Thursday, September 17, 2009

Martial Masculinities

Just a quick shout-out, in the midst of the Fringe, to Eye Heart Productions' offering of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Good Boys and True, now playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until this Saturday. Last night's house was pitifully empty, a shame for a play as insightful about the relationship between misogyny and homophobia as this one, and for a production, crisply directed by Jeff Hyslop, that features uniformly excellent performances.

The play, set at an elite private boys' school (St. Joseph's) on the east coast of America in the late 1980s, concerns a sex tape that has been making the rounds of the locker room, and that would seem to feature the god-like captain of St. Joe's football team, Brandon Hardy (a very affecting Alex Coulombe), filming himself having aggressive sex with a townie girl--one Cheryl Moodie (Claire Robertson) we later discover, who seems not to know she's being filmed. The tape finds its way into Coach Shea's (Greg Bishop) hands. Shea promptly calls Brandon's mother, Elizabeth (an excellent Teryl Rothery), who in her husband's absence must determine, with help from her public school teacher sister, Maddy (Tara Fynn), if it is indeed Brandon on the tape and, if so, why he committed such a heinous act.

The answer to the first question comes fairly quickly, and once Brandon has admitted that it is indeed him on the tape the weight of the play shifts to the particular culture of masculinity at St. Joe's (a mixture of class-based droit de seigneur and violent homosociality) that allows Brandon to not think twice about using and exploiting Cheryl in the way he does, as well as the personal circumstances in Brandon's own life that set in motion his actions in the first place. And it is here that we gradually learn the full scope of Brandon's relationship with his gay best friend, Justin (Taylor Bishop), a relationship that if not wholly reciprocal in a sexual sense, does betray where Brandon's real feelings lie and why, at least until he graduates from St. Joe's, he felt compelled to prove as unambiguously as possible his heterosexual credentials.

I actually saw an earlier production of this play performed by members of the legendary Steppenwolf Company in Chicago in 2007, with none other than Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey in the title role of Elizabeth Hardy. I much preferred Rothery's performance, if not this entire production, which felt less earnest, and yet didn't, in the process, lose any of its sense of moral outrage at the normative perpetuation of gender and class roles in our society.

I'm not sure if Aguirre-Sacasa has revised the play since that Steppenwolf production, or if Hyslop made some strategic cuts. But I seem to recall Brandon eventually coming out to his mother in the earlier version, whereas here he breaks irrevocably with Justin and retrenches even further into an internalized homophobia. I also remember a more explicit conversation between Elizabeth and Coach Shea about his own humiliation at the hands of her husband when they were both students at St. Joe's, a conversation that is left more oblique and open-ended here. I can live with the latter change, but I'm not sure how I feel about the former. It gives the play, despite its non-sequential ending (retained from the earlier version), a no-exit feel to this spectator, and one can't help but apply that to the larger culture of heteronormative masculinity.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fringe Review 3: Biographies of the Dead and Dying

Nothing like a belated notice of the addition of nudity to get the punters out to a show. I had already decided on Andrew Templeton's "psychological ghost story," Biographies of the Dead and Dying, as one of my Fringe picks when I noticed advisories about its revised content starting to appear on the Fringe website and at the main ticket outlet on Granville Island. Then I noticed the updates about the show's remaining performances approaching sell-out status.

Which brings me to a short digression about a peeve I have with the Frequent Fringer pass, and the Festival's policy about reselling unclaimed tickets. For those of us who've bought a pass, there's no guarantee we'll get into our desired show, depending on how many advanced tickets have been sold, and how early or late we arrive at the door to get our card hole-punched. Last night I admit to cutting it close in getting to the Havana (Joanna and I were having a lovely meal at Me and Julio at the other end of Commercial and lost track of time). Initially when I presented my pass to the ticket person, I was told that the show was sold out. I was also told that despite the fact there were six unclaimed pre-sold tickets in front of this person, I could not use my pass to appropriate one (Festival policy, I was told). With the House Manager saying he had to close the theatre door and start the show, I told Joanna (who had bought a single ticket in advance) to go on without me. Then the House Manager came back and said he had counted 8 empty seats, and that I (and the one remaining customer behind me) could have one.

