Sunday, January 22, 2017

PuSh 2017: Macbeth

For me, one of the most anticipated shows at this year's PuSh Festival was Macbeth, a radical re-interpretation of Verdi's opera of Shakespeare's Scottish play from South Africa's Third World Bunfight. A co-presentation with the Vancouver Opera and the Italian Cultural Centre, director and designer Brett Bailey has set his adaptation of the story of the original House of Cards couple in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with Verdi's score having likewise been radically reworked for just 12 on-stage musicians by the Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol. Given the DRC's colonial history, I couldn't help commenting on the irony of Cassol's nationality to Richard, although that's not the only transnational jolt of surprise/confusion one receives from this production.

Bailey's Macbeth is not the first work for the stage to set a well-known Western dramatic classic in the DRC. Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined is a loose version of Brecht's Mother Courage that uses the history of the populous Central African country to comment on the ravages of war--particularly, in the case of Nottage, for women. Both Bailey and Nottage see in the DRC's ongoing civil wars, which have been fuelled by the country's rich mineral deposits, extra-territorial commercial interests, the bitter legacy of colonialism, and state corruption and poor infrastructure, an allegory of ambition, greed and personal betrayal. In Bailey's case, his Macbeth (a terrific Owen Metsileng) is initially just a soldier trying to do his job; however, when he and his buddy Banquo (the commanding baritone Otto Maidi) come across three witches in the jungle who prophesy Macbeth's ascent to power, the wheels of fate begin to turn. It's one of Bailey's savvy innovations to have the "witches" in this version of the story coerced into telling what they know about Macbeth by an armed captor, at once suggesting that this is all being manipulated by outside agents attached to the multinational mining corporation Hexagon about which we hear later and pointing to the fact that kidnapping and sexual enslavement, alongside rape and genital mutilation, have been some of the most grievous (and internationally ignored) consequences of the decades-long ethnic conflict in the DRC.

Bailey also hits a high note, quite literally, with his casting of the magnificent mezzo-soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth. With her red gloves and pumps, her skin-tight leopard-print dresses, her righteous indignation, and her cajoling of her husband to "be a man" and get on with killing General Duncan, she is a fearsome version of Taraji Henson's Cookie Lyon, from TV's Empire (another Shakespeare adaptation). The lower range of Mngxekeza's voice is especially captivating; it insinuates its way into your own body and the shiver that accompanies it viscerally telegraphs that this is not a woman to be crossed. At the same time, Mngxekeza displays amazing vulnerability during her aria about the blood that nevertheless remains on her hands. Watching and hearing all of this in the intimate setting of the Vancouver Playhouse was an added treat.

There is so much else to admire about this production, including the virtuosic playing by members of the VO Orchestra, and especially the genius conducting by Premil Petrovic, who has been with the production since its premiere in Cape Town in 2014. Bailey's staging also moves fluidly, in its physical score, between scenes of simple Broadway-style choreography, overt pantomime, and a heartbreaking dumb show of grief to accompany the description of the massacre of Macduff's family and village that doubles as an after-image of too many real-life scenes from the DRC, and the continent of Africa as whole. Finally, there are the photographic, text-based, video and animated projections by Roger Williams. Most of these illustrate and supplement the performance in an integral way (for example, the bits of text that fill in parts of Shakespeare's story that have had to be compressed, or that provide additional context for the transposition of that story to the DRC); however, half a dozen of the slides relate to an additional narrative frame that Bailey has appended to his staging that left me a bit mystified.

I refer to the fact that we are told at the outset that the performers on stage are part of a company from the DRC that inherited the found story we are about to hear and that, subsequently, we get illustrated slides filling us in on the fictitious stories of their displacement, orphaning, conscription as child soldiers, and so on. I question the need for such theatrical subterfuge. Why present a South African cast as playing Congolese refugees playing transposed members of warring Scottish clans? Does that somehow make the story more authentic? Or does it assuage certain directorial anxieties about a white South African having the right to tell a story about the DRC in the first place? At the very least, the decision struck me as potentially (and I'm assuming unintentionally) reinforcing two problematic thoughts in the largely Western audiences to which the piece has toured: that all black performers are interchangeable; and that this is the story not just of the DRC, but of all of Africa.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

PuSh 2017: Dynasty Handbag

Last night, following the conclusion of By Heart at Performance Works (which ran far longer than the 75 minutes advertised in the PuSh program), I hopped in a cab and hurried to Club PuSh at the Fox Cabaret for the annual pop-up venue's opening by Dynasty Handbag, aka Jibz Cameron, a queer performance and video artist from Los Angeles.

