Thursday, December 20, 2012

Arts Cliffs

In the general context of Boehner and Obama's waltz ever closer to the financial precipice, I'm reposting a very interesting ArtsJournal blog entry forwarded to me by Lydia Marston-Blaauw (former PuSh Board President), about the contiguous cliffs facing arts organizations these days.

Click here to read more.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Memos to Self

Two re-posts (ripostes?) to share from the wider theatre-writing community that nonetheless gave me local pause.

The first comes from the Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner, whose wonderful contributions to that paper's Stage blog usually keep me up-to-date with what's on the boards in the UK. Today, however, she was talking about a recent incident at our very own Vancouver East Cultural Centre, when the actress Miriam Margolyes, in town with her one-woman ode to Dickens' Women, apparently berated an audience member in the front row for refusing to join with her fellow patrons in giving the performance a standing ovation. Am I ever glad we decided to give a pass on that one. And now I have one more reason not to capitulate and start watching the Harry Potter movies. I just wonder why the incident hasn't received more play in the local press.

Then, in the Globe and Mail, it was J. Kelly Nestruck's turn to offer his annual Canadian theatre round-up, which basically turned into a catalogue of all the sins committed by different organizations' Boards of Directors over the past year. Included alongside indictments of the Factory Theatre Board (for canning Ken Gass) and the Tarragon Board (for apparently censoring longtime playwright-in-residence Michael Healey for his satirical play about Stephen Harper) was a sharp (and, I have to say, deserved) rebuke of the Vancouver Playhouse Board for closing up shop after 49 years at an eleventh-hour, in camera meeting, leaving the community without the time or resources to mount a rescue plan in response. Not that any of this should find me looking over my shoulder as President of the PuSh Festival Board. I serve with 17 other incredibly talented and professional and supportive directors, all of whom have absolute faith in the vision and talents and fiscal responsibility of our ED and the entire staff. This year's Festival is our biggest yet. And my only worry as Board President right now is how I'm going to see everything.

You can join the fun by purchasing tickets here.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

EL Vez

EL Vez has got to be the hardest working holiday entertainer ever. The self-styled "Mexican Elvis" brought his Merry MexMas show to the Fortune Sound Club last night. It's a hilarious send-up of classic standards from the season (an East LA version of "Jingle Bell Rock" about getting through Christmas at lighting speed thanks to a little blow).

Despite the myriad costume changes that constituted EL Vez's most theatrical homage to the King (the one from Memphis, not Bethleham), the very fit and energetic 52 year-old seemed to be channeling more of a James Brown vibe, what with all of his high kicks and stage splits and booty work with the lovely Elvettes, his nubile back-up singers. But it was largely lost lost on the Vancouver audience, most of whom seemed to be there for the after-party, when I gather the venue turns into a meat-market of a dance club.

It was a pity, because EL Vez put on a great show. Thanks to my colleague Diana for dragging me out on a rainy Saturday.


Friday, December 14, 2012

VAG Saga, Part 999

The latest salvos from the opposing camps on the future of the Vancouver Art Gallery played out in today's Vancouver Sun and Globe and Mail.

On one side, we have details of developer Bob Rennie's 22-page plan (co-written with urban demographer David Baxter) for a new multi-site VAG, with the current Robson Street location its hub.

On the other side, VAG Director (and Rennie arch-nemesis) Kathleen Bartels has announced a new artist advisory group to provide "high-level input" on the development of a new single-site, purpose-built building at Larwill Park.

Stay tuned for the musical.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

There's Something About Fairy

A brief shout-out to the PuSh Festival's Development Manager Jocelyn Macdougall, who is currently starring in The Broadway Chorus production of There's Something about Fairy, on at Performance Works through this Saturday. A patchwork pastiche of songs from Broadway musicals past and present (with the odd pop standard thrown in), around which Artistic Director Ashley Lambert-Maberly has constructed a whimsical confection of a plot, There's Something tells the story of Terry (the lovely Jocelyn), a misfit fairy who discovers from her all-powerful mother, the Queen of the Fairies (Catherine Shaw, in superb voice), that she's actually a foundling from the human world.

So off Terry goes to said world (along with a rag-tag of fairy friends), whereupon through a series of twists and turns too complicated to relate she lands a job at Helle magazine working for the Anna Wintour-like terror of an editor Greta (a finely comic Yvonne Connors). Who, it turns out, has a secret of her own...

I won't spoil any more of the plot, though that should be the least of your Aristotelian worries in checking out this show, which is all about paying due homage to the show tune. And if all the voices are not always in tune, no matter. Because there can be no doubt that all the performers are feeling each number--and the charismatic Jocelyn, who is in almost every scene, no more than any other. Consequently, we exit the theatre in the way all Broadway shows wish us to: humming along.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Back in the Groove with Ballet BC

Ballet BC's 2012-13 season opened in bravura style on Thursday, introducing audiences to some bright new faces on stage, as well as behind the scenes. I had a chance to speak with recently hired Executive Director Branislav Henselmann following last night's show, and was very impressed by his already considerable knowledge of the local performing arts scene, not least the PuSh Festival.

In/verse opens with the North American premiere of Jacopo Godani's A.U.R.A (Anarchist Unit Related to Art). An independent artist who is a self-described polymath, Godani is responsible not just for the choreography, but for the costumes, lighting design, and overall dramaturgical concept of the piece. It shows, as the moveable florescent lighting tubes, together with the TRON-like body suits worn by the dancers, lend the work the feel of a three-dimensional, animated video game. Set to a pulsating electro-acoustic score by the experimental German duo 48nord, the choreography is--as the work's title suggests--at once physically anarchic and conceptually integrated. The 15 dancers (including apprentices Emily Chessa and Scott Fowler, and standout guest artist Thibaut Eiferman) whirl about the stage with controlled abandon, breaking apart in patterns that defy any logical bodily line or grid, and coming back together in tableaux that are always off-centre, cores rooted but limbs splayed.

Next up was the world premiere of American choreographer Nicolo Fonte's Muse, which opens with a lone female dancer on point in a vertical shaft of light emanating from an open doorway upstage right. Over the course of the piece's opening movements, the men in the company interact with her and other of the women who occupy this space, but only from either side of it. They themselves never jump into the light, only over it. Until, that is, the light starts to get rolled up, and we realize what we have been observing is a clever trompe l'oeil effect created by the careful placement of some white stage matting, and its even more subtle illumination by lighting designer James Proudfoot. Rearranged horizontally along the stage, the mat then occasions the central movement of the piece, a duet between Dario Dinuzzi and the excellent new company member Darren Devaney. As technically complex as it is tender, the sequence features the men traveling the length of the mat and back again, guiding each other by the ankles, willing themselves to walk together, though only one of them will walk away.

Finally, the evening concludes with Artistic Director Emily Molnar's own world premiere, Aniel, a crowd-pleasing, eye-popping feast of danced whimsy set to the klezmer-inspired music of John Zorn. Into an empty, all-white box set the full company of 17 dancers race out, wearing Linda Chow's neon-coloured costumes, a riot of oranges and pinks and yellows and blues and greens. From this literally dazzling opening, which was greeted by instant applause, to Gilbert Small's closing kiss to the audience, this is a dual valentine from Molnar, one directed not just to her patrons, but also to her dancers. And those dancers are clearly having a lot of fun, bobbing and shuffling and grooving on and off stage in ways that telegraph their own personal kinesthetic responses to the music, but also coming together as a company for some highly structured choreography, especially with respect to Molnar's rhythmically complex hand and arm movements.

From beginning to end this was a program that announced: we're back.


Friday, November 23, 2012

10 Lies and a Truth

A quick shout-out to the program of SFU Contemporary Arts student directing projects on now through December 1st at Studio T, SFU Woodward's. Grouped under the collective title 10 Lies and a Truth, these 11 short works showcase the talents of the next generation of Vancouver theatre artists, giving senior students in the Theatre Program a chance to helm their own production.

Last night's pairing of one-acts featured two absurdist works of political theatre from the 1960s. The first was Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek's Striptease, about two similarly attired men trapped in a room, and forced to answer to a giant prosthetic hand. Director Sarah Bernstein handles the mix of humour and critique within Mrozek's irony with a sure touch, balancing physical whimsy with respect for the rhythms--linguistic and ideological--of the characters' speechifying. And lead performers Robert Andow and Marc Castellini have great chemistry.

