Review From The Seat

Among the many excellent productions in Vancouver in 2008, Pacific Theatre’s staging of Emil Sher’s Mourning Dove touched my heart and mind most deeply. I loved the play and the restrained sensitivity with which the writer addressed the unfolding of a tragedy that no parent should ever have to experience. When I realized that Sher was also the author of Hana’s Suitcase, another very moving play that I had recently read, I was compelled to read more of his work. These experiences raised a whole lot of questions that I wanted to pose to the playwright. To my delight, Emil Sher generously agreed to be interviewed for “Creators and Communicators,” the section of  Theatre Seen that highlights the creative artists that “make theatre.”

Last night I made my way gingerly along a dusty, construction-damaged Granville Street, to the Commodore Ballroom where Vancouver's theatre community gathered to celebrate another year of amazing theatre.  It is always interesting to see how the nominations and the final award winners stack up against what I thought during the year of play-going, and  what details I can remember of the many productions. As well, the productions nominated are only a portion of the many shows staged here - Vancouver has a great theatre scene, and often I find that there are more things available to see than hours to see them in.

Vancouver, BC: It's probably the quarter of a decade that I spent at the BC Childen's and Women's Hospitals that had me wondering what sort of whacky comedy the Bard could have constructed in today's obstetrical environment where twin births are  old hat compared to the birth of sextuplets, septuplets or even octuplets! Imagine the complications of mistaken identity that could ensue with sextuplets farmed out at birth - and they don't even have to be identical for their closest friends and lovers to be confused. Think of it. Folks couldn't even distinguish Viola from her twin brother Sebastian in Twelfth Night!

Vancouver,BC: Of Shakespeare's great tragedies. Othello ranks as number one in my list of faves, just ahead of King Lear. I think it is for me that the play is about an epic  battle between two larger than life characters - Iago, arguably Shakespeare's greatest villain, and Othello, the archetype "hero with a fatal flaw." The immense dramatic irony is that Othello, the great warrior General , doesn't even know he is involved in this battle, yet the audience knows that bit by bit he is losing the most important war of his life. As Harold Bloom puts it, it is Othello's tragedy but it is Iago's play. Iago, the master manipulator pulls strings like a puppeteer, weaving a web of deceit that ensnares everyone - including ultimately, himself. 

Vancouver, BC: This production of  Palace of the End is a simply stunning theatrical experience. Thompson has crafted three powerful monologues based on three real people each with a connection  to contemporary Iraq and  all three monologues are superbly performed. Although based on news stories and research,  as Thompson remarks in the playwright's notes  - "the persona ...of each speaker has been created by me."  And of course the words they speak spring from her imagination. Yet for me the authentic voices of  these three characters ring out  in a compelling and utterly believable way.

What a week! With no evening dance classes this week I was able to take full advantage of the treasure trove of theatre on in Vancouver at the moment. Starting with True Story last Sunday afternoon, I saw 36 Views at Jericho on Tuesday, Les Misérables at the Stanley on Wednesday,  Antigone Unbound upstairs at the Russian Hall on Thursday,  Palace of the End at PAL on Friday and finally caught Top Girls at the Playhouse on Saturday

Vancouver, BC:  One never knows quite what to expect in a production by this interesting group of artists, and this time was no exception. Climbing up the stairs to the performance space, I enter a small somewhat claustrophobic room. A narrow platform next to the walls runs round the room leaving a central square pit in which swivel office chairs are haphazardly crammed.   We take two seats at the back of the room just in front of the stage manager's table and watch as the place fills up rapidly.  It is warm and stuffy but there is a buzz in the air.  

Vancouver, BC: How can one not love Les Mis? The book  has everything - Sympathetic downtrodden characters who  either  triumph over adversity or die tragically with their dreams unfulfilled; a good guy chasing a bad guy  where the bad guy is really good at heart and the good guy 's obsession with his quest is bad;  student protests with dramatic deaths on barricades, and of course, the wickedly funny  innkeeper and his wife. Then there is the music - songs to make you cry, songs to make you laugh, catchy melodies that tumble over each other for a place in your head; and that you hum as you drive home after the show.  I first saw a touring production of Les Misérables in Vancouver probably twenty years ago  and still remember the intense post-show  family discussion about the students sacrificing their lives in a futile cause.

