Monday, January 31, 2011

PuSh Review #10: PodPlays-The Quartet

Yesterday the sky was cloudless, the air crisp, and my time mostly disposable. In other words, it was the perfect occasion for a brisk afternoon walk of the city--which is exactly what I did courtesy of the PuSh Festival's PodPlays, a quartet of outdoor audio dramas commissioned by Neworld Theatre and the Playwrights Theatre Centre that leads participants on a surprising and intimate guided tour of Vancouver's downtown core.

The tour begins in the Cordova Street atrium at SFU Woodward's, where efficient Neworld staff equip one with a portable media player, a set of headphones, and a map. Then all you do is hit the play button and await direction. A warm, pleasant female voice (that of Yumi Ogawa, our guide and host) instructs you to climb to the top of the spiral staircase adjacent the Nester's store (something I'd yet to do since the reopening of the Woodward's complex) and face the eastern brick wall. This is the departure point for the first play, Look Up, written by Neworld's Adrienne Wong, and performed by Wong and Todd Thomson. As you are guided through a pedestrian overpass, a carpark, and eventually east on Water and Alexander Streets, you learn of a couple's move to Vancouver and their evolving relationship with the city, and with each other.

At the old Alexander Street Pump Station you begin the second leg of your tour: Five Meditations on the Future City, written by Proximity Arts' Christine Stoddard and Tanya Marquart, and narrated by Karin Konoval, leads you to Main Street, over the bridge at the north end of it, and through CRAB Park. Looking at the train tracks below the bridge, or across Burrard Inlet to the North Shore mountains, or at the memorial marker in the park to the murdered and missing women of the Downtown Eastside, you are invited to contemplate all that a future-oriented urban temporality necessarily overwrites.

Through a parking lot for cruise ship passengers you arrive at Waterfront Road, and the start of the third play. Portside Walk is written and performed by battery opera's David McIntosh, and it takes you west, towards Canada Place and the new Vancouver Convention Centre. But at the same time as the text directs you to look at the flying buttresses of these monuments to the city's global cosmopolitan progress it also insistently digs deeper, to the buried roots and the much-trafficked routes of that progress, a scenario of transnational contact, conquest, and migration that we continue to replay to this day--not least in terms of those unseen underclasses who service our taken-for-granted urban mega-projects and amenities. To this end, it's a singular achievement of this third--and, I think, strongest--link in the quartet that we actually traverse the service road underneath the new convention centre. A carpark elevator eventually takes you to the more salubrious outdoor plaza of the centre, complete with the cauldron from the recent Olympic Winter Games.

Cross Cordova and Hastings, and then up Burrard: you're off on the final leg of the tour. G...Cordova, written by Martin Kinch, and performed by Patrick Keating and the wonderful Gina Stockdale (whose dulcet tones I absolutely loved having in my ear) concerns a son and his aging, Alzheimerish mother. In this piece, which eventually deposits you at the Vancouver Art Gallery, lapses in individual memory get inscribed onto the built environment, becoming a metaphor for a collective urban amnesia that of course haunts all four plays.

Cities are built spaces, to be sure, but they are first and foremost embodied spaces. As Michel de Certeau has famously argued, walking is "an elementary form" of experiencing the city, a tactical procedure which produces new maps that don't always correspond with the official criss-crossings of streets you find in guidebooks or A-Zs, maps which are anyway out of proportion in terms of scale, and which (as per the very alphabetical designation of A-Z) are all about shepherding folks (usually tourists) to a destination rather than exploring a location. De Certeau notes that we are not always able to read the maps we write with our bodies, but in the very fleeting moments of passing and being passed by we nevertheless open up cracks in the pavement, steal time, and breathe life into possible new intersections.

PodPlays will remind you of this, and so much more. It continues next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with departures leaving every 5 minutes between 12 and 4 pm.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

PuSh Review #9: Hard Core Logo LIVE at the Rickshaw

Hard Core Logo is the punk performance piece that keeps on giving. First there was Michael Turner’s 1993 “novel-in-verse,” at once a fictionalized account of his own time in the Hard Rock Miners and a quasi-documentary archive of Vancouver’s not-so-secret punk history. Generically, the book was as effective a détournement of artistic forms (including Situationist-inspired collage) as frontman Joe Dick’s convincing of his bandmates to go acoustic for their reunion tour was colossally misguided. Then came Bruce McDonald’s 1996 film treatment, itself an inspired mash-up of styles, including the mockumentary, the road movie, and the buddy flick. A year later, Nick Craine’s graphic novel, Hard Core Logo: Portrait of a Thousand Punks, mixed elements from Turner’s novel and McDonald’s film to create a new, hybrid verbal-visual version of the story. And now, hot on the heels of McDonald’s movie sequel (which apparently focuses on a female punk rocker haunted by Joe’s ghost and visited in the flesh by Bucky Haight), we have Hard Core Logo: LIVE. This theatrical adaptation is currently playing at the Rickshaw Theatre on East Hastings as part of the PuSh Festival, in a co-production with local companies November Theatre (of Black Rider fame) and Touchstone Theatre, and the Edmonton-based Theatre Network.

