Review From The Seat

London, UK: Timing is everything! Pass it on. For several reasons including airline bookings, the timing of my four day stopover in London ended up with me arriving on Saturday Tuesday. While perfect for New York where it would mean I could see a matinee and evening performance on Sunday, in London virtually all the theatres are dark on Sundays. From the hordes of people in and around Leicester Square and Covent Garden it seems a somewhat unbusinesslike way of doing things.

Vancouver, BC: I think our enduring fascination with Greek tragedies written around 2500 years ago lies in their fundamental questioning of human behaviour and morality through themes that still resonate with contemporary audiences.  The issues of justice, revenge and free will, of power, honour, guilt and innocence that permeate these plays cry out to us to examine our personal ethics and the moral choices we make in our own lives. Blackbird Theatre's production of Euripide's Hecuba, elegantly and sparely directed by John Wright, spotlights many of these ethical issues with pin point precision.

Vancouver, BC: Saturday, December 1st, was not shaping up to be one of my favorite days. Despite driving in Vancouver for many more years than I drove in Cape Town I still don�t feel comfortable taking my precious little Audi out in snow. I had a ticket to Seussical on Granville Island for the evening so my chionophobic anxiety was high. Drive and risk my car sliding all over the icy roads, or walk to the Aquabus at Hornby, and risk me slipping on icy pavements: good bye dancing!

Vancouver, BC: It is a week since I saw this play and I have had great difficulty in coalescing my reactions into a coherent form.  So armed with the very real excuses of a schedule crowded with deadlines and electronic crises such as crashed computers, I did what I do best - procrastinate.  Ironically, what jolted me into sitting down at my newly repaired computer to finish these thoughts was my going last night to the opening of Seussical: The Musical. Of the Seuss titles, the one I love the best is Oh, the Thinks You Can Think.� Because after all the capacity to think is what distinguishes humans from other species. So here are my "thinks" on Eugene O'Neill's  "A Moon for the Misbegotten," at the JAC. 

Vancouver, BC: In Stephen Greenblatt's introduction to Richard lll in the Norton Shakespeare, he relates a story about Shakespeare and the play, said to have been recorded in 1602 in the diary of a London law student. The gist of it was that a woman was so impressed with Richard Burbage in the title role that she invited him to visit her that very night as Richard lll. Shakespeare contrived to arrive before Burbage. When the announcement came that Richard lll was at the door, WS sent a return message that William the conqueror was before Richard lll.  True or not, as Greenblatt points out, the story illustrates that despite Richard's physical deformities and anti-heroic villainy, this protagonist has exerted a compelling attraction on generations of playgoers.

Vancouver, BC: Not so very long ago, playing strategy games on my computer was my favoured form of procrastination, and SimTower kept me distracted for hours at a time. The game objective was to build a towering skyscraper, with hotel rooms, condominiums, offices and restaurants, increase the resident population and keep the Sim people happy. Still today I keep calm in interminable lineups by remembering the Sims turning pink with frustration and then red with rage, as they waited for elevators to carry them down to their offices or up to their homes. As the hours progressed through days and nights, lights in the building units would switch on and off when the Sims woke or went to bed.  I was reminded of this, watching Tim Matheson's video projection of lights flicking on and off in the high rise buildings behind the new PAL Theatre.

Vancouver, BC: In 1997 I spent a week in war-torn Beirut. It was a mere 7 years after the official end of the civil war between Christians and Muslims that ravaged the city.  Syria was effectively in control of Lebanon and in the south, fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli forces was ongoing.  I was invited to Beirut to lecture and give workshops at a medical conference. When an ex-student of mine, suggested I combine the trip to Lebanon with a visit to Egypt to meet her family, against the advice of family and colleagues I decided to go. I saw the news of Princess Diana's death in a Cairo travel Agency as I was booking a tour to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.  Less than 10 weeks after I had wandered enthralled among the temple ruins, news headlines told of tourists gunned down on that very site. A random conjunction of time, place and terror - and 62 lives lost.

Vancouver, BC:  It is fitting that Meta.for Theatre opened its production of Sherman's play, BENT, on Halloween night. Though first produced in 1978, and set in pre-world war II Germany, this powerful play evokes the ghosts of the millions who were killed because they were Jewish, homosexual, disabled, or otherwise "different" as well the millions more who died in action on land, or in sea or sky. In Vancouver on Halloween night the dead walked among us again with their plea to "never forget". And although the events of this play and The Holocaust that followed, happened years before most of the cast and crew were born, and even before I was born, indeed we must never forget.