Vancouver, BC: Years ago, in Kyoto, I fell in love with a set of 4 paintings depicting the four seasons. With a few fine brush strokes, the artist was able to evoke a uniquely Japanese image of spring, summer, autumn and winter.  I loved  the beauty of the precise minimalistic images with not a single superfluous stroke. That's how I felt watching Naomi lizuka's perfect  gem of  a play, 36 Views. It closes on Saturday and I urge you not to miss it.

Vancouver, BC: It's a beautiful sunny day in Vancouver. Since I arrived home yesterday from my Dancing at Sea Cruise (three hours of dance each night and an average of 5 hours sleep) I have barely had time to unpack. I have 6 days of travel writing to finish and a busy evening ahead. But before I left two weeks ago I had committed to attending the 2 pm performance of this show so I hopped in my little car and cruised over the Georgia Viaduct to The Vancity Culture Lab at Venables and Victoria Drive. And I am glad I did.

Vancouver, BC:  I came to see Age of Arousal with no preconceived notions other than that it was about feminism, relationships and set in Victorian times. Oh, and that it was the partner play in the Arts  Club Classics in Context series with The Constant Wife, which was one of my favorite plays of this season. I left the theatre feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the richness of  themes and the complexity of the interwoven stories of the six characters.  In line with my firm resolution always to  jot down, or rather input, my impressions  immediately on returning home from the theatre, I dutifully sat down before my keyboard (not a Remington! ) and gazed blankly at the screen,  my thoughts jumbled and knotted like the sheets in my  dryer.  How does one summarize the story of this intricate ensemble work?  I decided to go to sleep and hope that my subconscious would come up with some penetrating insights.

Vancouver, BC: It is 1990 and Jon (Brandyn Eddy) is a promising young composer living in Manhattan. Jon is about to turn thirty and he is agonizing about his career in music and theatre, and fretting that  he is over the hill. This premise for the show would ordinarily be a trifle irritating to me. I left 30 behind some years ago (alright, many years ago) yet I still feel that I am on the way up  to the summit of a career hill.  Albeit a different hill from the one I was climbing at 30. No existential angst is allowed in my mind. To safeguard  myself  against the upcoming angst, I booked for dinner at DB Bistro Moderne on Broadway: Our Broadway of course!

Vancouver, BC:  When I first started writing for more than three years ago - yes, time does fly when you're having fun ! - one of the first plays I reviewed was the Ruby Slippers production of  The Leisure Society  by Francois Archambault. At the time I commented that I could listen to the timbre of Colleen Wheeler's voice for ages. And fortunately I still can, because in her role of France, the "bad" daughter of solid, conventionable couple, Robert (Kevin McNulty) and Raymonde (Patti Allan) her powerful presence dominates this play, Life Savers.

Tom Stoppard's play is about  honesty and dishonesty in love and  relationships; using the metatheatrical concept of a play-within-a play with the adulterous interactions of the "actors" mirroring the "real life" characters on stage. The whole premise sounded intriguing and it worked before for him.  I  really liked the only two previous Stoppard plays that I have read and seen, namely  Arcadia  and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. So I was expecting that this show would top off a week of excellent theatre. But alas, not.

Strong as the draw to California is, it is great to be back in Vancouver and watching the sun glint off the water as I write. Yes, I should be outside with the other hordes on the sea wall but mail piles up when you are away and laundry takes forever, now that I actually separate colours and delicates. Mind you I still don't iron. It's been a matter of  principle for me since my days as a medical resident. If it needs ironing don't buy it is my motto.