The concert scenes were the best part of McDonald’s film, complete with body slamming, copious on-stage drinking and exchanges of body fluids and, in the case of the band’s climactic meltdown in Edmonton, a full-on slap down between Joe and lead guitarist Billy Tallent to off-his-meds John Oxenberger’s spoken word refrain of “In the end there’s love.” So it makes sense, in a live stage version, to focus on the band’s gigs, and to incorporate the venue and the audience into the action as much as possible. To this end, the Rickshaw’s grungy, past-its-prime look feels wholly appropriate, and while I shivered the whole way through the performance, even the lack of heat seemed authentic. Additionally, creator Michael Scholar, Jr., who plays Joe, commissioned original music from DOA’s Joe “Shithead” Keithley to accompany Turner’s lyrics. I understand that much of that music was prerecorded; however, it is loud, Toby Berner’s Pipefitter is certainly playing the drums, everyone in the band is in fine vocal form, and if most in the audience tended to respect the fourth wall of theatre instead of the open window of the punk concert hall, they nevertheless showed their enthusiastic appreciation after each song.

What was surprising to me was just how many of the non-musical vignettes from the book and the film the creators of this stage version retained. Long, expository scenes link the musical numbers, in which the bandmates talk directly to the audience (as they do to McDonald’s camera in the film) and John (a wonderful Clinton Carew) reads, as per Turner’s book, from his journal. Indeed, I would go so far to say that Hard Core Logo: LIVE is perhaps too faithful to its source texts. It’s almost as if Scholar did not want to have to take sides, incorporating the set pieces from McDonald’s film (including not just all of the van scenes, but the toy claymation truck and rolling blacktop pavement as well) alongside stuff from the book that the film left out (Act 2 even opens with an acoustic version of “Big Bush Party after School”). It makes for a very long evening, and while the piece certainly works as an homage, I’m not sure it yet stands on its own as something new—and newly responsive to its theatrical context. While Rachael Johnston (fantastic in a number of roles) nails Bucky Haight’s accent and faded Brit-punk ennui, the acid trip scene inevitably ends up looking like a cheap imitation of the one in the film, and precisely because it attempts to mirror the celluloid version too closely. And I don’t think the film’s ending works for the stage, especially if Joe then rises from the dead—or to heaven, depending on how you read the scene—for one more number, in this case a spirited version of “That’s Life” arranged by Keithley. That said, one of the major coups of this piece is Jamie Nesbitt’s superb projection design. And the opening anthropological film by Jason Margolis, “A Punkerland Who’s Who,” is hilarious, and a nice nod to Turner’s own academic training in ethnography.

One final thing that could have been foregrounded a little better, I thought, was the performance of punk masculinity that is such a big part of this work. The film, famously, pivots on a hoax that Joe—to his, and the band’s, eventual destruction—insists on perpetuating. It concerns the ostensible reason for the band’s reunion, i.e., that Bucky has supposedly been shot. However, I have argued elsewhere that another hoax at play in the book and film is that of the “non-performative performance” of heteronormative masculinity, which insists that real feeling between men must be hidden under layers of bluff swagger and sublimated within a theatrical masquerade of (in this case) subcultural identity. In other words, one of punk’s many performative operations (in addition to anti-establishment and class dis-affiliations) is that it continues to let boys be boys, retaining and expressing, for example, a polymorphous affection for one another in ways that the “real world” of grown-up men (where any kind of emotion and labour must be channeled in more productive directions) simply will not allow. Hard Core Logo, the film, makes it abundantly clear that for Joe the band is his way of holding on not just to Billy, but to a masculine persona that he simply cannot bring himself to retire. Maybe it was because I didn’t feel the right sparks between Scholar’s Joe and Telly James’s somewhat passive Billy, but last night—in a setting where the theatricality of gender should be front and centre (as in, for example, Johnston’s cross-dressing)—it seemed to me that dominant masculinity remained a fairly stable default referent.

Hard Core Logo: LIVE continues at the Rickshaw to February 6th.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

PuSh Review #8: Sound Machine at The Dance Centre

Massimo Bertinelli (left) and Béatrice Jaccard in sound machine

Ever wonder what a mushroom sounds like? How about a tomato? What song would a fish sing if it could? These and other questions form the surreal, off-beat core of Zurich-based compagnie drift's sound machine, on at The Dance Centre through this evening in a co-production between PuSh and the Centre's Global Dance Connections series.

Beginning with the premise that the inaudible can somehow be made audible, performers/lab technicians Béatrice Jaccard, Massimo Bertinelli, and François Gendre use laptop computers, live and recorded video feeds, digitally wired gloves, and all manner of additional technology to first translate the sounds of silence into musical algorithms, and then to compose songs and movement sequences around them. The result is what they call a "musical concert in dance." And, indeed, the trio put me in mind of a Dadaist version of Jacques Brel, complete with Jaccard's body at one point doing a kinesthetic version of "La Valse à mille fois."

