Sunday, April 23, 2017

Three Sets/Relating at a Distance at The Dance Centre

The three pieces included as part of Lesley Telford's first full program of dance to be presented in Canada under the auspices of her company Inverso Productions reveal some common preoccupations. First, all combine--to greater or lesser degrees--text and movement. IF, an earlier and shorter version of which was developed in 2007 for a Nederlands Dans Theater workshop, is set to a poem by Anne Carson, "Seated Figure with Red Angle"--and here spoken in recorded voiceover by Amos Ben-Tal. My Tongue, Your Ear, from 2011, features its two dancers speaking aloud excerpts from Wislava Szymborska's poem "Tower of Babel." And Spooky Action at a Distance, receiving its phase one premiere as part of Telford's residency at The Dance Centre, is accompanied by an original spoken word score by writer and musician Barbara Adler, who speaks the text live.

Then, too, all three works are concerned with patterns of attraction and repulsion, proximity and distance, action and reaction. In IF these impulses manifest as a roundelay of occupations of and displacements from a chair positioned downstage right. As the piece begins, dancer Maya Tenzer is perched on it. Behind her, all the way upstage, is Eden Solomon. Both dancers are lit in such a way that as Solomon advances toward Tenzer in the chair the former's shadow gradually overtakes and subsumes the latter's physical presence (the lighting, adapted from an original concept by Jeroen Cool, is by my colleague Kyla Gardiner, who does amazing work throughout). Meanwhile visible offstage right is Stéphanie Cyr, who begins a horizontal walk across the stage, her passing in front of the chair cuing Solomon to supplant Tenzer from it. Cyr then begins a solo centre stage, eventually arcing into the upstage vertical pathway of the chair, and with the enactment of her own kinetic claims upon it launching first Solomon and then Tenzer into successive retracings of the circuit she has just completed. In this, IF is like a game of musical chairs that no one can win, because within the feedback loop of Telford's choreography we gradually discover that each act of sitting constellates within it both past and future acts of sitting, a sedimentation of time within at once shared and separate physical states that is vividly portrayed at the end of the piece when all three dancers sandwich themselves onto the chair.

My Tongue, Your Ear is a duet that casts Tenzer and Graham Kaplan as two halves of a couple. And yet while their cryptic and elliptical patter throughout the piece suggests a pair of lovers whose wires of communication are hopelessly crossed, their matching white shirts and black shorts and socks also put me in mind of a vaudeville double-act or toy marionettes come to life. Such images may have something to do with the twitchy and floppy movement vocabulary that Telford employs throughout the piece, with both dancers windmilling their arms and buckling their knees at different moments, and with the tall, lanky and Gumby-like Kaplan repeating a series of rubbery jumps into the air, like he is being pulled by strings from above. For a while Tenzer and Kaplan seem to be working in concert to support each other, propping each other up by the shoulders, for example, as they begin a precarious walk downstage. By the end of the piece, however, the individual crumbling of their bodies begins to mirror the disjointedness of their speech, their physical proximity to each other in this case failing to buttress their relationship.