Vancouver, BC:  I was really happy to be able to catch the closing night performance of Toronto Mississippi, the day after I returned after three weeks away from Vancouver. The play itself is one that I had often heard discussed but had never read nor seen performed and I expected that Dean Paul Gibson would draw strong performances from the cast of Colleen Wheeler (Maddie),  Meg Roe (Jhana), Bill MacDonald (King) and Alessandro Juliani (Bill). 

While I am enjoying the simple pleasures of cuddling a newborn, spending time with family and taking long hikes through the nearby  ravine and park, I am missing much of the exciting theatre activities in Vancouver.  However the band of dedicated and astutue audience members from my home complex are not missing much.

To kick off  RAProductions SOLO Series of fundraisers for PAL,  Willy Russell's classic play Shirley Valentine featuring Nicola Cavendish was the inaugural pick. 

Vancouver, BC:  As readers of my theatre columns from the "Rants, Raves and Reviews" days to the current "As I See It" commentaries would know, I am always excited by plays that challenge me to think  in new ways or question my basic assumptions.  I really did not know what to expect when I went off to see "The Glass Box" but this original work developed by the three actors, succeeded in both aspects.

Vancouver, BC: In a fast moving 75 minute solo performance, Kahlil Ashanti perfoms episodes from his life, from the time he leaves  home to  enlist in the United States Air Force. He brings such fresh energy and immediacy  to the piece that  it was hard to believe that he premiered Basic Training in 2004 and has since brought it to many centres including the Edinburgh Fringe, and  New York.

Vancouver, BC:  It's been a busy week and I was hoping to "laugh myself silly" at this irreverent look at the life of Moses -  who rises from "foundling in the bullrushes" to Egyptian prince, and from exile to leader of the escape of the Hebrew slaves from Eqypt. Much of the opening night audience had a rip-roaring time and did indeed laugh themselves silly.  I can see how this would have been a great Fringe show when it was first performed a decade ago, and clearly many in the audience still think it great fun, so the fault, dear Brutus, must be with me.  I have  always preferred the acrobatic and technically skilled aspects of circus performances to clowning and I enjoy clever wit and satire more than "wonderfully silly" slapstick or farce. So for me  Holy Mo was mildly entertaining rather than "laugh out loud hilarious."  

Vancouver, BC: The thing about experimental theatre is that it it is experimental - and like any experiment sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. For me this one really didn't. I saw Marie Brassard's solo show, Jimmy,  several years ago and became an instant admirer of her work so I guess I expected to be similarly impressed. Unfortunately the brightness of the lights that were so integral to this piece, was so intense that I was either squinting or keeping my eyes closed for much of the time. So much so that when the lights went up my eyes felt as dry and sticky  as they do at the end of an overnight  plane trip when I watch back-to-back movies because I don't sleep on a plane. (Someone has to stay awake to make sure the darn thing is still up in the air, right?)

Vancouver, BC:  What a treat to see a play that is bitingly clever, features strong, clearly drawn female characters, is consistent in its visual appeal and provides really great entertainment. Until now my exposure to the work of Maugham was decades ago and limited to his novels. I read Of Human Bondage, his major semi- autobiographical novel and a heavy  read, in my medical student days and The Moon and Sixpence shortly after that. So the humour and witty dialogue in this play came as a delightful surprise. 

Vancouver, BC: As part of my obsessive nature, a trait I am still unsuccessfully trying to remedy, I tend to arrive at appointments,  airports and of course  theatre venues,  far earlier than is necessary. Usually when I get to the Waterfront Theatre for a show, I can mosey into the bar area and stand around chatting to the staff or an occasional fellow early arriver for quite a while before the place starts filling up. But not lthis time. A good forty minutes before the start time for Ronnie Burkett's show,  the lineup to get into the theatre was snaking around the bar area, doubling and redoubling. Hmmm.

