Saturday, October 14, 2017

Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival

I'm in Burlington visiting my family for a few days and yesterday we all piled into the car to take in a matinee at the Stratford Festival, which is just winding up its 2017/18 season. The timing of my visit--combined with what seems like the steady yearly attrition of the festival's Shakespearean mandate--meant that it was Guys and Dolls which was in repertory that day at the main Festival theatre stage. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, who has established herself in recent years as Stratford's musical theatre hitmaker, the production had also received glowing reviews. So I was anticipating a pretty good time. Apart from the dancing of the male chorus, however, I was mostly bored.

With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (based on stories by Damon Runyon), Guys and Dolls has famously been dubbed "the perfect musical" and despite its antiquated gender politics is regularly revived. The movie adaptation starred an incongruously cast Marlon Brando as the high rolling gambler Sky Masterson, and Frank Sinatra turned the song "Luck Be a Lady" into a signature tune. The plot focuses on two apparently mismatched couples: Nathan Detroit (Sean Arbuckle) is a dice man who runs a weekly craps game in and around Times Square, and who has been engaged to his long-suffering fiancee, the nightclub performer Miss Adelaide (a winningly cartoonish Blythe Wilson), for fourteen years; Masterson (Evan Buliung) has never met a bet he wouldn't take, including as concerns our plot the challenge of convincing the straightlaced Salvation Army officer Sarah Brown (Alexis Gordon), who is not having much luck of her own saving souls among the denizens of Broadway, of flying with him to Havana to have dinner.

In between the two sets of lovers inevitably coming together--as, of course, they must--we get to hear a lot of great tunes, including "A Bushel and a Peck," "Adelaide's Lament," "If I Were a Bell," the aforementioned "Luck Be a Lady," and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," a gospel-tinged roof raiser which is delivered by the secondary character Nicely-Nicely Johnson (a scene-stealing Steve Ross) at a climactic Salvation Army prayer meeting attended by the grab-bag of gamblers from Nathan's craps game as a favour to Sky--who has promised to deliver to Sarah a roomful of sinners in order to impress her superior. These last two numbers feature spectacular choreography by Feore for the male ensemble, who far outshine their female counterparts in the hoofing department. By contrast, in terms of the acting and singing of the leads, it is the women who trump the men. In its depiction of the relationship between the sexes, one might say that Guys and Dolls is the Taming of the Shrew of Broadway musicals. And so much hinges on the penultimate number, "Marry the Man Today," in which Sarah and Adelaide decide together to take a risk on their hapless men, under the assumption that they'll be able to bend them to their respective wills after a ring is placed on each of their fingers. Happily, Feore has Gordon and Wilson telegraph proto-feminist resolve rather than wifely submission.

Elsewhere, however, some of the director's decisions are head-scratching. Why, for example, during the Hot Box number "Take Back Your Mink" would you send out Adelaide and her accompanying chorus girls wearing rhinestone necklaces rather than pearls (as indicated in the lyrics)? Much of the blocking between songs in this book-heavy production also seemed counter-intuitive. More generally the pacing felt sluggish, with the energy from the choreography accompanying the bigger numbers failing to be sustained in the dialogue between the actors.

Not that any of this seemed to bother yesterday's audience, which was instantly on its feet at the end. That included the class of high school students sitting behind us, Guys and Dolls being a staple of high school musical theatre repertoires. My drama teaching sister-in-law Arelene has seen many such versions of the musical, and also directed one of her own. She, like me, was not impressed with this one.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

1 Hour Photo at The Cultch

Tetsuro Shigematsu's 1 Hour Photo, which opened last night at The Cultch's Historic Theatre, is his follow-up to the wildly successful Empire of the Son. Like Empire, 1 Hour Photo is once again being produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT), and Richard Wolfe returns as director. The two shows also follow a similar format, with Shigematsu, as writer-performer, recounting his story directly to the audience and using miniature digital cameras and live video feeds to animate various on-stage objects to startling effect, including in this newest work a miniature dioramic model of the North Vancouver house where Shigematsu lives with his family.

The replica house is a significant symbol, and in many ways represents the bridge between these two works. Thus, near the top of 1 Hour Photo, we learn that Shigematsu moved into it with his wife, children and parents at the insistence of its owner, VACT's Artistic Producer, Donna Yamamoto. It was here that Shigematsu cared for his dying father (who was the subject of Empire), and also where he discovered, in the form of an old Japan Camera coffee mug, the first clue to the life story of Yamamoto's father, who is the focus of this piece.