Now, logically speaking, in a Festival where all box office receipts go directly to the artists, why wouldn't you try to sell--or even re-sell--as many tickets as possible? Why ever in the theatre would you leave seats empty if people wanted to claim them, and pay good money to do so? I'll stop my rant now, but I do suggest Festival organizers rethink this policy for the coming years, especially in the wake of the collapse of other sources of funding. In these cutthroat times, one must be as mercenary as possible.

As for the show itself, I'm somewhat at a loss as to how to describe it. Part Henry James' The Turn of The Screw and Stephen King's The Shining, with a Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes writerly rivalry thrown in for good measure, the play focuses on blocked and alcoholic writer Alice (Heather Lindsay), who has written a successful chick-lit novel she now despises and is seeking material for a new book by renting a cabin on Vancouver Island said to be haunted by the ghost of its previous owner, Thomas, who committed suicide by blowing his brains out. This is related to Alice by the cabin's caretaker, Jack (Simon Driver), with whom Alice begins a torrid (and quasi-S/M) affair. The scenes between Jack and Alice (which involve myriad uses of an old washtub that serves as a key prop throughout the play) alternate with those between Alice and her husband, Jonathon (also played by Driver), a pretentious poet who belittles Alice's own writing, and her ghost project in particular. Alice also regularly speaks into a tape recorder to her unseen daughter, who may or may not be a figment of her imagination.

Needless to say, there's a lot going on here. But I'm still not quite sure what it all means. I think a connection is being made between ectoplasmic ghosts and ghost-writing (at one point when Alice is seeking to conjure a vision of Thomas, Jack suggests she try Yeatsian automatic writing). But as this gets mapped onto further explorations of the gendered division of creative labour and female "hysteria" (the stillborn child/novel), things get a little muddy and confusing. We're not helped by the fact that the play's largely horizontal plane of action is ill served by the Havana's awkward spatial layout. The combination of straining to see what's going on physically, and to understand how this relates to Alice's story mentally, proved very taxing indeed.

Still, the performances by Lindsay and Driver were fearless, and the relentless emotional intensity of the staging is more than enough to merit the sell-out crowds this show is deservedly attracting.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Fringe Reviews 2: The Accident and Caberlesque!

Jonno Katz, from Melbourne, is a Fringe veteran and clearly a crowd favourite to judge by the sold-out and highly appreciative crowd that turned out for his latest solo turn, The Accident, at the Waterfront Theatre last night. It's a physical theatre piece about the relationship between two "orphaned" brothers--the younger, and more sensitive Sebastian, and the older, brutish Ray (whom Sebastian nevertheless adores)--and the woman, Emily, who quite literally comes between them. There's also a sub-plot about a conceptual art project, The Crapper, that goes horribly wrong.

Katz is a wonderfully engaging performer, and especially talented at physical and vocal mimicry. And he has heaps of energy as he bounds and slides and cartwheels and semi-breaks across the stage in his unique interpretive dance routines, which punctuate the monologues of his main characters. However, the story he tells in The Accident was not terribly compelling to me, in part because I found his characters to be such caricatures. Ray is too abusive, Sebastian too milquetoastish, and Emily too stereotypically girlish to be altogether believable, or to engage our sympathies in any meaningful way. Ray's breakdown and consequent display of vulnerability following the climactic accident of the title at Sebastian's gallery opening comes too little, too late for this particular viewer.

After The Accident I sprinted over to Performance Works to see B-Side Productions' Caberlesque! with my friend Joanna. The show, as its neologistic title hints, is a historical tour of the cabaret songs of 1930s Berlin, 1960s Amsterdam, and contemporary New York, punctuated by stunning burlesque performances by one Prairie Fire (we're given a chance to guess the number of jelly-beans on her dress before the start of the show), and held together by a suitably blue narrative, as told by fellow performers and torch singers Sugarpuss, Marina, and Max.