Vancouver, BC: If I could chose one opera as the ideal forum to introduce an opera neophyte to the genre it would be Carmen. It has to rank as one of the most accessible operas in that you don't have to have  a sophisticated understanding of music to be entranced as one glorious melody follows another. You also don't have to suspend your sense of reality as the story is  plausible and the motivation of the main characters quite believable.  Who can blame Don Jose (David Pomeroy) for throwing away his military career and ditching the sweet, faithful Micaëla (Mariateresa Magisano) for the seductive, exotic and utterly bewitching Carmen (Rinat Shaham)? And given the choice between the flamboyant celebrated matador, Escamillo (Daniel Okulitch) and the poor sucker Don Jose whom she has already conquered, well obviously Carmen will want to use her witching ways to snare Escamillo.

Vancouver, BC: I have been trying to figure out why I was having so much difficulty committing my thoughts to screen with respect to this production. I was certainly blown away by the performances of all three actors and my attention did not wander for a second from the stage. It  was a very powerful bit of theatre. Yet I hesitated so long in writing about this play that it has become a commentary on me rather than a review.

Vancouver, BC. Well folks here is another little gem of a production to brighten our rainy December scene. I have been a fan of  contemporary American playwright Rebecca Gilman, since I saw her play, Spinning into Butter in Chicago two years ago. So I was excited and curious to see this production of one of her newer plays.

Vancouver, BC: If you are looking for a feel-good evening at the theatre, check out  David Adams's gentle  version of Joseph, the world's most famous, yet usually overlooked father.  How would you react when your newly betrothed virgin bride announces that she is pregnant and that you-know-who is the father? This Joseph takes it all in his stride. He delivers the baby in a cave where they have taken shelter, deals smartly with the three "wise men"  who have come to worship the new "king of the Jews", and carts his family off to safety out of  reach of the long arm of the current king,  Herod. He raises this first born son plus a passel of  younger brothers only to see the eighteen year old Jesus leave home for good, and ultimately of course, be crucified. Dowie wisely stops the narrative there so we don't get to hear what Joseph, the pragamatist who does not even acccept the ideas of astrology,  would have made of the events that followed. 

The December Man ends on a note of such painfully tragic dramatic irony that on  the night I saw it the audience sat silent for a seemingly endless time before the applause began. Colleen Murphy's powerful play shows us in stark simplicity that the devastation wrought by violence extends far beyond those who are, at first glance, the only victims.

Vancouver , BC:  I can't remember when last I laughed so hard that I was worried that my shaking would rattle the chairs next to me. It may have been when I first saw The Drowsy Chaperone in New York two years ago. Yeah, sad but true. The stuff that most people find funny doesn't usually get more than a smile from me but for some reason the outrageously-over-the- top Latin Lover, Adolpho, here played by Thom Allison, gets me going. 

Vancouver, BC: Land-line, cell-phone, I-phone, Blackberry - whatever you use to communicate, call the Main Street Theatre Equity Co-op info line at 604-992-2313, and tell them you want to see Glengarry Glen Ross.  Stephen Malloy's tightly directed production of  Mamet's play about a bunch of unscrupulous fast-talking real estate salesmen is especially timely in view of events in the US. As I watched the slick tag-team of has-been Shelly Levene (Bill Dow) and current top-of -his game Richard Roma (Alex Ferguson) bamboozle the timid, elderly Lingk (Patrick Keating), I found myself saying a silent thank you to my wonderful, careful and considerate realtor-friend who helped me in my downsizing phase and didn't try to sell me the Burrard Bridge!

There are times when I wonder if I actually inhabit a parallel universe and it is an alternate me that is seeing  and hearing the folks around me. Either that or I watched so many episodes of Dharma and Greg that I morphed from a Greg-ette into Dharma. You know, put all that "uptightness" into a bubble and just let it float away! So now I smile a lot, don't yell at theTV news or  swear when I read the newspaper, and love my neighbours.

In commenting on a creative work each of us inevitably brings our biases to the evaluation.  I like to acknowledge mine up front - see the About page of Review From The House. But in the interest of fairness, in the same way that  the creative artists  make themselves and their work open to our critical judgement, I  thought it might be appropriate to reprint a Rants, Raves and Reviews column from 2006. It was written in response to reader responses to my reviews of two plays, This is our Youth and Summer of my Amazing Luck.