Mas Yamamoto, 91 years old and still going strong, owned a string of Japan Camera outlets, which were among the first photo development franchises that began offering one-hour return service in the early 1980s--hence the title of the show. But before he became a successful businessman, Mas lived several other lives, which coincided with some of the signal events in twentieth-century British Columbian and Canadian history. Distilling 36 hours of interviews with Mas into an 18-minute first-person narrative that he then pressed into a vinyl recording, Shigematsu, aided by composer and onstage musical sidekick, Steve Charles, proceeds to spin his tale, giving us an excerpt of Mas's voice, and then elaborating on the larger social and political context. We learn, for example, that Mas was interned with his family during World War II at Lemon Creek, and that it was there that he met his first love, Midge. With only a Grade 9 education at the end of the war, Mas went to work to support his family, losing touch with Midge, and eventually working on the Distant Early Warning Line in the Canadian Arctic during the height of the Cold War. It was during this period that he met Joan, whom he would marry. Their growing family, and the need to supplement his meagre blue collar wages, prompted Mas to return to school, completing his high school equivalency, and a BSc, MSc and PhD in Pharmacology at UBC in less than a decade. And then, chucking his comfortable job as a government scientist, at the age of 50 Mas decided to become a photo shop entrepreneur. The story comes full circle when, later in life, Mas reencounters Midge, who will join Mas and his family in the gallery at the BC Legislature to witness Mas's daughter and Liberal Minister of Advanced Education, Naomi Yamomoto, deliver a speech endorsing a motion of apology to Japanese Canadians on the 70th anniversary of their interment.

All of this is supplemented by amazing archival photographs and film footage (the video design is by Jamie Nesbitt), and Shigematsu creates some wonderful effects with his live camera feed, as when a single miniature bunkbed placed within a mirrored box becomes multiplied into row upon row when projected on the backstage screen. Paradoxically, however, the visual design of the show points to the underdevelopment of the photographic metaphor in Shigematsu's script. Apart from one arresting description of multiple exposure as a way to think of the collapsing of time into a single stilled moment, I was struck by how Shigematsu's narrative portrait mostly eschewed such analogies. Indeed, it is the recording of Mas's voice that instead tends to dominate, and that via the repeated ritual of Shigematsu or Charles dropping the turntable needle into a given groove on the spinning record accords that voice a necessarily auratic quality (Shigematsu's likening of this audio document to the recordings that were sent into space on the Voyager satellites only deepens this feeling). As a result, Shigematsu's own voice at times registered to me as more adjunct than central to the story, mostly serving to amplify or illustrate the gist of what Mas had to say. Most telling, in this regard, is that the references to Shigematsu's own father felt extraneous to this piece, almost as if they had been imported to tie Empire of the Son and I Hour Photo more tightly together.

I don't think such dramaturgical stitching is needed. The two works already complement each other in myriad other ways.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Nederlands Dans Theater's Side A in Amsterdam

On our final day on the second leg of our journey to Amsterdam, I got to check something off my dance spectatorship bucket list when Richard and I attended a performance of the Nederlands Dans Theater's Company 1 at the ornate Stadsschouwburg in the Leidseplein neighbourhood. (Although the interior of the building has clearly had a major re-do recently, as the stunningly intimate presentation hall where we were looks brand new, and has a wonderfully deep stage and steep audience rake, which makes for near perfect viewing.) Overseen by the legendary Jiri Kylian for the past 25 years or so, but now it seems with longtime NDT house choreographer Paul Lightfoot installed as the current AD, NDT is renowned for the strength and virtuosity of its dancers, as well as for its commissioning of new work from top flight international choreographers (Vancouver's own Crystal Pite is an associate choreographer).

