Thursday, June 21, 2018

Camera Obscura (Hungry Ghosts) at the Roundhouse

I first saw a staged reading of Lesley Ewen's Camera Obscura (hungry ghosts) as part of frank theatre's Clean Sheets series that accompanied the Q2Q Conference at SFU Woodward's in July 2016. Two years later it is now receiving its world premiere at the Roundhouse in a production directed by Ewen and co-presented by the frank and the Queer Arts Festival. But, as Ewen recounts in her program notes, the genesis for the play really began 16 years ago, when after seeing a retrospective of Vancouver-based visual artist Paul Wong's work at the Vancouver Art Gallery she conceived the broad outlines of the play. That it has taken so long for the work to be produced has nothing to do with Ewen's working methods, nor with the quality of her writing and artistic vision; it mostly speaks to how risk-averse are most theatre companies in this country.

Camera Obscura is a fictionalized account of Wong's creative and quasi-romantic relationship with Kenneth Fletcher, and in particular their collaboration on the photographic and video project Murder Research (1977). Based on the actual murder of a First Nations man in the alley behind Wong's house, Wong and Fletcher combined documentation of the crime scene and images of the victim's body taken from the coroner's office with a dramatization of their interpretation of the story of the murder. At once a critique of our obsession with sensationalized depictions of murder and violence and an expose of the otherwise invisible Indigenous lives of many of the victims of that violence, the work was exhibited at the Western Front, toured widely, and also yielded a book. With Wong's blessing, Ewen has used this background material to investigate the ethics of turning someone else's real-life pain into art, as well as the psychological toll that such a process presumably took on Fletcher, who, after struggling with mental illness, committed suicide a year after the creation of Murder Research.

Ewen has constructed Camera Obscura as a memory play. Brandon (Jeff Ho) is an acclaimed artist who is celebrating a career retrospective. In voiceover an unseen curator (Ewen) informs us of the provocative subject matter of his work, as well as its formalist concerns, including blurring the lines between art and life. But the voices and images behind one particular work haunt Brandon and, with the aid of some imaginative video projections by Sammy Chien, we are pulled back along with Brandon to the moment of its inception. Thereafter, the play proceeds along two intersecting lines, both of which have at their heart an ethical conundrum that Ewen wishes to both foreground and poke at. On the one hand there is the politics of non-Indigenous folks trading in and seeking to make meaningful the perceived misery of the lives of Indigenous peoples. At the same time, there is the question of what constitutes the limits of a personal and professional relationship in which everything--including suicidal ideation--is treated as a performance. However, dramatically speaking these two narrative lines receive unequal weight, with Ewen's focus tilting--perhaps inevitably--towards the domestic drama of Brandon's relationship with Kevin (Julien Galipeau), at the expense of fleshing out the story of the murdered First Nations man (played by Braiden Houle) who becomes the subject of their work.

To be sure, there is a bravura scene in which Houle rounds on Kevin for his presumption in thinking his life was without meaning before he and Brandon immortalized him in an artwork. But for the most part his character remains a mute witness to his own exploitation, in addition to physically carrying the bodies of the other characters at two different moments in the play. I understand how the voicelessness of Indigenous peoples is part of Ewen's critique of colonialism, but for me this representational silence is problematically counterposed by the over-contextualization of the ethics of Brandon's art practice. The use of voiceover is extensive throughout the play, and the cooly dispassionate appraisal of Brandon's contributions to artmaking is meant to set up what we imagine to be on the walls of the gallery's white cube and the messy "reality" that we are actually seeing in the black box of the theatre as the subject of a debate with life and death stakes. But in refusing to take sides in this debate, Ewen's play necessarily ends up reaffirming the representational over the material. Indeed, we could say that Wong's original artwork is now doubly framed.

Raising such questions is what makes Camera Obscura such an important work. It needs to be seen--and talked about.

P

Saturday, June 16, 2018

SLIME at the Russian Hall

Last night at the Russian Hall was the world premiere of SLIME, a new play by the award-winning playwright British playwright Bryony Lavery (the crime drama Frozen) that is being produced by The Only Animal following a workshop at the Banff Centre. Staged in the round by director Kendra Fanconi, and featuring impressive scenography that makes endlessly inventive use of sheets of plastic, the play is a rather confusing apocalyptic thriller about climate change and inter-species communication that also tries to be an academic satire.

