Saturday, 23 February 2019

Children of God is a triumph of dramatic ceremony
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)

The current news and controversy surrounding hereditary Kwakwaka-wakw MP Jody Wilson-Raybould has once more catapulted indigenous (Indian; first nation; aboriginal; native) issues onto the national stage. As did Gord Downie's 2016 concept album "Secret Path" about residential school runaway 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack.  In October 1966 he died from exposure and malnutrition while trying desperately to trek the 600 kms. from his Kenora "prison" back to the family's Ojibwe home on a reserve in north central Ontario.

Try to imagine blending such tales as Chanie's into a musical. Telling stories of the horrors and abuses and the traumas of the residential school system that for 150 years tried to colonialize and assimilate this country's native school children. The whippings. Water hosing. Rapes. Abortions. Suicides. 

Corey Payette's dramatic and powerful music script is an attempt to seek rapprochement and entente from this tragic chapter in Canada's history. But not, importantly, just by reaching out to the country's white churches to flagellate themselves anew with collective guilt. 

Also to speak truths to the native communities that continue to suffer cultural confusion, discrimination, and denial. Speak to them, too, about how compulsory it is for everyone to embrace Robert Frost's forest dictum : "The only way out is through." Himself of Cree-Ojibwe blood, Payette felt he needed to strike a unique pathway into, and out of, this tortuous thicket.

To demonstrate how serious he is about the need for truce and harmony, playwright Corey Payette closes his remarkable show with both native victims and churchy oppressors joining voice to sing of hope for a new future for all. 
Photo credit Emily Cooper
While the original 2017 version of God was by-&-large a blow-up of its original workshop version, the 2019 show now on at the York Theatre is, simply, stupendous. A visual and audial spiritual ceremony that is as much an expiation ritual as it is a stage musical with obvious roots that dig back dramatically and indebtedly to the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar and Jacques Brel.

The storyline is fundamentally simple. Local RCMP across the land rounded up native children with the persuasion of their sidearms and wrested them from their families. In Payette's version, mom tries to visit daughter-&-son at their segregated encampment, only to be turned away at the playground gate. The priest and the nun running the school never once tell the kids mom had come, time and again, to see them in the decade or more they were held there. 

The kids thus felt they'd been abandoned by everyone other than themselves who surreptitiously cling together by sneaking out after curfew. In the adjacent field they laugh and cavort and picnic with scraps from the dormitory cafeteria plus fresh apples from the school orchard. Also plan, again and again, how they'd escape. Become "runners" as Fr. Christopher calls them. And speak in what the Bible calls "tongues", only this time not just nonsense words but syllables scrounged from memory of their homegrown Ojibwe. 

And such is what sustained them : their acts of rebellion, acts of truth, acts of reconciliation with their gruesome plight that Payette refers to repeatedly as "settler colonialism" [but, curiously, doesn't once mention its core vice : patriarchy.] 

So somehow all of this in a musical ? Payette explains about the "weird pairing" of residential school trauma stories with a songfest of choreography : "For indigenous people, that's the way we have always told stories. It's always been the case that musicals have a close link to indigenous culture, where you cannot share a story without a song, you cannot share a song without a dance, or with that dance telling a story. That beautiful circle is the same thing that's experienced in musical theatre."

Judging from earlier reviews from the Vancouver and Ottawa 2017 shows, the current mount has gone through remarkable transformations. This is now a blend of ballads redolent of Ann Mortifee in Jacques Brel to the soliloquy laments and torments of Jesus in Superstar. Also embracing all-group choral numbers, particularly the closing anthem that finds actors, stage crew and audience all holding hands singing Hi Yeah Hi Yeah Hi Yah Yah Yah together, an ersatz Ojibwe chant modernized and harmonized by Mr. Payette. 

As noted, there is power galore in this piece. As Mom Rita, Michelle St. John evinces both guilt and its alter ego dominance in her dealings with son Tom (Dillan Chiblow). He is now an adult back living at home, jobless, a drunk estranged from his wife and two sons. St. John's singing authority was compelling, particularly in the lengthy duet with Tom to lift up sister Julia's spirit at show's end. Altogether first-rate vocal choreography by the entire cast the night through.

Speaking of fancy footwork, there is a circle theme repeated centre stage throughout with all the actors doing whirligig twirls around one another. Often this scenario is used for costume switches between the epochs being acted out, also to demonstrate how we all must come full circle on our respective identities and join in the dance together if Canada (Kanata) is to survive as one, holistically, an amalgam of settlers and natives -- both -- whatever our true colours.