Indeed, the program we saw, Side A: Split into One, was comprised of three world premieres, all of them having a distinctive scenographic design element, and with the first two likewise structured around the musical oeuvre of contemporary pop composers. First up was Proof, by former NDT dancer Edward Clug. Kylian has a remarkable track record of seeding new choreographers from within NDT's own dance ranks, often by first providing opportunities to create work on NDT's Company 2. So it was with Clug, whose 2015 debut for NDT 2, mutual comfort, was very well received. In Proof, set to the music of Radiohead, we encounter seven dancers who move in and out of different duos and trios, sometimes with stunningly solicitous intimacy, and sometimes with bold aggression. Distinctive in each modality is the dancers' arm work, sometimes loose and looping, reminding me a bit of vogueing, and sometimes fast and choppy, as in karate. Clug is also not afraid of stillness, keeping several of his dancers frozen on stage as others move around them. The piece ends with a captivating bit of scenography, when a zeppelin-like installation descends from the ceiling, into which one of the dancers steps, and behind which another quartet, divided into pairs and attached at the waist, make ghostly silhouettes--all while another dancer impresses his head into one end of the plastic balloon. It was a wondrously powerful end to a terrific new piece.

The second piece on the program was a new work, SOON, by Mehdi Walerski, also a graduate from the NDT dance corps. Walerski  should be familiar to Ballet BC audiences who have seen his Petite Ceremonie, and who are no doubt eager for his take on Romeo and Juliet when it premieres at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next spring. For now, however, there is this beguiling new quartet, inspired by the music of Benjamin Clementine, a young British singer-songwriter who has been hailed as reinventing the art song, and whose albums I am going to be sure to download when I get back to Vancouver. As the curtain comes up, we see a male and female couple, clad in matching blue suits, standing in a circle of bright white light. The light is emitted by a lowered klieg light that is attached to a rotating contraption, at the other end of which is a large reflective disc. This device rotates continuously throughout the performance, at times blocking the dancers, but at other times becoming part of the choreography, as when the reflecting disc passes through the stilled and facing bodies of two of the dancers. The first couple is eventually joined by another, and in the tightly geometrical movement that Walerski composes for the quartet in the very centre of the white floor spot he seems to be drawing upon and reinventing aspects of the quadrille. At other moments, the dancers break off into pairs and also solo sequences, with one of the male dancers successively ghosting each of his fellow group members in a final bit of unison at the end of the piece, the space between the bodies, as with the switch to negative lighting that recurs throughout the piece, here suggesting the aspect of longing over time that is necessarily a part of any kind of belonging.

The evening concluded with Sisters, by NDT house choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon (they are also a couple). A work for six dancers, three men and three women, it aspires to be a surreal fantasy, complete with a splayed out roll of black plastic that dominates the set. Perhaps it's meant to evoke the inky depths of the unconscious, or the dark world of fairy tails. Whatever the case, I found most of the choices in this piece to be choreographic caprices, not least the decision to send out one of the women dancers with her right arm pinned to her chest inside her lyotard. Clearly there were no disability rights advocates in the house, as the audience gave the piece a standing ovation. Mostly I found the piece to be egregiously pretentious, and rife with imagistic cliches, as with the closing tableau, in which the three women, now clad in matching black cloaks, swaying their bodies in front of the men, bewitching them with their sorceresses' powers.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mosquitoes at the National

One of the plays that was on my radar to see during this trip to London was Mosquitoes, which is on at the National's intimate Dorfman Theatre (formerly the Cottesloe) until the end of this month. The playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, is one of the buzziest in the UK, having attracted a great deal of attention (and a lot of awards) for Chimerica a few years ago. Then there was the fact that it would be starring the two Olivias: Williams and Colman, that is, with the latter having long been a favourite from TV programs like Broadchurch and The Night Manager. But of course when I tried to book tickets from Vancouver all performances were sold out. However, when I randomly checked the National's website on Monday, miraculously there were tickets available to the Tuesday matinee.

The performances lived up to, and in places surpassed, my expectations. The play, however, is a bit too ambitious for its own good, suffering from an excess of plot lines and ideas. The main drama concerns the tense relationship between sisters Alice (Olivia Williams), who is a top flight particle physicist working on the Higgs boson as part of the Large Hadron Collider lab at the CERN facility in Geneva, and Jenny (Olivia Colman), a telephone insurance salesperson living in Luton who spends a lot of her time on the Internet. Following the sudden death of Jenny's young daughter (which is partly connected to her incessant Googling), she and the sisters' aging mother, Karen (Amanda Boxer), herself a retired scientist, descend on Alice in Geneva just as she and her team at CERN are about to launch the next phase of their research, and also while she's dealing with her temperamental teenage son, Luke (Joseph Quinn), who holds his mother responsible for the flight several years earlier of his father. Jenny's grief-laden self-destruction, combined with the family's long history of dysfunction and mutual recrimination (which mostly centres around the gap between Alice's intelligence and Jenny's apparent stupidity), sets off a chain reaction of cause and effect relations that culminate in Luke's disappearance.