Next up was Chilean playwright Jorge Diaz's Love Yourself Above All Others, a biting satire about class-consciousness whose central conceit is that the aristocrats--Carmine Santavenere as The Gentleman and Sharon Ramirez as The Lady--ride their servants--Kiki Al Rahmani as Placida and Wesley Rogers as Epifanio--like animals, all the while spouting rhetorically empty maxims about revolution and democracy. Layering on the Latin American stereotypes and iconography with wildly inventive theatricality, director Manuela Sosa creates a hot-house dance-musical (complete with breakout salsa steps and a climactic hip hop number) that doesn't let its knowing smirk get in the way of a clear-eyed presentation of some big ideas. Not the least of which are the representational and material inequities that continue to beset the relationship between the "West" and the "Global South." All the performers throw themselves into their parts with absolute abandon, and the entire piece is as visually and physically stunning as it is intellectually stimulating.

The Directing Projects continue tonight and tomorrow night at 8 pm, with offerings from Conor Wylie, Janelle Reid, and Sean Marshall, Jr.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

MusicFest, Ballet BC, and PuSh

As reported in today's Vancouver Sun, the fickle cultural landscape in BC has claimed another victim. MusicFest, Vancouver's annual August celebration of classical, jazz, and world music, has suspended operations after announcing an accumulated deficit of $160,000 over the past two years. There will be no 2013 festival, although the Board hasn't ruled out reconstituting in the future should a solution to its financial problems be found.

That's likely little comfort to outgoing program director Matthew Baird, who took over from founding director George Laverock only last year. Despite his best efforts to streamline this past summer's line-up without sacrificing quality or talent (something I believe he accomplished admirably based on the two shows we attended), ticket sales were apparently very soft.

I hope Richard and I weren't the jinx. After a hiatus of several years, we made an effort to seek out two challenging but immensely rewarding classical concerts this year. And we were looking forward to attending again next August. Let's hope the festival's hiatus is not as long as ours was.

Meanwhile, an article in today's Globe by Marsha Lederman on the resurgent Ballet BC, newly confident under the leadership of Emily Molnar, who has pushed the company in a boldly contemporary direction, and who has attracted leading choreographic talents from around the world to create new work on her dancers. The first show in the company's 2013/14 season, In/verse, opens tonight. Richard and I will be there tomorrow evening, and in even better seats this year thanks to the wizardry of Audience Services Manager Ashley Holm.

Of course, I'm equally excited about the fact that Ballet BC is also collaborating this year with the PuSh Festival on a remount of Encore, its wildly popular mixed program from two seasons ago. Indeed, there is lots of dance (from France and Belgium and Seattle and Japan) on offer as part of this year's PuSh Festival. Program guides have been out for a couple of weeks now, and discounted four and six-show PuSh passes are available until December 6th. To get yours, or to buy individual tickets, visit


Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Tempest Worth Replicating

Last night's performance of Kidd Pivot's The Tempest Replica at the Playhouse concluded what had to have been the city's most highly anticipated dance event of the fall season. Pite's latest, and most explicit, exploration of narrative in dance, the piece is also the result of her first time working with a pre-existing script.

The work begins with long-time company member Eric Beauchesne, who plays Prospero, sitting cross-legged downstage right, in front of a large shimmery and billowing silver cloth. He is intently folding sheet after sheet of white paper into perfect origami sail boats, which he promptly lines up in a row. It's another kind of kinesthetic labour that is as precise and elegant as classical dance,. Additionally, it not only telegraphs for those in the audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare's play (or who haven't bothered to read Pite's careful synopsis of the action in the program) the famous opening high seas storm, but in the number and colour and scale of the boats' replication recalls one of Pite's explanations for the inspiration for the faceless, all-white fencing-like costumes worn by all the other dancers in the first part of her work: they are meant to recall the replica human figures used in architectural models.

Manipulating one of the boats in the same way that he will soon manipulate the bodily figures occupying his own island, Prospero speaks aloud the word "shipwreck," and then promptly calls the spirit Ariel (Sandra Garcia), the real architect of his designs. Ariel does not look particularly pleased by the summons, a reminder that she has not chosen to do Prospero's bidding, something captured in two simple movements repeated here that will become signature gestures for her throughout the work: a fluttering of her hands over her heart; and an elbow thrust akimbo out from her side, as reflex response perhaps to a phantom wing that has been clipped or tamped down by her master. Taking the paper boat from Prospero, Ariel places it in her mouth and starts to chew, which is the signal for the storm to begin.

Pite has said in past conversations about the work that it began with the notion of incorporating a shipwreck in a dancer's body. But she has also said that she was excited about the theatrical possibilities--lighting and sound effects--of representing a storm on stage. She marries these two ideas in the next sequence, in which we witness pre-recorded digital images of Ferdinand's (Jermaine Spivey) Act Two shipwreck solo projected onto the stage left portion of the scrim, which are then overlain with pelting rain, and with which the live, white-costumed body of the Act One Ferdinand interacts behind the scrim. It's an uncanny doubling, supplemented by Alonso (Bryan Arias) and Sebastian (Jiří Pokorný) and Antonio (Yannick Matthon) rolling on the floor upstage right.

This was the first of the night's surprises: not just Pite's sophisticated use of projections, but the amount of movement contained within them, and the extent to which they merged with the shadow outline of live movement on stage via lighting effects in front of and behind the piece's two cloth scrims (the first downstage one is pulled down after the storm by Prospero, to reveal a second upstage one). Other projections, such as Prospero's explanation to Miranda (Cindy Salgado) following the shipwreck of how they came to find themselves on the island as a result of Antonio's usurpation of Prospero's dukedom in Milan, are more clearly cinematic (often expressionistically so). This makes sense given Pite's explanation for her complementary method of conveying the major plot points of Shakespeare's play in successive bodily tableaux during the first part of the piece: she has called it a movement-based equivalent of storyboarding.

But even here there was another surprise--just how dancey many of these tableaux were. I hadn't witnessed but a few of these scenes as part of Pite's open rehearsals at SFU Woodward's in September, and so while I was prepared for Prospero's marionette-like manipulations of Miranda as she witnesses the storm, I did not expect the exuberant jive that she and Ferdinand break into once Prospero releases the prince from his Sisyphean labours and consents to letting the young lovers wed. Cinematic and kinesthetic narrative combine most successfully in the first half of the work in the sequence when we're first introduced to Caliban (Arias again), who slithers across the stage on all fours, led by Prospero and towards Miranda, seated stage left, as the projections economically telegraph (in the same direction) how the monster came to be enslaved by Prospero. Equal in visual effect is the banquet conjured by Ariel for Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Text in this first part mostly comes in the form of projected surtitles providing act and scene numbers, and a brief, one-line synopsis of the action. Occasionally, however, key words are projected onto unexpected surfaces: "daughter" onto Miranda's raised skirt, for example, and "doubt" onto one of Prospero's unfurled paper boats, held up by an unidentified, white-cloaked avatar in the final Act 5 sequence, which crucially has no textual synopsis accompanying its projected surtitle, and which, as crucially, displaces the play's epilogue, cuing the transition into the second half of Pite's piece as Prospero, clearly in need of new magic, calls aloud for Ariel once again.

Her arrival, now dressed in regular street clothes, begins the process of replaying in more pure dance form key scenes that were storyboarded for us in the first half. To paraphrase Pite, now that we know who everyone is, and the nature of their relationships to one another, we can concentrate on how the movement intensifies the emotions behind those relationships. Although all the dancers get brief solo moments during these sequences--and none more stunning than Spivey's live reproduction of the bodily shipwreck that we had previously witnessed digitally--Pite's basic architecture during the second half is the duet: between Prospero and Ariel; Prospero and Miranda; Antonio and Sebastian, Prospero and Caliban; and finally Miranda and Ferdinand. This is some of Pite's most complex and stunningly original partnering, giving a physical form to the degrees of indebtedness and obligation, choice and constraint, power and reciprocity, that mark both the connection and the distance between different characters. Thus, for example, the opening duet between Prospero and Ariel is notable for its gorgeous lifts; but the striving for flight that we intuit in Ariel's impossibly fluid leg extensions especially is counterbalanced by arms that remain locked with and pinned down by Prospero's. Similarly, Caliban remains in a hammer-lock for much of his duet with Prospero, and even when he does break free and stands up straight and smoothes down the suit jacket he is wearing as a sop to his wounded dignity and pride, he is just as quickly forced back down to the ground by the unrelenting Prospero, and must propel himself about the stage via his sits bones and knees.

Interestingly, Caliban is the only character/dancer other than Prospero who speaks while moving, in this case uttering, despite Prospero's best attempts to stifle his voice, his famous oath: "You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse." Otherwise, text in the second half comes mostly in the form of key projected lines that explicate further the movement sequences we see taking shape before us, or else layered in voice-over as part of the dense soundscape designed by Meg Roe and Alessandro Juliani to complement Owen Belton's electronic score.

