Theatre Seen

What Lies Before Us by Morris Panych
Directed by Jim Millan
Canstage Berkeley
Jan15 to Feb 24 2007
Crow's Theatre

TORONTO, ON: Oh dear, just when I was becoming a mite gushy about great evenings of theatre, Panych dumps some cold reality into my theatrical experiences. Rather like being hit by the avalanche in this play. As I told you in my last Rant,I think I am chionophobic - don't like the frozen white stuff. And yes, it was so cold on our 40 minute walk down to the Berkeley that the synovial fluid in my knee joints froze!

Back to What Lies Before Us, a new play by Panych set in a makeshift camp in the Rockies. Two surveyors, Ambrose (David Storch), a Scot, and Keating (Matthew MacFadzean), an Englishman, with Wing (Wayne Sujo), their Chinese servant, are charting a course for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Ironically they are lost, winter is upon them and they are waiting to be rescued by the Major, organizer of their expedition and his men.

The set (Ken MacDonald, Robin Fisher) is quite striking. Snowy peaks of the Rockies tower behind the tent with its two camp beds, a tin bath and battered wooden furniture. (So how do they get all that stuff up the mountain anyway?). A "mountain fog or mist" was in the air as people entered. It was quite amusing to hear people asking "is it my eyes or is it really foggy in here?"

Less amusing were the comments at intermission, when several people gathered up their coats and left. One woman, obviously of Scottish origin, complained loudly that Ambrose did not talk like a real Scot. Being only one-quarter "Scottish" (my granny emigrated from Glasgow and never lost her accent despite living in Cape Town for more than 60 years) I actually thought Ambrose sounded just like a "real Scot" and I could understand every word.

TORONTO, ON: In spite of the intense cold in Toronto and the intermittent snowfalls that seem to start just as I am walking to theatre or dinner, I am enjoying some really great theatrical experiences during this visit.

Incidentally I have decided that I have chionophobia -I hate snow. I found my self paraphrasing Elizabeth Barrett Browning -"How I do hate thee -let me count the ways/ I hate thee when my fingers feel like iced bananas inside my gloves/ when my brain freezes despite my furry hat/ and I worry that the oncoming car will skid through the red light at an icy traffic crossing." Phobic or just nuts?

But Faust and Monster were worth suffering through the cold. The Canadian Opera Company production of Gounod's Faust, directed by Nicholas Muni, opens at the new Opera House today, and last week I had the opportunity to attend a dress rehearsal. This was my first chance to see the interior of the new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts that opened last September. It is quite beautiful inside. We had seats on the third level with great sight lines and a perfect view of the orchestra as well as the stage.

Last April I saw the Vancouver Opera production of Faust, also directed by Muni. It was technically spectacular and I was curious to see how it would be staged in a different venue. Perhaps it was where I was seated or perhaps just familiarity with the previous production but I found that some of the staging actually worked better on this stage. From the opening scene of Faust in his formula-covered white walled study to the dramatic plummeting of the ceiling onto Marguerite before she is savedwhile Faust and Mephistopheles descend into hell - it is quite visually stunning. And of course the music is beautiful with one memorable aria after another. An enjoyable evening even though it was only a dress rehearsal.

Half Life by John Mighton
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Canstage at BLUMA, Toronto
Jan 8 to Feb 3, 2007
Necessary Angel Theatre Company

TORONTO, ON: Behind the curtain, Clara's voice fades away as the lights dim to black. For a seemingly endless moment there is silence before the applause begins. That silence reveals the emotional impact that this poignant yet provocative work has had on the audience.

John Mighton's play premiered in 2005 and won the Governor General Award for Drama and the Dora Award for Outstanding New Play. I can see why. Leaving aside the excellence of the production quality, the script itself raises complex and thoughtful issues that can only become increasingly important as our population ages.

Running ninety minutes without intermission, the play is set in a seniors' home. On a bare stage, Director Daniel Brooks, set and costume designer, Dany Lyne, and lighting designer, Andrea Lundy, evoke waiting room, a bedroom, dining or recreation halls and a chapel in an intricately choreographed movement of furniture and props by the cast members.

Half Life deals with the relationship that develops between Clara, a sweet natured, moderately demented elderly woman and new resident, Patrick, who is brought to the home by his daughter, Anna. Patrick was a brilliant code-breaker during the war, and although he retains his intellectual sharpness he has become a bitter alcoholic.