Following an intermission, Telford presented her newest work-in-progress. Spooky Action at a Distance is based on the quantum theory of particle entanglement (that, to summarize crudely, electrons separated by galaxies can still be affected by each other's movements). The choreography seeks to physicalize the matter of human interconnectivity, using the time/space properties of dance to show the eventness of all action--that, for example, a movement initiated in one body both ripples outward to be registered by and reacted to by other bodies and contracts inward as a result of that reaction. The piece begins simply with the hard-working Tenzer positioned alone on stage, her back to the audience. Adler begins intoning her text from the front row of the audience. She talks about believing that it is she who makes the world happen, that she has control over the weather, able to conjure clouds or sun or fog simply by closing or opening her eyes. But maybe in fact it's the weather that's making her adjust her gaze; when she mentions turning her face "to accept/the event/at a different angle" Tenzer pivots slowly to look at us. Indeed, one of the delights of this work is how it enacts the principle of action and reaction--what Adler elsewhere in her text refers to as the time and distance between x and y--at the level of the relationship between text and movement. Sometimes the dancers seem to be responding to the text, at other times Adler is clearly taking her cue from the choreography. In neither case, however, are the results reductively descriptive or mimetic; instead they combine in a way that would seem to fulfill Niels Bohr's theory of complementarity, in which the corresponding, reciprocal and mutually constitutive properties of wave and particle, or position and momentum, are known to (co)exist, but cannot be measured or observed simultaneously. Likewise with the movement patterns that follow this opening, the other dancers (Cyr, Solomon, Caitlynn Danchuk, Katie DeVries, Bynh Ho, and Brenna Metzmeier) at once prompting Tenzer to respond to their spatial presence on stage (including by whispering in her ear) and also embodying an opposing force. To put this into some of the terms employed by Adler, what we are witnessing in Telford's choreography is people "happening" to each other: sometimes "more" and sometimes "harder," especially in the complex partnering sequences that pepper the work; and sometimes simply, but with "attentive" purpose, as when Tenzer later orbits Solomon ever more closely in a gradually accelerating walk centre stage.

There is so much more I could say about this last work, which was a delight to behold. I look forward to becoming more entangled with its progress as Telford and her collaborators continue to develop it.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Long Division x 2

Since Tuesday I've been hanging out at Playwright's Theatre Centre along with the original cast and crew of Long Division as we prepare for a "refreshed remount" of the Pi Theatre show at the Annex on Seymour Street beginning next Wednesday. It is such a gift to be given the opportunity to revisit the work with this talented team. With a bit of distance from the first production at the Gateway in November, and in dialogue with director Richard Wolfe, I had made some cuts and tweaks to the script, which was distributed to everyone in March. In rehearsals we've been making some further adjustments, with a focus especially on smoothing out and making more organic the transitions between the choral scenes and individual characters' monologues.

Choreographer Lesley Telford, who is busy with her own show at The Dance Centre (on through this evening), popped into the studio yesterday to help adjust a couple of the movement sequences. The changes were exactly what was needed and it was fantastic to see not just how on board the actors were with the new material, but also how quickly they were able to absorb it into their bodies. When we started this second go-round on Tuesday I think everyone was a bit trepidatious about how much of the original movement score they'd remembered. But with the aid of video documentation and each other's kinetic memories, and with a lot of counted repetitions, the sequences came back incredibly quickly to the actors, and watching them yesterday during our first complete run through you would have thought they'd been doing this continuously since November rather than having had a hiatus of four months.

Generally we're trying to loosen things up with both the movement and the text, and to give the actors permission to play a bit more. Our costume designer, Connie Hosie, commented after yesterday afternoon's run-through that our efforts seemed to be working. Notwithstanding some dropped lines and a couple of starts and stops with respect to new movement and blocking, she said the piece was noticeably tighter and that all the actors were more clearly at home in their characters. That's great to hear, as we only have two more days of rehearsal before we go into tech. Getting into the actual Annex space will also be exciting, as we have a lot more room than we did at the Gateway's Studio B.

Tickets for the show can be purchased here. I probably won't be blogging again about the process until after we open. In the meantime, here's a selfie I took the other day in front of one of the bus shelter posters advertising the play around the city. Linda Quibell, who plays Grace, commented yesterday that the image is a bit CSI-y. That's perhaps not a bad analogy given the mystery that has to be unravelled in the play.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Broadway Diary 5: Sunday in the Park with George at the Hudson Theatre