Why had I not heard of this woman before? Looking like a cross between Freddy Krueger and Faye Dunaway from Mommie Dearest, Dynasty took to the stage following a hilarious opening video parody of Madonna's "Vogue," and dove head-first into her repertoire of postmodern (and post-gender) vaudeville: a mix of excoriating comic monologues ("no more white babies!") and song parodies that are delivered in Dynasty's signature style of antic physicality and barely intelligible gibberish. What Cameron can do with her voice is absolutely astonishing and even when you can't quite understand what she's saying, you nevertheless lean in to her physicality, responding on a visceral bodily level to the urgency of her comedy.

Indeed, as she suggested via her incomparable set last night (which included much discussion about whether she should move to Canada--or Berlin), there may be no better antidote to a Donald Trump as US President than the kind of in your face lesbian camp that Dynasty delivers. To that end, check out her website and check out the makeup tutorial she has posted there as a way of surviving a fascist dictatorship.


PuSh 2017: By Heart

The premise of Tiago Rodrigues' By Heart, playing at Performance Works as part of this year's PuSh Festival through this evening, is deceptively simple. Over the course of the performance he will teach 10 audience members to learn a sonnet by Shakespeare by heart: they will learn the first four lines together and declaim them as a group; thereafter each of the volunteers (of whom there were more than enough eager participants last night) is responsible for learning one remaining line, beginning with the first line of the second quatrain and moving through to the last line of the poem's concluding couplet. The performance will not be over until the sonnet is enunciated from beginning to end by the assembled group, and one of the physical delights of the show is to watch Rodrigues conduct his volunteers like a choir, inhaling deeply to announce the beginning of each recitation and using his arms to move from person to person, or to indicate that a line should be repeated.

The sonnet Rodrigues teaches the group is Sonnet 30, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought," and it has been chosen for a reason: the great Russian writer Boris Pasternak, facing almost certain arrest and imprisonment, spoke his own translation of the verse during Stalin's show trials in 1937 and the assembled citizens of Moscow rose en masse afterwards and repeated it back to him. It was, as Rodrigues tells us, a powerful statement against tyranny and censorship: literature, learned by heart, will always elude state control, and this is one of our most profound forms of resistance. The latter sentiment Rodrigues supplies to us via the philosopher and critic George Steiner, whose discourse about this very topic on a television program Rodrigues has himself committed to memory, and from which he quotes at length throughout the performance (indeed, images of Pasternak and Steiner are printed on either side of the t-shirt that Rodrigues wears on stage). Paralleling the focus on memorization as a form of protest and resistance, which Rodrigues illustrates with many anecdotes from history and excerpts from literature (including a bravura recitation of the opening pages of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451) is the story of Rodrigues's grandmother, a cook who was a voracious reader and who, as she was going blind, asked Rodrigues to pick a book for her to memorize so that she might be able to re-read it in her mind when she could no longer see.

Having raised the stakes in this way about what the on-stage audience members' real-time exercise in rote learning has come to symbolize--at once a political statement of freedom and a personal tribute to Rodrigues' grandmother--by the end of the performance, when Rodrigues conducts his choir one last time, we are on the edges of our seats willing each of them to get it right. And there was certainly lots of drama when one of the volunteers seemed to blank completely on his individual line. But with help from Rodrigues, as well as some of us not on stage, he eventually got it out and the poem continued to the end, which felt like a collective exhalation, a breath that said we will be alright if we continue in this way together--even as newly repressive regimes sweep to power across the globe. Yesterday, above all, it was reassuring to attend a performance like By Heart and know there are some things that can still escape demagogic pillorying via Twitter.