The action takes place sometime in the future at what we are meant to understand is the third international anti-slime conference, the first such event to which animal species other than humans have been invited. Our guides for the proceedings are a series of young human interns who specialize in different animal communication systems and are thus there to act as translators. Frezzle (Pedro Chamale) is an expert in dolphin, Barb (Edwardine van Wyk, an SFU Theatre alum) is fluent in the languages of other sea mammals like seals and otters, Ola (Lisa Baran) specializes in the different calls of sea birds, Godfrey (Teo Saefkow) swims with and speaks to the smaller schools of fish, and Coco (Anais West) is, I think, mostly interested in what amphibians have to say. There are two additional characters: Ev (Mason Temple, deftly motoring about the stage on a mini-segwey) is the tech liaison for the interns and also is learning a bit of bear; and Dumbo (a wordless Sophia Wolfe) is apparently present to act as a sign-language interpreter for all the other species for whom there are not assigned interpreters.

At the start of the play, the conference seems to be a celebratory event, a paradigm shift in the relations between humans and other animals, and as the auditorium fills with the various animal sounds made by our young interns, and as they additionally tell us about how excited they are to hear from their academic mentors, the tone is hopeful. Then, too, there is all of the ancillary activity between the interns that forms a sidebar to the main conference event. Mostly this consists of hooking up with each other, with Barb and Ola's sexual attraction initially sparked by a mutual meeting of minds, and with Coco and Ev simply wanting to get off with each other. Frezzle watches frustratingly from the sidelines. Soon, however, our group uncovers a secret plot that is not on the official conference agenda. With the slime they are all there to study apparently taking over the planet, leading scientists and other political and cultural elites have hatched a social darwinist plan to decamp to a remote island that will become a protected sanctuary for the world's human one percent. Betrayed by their own mentors, riven internally as a group (Ev, in particular, wants to join the island elites), and with their animal friends now turning on them, the interns must confront what they've all avoided to this point: the slime itself.

Ironically, this is where I fell into a black hole of incomprehension regarding both the plot and the politics of the play. Is the slime good or bad, human-made or naturally occurring, harmful to other animal species or modelling another way to adapt and evolve? Fanconi's program notes extol the collectivist ethos of slime, but the conference at the heart of the play is an anti-slime conference. And the ending is similarly paradoxical: the slime appears to swallow up Dumbo when she tries to communicate with it, but then we're told just before a final blackout that the plastic mass under which Wolfe's body lies is trying to say something to the interns. I wish that this message--and that of the play as a whole--had been telegraphed more clearly. In the stridently earnest delivery of most of the actors' lines we're meant to understand, I would gather, just how urgent are the issues being addressed in the play. And yet I was left without any sure sense of what kind inter-species relationship is being posited here and whether we as humans are meant to learn from slime, or learn to fear it.

As for the plastic under which Wolfe's body lies, Fanconi and her design team work with it to create some amazing bits of scenographic magic. It unfurls like a canopy above the audience's heads and then becomes a murky sea filled with other bits of plastic detritus. It is fashioned by puppet designer Shizuka Kai into a towering polar bear who likes to smoke, and also into delicate fish and sea urchins in a touching scene in which Godfrey narrates the death of one of the aquarium inhabitants under his care. Sliced and crumpled up, the plastic also, when dumped in the middle of the stage floor, appears to expand on its own--which was my only concrete sense in the whole play of what slime can actually do.

P

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Victim Impact at The Cultch

Victim Impact, which opened at The Cultch's Historic Theatre last night, is Theatre Conspiracy's latest work of documentary theatre. Written by TC's Artistic Producer, Tim Carlson, and directed by Jiv Parasram, it focuses on an elaborate Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Rashida Samji, an Ismaili notary public who became known as The Magic Lady after she convinced hundreds of people, including friends and members of her own family, to invest in a fictitious Okanagan wine company that was seeking to break into the South American and South African markets. Promising returns of up to 30% or more, Samji ended up bilking innocent folks out of their entire life savings.

The case has been wending its way through the courts for years, with Samji's final appeal to the Supreme Court only having recently been rejected. Much of Carlson's script is based on the court transcripts, supplemented by dramatizations of interviews with several of her victims, here represented by an angry chorus of four played by Jenn Griffin, Munish Sharma, Risha Nanda, and Allan Morgan. We are first introduced to this group as backlit silhouettes speaking from behind a series of interlocking screens, an effective visual conceit for telegraphing the need to protect their anonymity as well as the fact that for Samji they were presumably just interchangeable marks. Paradoxically, however, it means that, as characters, the victims of Victim Impact register largely as hazy ciphers for whom it is difficult to muster much empathy. Sure, we do get individual monologues in which we learn some of the heartbreaking personal details behind each of their stories: that Morgan's farmer was tricked out of his retirement savings; that Nanda's graduate student had to give up on her dream of earning her Master's degree, and also watch as her parents withdrew from their community in shame. But in terms of dramatic function, the choral scenes with the victims are mostly expository, telling us what did--or as often as not, what didn't--happen next.