The Tempest Replica ends with the epilogue that was forestalled in the first half, with Prospero, having given up magic, now being shadowed and eventually overwhelmed by the four other male dancers, now also back in their all-white costumes. In the final tableau, Prospero has been placed prone on the floor in a position akin to the one in which we first encounter Miranda at the start of the work; the other dancers stand over the stilled creator, silently clapping as the the lights fade to black. The image alludes, of course, to Prospero's concluding speech, in which he asks to be released from his own creative bondage via the audience's applause, and which most critics read as a self-reflexive comment, in this his final play, on Shakespeare's setting aside of his writing quill. 

Given Pite's own longstanding concerns with the dialectic of creation and destruction, and taken together with her announcement that following this tour of The Tempest Replica she plans to take a year's sabbatical, it is hard not to interpret this as simultaneously a farewell of sorts for a choreographer who does not know in what form--or even if--her company will reconstitute itself. In her pre-show talk Pite stated that she hoped, following their break, that the company would be back, and ideally with its current full and full-time employed complement of dancers--all of whom, it must be said, were on fire last night. But Pite also stated that such an arrangement would depend on finding a replacement for the funding from Frankfurt that in essence has allowed the company to create and tour for the past two years. I hope the cultural power brokers in this city were listening and that they throw all available resources her way.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Creative Conversations and City Lights

So, at yesterday evening's "creative conversation" between Robert Lepage and Crystal Pite at SFU Woodward's, I learned that Lepage is not buying a condo in Vancouver. Quel dommage.

I also learned that Lepage is happy not to claim authorship of his work; that he feels himself to be inadequately equipped as a filmmaker; that he kind of got off on the massive boos that greeted the premiere of the first part of The Ring he directed at The Met; and that he was the one who actively sought out Pite as a collaborator on his current acclaimed production of Thomas Adès's The Tempest at the same institution (not knowing she had just choreographed her own take on the Shakespeare play).

From Pite, I learned that she began choreographing at age three (she even remembers the music she chose and the costume she wore!); that she needs to impose incredibly high artistic stakes on herself before she feels ready to plunge into a new work; that the impetus for The Tempest Replica (which opens tonight at the Playhouse) came from the choreographic challenge of incorporating the idea of a shipwreck into the body; and that when directing actors, as opposed to trained dancers, to move, it's all about finding the right language ("pretend you're listening at a door" as opposed to "lead with your right ear").

After a quick dinner it was off to the Orpheum with Richard for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's live accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, in honour of the 85th anniversary of this landmark building (which, as Maestro Bramwell Tovey told the audience in his opening remarks--and as Richard has been whispering in my ear for years--was almost torn down in the 1970s). It really was an amazing experience to see what I think is Chaplin's greatest screen representation of his Tramp character brought sonically to life by the full VSO. As delightful were the warm-up acts: Tovey's solo improvisation of the live musical score to a little-known short by Chaplin, How To Make Movies, a quasi-behind-the-scenes look at what went into the artist's unique brand of physical comedy and cinematic magic; and a special performance by Michael Dirk on the original (and hydraulically operated) 1927 Wurlitzer Organ.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Back to the Moon

Last night Richard and I were at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's for a sold-out performance of Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon, a co-production with Théâtre la Seizième, who together with the now departed Playhouse first brought the show to Vancouver back in 2003. That was, I believe, Lepage's first visit to the city since he toured here in the 1980s with The Dragon's Trilogy, but he's since been back with The Andersen Project (2005) and, most recently, The Blue Dragon, which was also mounted at SFU Woodward's as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2010. And if the rumours are true of him buying a condo here, we may be seeing a whole lot more of him.

It was by no means certain that last night's performance would go ahead as scheduled. SFU is in the midst of labour disputes with two separate unions, CUPE (representing staff) and TSSU (representing sessional instructors and TAs), and picketing of the downtown campuses over the weekend had forced the cancellation of at least two performances of Yves Jacques' performances. A campus-wide picket had been called for yesterday. But with Lepage himself taking over the role starting this Tuesday, Michael Boucher, Director of Cultural Programs at SFU Woodward's, and the man most responsible for bringing the show back to Vancouver, was anxious to avoid further disturbances if at all possible. To that end, Ex Machina Producer Michel Bernatchez read a prepared statement from CUPE in advance of the performance indicating that, in fact, no further picketing of SFU Woodward's would take place for the duration of Far Side's run.

This was as much a relief to those of us at the PuSh Festival as it no doubt was to Boucher. For PuSh is a community partner on this production and last night's performance was a special "PuSh night," which in addition to allowing us to secure discounted seats for our loyal Festival patrons, also saw us distributing our 2013 Festival program guides to all members of the audience in advance of their official release throughout the city today. Great publicity for us, and for our own ongoing SFU Woodward's presence, which Executive Director Norman Armour rightly highlighted in his portion of the curtain speech.

And now onto the performance itself. Far Side has always struck me as one of Lepage's more successful solo shows, in part because its images and theatrical conceits are so stunning (a washing machine door that becomes a portal to space), and in part because it is so personal (about the relationship between two brothers, Philippe and André, in the wake of their mother's death, the play was written just after the death of Lepage's own mother). The play was also turned into a very successful film by Lepage, one that, if it--as it seems--remains his last, will stand as an excellent synthesis of several recurring themes in his work (a focus on doubles and Oedipal family dynamics, symbolic use of colour, screens-within-screens, etc.). Indeed, this current production of the play has, if memory serves correctly, been changed to accommodate several new scenes that come directly from the film and, as is increasingly the case with any new Lepage stage production (witness The Blue Dragon), projected credits at the top of the show emphasize the cinematic feel of this piece of theatre.

And yet, for all the various projected film excerpts of the American and Soviet space race and the high-tech mechanics of the set, some of the most effective bits in the play still come when Lepage reverts to the basics of theatre-making, as with the frequent use of puppets, or when he turns a simple prop like an ironing board into a gym bench press in one instance and a scooter in another. In these moments Lepage understands that in the theatre, unlike in the cinema, the audience needs to work with the performer to create the illusion.

Would that Lepage worked just a little bit harder with us to create the same kind of shared emotional intimacy. The man has always been a cool, almost affectless performer. No doubt this anti-spectacular acting style allows the spectacle of his staging to stand out. But in a show like this one--which is, after all, partly about grief--I longed for just a bit more intensity and, dare I say, energy. However, I certainly can't fault Lepage for the effort he puts into the amazing final scene, which combines all the best elements of his theatre into a singularly stunning, almost balletic image.

And speaking of ballet, Lepage will be in conversation with choreographer Crystal Pite at SFU Woodward's this evening, beginning at 5 pm. The two have collaborated on Lepage's staging of the opera of The Tempest, currently on at the Met in New York. Pite's own dance version of the Shakespeare play, The Tempest Replica, opens tomorrow at the Playhouse, the second show in DanceHouse's current season. And, as it happened, I was sitting beside Kidd Pivot dancer Sandra Garcia last night. She graciously let me gush about my admiration for the entire company's work. Which I look forward to immersing myself in once again this Saturday.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012


It felt fitting to be in the audience on election night in the United States watching Touchstone Theatre’s beautifully acted production of Anton Piatigorsky’s Eternal Hydra. The first play in Touchstone’s 2012-13 season, and compellingly and insightfully directed by Touchstone AD Katrina Dun, the work first began life as a one-act play commissioned by the Stratford Festival in 2002. Toronto-based Crow’s Theatre, under the able leadership of Chris Abraham (who worked closely with Piatigorsky in developing the play), premiered a three-act version in the spring of 2009, which went on to win several Dora Awards (including for best play), before traveling to the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Ottawa. The play’s West Coast premiere runs through this Sunday at Studio 16 on West 7th at Granville.

An intellectually ambitious and self-consciously literary work of drama, Eternal Hydra is a theatrical detective story that focuses on three central couples in three different time periods (contemporary New York City, Paris between the two world wars, and post-Civil War New Orleans) arguing over the importance and authenticity of three different texts, each of which progressively displaces, or “de-authorizes,” the centrality of the preceding one. Thus, at the outset of the play we are introduced to the overeager English scholar Vivian Ezra (Laara Sadiq), who reveals to New York publisher Randall Wellington, Jr. (Andrew Wheeler) that she has discovered the long-lost manuscript that gives the play its title, the final masterwork of the iconoclastic Irish-Jewish writer Gordias Carbuncle (John Murphy), a fictional James Joyce-like character who died in Paris in 1940, in advance of the Nazi invasion. The book was to have been a 1,000-page novel in which each of the 100 chapters would be told by a different voice in a different place on the globe at a different time in history, all the stories at once compiled by, filtered through, and eventually deconstructed by the consciousness of an overarching Herculean consciousness. Thought lost for more than 60 years, Ezra has discovered the manuscript in the apartment of Carbuncle’s former research assistant, Gwendolyn Jackson (Sadiq), and has brought it to Wellington to publish, as his father, Randall Wellington, Sr. (Wheeler) was Carbuncle’s publisher. In doing so, she hopes to secure Carbuncle’s place in literary history, but also to secure her own fame as his scholarly amanuensis. Enter Pauline Newberry (Cherissa Richards), a postmodern black novelist who is about to publish a work of historical fiction about an obscure African-American woman expat writer in Paris, Selma Thomas (Richards again), whom Newberry posits had an affair with Carbuncle. Galleys of her novel just happen to be at hand, and at the urging of Wellington—who arranged for his meetings with Ezra and Newberry to overlap—she begins to read from the scene in which Carbuncle appears. Ezra is incensed at the portrait of her literary hero, whose ghost it should be noted she communicates with throughout this long opening scene. But in exchange for another textual artifact, the 1936 Paris diary of Carbuncle that has been willed by Jackson to Wellington, Jr., Ezra eventually concedes to the terms of the publisher: 10% royalties and a marketing tie-in with Newberry’s novel.