VANCOUVER, BC: My favorite type of play is one that stimulates a spirited debate about a complex subject. The Blue Light by playwright Mieko Ouchi, directed by Donna Spencer at the Firehall Arts Centre does just that. The production is an engrossing exploration of the cinematographic career of Leni Riefenstahl, that asks perplexing and enduring questions about art and artist. Can one separate the artist from her art? Is it possible to despise the artist's proclivities yet admire the work they create? Can one admire technical and creative genius while despising the use to which this talent is put? And if one can intellectually think about art as a product distinct from artist and context, should one do so?

Ouchi locates these questions in an imaginary meeting between Riefenstahl, towards the end of her life, and a female Hollywood film producer. Riefenstahl has presented the producer with a proposal for a new film. She hopes that since they are both women who have achieved a measure of success in a male dominated profession, the producer will approve her proposal. Riefenstahl was blacklisted after the end of the Second World War because she was considered a Nazi sympathizer and her films made for Hitler were used for propaganda.

Riefenstahl is played by Gabrielle Rose, in a superb performance in which she weaves her portrayal of the aged Riefenstahl into flashbacks of the child eager to please her stern yet affectionate father, a young woman seeing her brother off to war, a dancer and actress in Arnold Fanck's mountain films, and a brilliant driven film maker, who uses her talents to make propaganda films for Goebbels and Hitler.

Toronto, ON: I remember clearly the day my daughter, Amanda, came home from an undergraduate theatre history class at UBC, handed me a play to read and said "I would love to direct this some day." It was Trifles by Susan Glaspell. Trifles is a little gem of a play set in the American mid-west. It illustrates the intense loneliness that farm women experienced in isolated rural communities in the early 1900s, when winter made travel difficult and they did not even have access to a party-line telephone. It also shows the paternalistic attitude of the men to their women-folk and their work, and the way female bonding helps the women endure this lifestyle.

A couple of years later during a class on Canadian Theatre History class, Amanda handed me another play to read, with the idea that this would be a perfect companion piece to Trifles. It was Still Stands the House by Gwen Pharis Ringwood. Although her play is set in the 1930s dust bowl Canadian prairies, the themes of isolation and the struggle to wring a living out of barren land are very similar. So when Amanda called to say that she would be directing Trifles and that her co-director, Lydia Wilkinson, also a Ph.D. student at the Drama Centre, had chosen Still Stands the House as the piece she wanted to direct, I was excited at the prospect of seeing these plays in production together.

Vancouver, BC: Since I saw the first production of Vigil at the Arts Club Theatre more than a decade ago I have probably seen a couple of hundred more plays, the details of most of which have been lost in the fog of the passage of time. However when I first read that Vigil ,written by Morris Panych, was to be part of the 2007/2008 Playhouse season I found I could clearly recall the set and the bitter-sweet plot of this play.

So why did this particular work leave such indelible traces in my otherwise not so precise memory? Maybe because Panych's acerbic black comedy forces one to examine primeval fears: of helplessness, loneliness and death. There are few situations sadder than dying alone. But waiting alone and helpless for death to come, would definitely be one. So much so that, as Panych suggests, any human companion, even one who is bent on helping you depart this life before you are actually quite ready to die, is preferable to interminable days of solitude.

In Vigil, Grace (Jennifer Phipps) is in that situation. The entire action takes place in Grace's apartment where, day and night, she is comfortably ensconced in her bed. Kemp (Morris Panych) is a self-absorbed bachelor who has received a letter from his aunt who he has not seen for thirty years, telling him of her impending death and asking him to visit. However when Kemp arrives at Grace's apartment for the supposed deathbed visit, Grace does not oblige him by dying in a timely fashion. Kemp continues to see to her needs as months go by and seasons change through autumn and winter. His inept attempts to hasten her death become increasingly ambivalent as, despite himself, he begins to make an emotional connection with her. For most of the play Grace is silent, yet with the smallest changes in expression, Phipps lets us share Grace's thoughts and emotions.

Woman, Idiot, Lunatic, Criminal by Terri Tatchell
Directed by Renee Iaci
Norman Rothstein Theatre
January 11th to 20th 2007
Shameless Hussy Productions

Vancouver, BC. So why the long lapse in ranting and raving from the pen or rather the pecking fingers of your peripatetic "bum-in-the-seat"? Well in December my to-and fro-ing between Vancouver and various theatre-deprived locales did not provide much material for a theatre column. After all on a hot humid night in Mexico, watching a Cuban Nights Extravaganza in the Performing Arts Centre of our resort, the only thing that my sun-scorched, pina colada soothed brain could think was "wow, can they cha cha cha!".

