Monday, 12 November 2018

Empire of the Son grabs ever-so tightly at the heart
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 :  Autobiographical shows that involve dying or dead parents are extremely difficult to pull off. Simply because the playwright is so close to their material. Thus being able to make their story come alive in some sort of universal sense without being mawkish or slightly irrelevant is truly a challenge.

Tetsuro Shigematsu's diary Empire of the Son is his ironic title about Shigematsu's Japan-born father, Akira. Not only did Akira not cry sentimentally over his son, he never found a way to tell Tetsuro outright that he loved him. Or his son him. This even though Akira had been a radio personality on both the BBC and the CBC in his time. And the fact Tetsuro was a CBC voice for a bit, too. Son's subtitle is : "Two generations of broadcasters and the radio silence between them." 

In a word, Son is Tetsuro's solo attempt to make sense of his childhood in the final year of his dad's life (Akira died September 18, 2015.) In the writing and performing of his material, Tetsuro hopes to overcome his own learned inability to cry.

How it's all put together : Dad Akira was a youth who witnessed his neighbourhood in Kagoshima incinerated by Allied incendiary bombs in June, 1945. Later he would witness the aftermath of the horror of Hiroshima while passing through on a train. (Modestly, he occasioned his ensuing nausea to be from food poisoning, not atomic radiation sickness.) Emigrating to England, Tetsuro was born there before further migration to Canada for the family. 
Tetsuro Shigematsu uses a beaker of water to demonstrate a truth about relations between himself and his father -- all sons with all fathers -- how fluid and changeable they are constantly. 
Photo credit : Raymond Shum
It is stories that tell the story in Son. A granddaughter's apocalytpic phantasy nightmare woven into a grammar school story. A grandson's easy flippancy with Tetsuro that would have been utterly unimaginable with Akira. A camera focuses on miniature toys and other memory pieces and blows them up to assist in the telling of this tale -- a compelling visual effect.

What the show brings to the stage : Pauses, silences, word-gaps -- "Shiggy" as his website nicknames him -- employs these techniques both as dramatic Pinteresque style but also to give the audience pause. Pause to grasp that each of us has a personal and family apocalypse in our hearts that we need deal with, for better or worse. 

Not all men probably suffer the extent of estrangement and distance young Tetsuro the lippy skateboarder did with his dad. His estrangement was only overcome when Dad's Parkinson's and diabetes and strokes rendered him a 100 pound invalid whom his son would carry like a puppy to the loo for b.m.'s. 

While thankful, Dad all the while would protest "Gomen-nasai!" -- I am sorry, I am sorry!  This is regret suffered in Japanese culture when an obligation is placed on others. Particularly an obligation occasioned by "mendo--naa" -- one's needy situation. Japanese suffer pain if they feel they are being troublesome or a bother to one's family or neighbours.

Best symbol of the show was the headset of hazard-yellow noise-canceling earphones Akira wore when he was demoted by the CBC due to program funding cuts by Brian Mulroney. From his prestigious announcer's job at CBC Montreal, his union seniority meant he would drift down to a lowly mail room clerk position. "Do not call me 'Akira!'" he shouted randomly at folks greeting him during his daily rounds lugging the mail cart. The miniature toy captured by camera depicting this fall from grace was the show's most poignant moment.

Who gonna like : Regularly punching through the 4th wall to interact with the audience, Tetsuro makes this material engaging no question. Him sitting on the St. Paul's bed patting Dad's knee -- after his sisters had all-three actually climbed into bed together and caressed their ailing father -- this anecdote just about said it all about us men and our intimacy issues.
Meanwhile the central conceit the playwright focuses on is the question of whether he will actually cry when Dad's ashes finally come home. The question is, at end, irrelevant. Carrying Dad to the loo hour-by-hour for weeks on end says more than a mere tear -- or even a total sobbing catharsis -- ever could, should, might or would.

Love is doing. Love is now. Love as memory is a sad second best.

Particulars :  A remount of its successful 2015-2016 runs at The Cultch, once again Produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (Vancouver) in collaboration with Richmond's Gateway Theatre. At Gateway's Studio B. Until November 17.  Run-time 75 minutes without intermission. Tickets & schedule information by phoning Gateway at 604.270.1812 or on-line @

Production crew : Writer / Performer Tetsuro Shigematsu.  Artistic Producer Donna Yamamoto.  Director / Original Concept Dramaturgy Richard Wolfe.  Dramaturge Heidi Taylor.  Set Design Pam Johnson.  Lighting Design Gerald King.  Costume Design Barbara Clayden.  Sound Design Steve Charles.  Audio Dramaturge Yvonne Gall. Technical Director Andrew Pye.  Props Master Carole Macdonald.  Video Design Remy Siu.  Production Manager Adrian Muir. Stage Manager Susan Miyagishima.  Documentary Audio Yoshiko & Akira Shigematsu.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Red Birds tweets out a sweet-&-sour tale : a "sort-of-discovery" 
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 : You were adopted. You're turning 50. You hunt down your birth mom. Your 30-year-old wannabe actress daughter still lives at home, also your adoptive mom in the basement. Enter the only guy in the piece, birth mom's boyfriend. There's a catch : but to tell it would occasion a big plot spoiler. 

The peccadilloes of these five characters are the eager, embracing premise of Solo Collective artistic director Aaron Bushkowsky's Red Birds in a Western Gold production now on show at the PAL Studio through November 18.