By contrast, I had no problem conjuring sympathy for Samji, who is superbly played by Nimet Kanji, nor for her friend, the financial planner Arvin Patel (Sharma, also excellent) whom Samji dupes into becoming her stoodge, working from his desk at Coast Capital to lure in many of Samji's investors. In part this is because we are given scenes early on in the action in which we witness Samji and Patel, both physically and emotionally vulnerable, themselves being preyed upon. Then, too, Carlson's script works hard to lay bare the many complex ties binding Vancouver's South Asian community that are also at play in this story, with the murky fixer apparently pressuring Samji in turn forcing her to turn the screws against Patel. That in Samji's case the "man from the Congo," along with the whole bounced cheque from England that started her down this path of fraud, are very likely pure fiction only makes more psychologically interesting her need to come clean in her courtroom testimony, which Kanji delivers with a compelling mixture of suspense and relief.

At the same time, the court scenes also showcase a problem with adhering too scrupulously to the principles of verbatim theatre. Specifically, the trope of having Morgan's defence lawyer repeatedly object to the questions put to Samji by Griffin's prosecuting lawyer, each time citing the same article under the Canadian and BC criminal codes, got terribly wearying. But for the additional mix of sound and visuals in this scene courtesy of the projections by Milton Lim and the accompanying aural cues by David Meisha, I would have stopped paying attention altogether. At other times, in seeking to enliven some of the financial minutiae relating to this case, the creators adopt an overtly burlesque style, as with Sharma's soft shoe routine in the historical anecdote about the real Carlo Ponzi, and later when Sharma and Nanda explain how the banks at the heart of this scandal have sought to recover the money embezzled by Samji, only then to claw back a percentage of that in order to cover their own fees. But for me, these scenes actually served to point up all the more the earnestness of the rest of the storytelling.

I don't wish to diminish the very real pain--financial and otherwise--at the heart of this story, nor the investments of the artistic team in telling that story. I'm just not sure that the how of that telling makes for the most absorbing theatre. Indeed, given the format's success in engaging listeners with serial presentations of true crime stories, I wonder if the podcasts (or "fraudcasts") that Carlson and dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty have developed to accompany the show aren't in fact where the real drama of Victim Impact lies.

P

Friday, June 1, 2018

Lady Parts: Vagina at the Anza Club

The final instalment of After Party Theatre's Lady Parts, their four-part series of sketch comedy shows hosted by Pi Theatre as part of their new "Provocateurs" platform, took place last night at the Anza Club. I had previously seen "Brains" at the Emerald Club back in November, having missed the inaugural "Boobs" and also April's "Heart." But co-creators Katey Hoffman and Cheyenne Mabberley saved the best for last, devoting a whole evening of taboo-smashing guffaws to that bit of the female anatomy that they refer to on Pi's website as "a beautiful flesh taco."

Joined on stage by performers Katie Findlay and Kiomi Pykel, Hoffman and Mabberley certainly didn't hold back in a succession of skits that focused on pap smears from hell, an abortion shower, and television ads that treat vaginal health as a perpetual spring stroll through the park. There was also an hilarious film interlude in which Hoffman and Mabberley talked with their mothers about their births and had them attempt to answer Google questions about sex.

The comedian Fatima Dhowre delivered a short but sharply funny stand-up set, and the Indigenous burlesque duo Virago Nation performed a stand-out number that deftly combined elements of exotic dancing and striptease with the vocabulary of First Nations fancy dancing. All in all, it was a most enjoyable evening, and I do hope that Pi continues with this serial showcase for edgy art.

P

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Saddest Girl at the Party at the rEvolver festival

Upintheair Theatre's annual rEvolver festival is in full swing over at The Cultch, and last night I cycled over to see The Saddest Girl at the Party, a dance-theatre duet by Francesca Frewer and Erika Mitsuhashi. The piece takes place in the Greenhouse, which is in the basement of the newly renovated green house (hence the name) just to the west of the The Cultch's main building. While there are two support pillars that cut into the performance space (and that at times obscured my particular sightlines for the projected surtitles used by Frewer and Mitsuhashi in their piece), it is otherwise a very inviting and intimate studio venue.