Production designer Marshall McMahen's backdrop scrim was a sculptural delight, morphing from moody black mountains and mists to bright orange sunrises. His visuals blended seamlessly with orchestrator Elliot Vaughan's direction of Mr. Payette's mostly minor-key moodiness of cello, viola, piano and guitar that underscored the stage action. Built upon native original music tropes, the score is harmonized to fall more gently on the suburban ear than the often high-pitched atonal choruses featured in many aboriginal arrangements. 

To single out excellence in the actors' performances would be superfluous and redundant. Sharp turns for each and every character both singly and in their joint routines (the Lone Ranger sequence to kick off Act 2 by the men of particular note).

Many remarked at the talk-back after the show how "the first step is to be witness" to this dark time stretching back since before Confederation, this misguided social engineering exercise to annul 10, 000 years and more of native tradition. 

The experience is not just Canadian. Whether it's the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uyghur in China or name-any-other, whenever attempts are made to annul ethnic-cultural identities, particularly by conscription and detention, the results are grim and ugly.

Go see Children of God to witness how music weaves a tapestry of interconnectedness that words alone simply cannot. As noted above, it's as much a ceremony and a ritual cleansing as it is authentic musical drama of the first magnitude. This show is one that gives up a wallop of dramatic impact & musical variety & character nuance borne of abject pain. But ultimately it signals hope and healing and heartfelt intercultural union among all of Canada's myriad colours and voices whatever their origin.
Particulars : Presented by The Cultch as part of the Talking Stick Fesitval, in collaboration with Urban Ink (Vancouver) theatre and the Segal Centre (Montreal). Book, Musioc, Lyrics and Director: Corey Payette. Produced at the York Theatre, 639 Commercial Drive. On untilMarch 10, 2019Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.251.1363 or hit The CultchRun-time two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.

Production team :  Production Designer Marshall McMahen. Original Music Director Alan Cole.  Production Musical Director David Terriault. Orchestrator Elliot Vaughan.  Associate Director Julie McIsaac. Lighting Designer Jeff Harrison.  Associate Lighting Designer Bryan Kenney. Original Sound Designer Kris Boyd. Projection Sound Designer Kyra Soko. Stage Manager Chantal Hayman.  Assistant Stage Manager Jethelo E. Cabilete.  Production Fight Director Mike Kovac.  

Performers :  Michelle Bardach (Joanna/Secretary).  Sarah Carle (Sister Bernadette). Dillan Chiblow (Tom/Tommy).  David Keeley (Father Christopher). Jacob MacInnes (Vincent). Cheyenne Scott (Julia). Michelle St. John  (Rita). Aaron M. Wells (Wilson). Kaitlyn Yott (Elizabeth / Fight captain). 

Orchestra : Piano / Music Director David Terriault.  Cello Doug Gorkoff.  Viola Elliot Vaughan. Guitar Martin Reisle.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Much Ado About Nothing rings out in classic, clever Classic Chic style
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)

Whether as in Billy Bard's time men play women or in 2019 women play men, certain tell-tale Shakespearean memes are an "evermore, evermore" proposition : Trickery. Knavery. Mistaken identity. Scheming. Masques and miscues. 

And whether done razzle-dazzle in an ersatz Frederico Fellini set (Bard, 2017) or stripped to the bare essentials as Classic Chic does in 2019, the storyline changes not : men are fickle souls, their prospective spouses victims of whim, instant jealousy and rage. Soldiers they may be, but their tough hides mask skin that is thin indeed. 

On view is the fourth production by this troupe of women whose tag-line is "Chicks bringing class to the classics." Now that slogan may not meet 3rd gen. feminist standards, but its tongue-in-cheekiness reflects why they are one of my local favourites. 

Director Rebecca Patterson's largely barefoot version at The Cultch Historic Theatre accomplishes lots with little : virtually no set at all other than scalloped floor-to-ceiling curtains and an Ikea coffee table. That's it. (So little not even a Set Designer credit in the program.)

Cousins Beatrice (Christina Wells Campbell) and Hero (Sereana Malanai) do a whirligig garden caper as the men who will chase them till the women catch them come home from war and have their eyes on a lasting peace. 
Photo credit from CC files
What strikes one instantly is how having such limited visuals to distract (amuse, engage, catch) the eye allows, nay, Demands! that the viewer pay particular attention to the dialogue and all its 17th century intrigue & playfulness. 