One of the exciting aspects of seeing theatre in a versatile, performance space like Performance Works, is that as you enter the space you never quite know what layout to expect. For  Touchstone Theatre's world premiere of Victoria playwright Janet Munsil's play, Influence, set designer David Roberts  has re-created the room of the British Museum in which the collection of statues and metopes known as the Elgin marbles are displayed.  The audience sits corridor style, on either side of a long rectangular space with doric pillars at either end. Displayed on marble stands are large realistic renditions by Heidi Wilkinson, of  some of  the original Greek sculptures, including the Selene horse head from the Parthenon.

As I was working on my review of  Influence, Janet Munsil's new play now on at Performance Works,  I found myself thinking about  another of my favorite courses at UBC;  Professor Lee Johnson's course on Romantic Poetry which I took through distance education. Although as I worked my way through  Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake to Keats, Shelley and Byron, works by each poet in turn became my favorite of the moment, but ultimately it was Keats that I really identified with.

Spectral Theatre Society boldly declare in their program that they make "theatre for people that hate theatre. " Hmmm...     I have not seen any of their previous productions so I sought further clarification in the program small print. It said  "To breathe new life into the fetid rotting corpse of live theatre by thrilling and chilling audiences with fantastic stories delivered in unpredictable and innovative ways." Well, okay.  I thought  would perhaps ignore the comment on the state of live theatre - and ask if there was a single phrase that could encapsulate Spectral's niche. I got it - "theatre of the macabre." 

When you are twenty, if you give any thought at all to death, it  is merely something that happens to old people. In the opening song in Billy Bishop Goes to War, newly minted Cavalry Officer, Billy Bishop (Ryan Beil) and Piano Player et al (Zachary Gray) reflect the naive anticipation of  generations of young men who never made it home to die of old age.

Who needs Halloween candy when Solo Collective's local playwrights serve us up such a treat of  three diverse and thought-provoking monologues? On a cold, drizzly evening when most  of the Lower Mainland's female population were streaming into BC Place to watch the world's hottest and fittest 50 year old perform, Todd Thomson, high on acid (My Acid Trip by Dennis Foon, directed by Chamyar Chai) and Jennifer Clement, burning with pseudo-religious fervour (Hope and Caritas by Ian Weir, directed by Rachel Ditor) heated up the Waterfront stage with steaming performances.

In high school, for my third language (English and Afrikaans were compulsory courses), given a choice between Latin and French, I picked French. A smart choice. However the French teacher and I got off to a bad start.  I lost interest in her class and did the minimum work needed to scrape a passing grade.  Ultimately that would have been a huge problem, as I needed top grades in all subjects to be admitted to medical school, but  being young and foolish, I sat at the back of the classroom surreptitiously doing crossword puzzles and reading Crime and Punishment, while she tried to drum French grammar into our adolescent skulls.

Inspiring a Passion for Theatre in the Next Generation:
In this first interview for How They See It, I talk with Professor Emeritus Errol Durbach, Department Head (Theatre and Film) from 1987 - 94, about his experience teaching theatre and drama at the University of British Columbia.
Several years ago when I returned to the University of British Columbia as a "mature" student to work towards a B.A. in English, Professor Errol Durbach taught some of my most memorable classes. While my content memories from some courses have faded into a jumble of illegible writing on overheads and chalk boards, I still recall clearly many of the ideas and the works we studied in his classes and those of several other inspiring teachers.  Errol, a renowned Ibsen scholar, generously agreed to allow me to take a directed studies course on Ibsen with him. The chance to spend an hour  one-on-one over a semester, each time dissecting one of eight Ibsen plays from The Doll’s House to The Master Builder was a privilege I truly appreciated.