The Paris diary of Carbuncle then becomes the central text of Act Two; but it doesn’t add to Carbuncle’s luster, as Vivian had hoped. Rather, it begins the process of debunking the myth of his artistic genius. Indeed, taken together, the two scenes staged from the diary’s pages—an entry detailing a visit from Jackson in which Carbuncle refuses her demands for scholarly credit, and for love, and the entry documenting the scene between Carbuncle and Thomas in which he convinces Thomas to sell him one of her stories for inclusion in his Eternal Hydra manuscript—at once de-authorize Vivian’s Act One account of Carbuncle’s solitary genius and re-authorize Newberry’s argument for the             unacknowledged importance of Thomas as a writer unjustly written out of the record of literary modernism. And the exchange in between the staged scenes from the diary in which, back in the present-day, Ezra and Newberry argue in Vivian’s office about the ghosting of Thomas’s story nicely shows the stakes (personal and professional) of the competing interpretive imperatives of the two women on behalf of their respective authors.

Finally, in the third act, we get Selma’s story literally taking centre stage, as back in Wellington, Jr.’s office in present-day New York, the crucial chapter 72 of Eternal Hydra is dramatized for us. In it, we learn about the life of Selma’s grandmother (Richards), a former slave and expert cobbler who goes to work for an educated Creole shop owner, Leon LaBas (Wheeler). LaBas is backing the political ambitions of a white politician from the north, Henry Warmoth (Murphy), who wants to be governor of Louisiana, and needs both the black vote and the support of local white insiders like Sarah Briggs (Sadiq) to achieve his goals. This he does, but not before LaBas is killed in the famous riot of 1866, and not before Selma’s grandmother is talked into selling her shoes to Warmoth so that he can in turn buy the affections of Briggs. This last transaction nicely materializes the ethics—and economics—of authorship at the heart of this dense play, and to this end it is wholly appropriate that the disenfranchised black woman whose voice has been triply appropriated on its way into Carbuncle’s manuscript (and which also ensures the fragmentation of that manuscript), should get the last word. Commenting on the experience of seeing Warmoth give a speech after having secured the governorship he so coveted, and during which he paraphrases from a previous conversation with her, Selma’s grandmother says: “To hear him say that. Felt like me up there, onstage. Not him at all. You never know. Might just be my voice coming from his mouth.” I wonder how many folks watching Obama’s victory speech last night felt the same way.

I have gone on at length about the plot of Piatigorsky’s play because it is so complicated. But the structure is also abetted by a number of unique theatrical conceits, not least the double- and triple-casting of parts. This gives, as Dunn commented in a wonderfully generous presentation to my Introduction to Drama class (where we’re studying the play), each of the actors a satisfyingly complex composite character arc, in which parallels between different roles add thematic resonance and symbolic texture to the play more generally. But it is tricky to at once suggest connections between different characters played by the same actor and ensure that each character is sufficiently distinguished in audience members’ minds. Happily, the entire cast is up to the challenge. Then, too, there are the quasi-omniscient narrative asides to the audience, also undertaken by all of the actors at different points in the play, and also helping to problematize the idea of single authorship. These could easily have become clichéd conspiratorial winks, but the actors wisely vary their deliveries depending on the specific content of the message they’re relaying to us, and their own conception of their authority or vulnerability at that moment. All of this is further enhanced by Dunn’s choice to use a thrust stage, with the outs to the audience thus occurring to three different sides of the theatre space.

There is much more I could say about this gorgeous production, including David Roberts’ amazing all-wood set, with its hidden drawers and cubby-holes that are opened at different moments by the actors to reveal crucial objects and icons. The sound design by Owen Belton is a rich mix of period music and an original electronic score that Dunn suggested to my class was like an impossible knot slowly being untangled. As apt a metaphor as any for Dunn’s own incredibly patient and intelligent approach to the hidden depths of this play—and to our experience in watching the results.


Friday, November 2, 2012

ASTR in Nashville

I'm writing this from Music City, aka Nashville, Tennessee, where the annual gathering of the American Society for Theater Research is currently underway. Last night Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw, of Split Britches fame, welcomed conference delegates with an opening performance, which was a kind of retrospective survey of past shows. As I had never seen this legendary group perform, it was a real treat, especially as former member Deb Margolin was also included via video footage of an hilarious routine featuring her as a ventriloquist's dummy lip-synching along with Weaver as the super-femme ventriloquist to Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand's "You Don't Bring Me Flowers."

Dinner afterwards coincided with the end of the Country Music Awards, which just happened to overlap with the start of the conference. I've never seen so many sequins and cowboy boots in my life. The size of my belt buckle was wholly inadequate. Along Broadway we gazed in various honky-tonk bars and generally soaked up the CMA vibe before tucking into some nouvelle-ish southern cooking (fried green tomatoes and fish tacos for me) at a restaurant whose name now escapes me. Our waitress, Ashley, was the epitome of Nashville hospitality, a theme that is additionally being explored at the conference via a series of events being curated and hosted by Weaver, who kicked things off nicely at the end of the Split Britches performance by introducing us to one of her newest characters, Tammy Why-Not.

So far not much election conversation among conference delegates. Maybe people are just too anxious to talk out loud about it--at least in this part of the States. Hard to avoid the ads on television, however. Which, needless to say, are wholly negative, no matter the party.

So much for hospitality.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Aszure Barton's Underwater Dreams

Canadian-born, New York-based choreographer Aszure Barton is back at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre this week with her own company, Aszure Barton and Artists, as part of a Chutzpah! Plus event. The 70-minute Awáa, set to a contrastive strings and brass score commissioned from the Russian violinist Lev Zhurbin and the Canadian saxophonist Curtis MacDonald, was created by Barton while she was an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre, and features video projections (by multi-talented company dancer Tobin Del Cuore) filmed in the Centre's pool that Barton was inspired to shoot after a particularly vivid dream.

The work certainly has a dream-like, underwater feel to it, especially in the way Barton's bold visual style and sense of theatrical whimsy are married to her seven amazing dancers' impossibly fluid movements, in which arms and heads and torsos extend and ripple out from the body's core like seaweed swaying at the bottom of the ocean floor. A sense of buoyancy is imbued in everything from one dancer's simple toe-rise and modified port-au-bras to the full company's simultaneous shifting of their weight from one hip to another as, sitting with legs outstretched, one foot resting on the other, they drag themselves horizontally across the stage, much like a line of sea crabs.

The company itself is made up of six male and one female dancers, and if there is a thematic through-line to the piece it would seem to revolve around motherhood and masculinity (the title Awáa evokes the sound of both a baby's cry and young child's pronouncing of "water"). In this, Barton's episodic compositional style is both a strength and a weakness, as inevitably some set-pieces--particularly the duets between the riveting and charismatic Lara Barclay and successive male partners--feel more thematically integral and choreographically complex than others. Indeed, the group scenes between the men seem to me to retreat from what I thought would have been a logical opportunity to explore the homosocial dynamics of male bonding, particularly in relation to the mother figure. There are no explicit sequences of male partnering in the piece.

Instead, over and over again the fluidity and ambiguity of male sexuality in Awáa is displaced onto Barton's trio of African-American dancers, who in a bravura sequence late in the piece together reference African tribal dance, Supremes-style girl group shimmying, and the sashaying of drag ball voguing. It was thrilling to watch, but when upon exiting the stage one of the dancers shouts out an Alvin Ailey-esque "Take me to the river," one wonders if Barton isn't trading a bit too heavily on cultural stereotypes.