Carol (France Perras) has turned the corner into her 6th decade of life. She not only meets her birth mother Hannah (Anna Hagan), but also Hannah's dubious boy-toy Derek (Gerry MacKay). She does her best in this sit-com of three generations of women to try to find a path through the thicket of circumstances at play here. 
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
How it's all put together : Bushkowsky relies on considerable coincidence to underscore both his humour and his stab at pathos in this script that is both post-Oedipal and post-Freud in its romp of characters. Carol (France Perras), her Mom named Red (Christina Jastrzembska) and daughter Ashley (Gili Roskies) are roommates because they're all, in Cohen's immortal term, "beautiful losers", at least economically.

Birth mother Hannah (Anna Hagan), meanwhile, grew up a money'd snot who did, however -- like three generations of her family's men -- become a successful lawyer. In her best mimic of Stephen Harper shaking 9-year-old son Ben's hand at the grammar school gate, she chimes "Nice to make your acquaintance..." to Carol when first meeting her. Later, asked to describe for Carol her birth father, all she can say is "An asshole, a dead asshole." 

For his part Derek (Gerry MacKay) at least has a soup├žon of insight into his own soul when he admits "You can trust me despite how obviously shallow I am." Or, later, "I am not what I appear, but at least I'm honest, sort of...". From such you can pretty well plumb the dialogue's depth.

Production values that enhance the script : What Mr. Bushkowsky may lack in plot or character-depth Director Scott Bellis overcomes deftly through his cast selection. To a person an excellent match-up of actor's skills with each of the characters' foibles and idiosyncrasies.

It was Polish Mom Red who with her drunk hubby Igor adopted and raised Carol. She cluck-clucks at her 30-year-old granddaughter Ashley because Ashley has just announced she's targeting an in vitro implant. Wants to take her mind off her failed-to-launch acting career, don't you know. While Mom Carol freaks and shrieks, Red says : "If you want to be a lesbian be the best lesbian you can be!" -- her thick Polish accent just right. Or, when Carol whines about not knowing who she is or where she's going in life, sez Red : "Do not believe everything you think : what good would it do?"

A typical WGT thrift shoppe set with costumes to match fronts on to a minimalist ersatz bird sanctuary downstage : no question the set in the show works considerably better than Mr. Bellis's blocking of scenes there. (Blocking. A bad word for the activity of drama. To block in football is to hold rigid against another's movement. A block in the garden is a heavy concrete brick designed to just sitz and do nothingz. Enough said about the bird sanctuary scenes.)

Acting pin-spots :  To this eye, the mom-daughter tag-team of France Perras / Gili Roskies had both the best lines and the most convincing relationship. Particularly when daughter Ashley becomes her mom's moral compass as Act II plays out. Of the two, both dipsomaniacs addicted to cheap box wine, Roskies had some punchy dialogue : "Wine helps me to drink, except sometimes weird things come out of my mouth...when I drink I get crispy." She's crispy a lot.

Mom Carol (France Perras) and 30-year-old daughter Ashley (Gili Roskies) have an alcohol jones they share as each tries to figure out what the future holds for them. 
Photo credit : Javier Sotres
As Hannah, Anna Hagan's dialogue was as if lifted directly by the playwright from the lawyer Glen Close in the t.v. show "Damages" : snippy, direct, analytical. "Carol, tell me something about yourself, tell me about your deficiencies," she says at the first of their reunions. Or her best line, about a recent Europe vacation : "I didn't laugh once on that whole trip and I was hoping to." Every time I re-read that it just kills me.

No question Mr. Bushkowsky had the most fun, however, with the character Derek, a cocktail lounge waiter who declares "I'm not full of myself, I'm just confident and good looking." Polish Mom Red loves him : "I prefer the rascal to the decent man!" she chirps.

Who gonna like : While a clever shot at sit-com style one-liners and whack-a-mole interpersonal scenarios, still and all it is another script whose "sum of parts is greater than the whole". But in this case that is more praise than criticism. Again, it is the casting -- and each cast member's role interpretation -- that is the wind beneath the wings that lifts Red Birds above its somewhat contrived plot-line. The characters' bruised personalities, as they evolve, overcome the show's numerous uber-coincidences.

Viewers are not going to gain much insight about "the human condition" or witness any true existential growth here, but many chuckles to be had watching this flock of losers take flight.

Particulars : Produced by Western Gold Theatre in collaboration with Solo Collective Theatre.  At PAL Theatre, 581 Cardero Street.  Through November 18, 2018. Tickets via WGT website -or- through the ticket agency on-line Brown Paper Tickets or by phone to box office @ 604.363.5734.

Production team :  Director Scott Bellis. Producer Glenn MacDonald.  Artistic Producer Christine Reinfort.  Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Assistant Stage Manager Emily Doreen Wilson.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Costume & Props Designer Alaia Hamer.  Set Designer Stephanie Wong.  Wound Designer Ben Elliott.  Dramaturge Lauren Taylor. Web/IT/Print Joseph Emms.  Photography Emily Cooper.  Graphic Design Sean Anthony.  Production photos Javier Sotres.  

Performers :  Anna Hagan (Hannah).  Christina Jastrzembska (Red).  Gerry MacKay (Derek).  France Perras (Carol).  Gili Roskies (Ashley).