Earlier reviews of the show that I read suggested the two genres--cabaret and burlesque--didn't quite work together, and that the story arc that's supposed to hold them together is too disjointed. But Joanna and I felt that the show hung together wonderfully, not pretending to be anything more than a felt homage to its component forms. To this end, the performers (I wish I could mention them by other than their stage names, but there was no program) were uniformly excellent, with Sugarpuss, Marina, and Max all in exemplary voice as they belted out world-weary numbers by Weil and Brel, and with Prairie Fire putting on a technically accomplished and visually stunning display of her mastery of historical burlesque routines (a fan dance, various screen dances, a hilarious waltz with a randy puppet, and a mind-blowing dance with glowing whirly things on strings).

There are four shows of Caberlesque! remaining, all at tricky times (two in the very early evening today and Thursday, and too very late on Wednesday and Friday). If you can make it , you should definitely make a point of taking it in.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

First Fringe Reviews and Midsummer

So the 2009 Vancouver International Fringe Festival is well underway, and I saw my first shows yesterday. In the spirit of the Fringe's own economical ethos (short shows produced and staged quickly), I will try to post short Twitteresque thoughts on what I see.

murder, hope is a new solo work by Bellingham native Becky Poole that is ostensibly about brain disorders, with a particular focus on Landau-Kleffner syndrome, a rare form of aphasia that can cause afflicted children to suddenly lose the ability to express and understand language. I say ostensibly because the self-described "non-linear" piece also includes several Appalachian folk ballads about abused wives and avenging nurse-angels, as well as a disquisition on Batman's crime-fighting abilities and heroic status. Poole is an engaging and dynamic performer, and has an amazing singing voice (she's pretty talented on the musical saw as well), but her performance was stronger than the piece itself, with the various parts never quite adding up to a satisfying whole, and with what I found to be an over-use of an audio soundtrack focusing on one little boy, Devin, with the syndrome. Just as we get sucked acoustically into Devin's story, Poole pulls us visually in another direction via her own intense physical presence, or else the new use to which she puts one of her many props.

Matters Domestic is comprised of two new short two-handers by local playwright, author, and actor Barbara Ellison (full disclosure: Barbara is currently enrolled in a class of mine at SFU), and directed by local legend William B. Davis (best known as The Cigarette Man on The X-Files, but also a respected theatre actor, director and teacher in this city). Part of the delight of both pieces is slowly discovering the surprising twists in their plots and characters, so I don't want to reveal too much here. What I will say is that the first play, DNA, centres around high school senior Victoria's (Lesli Brownlee) revelation to her single mother, Amanda (Lisa Dahling), that she is pregnant. Amanda's reaction is far from what we might expect, and over the course of an intense but briskly paced 10 minutes, Ellison has fun reversing ageist stereotypes and overturning various maternal conventions. The second play, Download, is even harder to talk about without giving away the central surprising conceit of its plot. Suffice to say, the piece concerns a busy career woman's contracting of a man to be a helpmate to her around the house and a surrogate father to her busy teenage children, and what happens when the terms of that contract run up against the material realities of day-to-day life, not to mention matters of the heart. Again Ellison is asking provocative questions about normative conventions of parenthood and kinship relations, but in a way that creates an imagined future (the play is set, cannily, a year from now) that's all too believable. The writing is sharp and instantly recognizable and veteran actors William MacDonald and Nancy Sivak deliver superb performances.

Yesterday evening I also made my way over to the east side to see the last performance of the Traverse Theatre production of David Greig's Midsummer, which opened the newly renovated Historic Theatre at the Cultch last week. Greig is Scotland's leading contemporary playwright, and his work tends to be quite topically political (United Players staged an excellent production of his American Pilot a season or two ago). However, Midsummer, "a play with songs," as it is subtitled, is a rollicking romp of a comedy about two thirtysomething Edinburghers, lawyer Helena (Cora Bissett) and petty criminal Bob (Gordon McIntyre), whose drunken one-night stand turns--surprisingly for both of them--into something more meaningful. Briskly paced, the play is told largely in the third person, with the actors recounting Bob and Helena's story directly to the audience, pausing every so often to reenact a crucial scene, or to grab dual guitars and express themselves more meaningfully in song. The play doesn't pretend to be any deeper than its lonely-hearted main characters, but neither does it condescend to them or hold them up for ridicule, taking their loneliness to be real and heartfelt. It's therefore hard to resist the play's many charms, starting with Greig's deft writing and direction, and finishing with Bissett and McIntyre's completely complementary, wildly energetic, and near flawless performances. They are both so comfortable in their roles, and with each other on stage, that their relaxed banter, physicality, and occasional improvisations are infectious (one unscripted bit of hilarity that had actors and audience members alike in stitches last night occurred when one of the fake eyebrows that Helena had affixed to her forehead in her guise as a heavy after Bob--who has absconded with his boss's cash--kept falling off). The audience was roaring from the get-go, and when, later, various members are conscripted into becoming part of the action, all willingly played along.