Such, of course, are the risks of tapping so directly into the unconscious. We can never be sure where our imaginations will take us. We can only applaud Barton for daring to go there--and for inviting us along for the ride.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Celebrating Schoenberg at Music on Main

Among the important musical centenaries we're celebrating this year (e.g., that of  John Cage's birth), is the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg's landmark composition Pierrot Lunaire, his sprechgesang Opus 21 based on poems by Albert Giraud. (The piece has received many lively stagings in recent years, leading up to its centenary, including a highly theatrical and transgendered dance-theatre take by bad-boy Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce that ran in Berlin last year: check out the short YouTube excerpt here.)

Richard and I were out on a school night to witness Music on Main's All-Star Band, led by conductor Margerite Witvoet, and featuring the brilliant soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, perform the piece at the Western Front 100 years to the day after it first bowed in Vienna. A captivating event that I will not be able to do full justice in this short post. What I will say is that this is another spectacular coup in programming by MoM's visionary Artistic Director David Pay, not least because of his genius pairing of the Schoenberg piece with a lively set of cabaret songs and improvisations from the period featuring vocalist Carol Sawyer and pianist Lisa Cay Miller.

In just a few short years, MoM has become one of the most important musical series in the city, and its year-round programming has transformed the SOMA area, and in particular regular venue Heritage Hall, into a major performing arts destination. Of course, we are especially excited at PuSh about our ongoing co-presentations with MoM, and with David's continued cross-support for the Festival.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Old news, I know, but I'm catching up on my local arts news re-blogging after a week hosting an out of town guest.

To wit: Marsha Lederman's piece in the weekend Globe on the latest lines in the sand being drawn over the will-it or won't-it relocation of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

We're now officially in the territory of farce, are we not? The more pertinent question, however, is why are these discussions all taking place (or not) over canapés and drinks at in-crowd soirées? Where is the city on this, and why is the public being squeezed out of any say on the future of a downtown cultural precinct?

With the downtown Canada Post building now officially for sale, these questions are more pressing than ever. Whether the VAG moves or not, someone should step up and show some dignified leadership.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Last Picture Shows

Hot on the heels of the recent announcement of the closing of the Granville 7 Cinemas at the end of November, an interview with Festival Cinemas owner Leonard Schein in yesterday's Globe and Mail about the ticking clock on our beloved Park Theatre, just around the corner from us on Cambie Street.

The former announcement puts the future of the Vancouver International Film Festival in doubt (though I would counsel Director Alan Franey to get on the phone to the International Village Cinemas asap). The latter announcement would be a blow to the residents of Cambie Village, who have a wonderful local 300-seat cinema in the neighbourhood that can show everything from 3-D blockbusters to indie art house films. Just this past Thanksgiving Monday Richard and I walked up to catch Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. I think the movie's been overhyped; but the physical experience of watching it was, as always, most pleasing.

With the Denman Cinema having recently closed, and before that the Hollywood, and the Ridge about to go as well, it would be a shame to lose one of the few remaining old-style, single-picture cinemas in the city.

Whither film in Vancouver?


Friday, October 12, 2012

Plugging The Unplugging

Just a brief note to say that The Unplugging, a new play by Yvette Nolan, began preview performances at Arts Club Theatre's Revue Stage on Granville Island last night. Richard and I, along with our good friend Cathy, visiting from the UK, were in the audience.

In the play, Nolan (former Artistic Director at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto), has adapted an Athabaskan legend, as recorded by Velma Wallis, called Two Old Women, in which the complaining protagonists of the title are cast out into the wilderness during a time of hardship after they have become too much of a burden on the rest of the community. Forced to rely on each other, and their storehouse of strength, stamina, and skills, the two women thrive against the odds, to the point where the community that has cast them out comes calling for their aid.

In Nolan's version, set in the very near future, she has tapped into the current cultural zeitgeist re our anxiously wired, digital culture (see TV's Revolution), imagining a post-apocalyptic world without electricity. Bern and Elena must re-discover the lost ways of their Aboriginal foremothers, "becoming," in the words of Nolan's script, something new. But the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Seamus, threatens their fragile new community of two. Jenn Griffin (as Bern) and Margo Kane (as Elena) are powerful stage presences, and they are ably supported by Anton Lipovetsky as Seamus. Lois Anderson is the director, with dramaturgical assistance having been provided by Rachel Ditor and my buddy DD Kugler.

I'll have more to say about the play after it officially opens next Wednesday, October 17th, and I get a chance to return for an additional viewing. But I did want to acknowledge how generous Yvette has already been in sharing the script with me--and the students of my Introduction to Drama class at SFU, who will be studying it and the production over the next two weeks.

I also wanted to say that I think the tag line and poster design for the show are among the most savvy that I have encountered in a long time. See below.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Alive and Well, Thank You

A guest op-ed by Neworld Theatre Artistic Director Marcus Youssef in today's Vancouver Sun rightly attesting to the thriving arts and culture scene here in Vancouver--no thanks to, and in spite of reports otherwise. Thanks for the shout out to PuSh, Marcus.

Last night Richard and I were at SFU Harbour Centre for an event that backs up precisely what Marcus is writing about: a reading and reception celebrating Marie Clements as the 2012-13 Writer-in-Residence in the English Department at SFU. Marie read excerpts from past plays and gave us a taste of what she has in store, including a remounting of The Edward Curtis Project at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and a new multi-media musical work, The Road Forward, that will (hurray, again) premiere at Club PuSh this January.

Speaking of all things PuSh, we are a community partner on the upcoming return of Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon to SFU Woodward's in November. There's a special PuSh night on November 7th, when a sneak peek of our 2013 Festival will be revealed. The official program guide lands at JJ Bean, Terrra Breads, Festival Cinemas, and other locations the next day. Lots of exciting shows await.

All of which confirms Marcus's point: cutting edge performance is alive and well on Canada's west coast.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cedar Lake at DanceHouse

The fifth season of DanceHouse was launched this weekend, with New York's Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet presenting a mixed program of three works by Hofesh Schechter, Alexander Ekman, and Vancouver's very own Crystal Pite. When Cedar Lake was founded in 2003 by WalMart heiress Nancy Laurie, the chatter among the culturati was that this was a vanity project, sheer dilettantism. But under the direction of Benoit-Swan Pouffer, the company has grown into a respected corps of 16 exceptionally talented dancers, and has commissioned new work from some of ballet and contemporary dance's top choreographers.

Last night's program began with Schecter's Violet Kid, an almost full-company piece that Richard read as a deconstructed Rite of Spring. And, it's true, in one of the tableaux to emerge amid the mix of voice-over and blackouts during the opening sequence, we do glimpse one man on his knees with another holding his fingers in the shape of a gun at the back of his head, all while the other dancers look on. There was no Bausch-like earth on the floor, but we did get similar massings of bodies, advances and retreats, abrupt changes of direction, the contrast of squares and circles and lines--including an obligatory horizontal self-reference to the corps de ballet as a leitmotif. As Pouffer noted in his pre-show talk, Schechter is a master in his use of stage space, and it was a wonder to watch all 14 dancers come together in different mosh pit-like formations as the anthemic music (composed by Schechter) surged, only to break apart and disperse as first one and then another dancer dares to break free from the group.

Next up was Swedish choreographer Ekman's Tuplet, a witty essay on rhythm for six dancers that features spoken word voice-over by the dancers (letting us put names to bodies) and digital projections. The piece begins with the dancers entering, one by one, and taking up positions downstage on individual white squares, beating time not just with their bodies, but with their breath. There then follows a solo by the amazing Jonathan Bond, his body outlined against the backlit upstage screens as he glides and twists and writhes in response to Mikael Karlsson's electronic score. Back on their white squares, the dancers then show us a bit of their individual rhythmic styles (this is where the voice-overs come in) before Joaquim de Santana and Matthew Rich pair off in a duet that explores various dimensions of shared rhythm. All of this culminates in an extended sequence of syncopation, in which the dancers create their own percussive beats by slapping their hands in unison on their bodies.

The evening concluded with Pite's Grace Engine, which for me was a bit of a disappointment. Described by Pouffer as film noirish in style and sensibility, the full company piece once again sees Pite playing with the limits of narrative in dance, borrowing from notions of cinematic time and featuring an innovative lighting design by Jim French to evoke montage- and flashback- and dissolve-like effects. Moodily evocative and especially compelling in the slow-motion group sequences, where Pite's trademark head-to-foot bodily chains were used to great effect, the piece unravelled for me in its duets, especially the concluding one. Though it showcased former Ballet BC star Acacia Schachte's graceful talents, it ended rather abruptly, and I found myself struggling to assimilate it within Pite's larger conception for the piece.