Friday, January 20, 2017

PuSh 2017: Sweat Baby Sweat

I have a new choreographic man crush. When Jan Martens was here in 2015 with The Dog Days Are Over I was first smitten, so enthralled was I by his rigorously minimalist and physically taxing exploration of jumping in that work (and which I wrote about here). So when I learned he was returning this year with Sweat Baby Sweat in a co-presentation between The Dance Centre and the PuSh Festival I knew I had to be there. At the same time, I had a bit of trepidation, as I knew the latter piece was a love duet between a man and a woman, with Martens deliberately troping on all the cliches of this signature sequence from dance. Was it possible for Martens and his dancers, the incredibly talented Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel, to interrogate those cliches without reproducing and reinforcing the gendered power dynamics in partnering that contemporary dance, no matter its apparent or avowed conceptualism, has necessarily inherited from the pas de deux in classical ballet? Happily after seeing the piece last night, and especially after listening to the incredibly smart and charming Martens discourse on the building of it during the talkback with his dancers and facilitator Alana Gerecke, I can say yes.

The piece, which we learned has been touring since 2012 (its last performance tonight here in Vancouver will be the hundredth iteration of the work), begins with the two dancers already on stage facing each other as the audience enters the auditorium. Like the stage, which is completely bare (even the legs on both sides and the backstage safety curtain have been removed), the dancers are stripped to their underwear and are staring intensely into each other's eyes. The lights dim and as they slowly come back up we gradually become aware that Kimmy is now standing on Steven's thighs, clasping her hands behind his neck as both dancers lean away from each other, holding that pose for what seems like forever, and still not breaking their shared gaze. What follows is a series of equally gymnastic clinches: Kimmy wrapping her legs around Steven's neck and hanging upside down as she slowly raises her torso to horizontal; Steven, lying supine on the floor, balancing in airplane mode Kimmy's outstretched body on one extended leg. All are entered into with the utmost precision and care, with the dancers never losing touch with each other's bodies and never looking away. Indeed, there is a way in which the somatic practices Martens is drawing from in the choreography (in the talkback he mentioned yoga as an influence, as well as acro-gymnastics and butoh) turn the partnering into much more of a technical exercise. The slowness of the movement and the stretching of the duration of each held pose means we focus as much, if not more, on the effort and balance and weight distribution and breath of the dancers as on any overtly expressive meaning that might be attached to their relationship. It becomes almost clinical, but in a way that is also tender and utterly compelling to watch, and in the talkback Martens noted that it was the discovery in the studio of slowness and the held gaze that led him to understand how he could upend the rules of contemporary dance, in which speed, strength, rhythm, changes of direction, falls and recovery nevertheless combine to reinforce a strict binary division between male and female. To that end, this work is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Edouard Lock's La La La Human Steps choreography post his split with Louise Lecavalier, in which the speed of the point work especially ends up turning his wraith-thin female dancers into mechanical dolls to be turned this way and that.

Not that Martens, having established a pattern, is afraid of breaking it and thereby upsetting our expectations. Thus, in the second pass through of the poses he has established, when at the end Kimmy is meant to climb up and down from Steven's legs, Martens has his two dancers lock lips and hold the kiss as they continue to execute their incredibly complicated and gravity-defying choreography. Once again, however, Martens undermines any romance we might want to read into the kiss by having it become another technical problem to work through: how will the dancers maintain mouth-to-mouth contact while they are simultaneously in the throes of a push-pull with the rest of their bodies? Here Martens is playing with notions of attraction and repulsion: for each of Kimmy's desperate scrambles up Steven's legs and chest he is ready with his arms to push her away. This is not done violently but the seeming rejection does register as a shock: after such sustained contact and mutual support, how can these two break apart? Martens catches us falling for the very hackneyed phrasing and trite image he is trying to deconstruct: we want these two to remain in contact, preferably with Kimmy draped languorously around Steven's neck. As the words that have been projected on the backstage wall for the length of the piece to this point announce, "As long as you are here, I am too."