Absurd. Unexpected. Deeply satisfying. In other words, everything we've come to expect from a PuSh show.


Friday, January 28, 2011

PuSh Review #7: Bonanza at SFU Woodward's

"Love thy neighbour as thyself." So, famously, reads the Biblical imperative in Leviticus 19:18. To this Sigmund Freud responded in Civilization and Its Discontents: Why? And why as myself? Since then countless political philosophers and theorists have taken the neighbour as both the ideal and the limit of social and political relations, that which figures the bare minimum of non-familial association and the impossibility of such an association ever being fully realized.

For most of us living in major urban centres like Vancouver such abstract questions can remain just that--abstract. Not so for the people living in Bonanza, Colorado, a once-thriving mining town now facing possible dis-incorporation because of ongoing feuding between its seven permanent residents. The bizarre permutations and obscure origins of these feuds are captured by the Antwerp-based collective Berlin (confusing, that), who in a series of works known as Holocene (the name of our current geological period) have, since 2003, been assembling through film, sculpture, photography, and live performance various immersive and rigorously researched "city portraits." These portraits include major metropolises like Moscow and Jerusalem, but also more remote regions like Bonanza and Iqaluit (which is also showing, in the Cordova Street atrium of SFU Woodward's, as part of the PuSh Festival).

Bonanza is an installation comprised of five film screens and a scale model of the town, complete with working street lamps and an automatic garage door on the town fire station, which also doubles as council meeting hall (or star chamber, as Mark refers to it at one point). As we are introduced to each of the residents, we discover the paradox at the heart of their respective attachments to this place, and to each other: they crave the isolation Bonanza offers and yet this isolation also binds them in a destructive form of co-dependence that has now descended into factionalism, gossip and intimidation. In a town so small, that basically means everyone is fighting.

Part of the fascination of Bonanza is its quasi-anthropological depiction of the competing spiritualities at play amongst the residents. Mark is deeply Christian and believes God means for him to stay in the town, no matter how bad things get. Richard is likewise a priest, although ministers to a congregation outside Bonanza, and so when at home appears to turn off that part of himself, perhaps explaining his predilection for sci-fi novels and generally staying apart from the skirmishes amongst his neighbours. Darva and Shikiah are new-age types who seek to channel the positive energy of the town and literally (according to them) see their surroundings in different shades than everyone else. Certainly they operate on a separate plane from Mary, who is apparently a witch, though she never identifies herself as such (she does have black teeth, though). And then there are Ed and Gail, who are just plain crackers, and whose lawsuit against the town council and its non-resident mayor, Joan, have brought the long-simmering tensions in the area to a head.

However, this piece refuses to let its audience remain at a safe observational distance. At the same time as they show how the world insistently intrudes upon Bonanza (not least in the form of the hundreds of part-time summer residents), Berlin also suggests what this microcosm of "un-neighbourliness" has to teach the world about the ethics of pluralism and cosmopolitanism and stranger-relations.

Bonanza continues at SFU Woodward's Studio T through this Saturday.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

PuSh Review #6: Gloria's Cause at Club PuSh

In New York this past fall all the talk was of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, the emo-rock musical based on the outsized life of the seventh President of the United States that began at the Public before transferring to Broadway for a brief run. But here on the west coast, Seattle-based Dayna Hanson was quietly putting together an even more subversive dance-pop deconstruction of the American Revolution. Gloria's Cause premiered at On the Boards in early December 2010, and now arrives in Vancouver as the lead-off production at Club PuSh, the PuSh Festival's sidebar program at Peformance Works, which presents experimental, highly theatrical, multi-disciplinary work in a more intimate, cabaret-style setting--complete with licensed bar and live music after most evenings' marquee events.

I can't begin to do justice to the complexity of this piece. Combining theatre, dance, music, and multi-media projections, Hanson and her company of incredibly talented performers (everyone plays a musical instrument, many more than one) take the rhetoric and iconography inherited from 1776 (a bald eagle mask is put to hilarious use) and subject it to contemporary interrogation. What does it mean to be free? What is the price of that freedom? And what is the difference between freedom to and freedom from? These and other questions form the core of a series of disconnected scenes and tableaux from the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period (some instantly recognizable, others more obscure) that are deliberately anachronistic in their temporal and narrative juxtapositions, as well as their scenography: Mohawk alliances being negotiated with the French and English in a contemporary board room setting; a drunken George Washington defending himself on a Jerry Springer-style talk show; and so on. In this way, Hanson's creative method is very Benjaminian in its approach to history, constellating moments from the past as part of the present precisely in order to shock viewers out of a passive acceptance of the status quo and to arm them with the tools to take political action in the "hear-and-now."