That said, Pouffer's curation of this program reveals his sensitivity to stylistic contrasts and, above all, what pieces best highlight the amazingly athletic movement of his magnificent dancers.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Best Attempts

A brief note to say that Studio 58's 2012-13 season got off to a high-octane start this week with Katrina Dunn's excellent production of British playwright Martin Crimp's 1997 Attempts on Her Life. Crimp's play is famous for the fact that its central character, Anne (also referred to variously as Annie and Anya), never appears. Nor is the audience presented with a coherent narrative of her story. Instead, over the course of 17 scenes, a company of actors gives us different--and at times competing--versions of who they believe, or rather choose to believe, this woman is. Among the possible scenarios: a character in a film script; an environmental martyr; a runaway toting stones with which to kill herself; a terrorist toting bombs with which to kill others; an anti-government survivalist; an artist-suicide/suicide artist; a porn star; a mother who may have murdered her child; a pop music groupie; and a high performance sports car.

Moreover, because the dialogue in Crimp's script is not assigned to designated secondary characters, with changes in speaker indicated only by a dash, it is left up to the director and her company how best to divvy up the commentary on Anne, and to imagine the different personae issuing said commentary. Dunn and her talented cast are more than up to the task, creating a Rashomon-like portrait for our paradoxically faceless Facebook age that nevertheless contains abundant moments of real emotional connection; that makes a virtue of the play's episodic structure through choreographed movement and high energy physical theatre within and between scenes; and that cannily employs digital technology without becoming enslaved to it. Especially effective, in this regard, is the opening scene, in which a series of phone messages to Anne is repeated in voice-over as the actors, one by one, turn on their cell phones, using the illuminated displays like individual follow-spots of differently coloured washes, as they move in successive patterns about the stage.

Kudos must also be extended to scenographer David Roberts for his superb set, configured as an airport terminal waiting lounge, complete with a set of automatic sliding doors that also double as the audience's entrance to the theatre. In fact, we soon learn that they are not motion sensitive, as we suspect, but are being controlled instead by technicians in the booth, who keep us waiting for a few extra minutes outside, peering in through the doors and an accompanying window at what we think we are missing. Which, it must be said, is a lot, as most of the company is already assembled on stage, staking out their territory in relation to each other, and to us, and presumably to the multiple intertexts that make up Anne. Waiting, in other words, to take off on what promises to be a wild and exciting ride into the unknown.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, and look forward to Dunn's next directing project for her own company, Touchstone: a production of Anton Piatigorsky's modernist literary whodunit, Eternal Hydra, on at Studio 17 from November 1-11.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Olympic Legacies?

An article in yesterday's Globe and Mail questioning the long-term benefits of Cultural Olympiads for local artists and arts communities. Apparently attendance at marquee galleries and museums in London plunged in the lead-up to the most recent Summer Games. And Robert Everett-Green does a good job documenting the wholesale negative consequences the Olympics and BC's giveth-with-one-hand-and-taketh-away-with-the-other approach to cultural funding has had on the Vancouver arts community, where we are down one regional theatre company, and where granting levels still haven't returned to pre-Olympics levels.

Meanwhile over at the Georgia Straight a Vancouver Olympics-related scandal of potentially momentous consequence. Investigative reporter Laura Robinson has uncovered that former VANOC CEO John Furlong, celebrated far and wide in this province and country for his stewardship of the 2010 Games, appears to have deliberately fudged key details from his personal and professional past, including when he arrived in Canada. In his 2011 autobiography, Patriot Hearts, Furlong claims he emigrated to this country in 1974, to take up a teaching position at a high school in Prince George. In fact, Furlong arrived in 1969 as an Oblate Frontier Apostle missionary, working at a Residential School in Burns Lake. Several former students at the school have signed affidavits testifying to Furlong's mental and physical abuse.

We'll see where this story goes, but kudos to Robinson and the Straight for breaking it. I guess the fact that Gary Mason co-wrote Patriot Hearts with Furlong meant that the Globe was not interested in pursuing questions about Furlong's CV.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Where Rabbits Meet

Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, on at the Vancity Culture Lab at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre through the end of the next week, gives new meaning to stage fright--both an actor's and an audience's. The central conceit of this interactive solo show is that it is to be played by a different actor every night. Having received only a few preparatory instructions 48 hours in advance of their performance, the actors each receive a copy of the script for the first time while on stage, and essentially must read it cold, doing everything they are instructed.


That one of the play's instructions involves drinking a glass of water that may or may not contain a deadly poison is just one of the theatrical--and moral--conundrums confronting the actor and audience alike. For White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is, on a very basic level, about the three-way contract established between playwright, actor, and audience in the theatre. As Soleimanpour has his actor state at the very top of the show, this is where all three "meet": "From now on we are all present." Even if, in Soleimanpour's case, he is not physically present. An empty chair in the front row (actually stage left in the Culture Lab's set-up, which for this show has been configured cabaret-style) has nevertheless been reserved for the playwright: to remind us metaphysically of he who has conjured this encounter, but also more materially of the fact that, even if he wanted to, Soleimanpour would not be able to join us, as he is currently without a passport and unable to leave his native Iran, having refused that country's compulsory military service.

And so, Soleimanpour speaks through his actor to us, seeking evidence of our presence at and participation in his show: notes and photos and video documentation that he asks be emailed to him at his gmail account, which he freely provides. And the actor, having begun speaking the playwright's words, cannot stop. She must continue to the end, doing everything the playwright asks, including an ostrich impression, and drinking that potentially fatal glass of water. And we, in the audience, in turn do everything the actor asks of us. Having numbered off at the top of the show, several "obligatory volunteers" are conscripted to enact parts of the scripts, and/or facilitate the actor in her progress through it. This included Richard, who, as number three, was required to play a white rabbit wanting to attend the circus, but who is accosted by a bear (another audience "volunteer") demanding payment. But it's the poor soul who ends up as number five who must empty the vial of "poison" into one of the two glasses of water on stage from which the actor must choose to drink at the end. That the woman who rather reluctantly did this last night was also the only one in the audience who attempted to prevent our actor from making this choice--actually getting up and attempting to remove the glasses--was instructive, if only for her failure to effect a different outcome than the one in Soleimanpour's script: the red rabbit who tries to separate herself from the rest of the warren's dominant white regime will nevertheless be dragged back by that regime (and here I'm referencing a specific allegorical tale that comes from Soleimanpour).

I'm happy to say that Studio 58 Artistic Director Kathryn Shaw, our actor from last night, lived to talk about the experience. But it was one of the most fraught moments in the theatre I've experienced in recent memory when she raised her chosen glass to her lips and drank. While most in the audience--which included many Studio 58 students--likely assumed, as I did, that whatever substance was poured into the glass was benign, there still remained some doubt--not least about our own failure/inability to intervene, and the ethics of witnessing what is in some senses constructed as a ritual sacrifice.

A most thought-provoking play, and one that I look forward to talking about with my ENGL 468W students (who are all required to see and review it in the context of Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer).


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Creating Trouble

I still remember a fistfight I got into with my brother in the early 1980s over some incendiary speech the Unionist politician Ian Paisley had given about Republican representation in the affairs of Northern Ireland. And we were both Canadian Protestants whose knowledge of the "troubles" in far-flung Belfast had mostly been gleaned from Bono and U2! Still, the episode is a telling example of how quickly and routinely the entrenched factionalism surrounding the fate of Northern Ireland--which had then ratcheted up another notch with the recent election of Margaret Thatcher--devolved into violence.

That fraught time--and, more importantly, place--is where we're once again transported in playwright and performer Stephanie Henderson's The Troubles, a multi-character solo piece from Resounding Scream Theatre that had its last performance at the 2012 Fringe Festival yesterday. And it's clear that even fourteen years after the Belfast Agreement, the wounds are still fresh.

Henderson is a wonderfully open and engaging performer, and the production plays to her naturally empathic strengths by having her address the audience directly from the top of the show--in a flawless Irish accent, no less. Her character, we soon learn, is leaving Belfast, fed up with the bloodshed and violence, and the rending of communities and families simply because of religious affiliation and/or the accident of one's birth. We only learn the woman's name, Molly, at the end of the show, but to Henderson's credit, we never learn her religion. Saving her ideology for where it most belongs--in service of compelling theatre and creating an affective connection with her fictional characters as they daily negotiate the turmoil of a city divided--Henderson, the playwright, wisely doesn't take political sides.

However, she does take lots of physical risks in embodying her characters, who range from a young schoolboy who literally has his friendship with his best mate, Jimmy, knocked out of him, to a father labouring to keep his family safe, to a beer-chugging Man U fan who narrowly escapes an IRA bomb, to a young Catholic girl who loses her brother in the Bloody Sunday attacks. All are believably drawn, and whether wearing a balaclava or toting a teddy bear, Henderson is never less than fully "present," drawing us into each character's story as much with her gestures as with her voice (if you want a lesson in how to make love to a pint of Guinness, see Henderson).