Parallel love stories unfold. Teen-age chums who survived on sarcastic spittle back and forth -- Benedick and Beatrice -- are now 20-somethings orbiting anew around one another. They still mock and tease and jibe back and forth ceaselessly. Until they run so fast away from one another they crash together on the roundabout. As BLR has noted previously of these two  characters, it is classic Liz Taylor meets Richard Burton stuff. 

Co-founders of Classic Chic, Christine Wells Campbell and Corina Akeson, are Beatrice and Benedick. What struck this viewer particularly in CC's version is how more-than-equal Beatrice is in wit and cunning and verbal swordplay to the macho and vain Benedick. (His Latin-root name was surely not chosen by that clever scamp BillyB by accident.) 

Don Pedro (Kayla Deorksen), dad Leonato (Barbara Pollard) and Claudio (Adele Noronha) conspire to get Benedick to believe the elusive Beatrice has the hots for him.
Photo credit from CC files
They have a "merry war" between them. He predicts that should he ever fall he will be "horribly in love". By play's end he says "I suffer love in spite of my heart." And Beatrice responds : "You and I are too wise to woo peaceably." They wind up dragged to the altar still hissing their charmed reluctance that presages a life of endless spicy dialogue.

The core of the plot, however, involves wartime buddy Claudio (Adele Noronha) who falls instantly arse-over-elbow for Beatrice's cousin Hero (Sereana Malani) upon returning from the wars with battalion chief Don Pedro (Kayla Deorksen). They are so smitten they are to be married in a heartbeat. But Don Pedro's bastard brother Don John (Sara Vickruck) is wracked by bile, poison and vengeance. Anything remotely happy he feels an obligation to spoil.

And spoil he does with malevolent chicanery and deceit : soon Claudio and Don Pedro think she's a cheap tramp. Her dad Leonato (Barbara Pollard) wishes her dead. But at the urging of the kindly Friar Francis (Bronwen Smith), her death is faked until Hero's trumped-up infidelity can be found out. Soon she is "redeemed" and resurrected just in time for her and her cousin to dance down the aisle with their men in a double wedding.

An interesting wee twist at show's end : Billy cuts it all quick with a messenger announcing how the treacherous Don John has been captured. Don Pedro moves instinctively to intercept his judas brother. Benedick restrains him : "Think not of him till tomorrow, I'll devise thee brave punishments for him." As the pipers pipe and the wedding parade proceeds to the wings, director Patterson's version, however, has Don Pedro and Don John share a substantial and forgiving hug downstage.

So. Two primary takeaways at least from this CC production. Beatrice is no flippant glib lighthead in the least -- as her part is often directed to be -- and revenge is not high virtue, rather forgiveness is.

Perhaps most fun schtick in Patterson's staging is having Benedick crawl up the aisles and across three rows of seats as he listens to Claudio, Don Pedro and Leonato scheme with a tale they know he hears hiding in the garden. They succeed :  albeit somewhat quizzically, he now is led to believe Beatrice actually loves him. Which is a classic factoid : it stands a 50% chance of being, or not being, true.

But equally fun is when Beatrice squirms squeezing and squinched under the Ikea bench in the garden while Hero and maidservant Ursula (CK Kaur) sit on it and blithely spin a tale about how crazy and bewitched Benedick has become for her in recent daze. Turnabout is fair play.

As Leonato, Pollard delivers a powerful performance, while Kayla Deorksen's Don Pedro was across the night a delight of facial gesticulation. Ever-expressive and slick in delivery, both Akeson and Campbell impressed their ample talents on the crowd. Sara Vickruck's twin turns as the craven and pusillanimous Don John -- plus her priceless delivery of constable Dogberry with his endless thesaurus of malapropisms -- were each notable for her precise and clipped projection. 

On the production side of the ledger, special mention to costume designer Sherry Randall's inspired choice of Nova Scotia sou-wester gear for Insp. Dogberry's night watch crew. As perfect as it was surprising!  For her part, CJ McGillivray chose "world music" numbers that were fresh, accessible and various in style. A more unique cover of The Animals' 1965 classic "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" [see Addendum] cannot exist anywhere. And what an understatement for the MAAN script to boot.
That I am an unapologetic and shameless fan of the Classic Chic clique is obvious. They always deliver their stuff with pizazz and punch and poignance. If Billy B. had men do women, these women do men even badder than him. This show I would go see again with neither tittle nor jot of hesitation. Brava! all.