Vancouver, BC: I eagerly anticipated that  British playwright, David Hare's "Stuff Happens", about  the road to the  Iraq war,  would be a fascinating and provocative  play. Unfortunately for me it wasn't. During the time that I used to write "Rants, Raves and Reviews" it was not often that I felt compelled to rant. This time I do. Despite some interesting performances I found this play  annoying, superficial and far too long.  It runs three hours and even in the first act  I was wishing that my watch had a luminous dial.  But I will point out that at least after the first 90 minutes as I walked out to the foyer mumbling irritably to myself, several of my friends were quite animated in their enthusiasm for what they had seen so far.

The third annual Prêt-a-Pour Tea in support of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation was held at Seasons in the Park on Tuesday. I had not heard about the previous two events but when a friend told me about this one I just had to go. It was not just that it was in support of  an important cause. How could a word game fanatic not support an event with such a great title?

Pacific Theatre opens their 25th season with Montreal playwright Emil Sher's powerful little gem of a play, Mourning Dove.  Don't miss it. Sher draws on the tragic Latimer affair to present two interwoven emotive and complex themes; the morality of love and the dichotomy of law and justice. I doubt whether there was a sentient adult in Canada in 1993 who did not have a strong opinion as to the right or wrong of Robert Latimer's motives in ending the life of Tracy, his severely disabled daughter. Some thought him principled and courageous - others labelled him the worst of murderers. We all see things through the lens of our personal life experiences.

Vancouver, BC:    As the subject for her new play, Vancouver writer and  director, Joan Bryans has chosen to focus on a  femme fatale with an early 20th century  British Columbia connection.  The story  certainly offers great potential for a play, as indeed Terence Rattigan found,  in 1977 writing his final play, Cause Celebre, about the Rattenbury murder trial. 

Sweet tooth? Not I. I choose salami over strudel any time.So it is appropriate that the first supping experience I report occurred at SALT, a restaurant specializing in charcuterie and cheeses. Mmmmm. Just thinking about it sets my mouth watering.

Vancouver, BC. Set between the time of Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974 and the taping of the interviews, FROST / NIXON chronicles the attempts, ultimately successful,  by British satirist and talk show host, David Frost (David Storch) to engage Nixon (Len Cariou) in a series of interviews for television. Both men have much to gain from these interviews.  Frost, whose career seemed to be waning, was hoping to make a comeback as a broadcaster in US televsion. Frost's production support team of John Birt (Damien Atkins) and Bob Zelnick (Michael Healey) urged on by narrator/historian, Jim Reston (Ari Cohen), want to wring an open admission of wrong-doing from Nixon.  Nixon, supported by Jack Brennan (Tom McBeath) wants an opportunity to justify the achievements of his administration and make his own comeback to Washington politics.

Vancouver, BC: I first saw Doubt in New York in July 2005, the year this play won John Patrick Shanley the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Superbly performed, the production was riveting -the tension in the audience was tangible - absolute silence, audible gasps, a few "no nos". I loved the show and rushed off the very next day to the Drama Book Shop to pick up a copy of the published script. As I eagerly anticipated the Arts Club production I wondered whether the play would have the same impact on a second viewing. But even knowing the story line, last night I found the play almost as powerful as before.

Vancouver, BC: In the fifteen books of narrative poems that comprise Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid wrote of the creation of the universe, and the mythology of the gods that played havoc with humankind: “I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world's first origins to my own time.” (tr. Anthony S. Kline).

Vancouver BC: Ahead of the last long weekend of summer, the fall theatre season is kicking into gear: opening night invitations in the inbox, program announcements and subscription tickets in the mailbox. But though you may be thinking ahead to September, do not miss a theatrical treat that is playing for only a few more performances including a matinee on Saturday. The talented actors, musicans and technical team of Another Musical Co-op provide a beautifully paced, high energy production that kept me entranced through both acts.

It is always a privilege to get a peek into the creation of a new work, and then, hopefully, to see a full production of the finished version. That’s why it is so interesting to see the staged readings of scripts that are work-shopped at Playwrights Theatre Centre, for example. It’s sort of like being allowed to read an early draft of the newest novel by your favorite author, and get a glimpse into the way he/she thinks creatively.