But here I am, back in the wind tossed, icy wastes of urban Vancouver, and picking my way very gingerly across ice to the parking ticket dispenser at the Jewish Community Centre, so that I can see Shameless Hussy's Production, Woman, Idiot, Lunatic, Criminal, billed as a "new play for young audiences. And thanks to delightful performances by Ryan Beil (Kyle) and Lissa Neptuno (Meg) as teenage best friends and DJs, it succeeds in this regard. It's funny and educational at the same time.

The title is taken from the Elections Act, Dominion of Canada which stated that "No woman, idiot, lunatic or criminal", shall have the right to vote." The fight of the suffragettes to gain the right to vote despite the tremendous odds against them becomes the inspiration that enables 16 year-old Meg to overcome her fear of public embarrassment and emerge from her basement studio into the world of adulthood. Thanks to a bit of magical realism, Meg and Great Grandmother enter the world of the video projection of the suffragettes, where Meg learns to trust herself and her own desires.

1) Czanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

2) The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music & Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Directed by James Lapine, Circle in the Square, New York

3) The Drowsy Chaperone
Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
Marquis Theatre, New York

New York, NY.  To round off this week I couldn't find anything of interest through TKTS so I got tickets to two musicals and also visited the Vollard Exhibition at the Met. Since I have to figure out how to fit far too many new books into my over expanded suitcase before tomorrow morning, a quick impression follows  -  no pun intended - really.

In case you are wondering what the Ambroise Vollard exhibition has to do with theatre - well, I admit it's a bit of a stretch but remember "Portrait of an Unidentified Man" at the Cultch last month? Pierre Brault played the art forger, Elmyr de Hory who created works in the styles of Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse that were "more authentic" than their own paintings. Well this exhibition features works by Bonnard, Cézanne, Degas, Derain, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Maillol, Matisse, Picasso, Redon, Renoir, Rouault, Rousseau, Vlaminck, Vuillard, and others, and I thought my art appreciation could handle some education. To my surprise amidst the vast riches of this exhibition the painting that somehow captured my heart was Picasso's The Old Guitarist. Sort of like Mr. Paradise in the evening of Tennessee William's plays. Well the bouquet of a good red wine becomes deeper and more complex with maturity - maybe that happens with human emotions too.  

EMERGENCE-SEE written and performed by Daniel Beaty
Directed by Kenny Leon
The Public Theater, New York
The Public Theater Company

New York, NY: It seems that in New York, as in Vancouver, standing ovations have become so common place that they have lost their significance. I have frequently observed, in perplexed amusement, audience members leaping to their feet after quite unexceptional shows.

However after a tour-de-force performance by Daniel Beaty in EMERGENCE-SEE I was on my feet with the rest of the audience. The first indication of the quality of this production was Beowulf Borrit's set, and Drew Levy and Tony Smolenski IV's soundscape which was running as one entered the theater. The playing space was in a high ceilinged cavernous hall that seemed like a railway station but actually was once the Astor Library.

The central concept of the play is that a ghost slave ship, the Remembrance, suddenly rises up from the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty. Through the voices of multiple varied personae Beaty chronicles the reactions of the public and the media to this event, providing insights into the immense diversity of ideologies and lifestyles among contemporary African Americans. The set of platforms at different heights served variously as the deck of the ship, Liberty Island, the cafe stage of a Slam Poetry event and other locations, with tall spars and splintered wooden structures indicating the ghost ship. The surround-sound effect of water and creaking of ancient timbers placed the audience on the ship with the bones of the long-dead slaves.

Pieces of Paradise: Four plays by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Stephan Morrow
13Th Street Repertory Theatre
New York

New York, NY: So back I went this evening to the 13th Street Repertory Theatre for the performance of these four pieces. The Municipal Abattoir  and  The Palooka preceded a brief intermission and These are the Stairs You Gotta Watch and Mr. Paradise  concluded the evening. Blues guitarist,  Casey Spindler, provided the continuity that linked these four disparate pieces.

The Municipal Abattoir: This was creepy but interesting. Michael Halliday plays The Clerk, a long time Municipal employee who has been "condemned" and ordered to present himself to the Municipal Abattoir. Here humans are butchered and packaged for consumption. On the way he asks The Boy (Justin Adams) for directions.  The Boy who is planning to assassinate The General is horrified at the Clerk's acceptance of his fate, and tries to convince him to escape.  Conditioned by years as a civil servant The Clerk tells him "I do what I'm told. I never question instructions." Hmmm… I have often wondered about that excuse. This piece was clever  and raises philosophical questions about personal responsibility and choice. Adams was strong as the smart young resistor and Michael Halliday brought out the brainwashed weakness of the clerk, going lemming-like to his fate.

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