Of course, another attraction of the evening was seeing the newly renovated theatre itself. It is, as all reports have so far conveyed, stunning. I got there late and so didn't have time to fully explore its amenities, as I had to rush to find a seat in the rapidly filling auditorium. I ended up in the balcony, which now has a main access hallway wrapping around it to afford better ease of access to the various sections. And while the sightlines up there are, overall, vastly improved, my one complaint is the height of the safety rail on each of the three rows, as it means for those of us not long of torso that we have to sit up incredibly straight (or else lean forward) in order to take in all of the action. Likely this has more to do with building codes than with aesthetics, and it's only a minor irritant, but I do long for theatre venues the world over to come up with a way to fix this irksome feature of most modern re-dos.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dancing the City

Rob Kitsos's Wake, which premiered last night at The Dance Centre, and which runs for two more performances today (at 2 and 8 pm), is exactly the kind of dance theatre I most enjoy. It is a large-scale work for eight dancers (including Kitsos in a dual embodied and virtual role as choreographer/planner and metteur-en-scène) that combines movement, text, video, and live electroacoustic music (by composer Martin Gotfrit) in a wholly integrated and complementary way. Equally appealing to me is that the piece achieves a similar reciprocity in the compositional and aesthetic relationship between individual sequences of choreography (often challengingly abstract, technically complex, and intensely physical) and an overall narrative structure that neither reveals its meaning too willingly nor remains deliberately obscurantist.

Kitsos takes as his point of departure French philosopher Michel de Certeau's essay "Walking the City," in The Practice of Everyday Life, using the "urban 'text'" we all collectively write in our flânerie to explore both the spaces of connection and the distances between various bodies as they inhabit and interact with the built environment. How do you capture and represent what de Certeau calls "the activity of passers-by," when by its very nature that activity is meant to be fleeting, to not linger (passing by), to leave a trace only in its forgetting? Sounds like a perfect metaphor for the documentation of dance itself, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Wake opens with Rob Groeneboer's video capturing Kitsos in the guise of some sort of city planner, atop a downtown building, with various plans and blueprints spread out around him. Coincident with Kitsos's structured improvisation of a movement sequence atop the building on the video, the seven young live dancers (Cort Gerlock, Jane Osborne, Roxoliana Prus, Justin Reist, Olivia Shaffer, Kim Stevenson, and Leigha Wald--all graduates of the BFA Program in Dance at SFU, where Kitsos teaches) get up from the chairs on which they have been sitting along either wing, and take up recumbent positions on the floor. Eventually the dancers "wake" to the city, and one of the delights of the first in-sync movement sequence featuring all seven performers is how the horizontality of their floor work contrasts with the verticality of the office and residential towers captured in the montage of images in Groeneboer's video.

Thereafter, the piece proceeds in terms of a succession of movements choreographed around the dancers' own embodied relationship with the city, with various colour sequences filmed in and around Gastown becoming the basis for a reconfiguration (sometimes willful, at other times willed) of those relationships in solos and duos and trios that are all about negotiating the space between self and other (even if, as de Certeau reminds us, that other is space itself). In this regard, I was especially struck by the complex arm work and hand clasps Kitsos came up with for three of the women in one memorable sequence, finding a way to mimic in bodily gesture the tangled psychic complexity and constantly shifting terrain of friendship itself. Similarly, in a humourous pas de deux for the two men, they argue abstractly in spoken word about the best route from point A to point B as they materially enact proximity and closeness in their mutual physical striving.