Particulars :  Written by Bill. Adapted by Rebecca Patterson. Produced by the Classic Chic theatre troupe. Performed at The Cultch. Through February 16th, 2019.  Run-time two hours -plus- intermission. Tickets by phone 604.251.1363 -or- via the internet at the Cultch.  CC's website 

Production crew :  Director Rebecca Patterson.  Composer and Sound Designer CJ McGillivray.  Lighting Designer Jillian White.  Scenic Painter Omanie Elias.  Costume Designer Sherry Randall  Fight Director Rachel Scott.  Choreographer Lisa Goebel.  Stage Manager Ingrid Turk. Assistant Stage Manager Victoria Snashall. Technical Director Nicole Weissmuller.  

Performers :  Corina Akeson (Benedick, Verges).  Christina Wells Campbell (Beatrice, George Seacoal).  Kayla Deorksen (Don Pedro).  CK Kaur (Conrade; Balthasar; Ursula); Nancy Kerr (Antonio, Hugh Oatcake, Sexton).  Serena Malani (Hero, First Watchman).  Adele Noronha (Claudio).  Barbara Pollard (Leonato).  Bronwen Smith (Borachio, Friar Francis).  Victoria Snashall (Boy).  Sarah Vickruck (DonJohn, Dogberry).

Addendum :  Queried by BLR on the subject, Composer & Sound Designer CJ McGillivray had this to say about the musical backdrop to CC's version of MAAN :

These songs were our starting inspiration point for some of the music as they were sourced from Rebecca's immense collection of world music. I then sourced a mix of contemporary music across a broad range of cultures and contrasting genres to flesh out the overall sound design. 

Opening Number:
Ya Gle Bey by Dania Khatib
(a Lebanese singer)

Cover of Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood:
Lolole by Radio Tarifa
(a Spanish world music ensemble combining Flamenco, Arab-Andalusian, Arabian, Moorish and Mediterranean music.)

The Haunting Ballad:
Shir Ha’keshet by Alabina
(a French group that performs a mix of world music including Middle Eastern, Arabic, French, Hebrew and Spanish music)


Saturday, 9 February 2019

Yoga Play plays on heart, soul, money themes
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)

Anyone who has done a community centre class in yoga or pilates or yolates or spynga (spinning & yoga succotash) will find much to laugh about, self-consciously, in Yoga Play. Always in such classes there's a host of outfits made of spandex and lycra and cotton and nylon. Always in various colours atop variously shaped bodies in various states of fitness. Cut-off jeans and Belichek hoodies and worn-out Wigwam sox are nowhere, because who would dare be seen on the scene stitched out like that ?

But cult clothing is only part of the marketing magnetism that reaches powerfully into the pockets of devotees : then there's the mats; the water bottles; the gym bags; the headbands and on-&-on.

Newcomer COO Joan (Lois Anderson) challenges her hot-shot marketing Ivy Leaguers Fred (Derek Chan) and Raj (Chirag Naik) to come up with a marketing scheme to launch some new threads called Joyon. Both Fred and Raj hail from Delaware but rely on their ethnic roots for speedball comic effect.
Photo credit Tim Matheson
All this to serve the main master : a hydra with heads of hope and guilt and fear and belief and doubt and desire -- desire to be, as Dipika Guha puts it, more "authentic". I want a me that that I like better physically, and maybe a piece or two of personal peace in my noisy head and troubled heart. When the Buddha-pose hands-together valediction comes that closes each class -- "Namaste!" -- when we chime it back, reverently, I want to feel "truth" in that moment.

Yoga Play riffs on these social constructs that are central to our age. Its conceit or hook is to filter all of this through the lens of shamelessly grasping corporate greed and its bottom line, its shareholders, its price-to-earnings ratios, its marketing and public relations ploys.

When the pressure mounts, Joan tries to remember some yoga breathing techniques that she drags Raj and Fred into practicing with her as she threatens Raj with dismissal if he doesn't fake some authenticity and truth as a phoney guru. 
Photo credit Tim Matheson
But first, a wee history lesson. Vancouver's Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, went on Bloomberg TV, a business channel, in the Fall of 2013. At issue was the quality of luon, they key fabric in LL's yoga clothing line. People that year complained that the fabric soon became see-through. "It's really about the rubbing through the thighs -- some women's bodies just don't work for it," Wilson remarked with nary a wink or hint of irony. As the expression has it, fat-shaming, size XXL.

In her script, meanwhile, Guha centres the action around a company called JoJomon that also manufactures what the buzzword merchants call "athleisure" clothing. They, too, have had a public relations implosion when their former COO named Brad was quoted widely saying "It was the size of women's thighs that were making the Kayala fabric transparent, not the fabric itself." Scripted 3-4 years after real-life Wilson's gaffe, make-believe Brad's comment was perhaps just artistic coincidence. At worst, faux-plagiarism. Whatever : it is what it is.