My one complaint, and it's a small one, is that the transitions between the characters are not always clearly delineated. Nor are the connections between them. Perhaps Henderson does not mean for the stories she tells to be linked in a direct way. That said, the conceit of framing the piece from Molly's perspective does encourage us to try to connect the dots of all that happens in between back to her. In future versions of this work maybe those connections (or disconnections) will become more sharply defined. So, too, may the purpose of the video projections. At present I feel like the iconic images we see (including of the priest Edward Daly testifying about the British military firing on unarmed civilians during Bloody Sunday) take the piece out of the fictional world of everyday negotiation Henderson has worked so hard to create and into the too-easy world of ideological identification and condemnation. Two-dimensional visual images, even of the documentary variety, have a way of flattening the lived--and live--complexity and messiness of day-to-day existence. Which is why, of course, we go to the theatre.

My own Fringe theatre-going, such as it's been this year, is over. But the fall season is just beginning. I look forward to what's in store.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Knocking it Out of the Park

In all the press I've read on Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, his Pulitzer, Tony, and Olivier Award-winning play about race, class, and the history of postwar home ownership in urban America, no one has talked very much about how well-made it is. The focus has mostly been on Act Two's toxic humour, and what it reveals about the unleashed collective id of Americans, who even in 2009 (when Act Two is set), and with an African-American in the White House, remain deeply divided racially and economically. That unleashing is certainly part of the guilty pleasure of watching Norris' play, currently on at the Arts Club's Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in a crackling and superbly-acted production directed by Janet Wright. Returning from intermission, audiences are given permission to laugh uproariously at a succession of increasingly offensive jokes by the black and white neighbours who gradually shed all pretense of politeness in each other's company. However, I'm not sure the ideas behind the comedy are as profound as some reviewers have made out, and the retreat to the 1950s setting of the play's first act in the epilogue seems in some respects a flight from the politics of the present as consequential as the grieving Bev and Russ's planned flight to the suburbs.

That said, the relationship between the play's two acts is a structural marvel, with Norris constructing echoes of Act One in Act Two that are complex and nuanced rather than merely showy, and creating enough connection and distance between his characters to provide rich opportunities of discovery for both the audience and performers. The wonder begins with how seamlessly Norris evokes a parallel play world to one of the classics of modern American drama, Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun. Bev (the wonderful Deborah Williams) and Russ (a perfectly coiled Andrew Wheeler) are a fifty-something white couple packing up their house in the Chicago neighbourhood of the play's title. It's 1959, and they are preparing to move to the suburbs, ostensibly to be closer to Russ' work, but as much to escape painful family memories associated with the house they've just sold, where their son, Kenneth, a Korean War vet, committed suicide in an upstairs bedroom. The local minister, Jim (the multi-tasking Sebastien Archibald), is on hand at Bev's insistence in order to coax Russ into opening up about his grief for his son. However, it is the arrival of Karl (the magnificently fulminating Robert Moloney) and his deaf wife, Betsy (Sasa Brown, skirting caricature with expert precision), that really begins to upset whatever peace remains within this domestic space.

For Karl is none other than Karl Linder, the white representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association (CPIA) who pays a visit to the Younger family in Hansberry's play in an attempt to dissuade them from moving into the all-white neighbourhood of which he is chief guardian. In Norris' play, Karl reveals to Russ and Bev that, unbeknownst to them, they have just sold their house to a black family (the Youngers), and wants to persuade them to let the CPIA buy it back--not because he's racist, of course (after all, he is au courant enough to mix it up with his references to Coloreds and Negroes), but because he feels Clybourne Park will simply prove to be too alien an environment for the Youngers, who presumably won't be ably to buy the food they like to eat at Gelmann's Grocery Store. All of this is conveyed as an object lesson in urban planning and social demographics by conscripting Bev and Russ' black domestic, Francine (Marci T. House, who is a revelation, and not just because of what she does with the most out-there joke from Act Two), and her husband, Albert (Daren Herbert, whose timing with Norris' one-liners is as adeptly cutting as his singing and dancing was smoothly graceful in this summer's Music Man at TUTS) into a conversation about why they surely would never want to live alongside white folks. Really, however, Karl is worried about what having a black family in the neighbourhood will do to property values, predicting that should other families of colour follow the Youngers' example, then there will be an exodus of white families, and the entire neighbourhood will become a black ghetto. But Russ is having none of Karl's posturing, noting that the white tribe of Clybourne Park's exclusive inclusivity didn't extend to embracing his war-damaged son.

Act Two opens fifty years later, and we learn that the scenario painted by Karl has indeed come to pass. Clybourne Park is now a predominantly black neighbourhood, one whose recent decline and proximity to downtown make it increasingly attractive to young gentrifying white couples. Enter Lindsey and Steve (Brown and Moloney), who have just purchased the old Younger house, and whose plans to renovate have got their black neighbours, Lena and Kevin (House and Herbert), up in arms. Together with their respective lawyers, Kathy (Williams) and Tom (Archibald), the two couples are attempting to make their way through a multi-page document that is to go before the new CPIA, and about which they are trying to reach certain compromise. But compromise, along with politeness, very quickly goes out the window as each couple's circumlocutions around easements and property lines, and where they've vacationed, and what's the capital of Morocco, is overturned by Steve's insistence that Lena's speech about the historical value of the neighbourhood is really a conversation about race. That's when the dangerous jokes start flying, and when everyone (except for the oblivious handy-man, Dan, played by Wheeler) is mutually offended we know for sure we're "in America"--as Maria from West Side Story might say (and the soundtrack at the start and end of each act is just one of the subtle period details that make this production so good).

Norris' dialogue is not just furiously funny, but also fast, and often overlapping, and the entire cast is uniformly up to task in their timing. Inevitably some lines got eaten by audience laughter, but in a play that's all about who gets to speak, when, and for and to whom, this becomes a structuring conceit in and of itself. Relatedly, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the play is how realistically Norris captures the internal dynamics of couples' communication (and, just as frequently, miscommunication), with Lindsay and Kevin each struggling in vain at certain points to ward off what they know will be offensive volleys from their partners. A similar marvel comes from how physical Wright manages to make what, blocking-wise, is a fairly static second act. Essentially all the actors are sitting in chairs (or on boxes) stretched horizontally across the stage. And, indeed, for most of the act only Lindsey and Steve, punctuated by the odd interruption of Dan, roam around the stage, visually establishing a proprietary claim to their new territory. But that doesn't mean the others recede into the background, and it's a tribute to Wright's expertly kinesthetic direction that you feel at any moment any one of the actors might leap up and throw a punch.

The punches in Norris' play stay--just barely--at the verbal level. But that doesn't make them any less hard-hitting. Like all great comedy, he first flays you with his wit. And then he makes you gasp at what is concealed behind it.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

For a good time...

Last night I had the great good fortune of moderating a panel at the Fringe Festival's St. Ambroise Bar on Railspur Alley. The panel was called "Let's Get it On: Sexuality in the Theatre," and featured a who's who of amazing women theatre artists talking about sex on stage and, just as importantly, about sexing staging.

I won't go into all the smart and hilarious stuff that was said, but I did want to plug these women's shows:

Celene Harder and Val Duncan (Calgary), Does This Turn You On?, Studio 1398

Gigi Naglak and Meg Williams (Philadelphia), Chlamydia dell'Arte: A Sex-Ed Burlesque, Performance Works

Cameryn Moore (Boston), slut (r)evolution, (Performance Works)

They were joined by Fringe vet Deb Pickman (Shameless Hussy Productions), who doesn't have a show at the festival this year, but who gave us a tantalizing hint of what her company has in the works.

The Fringe continues until this Sunday.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Early Lanford Wilson at the Fringe

American playwright Lanford Wilson and La MaMa impresario Ellen Stewart more or less invented Off-Off-Broadway theatre in New York. Both died last year, a great loss to the theatre community. But their legacies live on, Stewart's in the Lower Eastside institution that remains a hotbed of creative theatrical experimentation, and Wilson's in a oeuvre that spans iconic works like his Talley family trilogy (Fifth of July, Talley's Folly, Talley and Son), The Hot l Baltimore, and Burn This (which Richard and I saw in a stunning New York revival by Signature Theatre starring Catherine Keener and Edward Norton).

But  Wilson, who was also a co-founder of the Circle Rep Theatre Company, also wrote heaps of short plays. Home Free (1964) was one of his earliest, and it premiered last night at the 2012 Fringe Festival, in a production by the local company Staircase XI.