Following an impressive pre-show set-list that included Petula Clark, among others, The Saddest Girl begins with the performers, both decked out head to two in grey, arising in turn from their seats in the front row of the audience, walking purposefully onto the stage, and then freezing mid-stride. There follows a quick blackout, during which the performers return to their seats, and then repeat the same action over again. It's as if they're rehearsing their respective entrances to a party to which they maybe haven't been invited, or perhaps to which they really don't want to go. Then again, the freeze frame effect is also suggestive of memory, the stilled bodies and lighting combining like a flashbulb to produce the ex ante documentary traces of that which has yet to happen.

There then follows two versions of what one--a sad girl or otherwise--is presumably meant to do at a party: dance. In the first sequence, Frewer and Mitsuhashi contract and then extend their bodies joint by joint in a pair of complementary solos, Mitsuhashi's loose-limbed crumpling and spontaneous springing forth into space matched by the power and intent of Frewer's athletic marching, lunging, and rolling across the floor. Here are two women--not girls--intent on claiming and taking up space with their own kinetic vocabularies: dancing for themselves, and each other, rather than any other watchful eyes. This, however, is contrasted with what is likely a more familiar scene from parties: Mitsuhashi and Frewer, their bodies now glued to a single contained spot on the floor, cycling through a series of stop-motion poses as a metronome counts out time and the lights flash slowly in a deliberately bad strobe-like effect. The slow widening of eyes and the drawn-out flashing of overly animated smiles as the performers mime interest in what their imagined--and presumptively male--dance partners are saying is alone worth the price of admission.

Following this scene, the performers retrieve from backstage a series of clothing items and props, all in the same impressive grey palette, which they lay out in tidy piles stage right and left. Changing costumes, the performers now adopt two distinct--and distinctly theatrical--personas: Frewer that of a motivational speaker, and Mitsuhashi that of a nervous party planner. We move back and forth between Frewer trying to get through her speech and Mitsuhashi arranging a series of party hats on a chair. While I appreciated the dramaturgical impulse behind this exploration of other kinds of parties--including professional ones--at which girls might be sad, this part of the work seems not yet fully formed. Indeed, following one final transition between the two tableaux the piece ends rather abruptly when Frewer joins Mitsuhashi on her chairs, a final blackout cued to the party hat that will not stay atop the former's head. At a compact 35 minutes or so, there is room to flesh out more fully and complexly this part of the work, and I look forward to future iterations of this very thoughtful piece.

P

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Arts Umbrella Season Finale at the Playhouse

Yesterday afternoon Richard and I took in Arts Umbrella Dance Company's annual Season Finale at the Vancouver Playhouse. As with past shows, it was a bit of a mixed bag, with the younger apprentice company in need of a pleasing end-of-year showcase for their parents, but not always up to the complexities of the choreography.

Three current Ballet BC dancers--Livona Ellis, Andrew Bartee, and Kristen Wicklund--all had pieces on the program for these younger dancers, and all three were rather formal toe shoe and tights classical compositions. Ellis's "To the Last," set to Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, was the best of the lot, but it still left me questioning the wisdom of setting this kind of work on dancers who at this point in their careers have neither the technique nor the strength to execute it satisfyingly.

The senior company fared much better in contemporary works by Cayetano Soto, Michael Schumacher (a fantastic cell phone piece called "Subtext"), Mats Ek, Crystal Pite, James Kudelka, and Wen Wei Wang, whose "Fremd" closed out the afternoon's proceedings. "Fremd" owes a clear debt to William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated," down to its pounding sore, the off-kilter axes and non-traditional facings, and the rival ballerinas alone on stage shifting from foot to foot and sizing each other up. Regardless of its origins or influences, the piece allows the company's older dancers, alone and in pairs and trios, to shine, demonstrating their acceleration and speed, their impressive extension, and their overall theatricality.

One thing that rankled yesterday was the amount of distracting commotion in the audience during the performances. To be sure, fidgety pre-teens are only going to be able to sit still for so long. But the rustling of candy wrappers and the slurping on drinks straws was almost as loud as the music being played during each piece. Some of the parents were just as bad, ignoring the announcement about no cell phones and taking the opportunity to catch up on their texts when their own kids were not on stage. It was most annoying and makes me think that this is the last such event I'll be going to.