In his role as planner/choreographer, Kitsos interrupts these proceedings at various points throughout the piece: via black and white sequences on the video that feature him furrowing his brow, taking notes, and eventually meeting up with someone who may be a developer or a government bureaucrat (a perfectly cast Emily Molnar) in some corporate boardroom; and via various live walk-throughs, during which he surveys and takes more notes on the performance we are witnessing. In this, we see Kitsos trying to flush out patterns, to make sense of various fragments, to render legible both the city's various intersections and the dancers' bodily intertwinings. But the city and the dancers resist easy conscription. When, for example, Kitsos improvises his own solo late in the show (to wonderful accompaniment on electric guitar by Gotfrit), attempting, it seems, to reduce what we have hitherto seen of the other dancers' bodily trajectories to one or two core repeatable phrases, those other dancers studiously avoid him, either remaining planted against either wing wall, or else, in running to the other side, going out of their way to avoid contact with Kitsos and his notebook (a prop he carries with him throughout the piece, and which he dances around during his solo). And, later, when Kitsos attempts to join the other dancers and mimic their movements at the very end, he finds he is unable to fully take part, perhaps not having paid close enough attention after all.

The dancer, like the city walker, does not easily conform to a grid.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Two Benefit Shows

By now most in Vancouver's tightly knit theatre community know of the terrible tragedy that befell Azra Young, daughter of Electric Company founders Kim Collier and Jonathon Young, and her cousins Fergus and Phoebe Conway--all three killed in a freak fire that broke out while they were sleeping in a family cabin on Shuswap Lake earlier this summer. An educational trust fund, the Collier Young Conway in Trust Fund, has been established in memory of the children and two benefit performances are taking place in support of it next week.

Julia Mackey will perform her solo show Jake's Gift at the newly reopened Cultch next Monday, September 14th. And Bard on the Beach has designated its performance of The Comedy of Errors the following day, September 15th, as a special benefit in support of the fund.

For more details, see the following item in The Georgia Straight.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Arts Rally this Wednesday

Alas, I teach, but for those of you who can attend, please do so:

Media Release: Sept 8, 2009
From the Direct Action Committee of the Alliance for Arts and Culture

We call on all those who believe in the value of arts and culture in our communities to join a rally at noon on Wednesday, September 9th in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to bring public attention to the recently announced, brutal cuts to our sector by the BC government.

Funding to the arts and culture sector has NOT been restored; the provincial government is planning to cut over 80% of what has consisted of only 1/20th of 1% of the provincial budget. No other provinces in Canada have reduced support for a sector that, according to government statistics, produces significant returns on investment. This is a sector that creates both social and economic capital. ART WORKS!

We ask you to consider the ways that arts and culture touch your daily lives at home, in the streets, your children in schools, community centres, on TV, your music, on the internet, in videogames and in theatres, museums and galleries. We ask you to think about culture as part of our individual and community identities, a way to connect with our diverse origins…with who we are today and with what we care about. Arts and culture are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. The arts are NOT A FRILL!

Our symbol is a grey and empty rectangle, a metaphor for a world without art and culture.

Please join us.

Media Contacts:
Brenda Leadlay: or 778-990-2690
Judith Marcuse: or 604-319-8436

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More Flip Flops on the Arts

So it appears that, in the face of massive outrage from the BC arts community, Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman has had an eleventh-hour change of heart on the gaming revenues, restoring $40 million of previously promised money that was then subsequently--and summarily--cut (see the story in today's Vancouver Sun). All well and good, but in the same breath he also announced that the three-year funding model the government had previously adopted regarding the allocation of these revenues will be eliminated, and that they will revert to a year-by-year application process.