To this end, the timeliness of this show is one of its most insistent messages. From the Tea Party to Iraq, and from Tucson to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night: watching Gloria's Cause in light of recent events in the United States is to understand what a long and unresolved shadow the thirteen colonies' difficult transformation into a nation still casts over American politics. As well as, to quote Benjamin, what it "means to take control of a memory [whether true or false], as it flashes in a moment of danger" ("On the Concept of History" VI).

Gloria's Cause runs for only one more performance, tonight at 8 pm. Afterwards, Hanson and friends will rock the house with a live musical set starting at 10 pm. I urge everyone who might read this blog in the next few hours to head on down to Performance Works to catch both acts. You will not be disappointed.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

PuSh Review #5: City of Dreams at the Roundhouse

City of Dreams opened last night at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre. It's a collaboration between Londoners Peter Reder (a theatre artist) and Tom Wallace (a sound designer) and several local artists brought together by Urban Crawl, a local company led by urban geographer and artistic director Caleb Johnston that works across disciplines to produce art that prompts "physical and social dialogue."

The piece is a performative installation that the audience watches being built from the ground up. Six performers draw a map of the city of Vancouver on the stage floor using hundreds of found objects (twigs, bricks, sand, shells, etc.). This is accompanied by a soundscape made up of various sounds (wind, rain, First Nations drumming and song, construction, steam engines, car horns, etc) and excerpts of oral testimony from different periods of the region's history (referencing, among other events, the fire at Hastings Mill in 1886, the riots in Chinatown in 1907, and the interurban railway that used to run from downtown all the way to Steveston). The work progresses slowly and at first the piece can seem quite static, but once you realize what's happening (Oh, that's False Creek! Hey, there's Stanley Park!), and you start to recognize various landmarks and locate yourself in relation to the map, there is a steady accretion of meaning, and the installation becomes incredibly compelling.

As we move forward in time, objects get added or removed, boundaries shift, and the map starts to change: a colonial settlement rises on a First Nations burial ground, two fingers traced through sand signify the building of the CPR, a dotted line to the east signifies the Trans-Canada highway, False Creek gets filled in, and so on. Most evocatively for me, the transformation of downtown is signified by first flipping horizontally-placed bricks to a vertical position, and then by replacing many of these with square glass vases. With each significant addition and transformation to the map, a small tea light candle is lit to mark the site, if only as trace or outline or memory. And, in this regard, an equally riveting aspect of the show is the delicacy and solemnity and grace with which the six performers silently go about their work building the map.

As with 100% Vancouver, the result is a stunning new way of looking at Vancouver, and, fittingly, the audience is invited to tour the stage at the conclusion of the piece.

City of Dreams continues through this Saturday, and is accompanied by a free exhibition called "Counter Mapping" curated by Johnston, in which several local artists rewrite, disrupt, and experiment with new ways of being in and moving through our local urban landscape.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

PuSh Review #4: In the Solitude of Cotton Fields at Performance Works

PuSh Acting Managing Director Kent Gallie said to me just before the Festival that he thought In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, which ended its run at Performance Works last night, might be this year's White Cabin. In other words, edgy, surreal, sensorially and emotionally extreme in a suitably Eastern European way. He was right.

In the Solitude is rising young Polish director Radoslaw Rychcik's bold new staging of a 1986 play by the late French writer Bernard-Marie Koltès. His generation's answer to Genet before his AIDS-related death in 1989, Koltès's work is known for the brutality of its themes and the lyrical poetry of its language. And, indeed, one of the extraordinary things about this production is how that poetry translates simultaneously via the actors' spoken Polish and via the projected English subtitles. Those subtitles were sometimes obscured by the puffs of white smoke billowing across the stage--including, unfortunately, during the final exchange of dialogue--but one is easily able to discern the broad parameters of the relationship unfolding before us.

Two men meet for some sort of illicit exchange. One, The Dealer (Wojciech Niemczk), has something to sell; the other, The Client (Tomasz Nosinski), wishes to buy. However, the object of this exchange remains unnamed. Is it drugs, sex, something else? It doesn't really matter, as the text informs us that the real subject of the play, and what both men are themselves subject to, is desire itself. Or, to put things in the proper psychoanalytical context, the desire to desire. The two men are bound together in terms of what each can give the other, but paradoxically their relationship is sustained only to the extent that their desire remains unfulfilled. It is this space of lonely, needful encounter--the cotton fields of the title, presumably--that this play explores, where the boundaries between men and beasts dissolve and where the requisite poses of humility (on the part of The Dealer) and hauteur (on the part of The Client) need to be adopted in order to maintain the fiction of reciprocity and an equal exchange of power.

All of this might appear tediously pretentious were it staged in a conventionally naturalistic way, and a production of this sort in 2002 in New York was savaged by the Times. However, Rychcik adapts the posturing and swagger implicit in the characters' competing monologues to the punk concert setting (a mini-theme at this year's Festival, what with Hard Core Logo: Live opening next week at the Rickshaw), complete with live musical accompaniment by the band Natural Born Chillers and dual downstage floor mikes into which the performers bark, scream, and hiss their lines, and in front of which they strut, dance, and pose. Dressed in matching mod suits, and with kohl-rimmed eyes (Nosinski) and eventually ruby-red lips (Niemczyk), the two performers were riveting from the moment they stepped on the stage and started to shimmy, groove, and bust to the music. The energy was electric, the atmosphere was loud, and the tension in the room did not let up until the performers' climactic embrace.