P

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Convergence x 2 at EDAM

EDAM's annual spring choreographic series featured new work from guest artists Natalie Tin Yin Gan and Shauna Elton, alongside a revival of a work EDAM Artistic Director Peter Bingham first presented a year ago.

Gan's Level 10 Life is billed as a "dance in sound and vibration." It features three performers in softly lit individual spots in three distinct areas of the stage. Alanna Ho squats in front of a laptop spinning music stage right, one leg sexily extended. Michelle Lui is downstage centre, astride a chair, a microphone positioned in front of her. An unrecognizable Aryo Khakpour (in part because, as we later discover, he's wearing giant bug eyes) lounges downstage left. As Ho continues to play music, Lui eventually leans into the microphone, quietly telling us the date and time of the performance, before calling out names of folks she recognizes in the audience. The contract between performers and audience thus having been breached, we are thus primed for anything to happen. But nothing much else does. Khakpour eventually sits and then stands up, brandishing a crop of some sort and advancing a bit downstage. Lui, meanwhile, retreats upstage and bops a little up and down to the music Ho is playing. Everything unfolds as if in a dream, or some futuristic space bar to which we have been lured on the promise of adventure, but for which we do not know the proper conventions or social codes.

Elton's Amae is a trio for Kate Franklin, Emmalena Fredriksson and the choreographer. It's a big-hearted, wide-limbed, joyous ode to bodily connection, mutual support, and psychic interdependence. The dancers run on stage in similar grey and red dresses, throw down various dance accessories (knee pads, socks, etc.), and then launch into a robust sequence of pushes and pulls and small lifts and jumps and limb-to-limb touching that combines some of the principles of contact with Elton's own contemporary vocabulary. There is, for example, a terrific moment in which Elton is carrying Franklin (or maybe it was the other way around), and Fredriksson, crouched on the floor, slides her hands between Elton's legs and beside her feet, as if giving her fellow dancer, now burdened with the weight of another body, directional guidance. Not that we don't also witness moments of tension and conflict in this piece. At one point Elton is lying on her side downstage while Franklin and Fredriksson work through who is leading and who is following whom in a series of toreador-like advances and retreats. The work concludes with the three dancers, having donned the accessories that had previously lain on the floor and simultaneously shed their outer grey frocks, in some senses becoming one single, hydra-headed body--an appropriate image for the gathering force of feminine energy and love that is at the heart of this dance.

Bingham's Pillars concluded the evening. While it has a new name, the work appears to follow the same structure as last year's Convergence, which I first blogged about here, and whose original title Bingham has now transposed to this entire evening's worth of presentations. That is, the work begins with the seven dancers (Delia Brett, Anne Cooper, Elissa Hanson, Arash Khakpour, Walter Kubanek, Diego Romero, and Olivia Shaffer) facing either side of the studio's east and west walls. At a certain point Brett peels off and begins to improvise a solo, shimmying liquidly through space, extending first one limb then another, descending to and then rolling about the floor. Eventually making contact with Kubanek on the other side of the studio, Brett drags him into her orbit, their duo expanding to a trio with the addition of Cooper, and then to a quartet when Romero feels the group's adhesive pull, and so on until all seven dancers have peeled themselves from the walls and are improvising with each other on stage. This time around, however, it seems like Bingham has removed some of the work's previous restrictions: there is no returning to the side walls for any of the dancers, and it feels like none of them is required to hew to a specific individual line in space. As such, the performers are freer to seek out another body or bodies with which to improvise a specific contact sequence. They can also do their own thing, and there was a moment last night when Shaffer, who is such a gorgeously fluid dancer, found herself separated from the group and contrived a wonderful sitting solo for herself that I could have watched all night. As she is doing this, the other six dancers have paired off and are cycling through different gravity-defying lifts and poses against the upstage wall. Which makes me think that not all the structuring principles from the previous iteration of this piece have been jettisoned. They've just morphed into something new. Above all, what made the performance so fun to watch is that the dancers themselves were clearly having fun.

An additional surprise on last night's program was the newly renovated lobby of the Western Front. I guess it's been a while since I've last been inside the building. So I was unprepared for what I encountered when I opened the doors: a bright, airy, open and modern entryway, with the box office now to the right, two loos adjacent it, and the rest a wide open space in which to linger and mingle with fellow patrons and artists. It makes the whole EDAM experience that much more enjoyable.

P