However, the even more alarming news is the further erosion of funding to the BC Arts Council, with the 40% rolling cuts announced in February's budget now escalating to more like 80-90% in Finance Minister Colin Hansen's revised budget this past Tuesday. In February it was announced the Council's funding would drop to $9.6 million in 2010-11, before increasing slightly to $9.8 million in 2011-12. Now we're told that those numbers will be $2.25 million in 2010-11 and $2.2 million in 2011-12 (see the article from yesterday's Globe). And this at the same time as $400 million is being set aside in the form of various "relief measures" to offset the phase-in of the controversial HST. Why not scrap the HST altogether, and move that $400 million over to arts? Clearly there seems a plan afoot to gut the BC Arts Council completely and absorb all arts funding decisions and administration within the Ministry, as was recently done with BC Tourism. Kevin Krueger's silence during the past few days is most telling in this regard.

I wasn't going to reply to the boilerplate email Krueger's office sent me in response to my August letter, but now I definitely will, asking for an explanation of these further cuts, and what they mean for the government's long-term funding priorities for the arts.

I know there is division in the community about using the Olympics as a platform to voice dissent about the Liberals' neglect of the arts. While a boycott of the entire Cultural Olympiad is perhaps extreme, I do think something needs to be made of the international spotlight in getting the word out to the rest of Canada and the world about what low esteem this government has for the arts. Pointing to Turin as a model we could have and should have followed re tying long term arts and culture commitments to an event like the Olympics might be a way to go here.

In the meantime, I repeat the exhortation that ended my last post: we all need to reach deeper into our own pockets to help support our favourite institutions. The Fringe opens next week, and is accepting grateful donations with tickets purchased on-line, and will also have donation buckets at all venues. And the main stage space of the Cultch reopens this long weekend with a special two-for-one ticket deal for
Midsummer, a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe. (As a side note, see the interview in The Georgia Straight with Cultch Executive Director Heather Redfern about the amazing changes to the venerable old venue on Venables.)


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Whither BC: The Sequel

As expected, most arts and culture organizations (along with several other social programs) in the province received letters last week advising them that previously promised revenues from BC gaming revenues were being withdrawn owing to the ballooning deficit and Finance Minister Colin Hansen's revised budget projections (read the Vancouver Sun story here). This despite the fact that most of these organizations had already gone ahead and programmed their seasons in anticipation of the funds they had been contractually guaranteed.

As Lorna Brown noted in a recent email sent to the community urging people to join a Facebook campaign protesting the cuts, combined with the cuts to the BC Arts Council announced in last February's budget, this amounts to a de facto 75% cut to arts and culture in the province. Where else in the world would this be allowed to happen?! We live in a largely information-based and creative economy: why aren't, therefore, the creative industries duly rewarded with stimulus spending the likes of which was lavished on so many other dead or dying industries? When will the people of this province wise up to the dirty tricks of this government? Everyone's in an uproar about the HST (as well they should be--another kick in the pants to arts and culture in the form of higher ticket prices); but this is an administration that has gleefully--and with impunity--lied to us before. And that continues to do so (BC Rail, anyone? Missing emails?).

Of course, the Liberals are hoping the outrage over all of this will blow over as a result of the massive party that will be the Olympics. But what kind of party will it be with no money for the artists and creative producers who are best positioned to showcase the city culturally? I vote for riding this wave of anger right on into the Olympics themselves, letting the world know in no uncertain terms just what price this government puts on the second pillar of the Olympic Movement.

In the meantime, the public must do all it can to support the organizations whose programs and livelihoods are now imperiled. The best way we can do that is by going to see their work. The Vancouver Fringe Festival starts next week--I've just bought my Frequent Fringer Pass. Soon after that it will be time for the Vancouver International Film Festival. Though there's the little matter of teaching to contend with (the sabbatical is officially over today-boo hoo!), I hope to attend as many films as possible. And The Dance Centre's 2009/10 program just came in the mail today. It's chock-a-block with exciting offerings, starting with my SFU colleague Rob Kitsos's new work, Wake, next Friday and Saturday (Sept. 11-12).

Dig deep into your pockets, people, and buy a ticket to these and other events. And, since we can't vote Campbell and the Liberals out of office for another four years, consider doing so to the federal Conservatives instead. I hear Michael Ignatieff has just withdrawn support from Harper's minority government, so I guess that means we're headed to the polls once again this fall.