This is precisely the sort of performance that would not come through Vancouver without the PuSh Festival and, in this specific case, our wonderful co-producers, Pi Theatre. The enthusiastic reception by last night's audience is in part a recognition of this. That In the Solitude's concert/cabaret-style setting also inaugurated, to a certain extent, Performance Works as the venue for Club PuSh before its official opening next Wednesday was an added bonus. To that end, the Natural Born Chillers came back on stage after the performance for a late-night set to celebrate the end not just of this show's run, but an extraordinarily successful first week of the Festival.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

PuSh Review #3: 100% Vancouver at SFU Woodward's

Last night was the premiere of 100% Vancouver at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's. Developed by the Berlin-based Rimini Protokoll, who brought PuSh audiences last year's Best Before, the show is a locally produced (in this case by Theatre Replacement, in conjunction with PuSh and SFU Woodward's Cultural Programming Office) version of similar performances previously staged in Berlin and Vienna. Using Rimini's trademark theatrical protocol of having "everyday experts" (i.e. non-professional actors) reflect back to audiences a version of the communities from which they come, 100% Vancouver gathers on stage 100 Vancouverites who each represent 1% of the city's total population, and who have been selected according to the following demographic criteria, as gleaned from most recent (2006) census data: gender, age, marital status, ethnicity/mother tongue, and neighbourhood. As Tim Carlson, dramaturge for the piece, notes in an essay included in the publication booklet accompanying the production (wonderfully produced by local arts press Fillip, together with a boxed set of cards of each of the performers), whereas in Best Before's video-game format audience members were invited to create--via their on-screen avatars--virtual versions of themselves, in 100% Vancouver "flesh-and-bone citizens" literally stand in for the abstract virtuality of numerical statistics.

Theoretically this process of statistical embodiment is supposed to unfold as a daisy chain of once-removed relationships, as each individual selected is in turn responsible for finding someone whom they know who matches the requisite demographic profile of the next link in the chain, and so on. However, as expert number 1 of 100, statistics librarian Patti Wotherspoon, tells us at the top of the show, in the case of 100% Vancouver, the producers had to step in on several occasions to shore up gaps in the chain by calling on their own acquaintances and by putting out an open call for participants matching the statistical data they hadn't yet humanized in a participating expert. And even with these measures, Wotherspoon also let us know that three neighbourhoods--including, most interestingly, Shaughnessy--failed to be represented on stage.

Given her own professional expertise, Wotherspoon also had something to say about the creative use and interpretation of statistics, as well as the politics of the Canadian long-form census, the last iteration of which (in 2006) was the starting point for this show, and whose 2011 application will be its last thanks to the Conservative Party's own misuse and misinterpretation of public opinion. One of the questions asked of the participants in 100% Vancouver is in fact how many of them support the long form census; the overwhelming majority respond in the affirmative. And expert number 69, Patricia Morris, offers a compelling account at one point in the show of administering the 2006 census door-to-door in her neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside, visiting SROs and asking the occupants--often while parties were in full swing--whether they had every used farm machinery.

One would think that all of this would make for some pretty lifeless theatre, but from the opening roll-call of names and special objects as each expert/participant paraded out onto the circular stage and paused before one of two microphones to identify themselves and something that defines them, I was hooked. Based on video interviews with each participant, Carlson and director Amiel Gladstone have put together a portrait of the city that at once spotlights individual stories through oral testimony (number 86, Joan Symons, who moved to Vancouver to escape memories of her first husband, who died in WW II, only to lose her eight-year old daughter a few years later, and who subsequently became a real estate agent and now has 22 grandchildren; or number 70, Minh Thai Nguyen, who came to Vancouver from Vietnam only five months ago to provide better educational opportunities for his children, and who was hilarious on the social similarities between Vietnamese and Canadians) and creates striking visual tableaux. Indeed, the massings of bodies into ME and NOT ME categories in response to a series of questions ("Were you born in Canada?" "Do you recycle?" "Do you smoke pot?" "Have you been in prison?" "Do you know someone First Nations?" "Are you happy?," etc) offers a revealing profile of Vancouver, as George Pendle suggests in his essay in the accompanying publication, "not just demographichally, but temperamentally and morally as well."

I have lived in Vancouver 20 years now, just under half of my life, and way longer than anywhere else. I like to think I know something of the city, its neighbourhoods, and the residents of those neighbourhoods; this show confirms that I do at the same time that it points to how much more there is for me to discover.

100% Vancouver is a major gift to our city, and you have just two more opportunities to catch it. Today's 4 pm matinee is technically sold out, although there may be rush tickets at the door. And there are still tickets to this evening's performance at 7 pm. I urge you to attend if you can.