In her play, The Stone Face, that premiered last night at The Waterfront, local playwright Sherry MacDonald skillfully manages to pay homage to Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett while jibing at subjects as diverse as theatre of the absurd, Abbott and Costello and academic literary theory. As one who admires the dedication of the many writers who toil in solitude, writing and polishing books which don't get published or plays that don't get produced, it's a real pleasure for me to see The Stone Face brought to life on stage.I saw a much earlier version at the Playwrights Theatre Centre New Play Festival in May 2004 and it is interesting to see the evolution from previous draft to final production.

Vancouver, BC: I first read "The Wars" as an assignment in a distance education Canadian Literature course when I was working ten hour days, and studying three to four hours a night. Reading for pleasure was limited to ten or fifteen minutes before I could no longer keep my eyes open and drifted into sleep. The night I began "The Wars" was no different. In bed by eleven, I opened the slim paperback, determined to make a start on my next assignment. 

And that tragedy is at the heart of Daniel MacIvor's insightful new play. In a "snapshot" inspired by the visit of Tennessee Williams to Vancouver shortly before his death in 1983, MacIvor shows us a man terrified that the talent that made him a great Playwright has deserted him. He clings to the hope, however faint, that his writing still has the "it" that the critics and audiences love because the reality is that he has to go on living though he is, to paraphrase another great playwright, "sans inspiration, sans love, sans everything."

"The Carpenter" is the final play in a trilogy by Montreal playwright, Vittorio Rossi, who became playwright-in -residence at Centaur Theatre in 1987. Based on the life of Rossi's father, embodied in the character of Silvio Rosato, the trilogy presents stories of an Italian family and the settings range from Italy to Chicago to Montreal. The two previous plays, "Hellfire Pass" and "Carmela's Table", each had their premieres at the Centaur Theatre, in the 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons. Although I did not see parts I and II, I figured each play has to be able to stand on its own, and so it would be worthwhile ducking out early from the conference reception and paying a visit to the Centaur Theatre.

Vancouver, BC. Well this BC summer day drifted into early evening with a gust of wind cooling the air. I was back at Malkin Bowl to see "Grease," hoping that I could keep my toes from a-tapping, my knees from a-knockin and not get up to dance by the light of the moon. Oh wait, that's from another song.

Oh what a beautiful evening, oh what a wonderful night. I love Oklahoma - the musical that is, as Oklahoma is one of the nineteen US states I have yet to visit. It's not that I've been swallowing happy pills but I just love musicals and this one is jam packed with tunes that make me wish I had the singing and dancing talent to be up there on stage having as much fun as the enthusiastic young cast seem to have. Add a mild dry Vancouver night after the threatened rain shower spattered by in the early afternoon, an appreciative audience with families and lots of young people and a great venue in Stanley Park - what could be more quintessential Vancouver than that?

After weeks away in the dry heat of California and then the cooler, thin-air mountains of Colorado, I am back in the saddle, or rather, the theatre seat again, for the remount opening night of Cookin' at the Cookery. And what a ride it was tonight. Under the direction of Bill Sample (keyboard), musicians Graham Boyle (percussion), David Sinclair (Guitar) and Rene Worst (Bass) produced swinging rhythms that I swear called out to me "get dancing, girl". But being a well trained theatre patron, I kept my hands and feet from tapping out the beat and my mouth from belting out the words. It was a struggle. But I loved the show.

Vancouver, BC: Take two seemingly unrelated questions - what moral values lead to destructive human relationships? And what aesthetic values define art? - combine through the unforgiving pen of playwright/ director, Neil Labute, and you get the edgy disturbing play, The Shape of Things, that previewed last night at the Waterfront Theatre, on Granville Island.

Vancouver, BC: Viewed from the sandy, stone-strewn ground below the Burrard Street Bridge, the weathered concrete columns and supporting arches of the 75 year old bridge look as ancient as Notre Dame de Paris, the Gothic cathedral around which Victor Hugo centered his novel. The rumble of cars crossing overhead, punctuated by the occasional roar of motorbikes, did not suppress the excited buzz of the crowd, waiting for the start of Boca del Lupo's latest outdoor, roving spectacular, Quasimodo.

Vancouver, BC. I really enjoyed this performance of Julius Caesar, directed by Katrina Dunn, on the Studio stage at Bard on the Beach. Or more correctly, I should say I thought the first half had some of the most powerful performances I have seen in a while. It always seems to me that the high point of the play is the powerful funeral oration by Mark Antony while the second half of the play, armies clashing and men falling on their swords, comes somewhat as an anti-climax after the earlier dramatic scenes of betrayal and the power of rhetoric.