These lines come from Cat Power's epic ballad "Willie Deadwilder," which begins to play through the final section of the piece, with the lyrics alternately flashing on the screen (conveniently highlighted in pink) and being interrupted by banalities imported from other songs and sayings. It's a strategy that works to resist a narrative reading of Steven and Kimmy's relationship as paralleling that of Willie and Rebecca in the song. For, indeed, after synching their bodies to the rhythm of the song with a series of torso pulses that begin while the dancers are standing and that continue as they move to the floor, the piece actually ends with the performers inching away from each other like earthworms, dragging their bodies toward opposite upstage sides, still in time with the music, but no longer ready for each other.

It's a terrific capstone to an amazing work, one that is at once sensually seductive and intellectually stimulating.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Love and Information at UBC

This semester I'm teaching Caryl Churchill's 2012 play Love and Information as part of a course on contemporary epic theatre at SFU. So I was pleased to discover that UBC Theatre was staging the work at the Frederic Wood Theatre this month. Helmed by MFA Directing candidate Lauren Taylor, the production is an ambitious and highly theatrical take on Churchill's elliptically dialectical staging of the relationship between knowledge and desire in the twenty-first century.

As with most of Churchill's work, Love and Information is a radical experiment in theatrical form. The play is made up of seven sections, each with seven scenes, plus a "last scene" called "Facts," which takes the form of a quiz, and which Taylor cleverly stages as a surreal game show that, with its eye-popping colour palette and fantastical costumes, looks like a diversion straight out of Panem in The Hunger Games. The scenes range in length from a few lines to several pages of dialogue. However, we are given no clues to setting, few stage directions, and the characters are not named or described in any way. But we are told that the characters must be different in each scene, which without the necessary strategy of actors (in this case an 18-strong team of very talented UBC BFA acting students) taking on five or six or more roles, would require a cast of more than 100. Additionally, Churchill instructs that the scenes in each section can be staged in any order. Finally, at the end of the playtext she includes several "random" scenes. Most of these (someone sneezing, someone reading bits of gossip from a magazine, multiplication tables or gene sequences, a display of sign language or morse code) are optional. However, the scenes she labels "Depression" are, in Churchill's words, an "essential part of the play," requiring one character to remain unresponsive as a succession of incomplete and banally offered non-sequiturs are articulated by someone else. Taylor's very smart choice for these scenes is to have each of the lines spoken in voice-over as a succession of cast members sit slumped on a chair downstage left, their morose and impassive faces projected in turn on a scrim behind them via a live video feed (the projection designer was Stefan Zubovic, who also did the lighting).

Because all of the "information" we get in each of the scenes in the play comes via the dialogue, a creative team is afforded much liberty in its interpretation of the different conversations and interactions. Taylor exploits this to maximum effect, playing with gender and setting and costuming and sound design to create fully-realized and often surprising mini-worlds, opening up a window onto these characters' domestic or professional or social lives, sometimes in the space of less than a minute. For example, "Lab," in which one character is explaining to another what he does with the baby chickens' brains which he injects with radioactive liquid and then dissects, is set in what I took to be the waiting area of a fancy restaurant, with the lab technician clearly oblivious to the fact that he is failing abysmally at seducing his date with the description of his work. "Spies," which unfolds as a conversation about the misinformation fed to the media and the public about the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 (something that Churchill has allegorized before in Drunk Enough to Say I Love You), was staged as a debate between two spectators at a hockey game. And it was an inspired choice to have the dialogue in the super short "Decision," from section 6, delivered while the characters, ballroom dance partners, are engaged in a tango. As yet as much as I admired the deep thought that clearly went into constructing a back story for each of the play's scenes, and the relationship between the characters within them, I couldn't help feel that many of them were over-produced, with costume and prop and sound design choices often detracting from what I read as some of Churchill's more instrumental and frankly transactional exchanges of information between characters. For example, in Section 5, I'm not sure that anything fruitful was gained by having the "Children" scene (in which one character quizzes another about his infertility) preceded by a long live karaoke sequence. (While this production runs a compact and intermissionless 90 minutes, it still felt that the pacing could have been tighter, especially in the scene changes.)