Our final Broadway outing this New York trip was to a revival of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Sunday in the Park with George. Richard and I are both huge Sondheim fans and had never seen a live production of this work--though I recall watching on PBS at some point in high school a video taping of the original Broadway production starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. This time it's movie star Jake Gyllenhaal pulling in the crowds as Georges Seurat, struggling in the first act to complete his pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But it is Annaleigh Ashford, as Georges' aggrieved muse Dot (and later, in the second act, her daughter Marie, grandmother to Gyllenhaal's American postmodern sculptor George, struggling with his latest chromolume commission) who is the real standout here. Ashford has a crystalline soprano and superb comic timing; she commands the stage with her presence, even when disguised in a grey wig and seated in a wheel chair. And while she has perfect pitch and would have no trouble making any of her numbers soar, she also knows that her singing must serve the work's larger context and not her own vanity. Thus, for example, she delivers the poignant Act 2 song "Children and Art" as the elderly character she's playing, not as the young performer inhabiting the role--and, in the process, she made me understand that in this song I have heard countless times before she is actually trying to help her grandson rediscover his artistic passion.

Not that Gyllenhaal isn't entirely credible as a singer: while he sometimes struggles to hit (and hold) the higher notes, he has great facility with Sondheim's complex time signatures and rhymes; his "Putting It Together," which like many of Sondheim's faster numbers (Mrs. Lovett's meat pies song from Sweeney Todd comes to mind) provides very little breathing room, was a standout. It also reminded me of what a savage--and prescient--critique of the global art market is this musical. Gyllenhaal's unique take on the dogs Georges is meant to voice in "The Day Off" also demonstrated that he was not afraid to make himself look ridiculous if it served the staging.

But, really, it is the work itself that most shines in this production. Director Sarna Lapine, niece of book writer and original director James Lapine, wisely understands that in terms of its musical and narrative structure Sunday in the Park is, like the Seurat painting that inspired it, perfectly composed. As such she does not strive for unnecessary dramaturgical or scenographic embellishment. Her stripped down and spare staging--while not above the occasional bit of razzle dazzle, as with the unveiling of George's chromolume in Act 2--allows the music to provide most of the evening's colour and light.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Broadway Diary 4: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre

So here’s something I didn’t expect to tick off my bucket list anytime soon: appearing on a Broadway stage. I refer to the fact that Richard and I, having shelled out extra money for the privilege, were seated right in the heart of the action for last night’s performance of Dave Malloy’s innovative new musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Having begun several years ago as an immersive show in which the tiny Ars Nova off-Broadway space doubled as a 19th-century Moscow café/bar, it subsequently moved to a tent in the theatre district that, as I understand, only ramped up the blending of spectators and performers. The challenge, then, in moving to Broadway was how to retain the immersive feel of the show in an old-school proscenium theatre.
Director Rachel Chavkin and the entire design team have brilliantly met that challenge, and even surpassed it. Every part of the interior of the Imperial Theatre has been turned into a performance space, including the upper rows of the balcony, and with the centre orchestra seats bisected by a catwalk on which several of the actors and musicians parade. But it is the actual stage itself that has been most thoroughly transformed, with a row of raked banquettes at the back for some audience members to gaze upon the action—and their confrères out in what are now the cheap seats—from what would normally be upstage (or even backstage) space. And then there are the tables like the one at which Richard and I were seated that are scattered around the downstage circular thrust area, where many of the key numbers and much of the choreography takes place. At the centre of this area is Pierre’s study, which also doubles as this production’s version of the orchestra pit, with the pianist and orchestra leader, a bassist, a guitarist, and an occasional percussionist in full view of all. The rest of the stationary orchestra is scattered in different outposts about the stage, but the musical also makes use of an array of very mobile violinists and accordionists, some of them bowing and dancing and singing within steps of us and then, in a flash, dashing for the upper reaches of the balcony.
To be right in the centre of the action—and more than one of the ushers and a couple of the performers told us we had the prime table—was incredibly thrilling, and the experience of being so close to the performers that one could see the vibrations in their throats or the throbbing of the veins in their temples as they reached for the high notes is something that won’t be replicated anytime soon. That said, I can’t say that the music was especially memorable or the story distinguished in its telling. To be sure, if you’re adapting Leo Tolstoy—in this case, a subplot from one of the later chapters of War in Peace—you’ve got your work cut out for you. That said, the musical opts for an overly discursive presentation of the events surrounding Natasha (a compelling Denée Benton), who is betrothed to the soldier Andrey (Nicholas Belton), off fighting Napolean’s armies. Natasha, upon making her debut in Moscow promptly falls in love with the rakish Anatole (Lucas Steele, doing his best pouty pop star), who is the brother-in-law of Pierre (Scott Stagland, here substituting for the real life pop star Josh Groban). Pierre is a misanthropic man of letters in a loveless marriage to Hélène (Amber Gray) who rediscovers his humanity in coming to Natasha’s rescue when she realizes she has been ruined. As my plot summary suggests, the musical seems more concerned with laying out the connections between all the characters (self-reflexively highlighted in a coy opening number) than with adding any new depth to Tolstoy’s story of love, betrayal and redemption. Which is to say that while I loved the form that this musical took, in terms of content there is perhaps no improving on the original.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Broadway Diary 3: Oslo at Lincoln Center