What a great start to the 2007 season at Bard on the Beach. Last night's opening of "The Taming of the Shrew" definitely ranks among the best productions I have seen at Bard. It's not just that Bob Frazer's Petruchio, even dressed in a grungy wedding cape, could turn the most committed feminist into a simpering romantic. Nor his commanding initial entrance as the "Lone Stranger," come to "wive it wealthily" in Padua City. Those jeans!  Katharine (Colleen Wheeler) clearly did not stand a chance of resisting him.

Vancouver, BC: Among my CD collection of Broadway musicals, one of my favorites is the original London cast recording of "Company". However I had never seen "Company" performed so it was with great anticipation that I headed off to the Stanley for opening night of the show. And the production lived up to my expectations thanks to a terrific, high energy cast, who sang Sondheim's clever, acerbic lyrics so clearly that I could hear and savour every word. Well, almost every word except for the thousand word a minute "Getting Married Today" brilliantly performed by Tracy Neff.

For me the standout show at this year's Vancouver International Fringe Festival was "Timekeepers" from Ocean of Sugar Productions, Tel-Aviv, Israel. A well crafted, beautifully performed 70 minute drama, it moved me to tears at several points. Set in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Nazi Germany, Timekeepers tells the story of three men whose lives intersect at a point in time when men in a supposedly cultured and civilized country committed unspeakable acts of evil against other human beings.

Vancouver, BC: Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays and not often seen on stage. This production directed by James Fagan Tait is innovative and compelling in its use of choreography and sound. Tait adopts a minimalist approach to staging. A giant white tablecloth covers the stage for Act I and chairs are the only props. In Act 2 the stage is bare and the surface is unbroken save for Timon's cave.

Vancouver, BC: Well it is two for two so far for Bard on the Beach Main Stage this year. Both Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew provide great evenings of entertainment. Director Dean Paul Gibson's contemporary view of Romeo and Juliet had some really interesting interpretations both in character and in staging so there was plenty to talk about on the drive home – always a sign of good theatre to me. 

While 10 Days On Earth, textually, does not pack quite the punch for me that, for example, Provenance did, Burkett's mastery is undeniable. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, he not only writes and performs; he designs, sculpts, constructs, costumes, speaks for and physically manipulates dozens of marionettes per show. But this is not children's theatre. Far from it.

Soulpepper Theatre Company. Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Building 49 Ph: 416.866.8666 TORONTO ON. - “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” Oscar Wilde

Vancouver, BC: In the course of a recent, somewhat spirited discussion of contemporary theatrical genres, it was suggested that I was rather strongly Aristotelian in my appreciation of drama. That is for me, Mythos (plot), Ethos (character) and Dianoia (thought or theme) always trump Opsis (spectacle). Arabian Nights is the second play this month (the other being The Andersen Project - see Rants, Raves and Reviews May 21st) which kept me musing about the dichotomy of plot versus spectacle.

Vancouver, BC. Sometimes when I arrive home after a show and head for my computer to write this column, words flow easily regardless of the hour. At other times I feel blocked. I suspect that this occurs when the rational/ objective part of my head clashes with my emotional/subjective reactions. So it was with The Andersen Project. So here I am still thinking about it several weeks later.

Vancouver, BC: The Triumph of Love by 18th century French Playwright, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, is Blackbird's fourth production and continues their growing tradition of excellent shows. It is well worth seeing. In a very accessible translation by Canadian director, teacher and founder of the Theatre francais de Toronto, John Van Burek, an ensemble of seven consummate professionals under Johnna Wright's deft direction, deliver a charming comedy. I enjoyed Wright's evocation of the 1930s through Alexander Ferguson's sound design, featuring music of Cole Porter, whose songs have for years been the mainstay of my morning shower performances. Luckily I was not in the front row or I might have joined the dancing on stage.

Vancouver, BC. I really enjoyed "Wreckage." As playwright, director and producer, Sally Stubbs writes in the director's notes, the original idea came from a story about survivors of a train wreck who used the opportunity to escape from their old lives. In exploring such questions as why one might chose to walk away from life and how such a disappearance might affect those left behind, Stubbs has created an engrossing, if occasionally confusing play.