Friday, January 21, 2011

PuSh Review #2: Floating at Arts Club Revue Stage

Last night it was the premiere of Floating, which runs at the Arts Club Revue Stage on Granville Island until February 5th in a co-production between the PuSh Festival and Arts Club Theatre Company.

Floating comes from the weird and wonderful mind of Hugh Hughes, a Welshman who has created three highly successful, award-winning shows for the Cambridge-based Hoipolloi Theatre that have gone on to make a big splash at the Edinburgh Fringe. Floating is the first of these--and, indeed, the first ever work Hughes created for the theatre--and on one level it concerns the metaphysics of geology. Specifically, the tale Hughes recounts--ably assisted by Sioned Rowlands, who plays a number of roles, including Hughes' grandmother, his old schoolmaster, and his best friend Gareth--is about the bizarre events in 1982, when Hughes' birthplace, the North Wales island of Anglesey, started floating away from the mainland, and the accompanying crisis of connection this prompted in Hughes himself.

A projected quotation from Luis Buñuel at the top of the show about dreams invading our memories and our ability to transform lies into truth suggests we should approach Hughes' particular brand of mimesis more as poeisis, a faking that becomes a making (in Victor Turner's conception of performance), in this case not just of Hughes' relationship with his homeland and culture, but of the bond he nightly (re)makes with his audience. However, this latter connection (an important word for Hughes, one he keeps on a cue-card in his pants pocket and routinely removes to show to spectators) first requires a dis-connection (on the flip side of that same cue-card). To this end, house lights remain up for much of the performance, and there is a very immediate and obvious breaking of the fourth wall of traditional theatre to speak directly to the audience, and to invite them into not just the story but Hughes' creative process as well.

All of this poses risks, of course, both for the performers and the audience, and last night there were some awkward, and even slightly uncomfortable, moments, when the responses Hughes seemed to be soliciting from the audience turned out not to be the ones he apparently wanted to hear, and then when he could not coax any response at all. But Hughes is such a charismatic performer, Rowlands has so much to do physically on stage, and the production as a whole is filled with such low-tech charm, that by the end of the show the connection Hughes is seeking to build/bridge both with the island of Anglesey and between the traditionally separate islands of stage and audience is reestablished.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

PuSh Review #1: Circa at Freddy Wood

Herewith the first in what I hope will be a regular series of promptly posted capsule reviews of the PuSh shows I'm seeing this year.

Last night it was Circa at the Freddy Wood, brought to us by the eponymous troupe from Brisbane, Australia that wowed PuSh audiences two years ago at Performance Works. In his remarks during the curtain speech, the Australian Consul referenced the devastating floods that have ravaged Queensland and directed us to the State's official website ( should we wish to donate to the reconstruction fund.

However, it was anything but a sombre evening. Circa specializes in what is known as the "new circus," and while this means, among other things, dispensing not just with animals, but also the more vaudevillian and side-show aspects of the traditional circus, they are certainly still out to entertain. They do this primarily through amazing feats of physical daring, combining incredible displays of strength, balance, contortion, and dexterity with acrobatics, tumbling, and choreographed dance. To say that some of their moves defy the laws of gravity (and those of physics, more generally) does not nearly go far enough in describing how the three men and two women that are part of this show fling their bodies through space, or balance on each other's shoulders and heads (and just about every other limb imaginable), or dangle from ropes and stand on a trapeze--suffice to say that in the latter case the performer is using neither his hands nor his feet.

This is the sort of show where spontaneous gasps and bursts of applause erupt from the audience throughout the evening, and on their own the various routines might have started to become indistinguishable in their virtuosity were they not also leavened by a playful sense of humour that lets the audience know the performers are not taking themselves too seriously. Much of this humour is gendered in interesting ways, and a mocking of strong-man masculinity earlier in the show that occurs through an interesting contrast of two of the male performers' bodies comes full circle at the end when one of the women emerges from the wings in stilettos and proceeds to walk all over one of these men (to the strains of Leonard Cohen's "Came So Far for Beauty," no less).

Equally compelling is the intimacy and stripped-down quality of Circa's performance aesthetic. This is not Cirque du Soleil, with its own big-top tent, countless performers, over-the-top costumes and make-up, and elaborate narrative conceits. Here we have five performers on a bare stage, with just a few props and compelling sound and lighting design. This allows us to concentrate, in ways that Cirque's theatrical sleights of hand seek to elide, on the extraordinary bodily effort that goes into every aspect of this show. Muscles are rippling before us, steadying steps need to be taken for balance, and sometimes moves aren't always executed according to plan or have to begin again. This doesn't lessen our pleasure in the performance any; indeed, I would say that it heightens it. While the thrill of a show like this is largely vicarious (how do they do that? how can I possibly watch them do that?), it also invites a degree of corporeal identification, at once through a recognition on the part of spectators of what our bodies can't do, and what, in different contexts but arguably with equal amounts of effort and grace, they can.