The purpose of Yoga Play is more "play" as in riffing and laughing at ourselves over life's myriad ironies than "play" as a dramatic event to be taken seriously. It is satire, slapstick, silliness run riot with a wee hint that a "piece of peace" can be had, too. With a couple of throwaway shout-outs for feminism along the way.

Albeit the cast is four men and two women, it is the women who do the heavy lifting most of the night. As the new JoJomon COO, Joan (Lois Anderson) is an MBA whiz-kid with a head that buzzes from data overload, growth schemes, and hypoventilation that brings on fainting and panic attacks.

Early on we learn of a BBC expose that the Bangladeshi factories used to manufacture its new miracle fabric Joyon are a sea of child labourers, girls aged 9-12 who are little more than slaves. 

Product chief Fred (Derek Chan) screeches to JoJomon's brand rep in Dhaka, Lucy, that "BBC has proof that a lot of those women are twelve, did they look twelve to you? Lucy?!?".  Her response made the whole house feel guilty even as we laughed : "I mean, every one here is quite small...and they cover their heads, a lot of them!"

Soon Joan and her other product marketer Raj (Chirak Naik) are off to L.A. to find a genuine yoga person to become JoJomon's public face. They find 25-year-old Romola (Christine Quintana) who is all effervescence and chipper confidence but just doesn't click with Joan. As Joan stomps out of her studio, Romola loses her cool and spits out "Namaste! you bitch" as the crowd roars.

Shortly the play takes a turn -- a slow, painfully slow turn -- as Guha sends her troupe to India to find a real Yoga master. They find one, a 15-year ascetic bivouac'd on a mountaintop. Turns out he's a Yankee pilgrim from Santa Monica formerly known as Bernard Brown (Shawn Macdonald).

Raj, all Hindu DNA but fetched up in Delaware, is frog-marched into the "real" Yoga master role instead, while Fred feeds him pidgin Hindi. It's all quite a mish-mash of antic nonsense. Best line of the night comes from Raj : "Is there a special place in Hell for those who appropriate their own culture?" he asks rhetorically. "Authenticity" and "truth" for JoJomon are threadbare, it turns out. Regardless, their stocks shoot up. Joan can b-r-e-a-t-h-e ! at last.

Lois Anderson dives headlong into her role as Joan with rapid-fire neurosis at the ready. As Raj, Chirag Naik demonstrates an ever-more-skilled comic presence each Vancouver stage outing, while Christine Quintana as the wannabe enlightened yoga entrepreneur from L.A. was sheer hoot. Shawn Macdonald's video clip of JoJomon president John Dale came close to stealing the show. Throughout, all the cast's footwork and verbal shenanigans were richly supported by Chengyan Boon's lighting and screen projections : his work certainly helped bring together the otherwise almost-too-wide Gateway proscenium stage for this production. 

This mix of corporate promotion of  yoga "class", lit. & fig., blends ironically with people's genuine desire to be more nimble and fit physically and spiritually. It's a paradox that plays itself out through well-threaded gag lines and byplay. While not standing-o fare and a middle that sags, athleisure types of every persuasion will surely jiggle their giggle over Yoga Play.

Particulars :  Produced by Gateway Theatre, Jovanni Sy, outgoing Artistic Director. On at Richmond's Gateway Theatre in Minoru Park next to RGH. Runs until February 16, 2019Tickets & schedule information by phoning Gateway at 604.270.1812 or on-line @  www.gatewaytheatre.comShow-time 125 minutes, one intermission.

Production team :  Director Jovanni Sy.  Set Designer Sophie Tang.  Costume Designer Amy McDougall.  Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler.  Lighting / Video Designer Chengyan Boon.  Yoga Consultant Scheherazaad Cooper. Technical Director Mac Macleod. Technical Director Theodore Sherman. Production Manager Joseph Chung. Stage Manager Susan Miyagishima. Assistant Costume Designer Melissa McCowell. Assistant Sound Designer Sara Rickrack. Production Assistant Madelaine Walker. Props Master Carol Macdonald.  Assistant Stage Manager Koh Lauren Quan. Wig Designer Marie Le Bihan.

Performers :  Lois Anderson (Joan). Harundi V. Bakshi (Guruji). Derek Chan (Fred).  Shawn Macdonald (John Dale / Bernard Brown).  Chirag Naik (Raj).  Christine Quintana (Romola).