There is a reason, I think, that the characters in Love and Information are presented as ciphers, bits of interchangeable binary code that, in the larger montage of scenes, form part of an algorithmic equation that suggests that everything, including people and feelings, is now data, and that it's not a question any longer of what we know but how we know--and maybe even more importantly who knows and who we know. This comes out in the one optional random scene that Taylor chooses to include, "Genes," in which a sequence of DNA codons unspools on a downstage scrim as the cast walks back and forth across the stage behind it. In this regard, I wonder what it might have meant for this production if a more uniformly coherent and, dare I say, clinical design aesthetic had been chosen for each of the scenes? Then, too, what additional discoveries might have transpired had Taylor taken up Churchill's invitation to mix up the order of the scenes in each section? The choices this play affords are on one level understandably overwhelming. At the same time, as Taylor states in her director's notes, being overloaded with choice is part of what Churchill is exploring in this play. Sifting through the structural rubik's cube that is this play to find its emotional core means not trying to resolve the contradictory pull between love and information, but rather isolating the feeling or epiphanic sensation or experience of the former amid all the memes that comprise the latter.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Happy Days at SFU Woodward's

Winnie, in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, is one of those classic female theatre roles--like Medea or Hedda Gabler--that I imagine all great actresses aspire to play. Except that Winnie is no tragic figure, and it would be a mistake to read her predicament--mired up to her waist in sand in Act 1, and then up to her neck in Act 2--as one that induces in her paroxysms of despair and self-pity. Above all what Beckett reveals to us through the mix of metaphysical and delightfully bawdy "prattle" that he gives to Winnie is that she is not just hyper-conscious of both the temporality and the materiality of her situation, but also accepting of them. Indeed, there is a way in which the routine of unpacking her bag, or gauging when to sing her song, or wondering if her companion, Willie, having crawled back into his cave, can nevertheless still hear her, approaches a kind of daily practice of Buddhist enlightenment.

Certainly it was a revelation last night, watching Square Planet's production of the play in Studio T at SFU Woodward's, to witness Penelope Stella, in essaying the role, convey within individual lines the genuinely joyful insights and moments of discovery that Winnie revels in. I could have watched Stella puzzle out the corporate imprint on Winnie's toothbrush all evening. Joining Stella as Willie is Greg Snider, who also designed the ziggurat-like set. Together, under the expert direction of my colleague DD Kugler, these two former faculty members of the School for the Contemporary Arts succeed in conveying just how full and, yes, happy are Winnie's days. Unlike in Waiting for Godot, this is another Beckett play seemingly about nothing where it nevertheless feels like so much happens.

At the very least it says something that after 90 minutes of apparent stasis all I wanted to do was move. No matter Winnie's conclusion about Willie that "mobility is a curse."


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Music for the Winter Solstice at Heritage Hall

In what has quickly become a Music on Main tradition, Artistic Director David Pay once again programmed a year-end evening of music to celebrate the winter solstice at Heritage Hall. Back to lead the audience through the chorus of her haunting Winter Carol, the final piece on the program, was former MoM composer-in-residence Caroline Shaw. Joining Shaw on stage were local singer-songwriter Veda Hille, pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, and guitarist Adrian Verdejo.

The quartet, in different configurations, took the audience through an eclectic line-up of music, including two additional carols: Alfredo Santa Ana's spare and spine-tingly A Short Song for the Longest Night of the Year; and new MoM composer-in-residence Nicole Lizée's cheeky jingle Solstice Noir. Iwaasa rained down liquid sunshine in a stirring rendition of Denis Gougeon's Piano-soleil and later joined Shaw, on violin, for a beautiful rendition of Arvo Pärt's classic Spiegel im Spiegel (the Little Chamber Music Series That Could's Diane Park was in the room and I couldn't help thinking of our own danced performance to the same piece for the summer solstice of 2015). Verdejo performed two solos: John Mark Sherlock's Musiquita; and the world premiere of Rodney Sharman's for Guitar. And the incomparable Hille took her own turn at the piano, reprising two recent favourites: Let Me Die, from Onegin, her recent musical hit with Amiel Gladstone; and Eurydice, an adaptation of a Rilke sonnet that she wrote for Pay's Orpheus Project at the Cultch a couple of years back.

All of this flew by in a compact 90 minutes and was a great way to warm both the body and the soul on an unusually cold solstitial night in Vancouver. As Pay noted in his comments at the top of the evening, some rituals deserve to be repeated.