard, indeed, to accuse playwright Nottage of creating stereotypical white trash characters if one were inclined in a racist direction. Nicole St. Martin as Tracey could easily fit into such a mindset. 

But with the kindly barkeep Stan (Ashley Wright) and his Latino gofer Oscar (Alen Dominguez), Nottage forces viewers to retreat from any such simple-minded notions that this is just a #BlackLivesMatter screed. 

But perhaps best of all was the desperation depicted by Anthony Santiago as the long-suffering striker Brucie — Cynthia’s estranged husband. Forceful, gripping & stunning his slide away from USA's kinder, gentler times of prosperity. 

Who gonna likeThis is fighting, biting, gut-wrenching naturalistic theatre. Easy it would be to conclude it’s another Marxist diatribe against the evils of Kapitalismus. Or, worse, perhaps, a jab at an America where Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty has been vandalized to read “Forget! your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores." 

Lady Liberty's torch has morphed, Nottage suggests, into a symbolic middle finger that thrusts defiantly at all from away. Worse, She seems to sport a new frock proclaiming Melania's "I really don't care" slogan. 

For a grab-you-by-the-throat picture of what happens to Americans who feel themselves cut morally adrift by their times, this is the real thing writ large. 

Particulars : Canadian premiere co-produced by the Arts Club Theatre -and- Citadel Theatre, Edmonton. On at ACT's Stanley Theatre stage, 11th & Granville. Runs until November 18, 2018. Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.687.1644 or Show-time two hours, 35 minutes, one intermission. [Re-mount scheduled for The Citadel in January, 2019.]

Production teamDirector Valerie Planche.  Assistant Director Jay Northcott. Set Designer Shizuka Kay.  Costume Designer Jenifer Darbellay.  Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler.  Lighting Designer Daniela Masellis.  Assistant Costume Designer Alaia Hamer. Voice Coach Alison. Matthews. Fight Director Jonathan Hawley Purvis. Stage Manager Rick Rinder. Assistant Stage Manager Jenny Kim. 

Performers :  Lora Brovald (Jessie). Chris W. Cook (Jason). Andrew Creightney (Chris).  Alen Dominguez (Oscar).  Marci T. House (Cynthia).  Anthony Santiago (Evan / Brucie). Nicole St. Martin (Tracey).  Ashley Wright (Stan).


Saturday, 13 October 2018

Krapp's Last Tape lingers in its look-back of melancholy
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 : “Life is comic to those who think, and tragic to those who feel.” So said 18th century British writer Horatio Walpole. And no more loyal acolyte of this litany than Irish poet / playwright Samuel Beckett, an agnostic lapsed-Lutheran. His Krapp’s Last Tape is currently on show at Tyrant Studios on Seymour. 

Written when he was 52, the time was 1958 at the height of theatre of the absurd in Europe. “A late evening in the future” Beckett described his one-man scenes to come. Further, he pretty well predicts in KLT the soulless heart of social media in the 21st century -- hits replace sincerity. Words chase words chase words. Meaning is elusive. 

What we get on stage is a chronic constipated alcoholic named, glibly, Krapp. Since a 20-something, on each and every birthday Krapp has made a recording on a Tandberg 3BF. Each spool tells of his last year’s dreams, hopes and aspirations. Krapp is now 69. He reflects on the tape made when he was 39 in which he is heard reacting to a tape made in his late 20’s. The entire exercise is vintage Walpole. And then some.

Linden Banks as Mr. Krapp loves a couple of things over time : bananas to relieve his constipation, and a tape recorder on his birthday to set down a record of his reflections on the year past. 
Photo credit : David Thomas Newham
What the show brings to the stage : Beckett's worldview is pure duality : Light / dark. Heart / head. Body / soul. Reconciling them was a fateful futility for Krapp. No danger whatever he would achieve Buddha's existential challenge : “Better to conquer yourself than to win 1,000 battles.” 

Lifelong consumption of-&-by booze. Six hours of pub time per diem Krapp tells us, not to mention countless quaffs at home the audience hears him swill off-stage. Bananas — up to 4-a-day — striving both for lax bowels and a relaxed spirit. Limp sex limply remembered. “I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on and she agreed, without opening her eyes.” 

Depression : “The dark I have always sought to keep under is…reality.” The dawning insight an 8th decade invites : “Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of the ages! Yes! Let that go! Jesus!"

Production values that shine through : David Thomas Newham's minimalist set of white table with black tape-spool boxes matches Krapp's white rumpled shirt and hi-tops against his black vest and well-lived-in gabardine slacks.

For his part, sound designer Daniel Deorksen chose Tom Wait's 1st album "Lonely eyes" chart as a book-end thematically to Krapp's closing sob over the girl in the rowboat who rejected his gropy advances when he was a sprouting youth. Nice bit.

Acting pin-spot : As Krapp, B.C. veteran Linden Banks wrings every ounce of pathos imaginable from this script that might rightly be subtitled "The last lament of an aging lothario".

He does a droopy banana schtick where it hangs, peeled, out of his mouth for a good minute or so. Twice. I was reminded of the anecdote about Sigmund Freud who told his underclass about the Cuban he sucked on mercilessly : "Oh, and it's also a cigar...!" he quipped. 

Mr. Banks' stage business -- agitated hands, fists-&-feet, and gnarly voice -plus- his cradling and cuddling of the tape recorder -- was superb. Quite the contrast to the chipper 39-year-old Krapp we hear and imagine from Banks' recording onto Spool 5 from Box 3.

Who gonna like : Too bad Beckett didn't see fit to end his play with Krapp's nearly final gutterance into the tape machine's mic : "Be again! Leave it at that. Be again !" instead of the 30-years-back reprise of "Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness." Bathos, that.

Fact is this is Beckett self-indulgence writ large -- solipsism to a fault. For drama fans who think a neurotic man's late-life self-reflections are a worthy watch, this production is pretty close to ideal : its lengthy pauses alone are worth their silence in delight. I was completely smitten. 

No question, 7 Tyrants gives this script a proud and boisterous and chewy hour that absurdist fans will surely embrace. They, like me, will leave sadly happy from their experience.

Particulars : Script by Samuel Beckett.  Produced by Seven Tyrants Theatre.  At the Tyrants Studio stage, top floor, The Penthouse Club on Seymour @ Nelson. On until October 26, 2018.  Run-time 60 minutes, no intermission.  Tickets & schedule information @ Tyrants

Production team :  Director David Thomas Newham.  Lighting & set Designer David Thomas Newham.  Sound Designer Daniel Deorksen.  Stage Manager Susan D. Currie. Properties & Costumes David Thomas Newham.  Publicist Marnie Wilson.  Front of House Manager Cobra Ramone.

Seven Tyrants extends Very Special Thanks to :

Danny Filippone and the Filippone family
The Historic Penthouse Nightclub
Ines Orner
Gwen Roberts
Amanda Ryan