The problem is that all of this is hung only very loosely--and wholly metaphorically--on the idea of particle physics and the chaotic make up of universal matter, whose lessons are rather high-handedly delivered to us by a lab coated character called the Boson (Paul Hilton), and which must additionally serve as a representational allegory for the perils of social media, the plight of women in patriarchal society, and the weight of family inheritance. Then, too, I found that the emotional core of the play was not entirely credible: that Alice and her mother could be so consistently cruel to Jenny in putting down her intelligence when, clearly, she is the only character who can intuit what is wrong with Luke starts to grate after a while. Obviously we are meant to understand that Alice is blindly obtuse in matters of the heart. But why this at once mutually sustaining and parasitic relationship between the two sisters needs all of the added carapace that Kirkwood has built around it, is beyond me.

And it is in part these structural weaknesses in the play, I think, that explains its overproduced staging, with all kinds of fancy multimedia effects and physical tricks used by director Rufus Norris to embellish the science that we are also told very bluntly at one point we are too stupid to understand. Maybe that's true. However, one thing I do know is that but for the brilliance of her cast, Kirkwood's play would likely not connect with audiences at all.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Loot at the Park Theatre

When Joe Orton's second major play, Loot, premiered 50 years ago, it ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain's office on two fronts. First, London's theatrical censor insisted that Orton's more overt references to the sexual relationship between best mates and hapless thieves Hal and Dennis be removed, or else coded in layers of subtext. Second, the playwright's stipulation in the script that the corpse at the centre of the plot's farcical antics be played by a real actor was vetoed. A dummy had to be substituted.

Both of these cuts have been restored in a 50th anniversary production of the play that is currently running at the Park Theatre in the Finsbury Park neighbourhood of North London. Assuredly directed by Michael Fentiman, this staging is the first to be based on Orton's original, uncensored script, recently rediscovered, and given the go-ahead by Orton's sister and his estate. Orton's scabrous wit and savage satirizing of social mores remain as fresh and breathtakingly funny as ever--notwithstanding the odd racist and misogynistic joke that might offend the politically correct. Luckily for us, Orton is so far from being a PC playwright as to make comedic offense into a blunt force weapon. Not for him the smooth sliding in of the skewering dagger alongside indulgently mocking Wildean aphorisms; Orton serves up his comic barbs the way the Greeks did--lewd and in yer face. I realize I'm mixing a lot of different theatrical references in that last sentence, but as Fentiman writes in his program note, Orton's dramatic knowledge and reading were prodigious, as is his own influence on a subsequent generation of taboo-smashing British playwrights.

For Orton, whose entire writerly project might be summed up as an epic battle to demolish the binary between the sacred and the profane (this was someone who went to prison, remember, for defacing library books), taboos are made to be smashed. And in Loot we see them come down in spades. Defiling a corpse: check. Hiding stolen money in a coffin: check. Lampooning Catholic piety and blind faith in the absolving power of confession: check. Openly celebrating buggery and getting away with murder: check and check.

But what elevates Orton beyond being a playwright who merely wishes to shock (in addition, that is, to his truly astonishing command of language) is that his satire is expressly political. Indeed, the biggest taboo to be smashed in Loot has to do with our liberal democratic belief in--and willful adherence to--the benignly just execution of the law. Thus, the most menacing character in the play is not the murdering Black Widow of a nurse, Fay (an excellent Sinead Matthews), nor the larcenous lovers Hal and Dennis (Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba, both also terrific), but the incognito detective, Truscott (Christopher Fulford, in a toweringly funny performance). Entering the McLeavy residence under the guise of a city water inspector in order to avoid the inconvenience of needing a search warrant, by the end of the play he ends up colluding with the criminals, taking a cut of their "loot," and sending an innocent man, the grieving Mr. McLeavy (Ian Redford, moving from befuddlement to outrage and back again with great aplomb), to jail. That this also enables the closing tableau of this production of the play, in which Hal and Dennis kiss passionately, while simultaneously each rubbing a breast of the imperiously self-satisfied surrogate mummy figure Fay, still clutching her rosary, is a fittingly queer victory for a playwright whose own untimely death coincided with the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.