Circa continues at the Freddy Wood through this Saturday. The troupe will also be performing a family-oriented show, 46 Circus Acts in 45 Minutes, at the same venue this Sunday at 2 pm. As always, purchase your tickets at the PuSh Festival website.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

PuSh's Tidal Launch

It sure was a swell party last night at Club 560, where the 7th annual PuSh International Performing Arts Festival was launched at a Gala event also inaugurating the official celebrations of the 125th anniversary of Vancouver's incorporation as a city. Lots of people, great buzz, loads of media coverage (courtesy of CTV and others), and of course our distinguished (and so, so pretty) Mayor, who among other things, declared Chinatown the newest hip neighbourhood.

PuSh got lots of plugging from Board President Max Wyman, looking as distinguished as ever, and of course from Executive Director Norman Armour, whose inspired remarks about this year's PuSh theme of "cityness" let everyone know whose idea this dual launch really was.

I could only stay for the first part of the ceremonies, but that was long enough to catch Veda Hille leading her Vancouver Complaints Choir in a rousing and hilarious paean to all that could be better about our city--as well as all that is good, but about which we still like to kvetch. Catch Veda and gang at Club PuSh at Performance Works on Granville Island on January 29th at 8 pm, where full-length show Happy Birthday Teenage City will be unveiled.

After the speeches and a few canapes, it was over to Water Street, between Abbott and Carrell, for a tech preview of La Marea (The Tide), the site-specific collaboration between local company Boca del Lupo and Argentinian writer and director Mario Pensotti. La Marea tells nine different stories concurrently in 10 minute cycles that repeat over the course of two hours every evening between 7 and 9 pm from tonight through this Saturday. Spectators can come and go at their leisure, moving from scenes performed in various storefronts, in an apartment window, outdoors on two corners and, in one case, in the middle of the street. The characters (all acted by students from SFU, UBC, and Langara's Studio 58), in pairs and occasionally alone, are working through mini-dramas involving various states and stages of connection, with couples just getting together, and others about to break up, and still others fantasizing about what wasn't or what will be said in relationships that have already dissolved or are as yet to be imagined. In all cases, this is communicated to the spectator through projected subtitles, and part of the drama of the piece is not just piecing together the connections between the various scenes, but also in establishing the relationship between text and embodiment in terms of each "performance."

Then, too, there is the site of the performance. While the street has been closed off to traffic during each night's performance, pedestrians and members of the community still wander the sidewalks, and one's encounters with them can be just as interesting and powerful. Last night, for example, I was given a number of condoms from a local women's support network, and was also serenaded by a Scotsman named George, who sang a couple of traditional Irish (!) ballads.

Talk about cityness! A fantastic beginning to what promises to be a fabulous PuSh Festival.


Saturday, January 15, 2011


Megan Follows stars in This, at the Vancouver Playhouse until January 29.

I had been looking forward to seeing the Vancouver Playhouse production of Melissa James Gibson's This for two main reasons. First, Charles Isherwood gave the play a rave review in the New York Times when it opened Off-Broadway in 2009. I very much admire Isherwood's critical judgment, and his tastes and sensibilities mirror my own much more closely than those of his colleague, Ben Brantley (who, for example, absolutely loved Brief Encounter). Second, the Vancouver production of This was to star Megan Follows, who had impressed me to no end in Toronto last February in a revival of Cloud 9. Having seen the play last night, I can now say that on the first count--Isherwood's lauding of the playscript--I have some major caveats. However, on the second--the lead performance in this production--I was thoroughly impressed. Follows is a knock-out as Jane.

James Gibson, daughter of former BC Liberal Party leader Gordon Gibson, is a local girl who has made good in New York, racking up impressive playwriting credits ([sic]; Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance; Current Nobody) and even more impressive reviews. And This is very much a New York play, focused as it is on four intelligent, witty, arty, and navel-gazing upper middle-class thirtysomething friends struggling to name the exact source of their middle-aged malaise and malcontent. To be sure, in Jane's case there is a fairly clear cause: the premature death of her husband a year before. She just won't own up to the full immensity of her grief, and her increasing difficulties communicating with her daughter and stoic refusal to remove her dead husband's ashes from the top of her fridge are symptoms of her stasis (and rather textbook Freudian) melancholia. Tom (Todd Thomson) and Marrell (Karen Holness) are exhausted new parents whose difficulty adjusting to their altered lifestyle mask deeper faultlines in their relationship. And, finally, Alan (a wonderfully wry Dmitry Chepovetsky), is the requisite self-deprecating, borderline alchoholic gay sidekick in this self-obsessed quartet, no one's "dear friend" as he likes to point out, but everyone's default confessor, if only by virtue of his burdensome talent for remembering everything he hears or is told. Indeed, he is a professional mnemonist by trade. Who knew there was such a thing? Kudos, however, to James Gibson for not just making this a schtick and reducing Alan to complete caricature; Alan's powers of recall do in fact form a key component of the plot's climax.