Vancouver, BC. One of the only pleasant aspects of air travel is the fact that for a few precious hours you are stuck in your seat with nowhere to move to, no household chores to take care of and no phone calls to interrupt your train of thought. A perfect time to meditate about heartbeats, music, growing up and growing older - or Upintheair Theatre's site-specific production about the West Coast Rave scene.

Vancouver, BC: Bertolt Brecht's "Life of Galileo" is a powerful play that poses important questions about moral choices under circumstances where the options are life, if you recant what you know to be true, or torture and death if you hold true to your principles. The character of Galileo and his renunciation of the science in which he so passionately believed, obviously struck some deep chord in Brecht, who reworked the play several times over a sixteen year period, producing three versions, in 1938, 1945 and 1947. This version, directed by Tariq Leslie, was adapted and translated in1980 by British playwright, Howard Brenton, for the National Theatre in London.

Vancouver, BC: Unbeliever though I may be, I feel an overwhelming compulsion to confess my sin - I believe that Rick Miller IS bigger than Jesus. A charismatic, high energy performer with a warm voice and an engaging smile, he held my attention so strongly that for most of the 70 minutes (no intermission) I forgot to take notes. But not to worry, the script is for sale in the lobby after the show, and I couldn't resist getting my own signed copy. It's worth it for the seven pages of the Teacher's rant, alone.

Greek mythology has fascinated me since I first received a children's version of the myths. At high school we studied "The Iliad" and I read "The Odyssey." And then of course the dramatic tension, moral and ethical conflicts, and clash of destiny with self-determination in the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides raise many issues that are as valid in today's world as they were in Ancient Greece. Hence the many appropriations, adaptations and translocations of stories such as Antigone, Medea, Oedipus.

Vancouver,BC: The first thing I loved about the Playhouse production of "Moonlight and Magnolias" was Pam Johnson's set illuminated by Gerald King's lighting. The play takes place in the office of David O. Selznick, executive producer of "Gone with the Wind." This film, released in 1939 while Europe was at war, won 8 Academy awards and was one of the most commercially successful films ever made. It was based on Margaret Mitchell's book, panned by literary critics but loved by readers. Johnson' set re-imagines Selznick's office even to the colourful storyboards, and the Writers' building seen through the window blinds.

It's lucky I missed out on the Hippie era because I don't think I would have done too well in a commune. The rule of the majority is death to individualism. And all those beans and lentils, bell bottoms and incense.

When I was younger and a little more naive, eight weeks ago that is, I foolishly thought that "retirement" meant that I would have lots of extra free time - sort of like having more than 24 hours in every day. But finding myself more "re-deployed" than retired, I have to acknowledge the sad truth. For those of us not traversing the universe in a space ship at warp speed, time is not elastic. And in fact one has less of it in the bank, so to speak, as each day passes. So how to best use the time available, I wonder.

On a surprisingly chilly Sunday evening in Southern California, one of the brighter spots of the Oscar show was the performance of Jack Black, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly (my favorite - didn't you love Mr Cellophane in Chicago?) bemoaning the fact that dramas usually win out over comedies for Oscar nominations. That got me thinking yet again about comedy and humour.

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!
 

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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!".

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.
 

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.

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.

Philadelphia, PA:  For at least the past twenty years whenever I visited a city where there was a Children's Hospital, I always made a point of arranging a tour of the laboratories.  It was endlessly fascinating for me to see how practices differed from our own pediatric laboratory at Children's in Vancouver.  And since yesterday I was here to visit the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia it was great to have the chance to see around their impressive facilities. But in keeping with transitioning my life from science to the arts, for the next twenty years when I travel I plan to make a point of visiting theatres instead of labs!  That's why over the past year you have seen Rants, Raves and Reviews from Chicago, London, New York, and now Philadelphia.

VANCOUVER, BC: I'll admit my bias right up front. I thought Lane was the only character in this play with any semblance of integrity. And it is not just because she is a female doctor at a "very good" hospital who has devoted her life to her patients. Or because I wished I could look as gorgeous and "together" as Susan Hogan did after a grueling day at work. Or because I really loved her house and her elegant modern furniture. Nice set, John Thompson, it's my kind of home.

New York, NY: I always find the audience demographics an interesting pointer to the nature of a play. A few weeks ago I was at the opening night of "Take Me Out" at the Waterfront Theatre in Vancouver. The male to female ratio was probably around 8 to 1, certainly not the usual preponderance of women and older couples. This afternoon in the 88 seat black box Lion Theatre, one of six theatres in an interesting complex on 42nd Street, men outnumbered women in the audience at about the same rate.