This production, then, is a double anniversary, and on both the level of hilarious physical comedy (major kudos on that front to Anah Ruddin as the put-upon corpse) and savage political commentary, it lives up to the weight of expectations. Added bonus at the performance we attended: the legendary Tom Stoppard was in the audience. He was laughing uproariously. If that's not an imprimatur, I don't know what is.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 38

If you're at the Dance Centre in the coming weeks, you'll be able to catch sight of the installation that Natalie Purschwitz has conceived for our Dance Histories project taking shape. On Wednesday, with the help of DC technician Daniel O'Shea, we rigged the main supporting platform into place. This was no easy task, as the installation is essentially a very complicated Calderesque mobile that will hang from the ceiling above the stairwell leading down to the main Faris Studio. And because Natalie will need to be able to raise and lower the platform while she is working on the installation, this involved figuring out a very complicated system of rope pulleys. And finding a three-quarter inch drill bit--which proved the most difficult task of all.

Nevertheless, success was eventually achieved, and now the main task is threading the hundreds and hundreds of names that Natalie has attached to different playing cards through the holes that I punctured through the platform. Having spent seven hours yesterday and Wednesday doing so, I can attest to how finicky and time-consuming this work is. Add to this the very real risk of the different bits of dangling threads getting hopelessly tangled as the platform is raised and lowered and just generally moved around, and you can understand how stressful all of this can quickly become. And it doesn't help that we're doing all of this in a tiny corner of the Faris lobby near the bar, and having to work around matinee and evening performances.

Natalie has worked out a very complicated system for how all the different playing cards fit together, which perfectly captures our goal of illustrating how all of these histories overlap and intersect--and which will be represented in the finished installation by the bits of orange coloured thread that horizontally connect the dangling vertical cards. But in an Excel spreadsheet, as a list of names and a numbered count of times mentioned, such a system is one thing. Three-dimensionally it's quite another, and Natalie said that if it sounded like she was talking to us like children in explaining things we shouldn't take offence; she was simply figuring things out herself in the process of articulating them.

I feel bad abandoning Natalie and the rest of the crew just as the work is getting started (Richard and I are off to London and Amsterdam for 10 days); but I'm sure there will still be stuff to do when I get back. And, in truth, it's probably good to have me and my clumsy fingers out of the way during the main and hardest phase of work.

As Justine said yesterday, that work will take as long as is needed to complete. And when it's done, the piece is going to look amazing.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Embryotrophic Cavatina (Part 2) at the Roundhouse

So I guess if you're choreographing a dance to a piece of requiem music that introduces a saxophone in its second half, then that licenses you to shift the movement score pretty radically as well. Back in August I blogged about Kokoro Dance's free showing of the first part of Embryotrophic Cavatina, which was originally created in 1989 and 1990 and set to the opening half of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for My Friend. Last night at the Roundhouse the company unveiled the new second half to the piece, and it definitely wasn't what I was expecting--which is a good thing.

A shift in tone is first of all effected by the fact that following an exit of the performers (Kokoro co-founders Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, accompanied by regular dancers Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski) from the stage and a brief pause, they return wearing long and vibrantly hued shifts designed by Tsuneko Kokubo. The designer's large format paintings of edible and medicinal plants were also projected throughout this final section. While the program note indicates that Kokubo considers these images to be metaphors for "the migration of peoples," when combined with the impetus for the music (Preisner's mourning of the death of his friend, Krzysztof Kieslowski), we might also see them as gesturing toward the migration of souls, each of whose journeys in the afterlife is made singularly and alone.

This in turn perhaps explains the shift in movement. Whereas the first half of the piece was pretty tightly structured around a central quadrant of mostly unison sequences, in the second half the performers appear to be improvising their own individual scores. Eventually, however, we detect that a through-line of shared gestures and movement patterns (many of which I recognized from Barbara's recent morning dance classes at KW Studios) has been distributed throughout the bodies on stage, like an extended or staggered canon, each of the dancers completing the same combinations of spins and thrown arms and collapsed walks, just in radically different sequencings. Well, all of the dancers except Jay, who during this second half mostly stays upstage, repeating echoes of the movement from part one. Near the end, however, he joins the group as the apparent chaos of mass solo improvisation gels into a slow and simple cycling through of a gesture base associated with the senses, the sticking out of the tongue, the cupping of an ear, and the tracing of a hand up an arm continuing to attest to the vital materiality of the body even as the dancers slowly exit the stage.