Into this menage comes Jean-Pierre (Fabrice Grover), a globe-trotting physician with Doctors Without Borders whom Marrell meets at the jazz club where she performs and invites to the play's opening dinner party as a possible match for Jane. Jean-Pierre is clearly meant to show up the triteness and pettiness--the "dinkiness," to borrow and adapt a phrase from Alan--of these four friends' personal burdens of angst and betrayal in light of the urgent life and death concerns he daily deals with. And yet, as a character, Jean-Pierre largely remains a cipher; we never learn what exactly he does with DWB (nor what the "pre-conference" he has to rush off to is all about) and only overhear one telephone conversation he has in French with an apparent colleague, whom he repeatedly tells to "parler à Bob." It is hard for us to condemn the shallowness of these New Yorkers' lives through Jean-Pierre when he himself remains so shallowly drawn and, as such, he remains mostly a mute (albeit exotically so) screen on and through which the other characters project their own anxieties and desires. And, it would seem, the bisexual Jean-Pierre is willing to accommodate all takers.

Indeed, the real drama of the play has nothing to do with Jean-Pierre at all; instead, it centers on Tom and Jane's fateful one-night stand after the opening dinner party, and the consequent guilt Jane feels towards Marrell and, latterly, the memory of her dead husband. This question of Jane's double betrayal is really at the heart of the play, and leads to its high-stakes climax, in which Jane both reveals to her best friend that she has slept with Tom and to herself that she still misses her own husband. Interestingly, she can only do the latter after she disabuses the assembled audience about her marriage being perfect; it just seemed that way because her husband had the misfortune to die young. Which in turn accounts for her fortune (if it can be called that) in hereafter being granted some sort of nobility she didn't in fact earn. It's a powerful scene, full of some of James Gibson's best (because most honest) writing, and allowing Follows a bravura moment of primal acting, going back to drama's ritual beginnings in her smearing of her face with her dead husband's ashes.

In the pre-show publicity on the Playhouse production, James Gibson has said in various press interviews that with This she started out wanting to write a play about adultery, but that she ended up writing something else. She doesn't exactly say what that something else is, but I would suggest it's the process of grief and mourning (for a dead lover and the death of love in equal measure). Certainly these are the elements that provide the most heft for me in this play, and the most satisfying moments of performance. I just wish that James Gibson had been better able to connect her residual focus on the betrayal that accompanies adultery with her nascent exploration of the different kind of betrayal that's also involved in doing the work of mourning. That connection is certainly there, not least in the opening party game that Jane doesn't want to play and that ends up going fantastically wrong. (As an aside, the party game, combined with other elements in the play, not least Alan's role as snide commentator, put me in mind of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band. Perhaps not the first play others would think of in connection with this one, but there are, I think, striking similarities, and it's perhaps no coincidence that a revival of Crowley's play opened in New York around the same time as James Gibson's play.) However, too often for me James Gibson's innate cleverness as a writer gets in the way of what she clearly wants us to see is the real weight of her words. Nowhere was this more in evidence, for me, than in the opening scene, when the familiar conceit of the misunderstood referent in overlapping dialogue was very much in danger of wearing out its welcome.

There were similar moments elsewhere in the play, when what I suspect is James Gibson's sheer love of language, and her immense talent for constructing witty exchanges around words and the different syntactical possibilities for their delivery sends mixed messages not just about the substance, but also the tone, of a given scene. See, in this regard, Jane and Alan late in the play talking about her use of the Yiddish word "schwitzy"--clearly James Gibson wants this light banter about linguistic appropriation to do double duty re race relations in 21st-century America, but it ends up sounding forced and certainly tangential to the main concerns of the play. Though Marrell is black and Tom is white, and while Jane was also married to a black man, the topic of biracial couples is left largely unexplored in the play. Which is fine--why make it an issue? Except that this late exchange does just that by drawing attention to this topic's lack of exploration elsewhere in the play. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the love of language in the theatre. So long as that love is in service of the dramatic action. And so long as it's clear the characters love language as much as the playwright.

As a play, This, it seems to me, is not sure if it wants to be a drawing-room comedy or a Greek tragedy. Mostly it comes off as the former rather than the latter. But that certainly doesn't make it uninteresting. James Gibson is an very talented writer, and I will continue to follow her work.

Of that you can be sure.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Performance Beacons

Nice plug from Marsha Lederman in today's British Columbia section of the Globe for the PuSh Festival. She calls it a "beacon of avant-garde light in the dead of winter," and has lots of nice juicy quotes from Executive Director Norman Armour.

Only the latest in a series of year-end kudos and advance publicity that we've been getting from the press. Which all bodes very well for the start of this year's festival on January 18th.



Sunday, January 2, 2011


Reflecting, belatedly, on the year that was, I think it's best to eschew a list of personal Kodak moments in favour of an equivocally categorical statement: it was mostly good.

As for the one ahead, it can be better. Or it can be worse.

How's that for seeing things in black and white?