Yesterday was a two-show day for us Broadway kids. In the evening we made our way to Lincoln Center to take in J.T. Rogers' Oslo. Directed by Bartlett Sher, this ambitious, sprawling multi-character play tells the story of the back-channel talks initiated by a Norwegian husband and wife diplomatic couple that eventually led to the 1993 peace accord signed by Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat.

A talky intellectual play that, in the manner of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Democracy, imagines all that goes on behind the scenes in the foreign policy we read bout in history books or watch on CNN, Oslo is also surprisingly suspenseful. Indeed, one of the delights of Rogers' play--which certainly does not in any way dumb down the complexity of the negotiations--is the breakneck pace that is kept up over the course of the work's nearly three-hour running time. You are literally on the edge of your seat as you watch with what mix of charm and strategic subterfuge Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul (the terrific--and terrifically in sync--Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle) first cajole the Israeli and Palestinian representatives to the table, and then strive to keep them there. You can't help rooting for them to succeed.

But, of course, the play is also being staged in the wake of the more or less wholesale collapse of what the Oslo accord was meant to enact. This Rogers addresses in a bittersweet coda, in which we learn via successive addresses out to the audience (a conceit used throughout the play) not just of the fate of the various Israeli, Palestinian, and Norwegian backstage players in the whole peace process, but also of Rod-Larsen and Juul's own ambivalent feelings on what they did and did not accomplish. That husband and wife are themselves not in absolute accord on this point attests both to the difficulty of the interpersonal approach to peace they were attempting to enact in 1993, and also, in 2017, to why such an approach may be more relevant than ever.


Broadway Diary 2: Indecent at the Cort Theatre

A week or so ago there was an article in the New York Times about Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel, two giants of contemporary American playwrighting, and both Pulitzer Prize-winners, finally making their respective Broadway debuts this spring with their latest plays: Nottage with Sweat (which has just earned her a second Pulitzer for drama), about factory workers in America's rust belt losing their jobs that has been taken up by critics as an explanation for Trump's election; and Vogel with Indecent, about a work of Yiddish theatre from the early twentieth-century that, in making its English-language transfer to Broadway in 1920, was shut down for obscenity as a result of its on-stage depiction of a love affair between two women.

I'm a fan of both playwrights and have taught their works multiple times. But having promised Richard that we'd see a couple of musicals alongside the choices for straight plays that I'd lined up, I had to decide between them. I opted for Vogel, intrigued by what I had read about the unique metatheatrical staging of the work when it played at the Vineyard Theatre off-Broadway last year, by its incorporation of live music (a three-piece klezmer band, to be precise) and a movement score into its dramaturgy, and by Vogel's collaboration with the director Rebecca Taichman (who is also currently helming Sarah Ruhl's newest play at Lincoln Centre right now). (Interesting side note: Vogel, until her recent retirement one of the top playwrighting teachers in the US, taught both Nottage and Ruhl.)

Much has already been written about how Vogel's play serves, in Trump's America, as an allegorical indictment of censorship and ideological conservatism. But, watching it yesterday during a matinee preview, what struck me most was how the play registered as a very powerful record of a potentially lost history--not just of the once vibrant Yiddish theatrical tradition, but of European Jewry more generally. For in tracing the diasporic journey of Sholem Asch's 1910 play The God of Vengeance from Warsaw to Berlin and Paris, on to first the downtown and then the uptown boards of 1920s New York, and finally to a makeshift attic stage in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943, Vogel and Taichman are also chronicling a history of anti-Semitism that, we gradually become aware over the progress of Indecent's 95 minutes, will inevitably culminate in an ending, the Holocaust, that the stage manager, Lemml (Richard Topol), is at once powerless to forestall and also, through the magic of the theatre, helps the female protagonists of the play-within-Vogel's-play transcend. This is punctuated by a simple on-stage effect (repeating something similar from the top of the show) that is heart-stopping in its power.

There is so much more I could say about this beautiful, complex production. It is certainly Vogel's most ambitious and cosmopolitan work to date, as much a love-letter to what the theatre makes it possible to (re-)imagine as it is a condemnation of those who would seek to extinguish imagination--and those who imagine otherwise--altogether. I can think of no better way to herald this important playwright's belated but so richly deserved arrival on Broadway.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Broadway Diary 1: Significant Other at the Booth Theatre

Richard and I are in New York City for five days taking in the sights and seeing some plays before I have to go back into rehearsal for the remount of my own play. It's a rich spring season of openings in the city, both on Broadway and off. So notwithstanding that we've booked five shows in four days, we still had to make some tough choices in terms of what to see. To that end, we decided to limit ourselves to the bigger houses of Broadway, and to only one revival. And because I also want to get to a bunch of galleries and other activities while in the Big Apple, I will only be offering minor synopses of what we see.

First up was last night's Significant Other, a new play by Joshua Harmon that opened earlier this year following a successful run off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre. It focuses on Jordan Berman (Gideon Glick), a 29-year old gay man in New York whose three best girlfriends from college (Sas Goldberg, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Lindsay Mendez) are all marrying off, sending him into a tailspin of despair about his less than robust "social life," to quote Jordan's grandmother (Barbara Barrie). As written by Harmon, Jordan is a neurotic Jewish romantic who initially pines from afar for his handsome new co-worker, Will (John Behlmann), and then, following a date whose ending goes awry, impulsively declares his feelings in an email his girlfriends have counselled him not to send. Jordan might have come across as a walking cliche, and the play itself as a slight gay romantic comedy, were it not for Glick's amazing lead performance and those moments when Harmon's writing and Trip Cullman's sharp direction reveal the sincerity with which they are pitching Jordan's quest for a soulmate.

Glick, a twitchy, manic bundle of raw energy, is in every scene of the play and his face registers Jordan's see-saw emotions with utter naturalness and often stark pathos. There is a moment, early in the play, when he describes to his best bestie, Laura (an equally terrific Mendez), the entirety of Will's body (spied in his swimming trunks at an office pool party). Not only does Glick convey Jordan's besottedness with a total lack of self-consciousness, but the description itself is some of the best writing about the male body I have heard in a long time. Later, in the climax of the play, when these same two characters come to an angry impasse about Laura's impending marriage to Tony (also played by Behlmann), and Jordan's accompanying feelings of abandonment, Glick and Mendez are likewise able to make the stakes of what at first glance might appear a terribly white bourgeois argument seem real. Which is also to say that the play, which is definitely not aiming to make any major political statement, is a lot more profound than at first it might seem.