The play bears more than a passing resemblance to Jean Cocteau's novel Les enfants terribles. Like that work, Wilson's Home Free centers on two siblings, Lawrence and Joanna, who have isolated themselves from the outside world, whether as a consequence or because of their apparently incestuous sexual relationship is never made clear. What is clear is that they live largely within their own fantasy world, one that combines both the worst excesses of arrested adolescent development and wishful adult responsibility. Most of these excesses are borne by their imaginary children, Claypone and Edna, with whom they speak throughout, and whom they order about imperiously. None of this bodes well for what we assume is the real child growing inside Joanna's womb, whose imminent birth, we are to understand, will almost certainly lead to their eviction from their cloistered apartment.

What is real and what is imaginary is the central dialectic upon which this drama hinges, and as tensions escalate between brother and sister each (again like their counterparts in Cocteau's novel) knows exactly how to insert the knife wound into the heart of the other by calling into question what he or she most believes in. However, the stakes are high, and when--SPOILER ALERT--the pain in her shoulder Lawrence accuses Joanna of faking becomes seriously life-threatening, the choice the agoraphobic Lawrence makes--to send Edna in search of help rather than going himself--will prove fatal.

All of this is played with absolute conviction by Jason Clift and Maryanne Renzetti (also producer and, with Becky Shrimpton, Co-Artistic Director of Staircase XI). It is not easy in a house as intimate as the Carousel to direct dialogue at imaginary interlocutors downstage while maintaining the theatre's traditional fourth wall--a division crucially important in a psychological drama such as this. It is a credit to both actors--and director Brian Cochrane--that they make us believe in their belief in Claypone and Edna. Kudos as well to whoever designed the set and sourced the props (Co-Stage Manager's Anthony Liam Kerns and Erin Sandra Crowley?), as the look of Lawrence and Joanna's insular world enhances our own sense of entrapment in the dangerous space of their game-playing. A music box that Joanna winds at one point in the play to annoy Lawrence will come back at the end, an eerily perfect acoustic accompaniment to the play's denouement, and to end of childhood innocence more generally.


Monday, September 3, 2012

Fringe Begins

It's Labour Day, which means two things: a return to school; and the imminent start of the Vancouver International Fringe Festival. The two are not always conducive to mutual enjoyment. Last year, being on leave, I could attend a decent number of Fringe shows. This year, class preps and related administration will likely mean I have to be more chary with my time. But I do plan to get out there and see at least a few shows.

Here's what's caught my eye so far:

Parczew 45 (Chai Productions) at Studio 16

Underbelly, by Jayson McDonald (of last year's most excellent Giant Invisible Robot fame), at the Waterfront

Loon, from the Wonderheads (the folks responsible for Grim & Fisher, last year's breakout Fringe hit, which is returning to the Cultch in January), at the Waterfront

Utopia (Theatre Free Radical) at Studio 1398

The Troubles (Resounding Scream Theatre) at Studio 1398

Recess, by Una Aya Osato, at the False Creek Gym

Home Free, Staircase Xi Theatre's mounting of a short play by the great Lanford Wilson, at the Carousel Theatre

Three More Sleepless Nights, a site-specific take on another short play by the equally great Caryl Churchill (I saw a version of this last December, and it was fantastic--highly recommended)

Slumming, by former student Barbara Ellison, at the Cultch

slut (r)evolution, by Cameryn Moore, of Phone Whore fame, at Performance Works

By the way, Cameryn, together with Gigi Naglak (Chlamydia dell'Arte: A Sex-Ed Burlesque), Celene Harder and Val Duncan (Does This Turn You On?), and Deb Pickman (Shameless Hussy Productions), will be part of a panel on "Sexuality in Theatre" that I will be moderating on Monday, September 10th as part of the line-up of sidebar events the Fringe folks have programmed at the St. Ambroise Fringe Bar (1363 Railspur Alley on Granville Island). The proceedings begin at 7 pm.

And of course all of this is preceded by the Opening Night gala and auction tomorrow at 7 pm at Performance Works.

Get your tickets for all events here.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

In the Rehearsal Studio with Kidd Pivot

Yesterday was one of those goose-bump inducing days when you just have to marvel at the amazing opportunities afforded you. In this case the source of wonder was attending an open rehearsal with Crystal Pite and her company Kidd Pivot, who are in residence at SFU Woodward's for the next two weeks while they get ready to remount her latest evening-length work, The Tempest Replica. In conjunction with DanceHouse, who will be presenting the piece at the Playhouse in November, Pite invited members of the public into the studio for an hour of danced excerpts and talk as she took us through aspects of her (re)conceptualization of the piece.

The Tempest Replica premiered last year in Germany, but as Pite told us yesterday evening she was never entirely satisfied with the piece. And so the present rehearsals have turned into something of a radical rethink not just of different aspects of the choreography, but also of sound (which they were having a bit of trouble with) and design. Combined with the addition of a few new company members who are learning the piece for the very first time, and following a two-month hiatus from dancing for the rest of the company, we were warned that what we would be witnessing was very rough and exploratory. If that's the case, then judging from what I saw--which was frankly stunning--come November the superlatives will be unrestrained.

Conceptually and structurally, The Tempest Replica is in the same vein as Pite's earlier Dark Matters. Both works are structured in two parts, with the first part in each case laying out the "story" in more consciously theatrical ways as a prelude to the pure dance sequences then elaborated in the second halves. The black-clad supernumeraries/shadow puppets from Dark Matters are here replaced by all-white (including fencing-style masks) stand-ins for the main characters from Shakespeare's play, who telegraph, or "storyboard" in Pite's words, the key plot points in various tableaux. From what I could gather yesterday, the movement here is deliberately contained, with Pite gradually developing the outline of the gestural language that she will elaborate more fully and complexly in the all-dance sequences of the second half, or what she referred to as the "real" world. So, for example, in an early scene from the first part, we witness Miranda (Cindy Salgado) being manipulated (almost like the marionette from Dark Matters) by her father Prospero (Eric Beauchesne) into watching the storm that he has conjured to shipwreck Ferdinand (Jermaine Spivey), Antonio (Yannick Matthon), Sebastian (Jiří Pokorný) and the rest of the crew from Milan. In the second half of The Tempest Replica, we see the same scene replayed, with Miranda's desperation at having to witness the suffering of those on the ship translated into a series of quick pivots and staccato movements that viscerally convey both her panic at what's happening and her horror that her father has made it happen. All the caveats about rustiness aside, the dancers yesterday were superb, and it was such an amazing gift to be able to see them work there magic up close. The duet between Prospero and Ariel (Sandra Garcia) was especially breath-taking, because the lifts that magically send the enslaved sprite flying are less than ten feet away from you.

The Tempest Replica continues Pite fascination with combining text and movement, this time having lines from the play both repeated and manipulated acoustically on the sound score (created by Meg Roe and Alessandra Juliani in conjunction with composer and longtime Pite collaborator Owen Belton) and, as Pite herself conjured for us, projected onto the back wall of the stage. I got to ask Pite about her fondness for text in a Q&A session after the rehearsal, and her remarks were very helpful in relation to my own current research on dance-theatre, of which her work forms an important part. Hopefully I'll be able to continue that conversation with her at some point in the future. In the meantime, I thank her and her dancers for their generosity yesterday in giving us a glimpse of their working process. And, of course, I look forward to seeing the finished piece when it comes back to the city in November.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Turning a Page at MusicFest 2012

I've blogged before about music--especially of the classical variety--being a rather big lacuna in my live performance spectrum. But this year Richard insisted we make an effort to see some of the offerings at MusicFest Vancouver, which just concluded its 10 day run this past Sunday.

I'm glad we did, for two reasons. First, because the concerts we went to--the Gryphon Trio performing the Czech Masters (Dvorák and Smetana) at Christ Church Cathedral Friday morning, and Philippe Cassard and François Chaplin in a four hands tribute (on one and then two pianos) to Debussy at the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday evening--were both excellent. And, second, because I've discovered what has to be among the most nerve-wracking of supernumerary stage jobs: being a page turner for the piano score. In addition to the ability to sight read music, of course, one must be an at once discreet and alert presence on stage, expertly timing when to stand up and begin one's reach, making sure to grab only one corner of one page at a time, and, most importantly, being able to distinguish between a performer's subtle sign (usually a nod of the head) to turn and what just might be an aspect of his or her exuberant playing of the music.

I am pleased to say that at both concerts all three page turners acquitted themselves with aplomb. And, indeed, my eyes were often as riveted on them as on the performers. Not listed on the program, as per proper form, I trust these unsung individuals get other forms of kudos--including from the accomplished professionals they are serving.

Speaking of turning a page with aplomb, at Saturday's concert Morna Edmundson, in her curtain speech, noted that the passing of the torch from MusicFest Vancouver's outgoing Artistic Director, George Lavarock, to its current AD, Matthew Baird, has been absolutely seamless over this past year. I look forward to what Baird and his team have planned for next year.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Hangovers

Given that this blog was set up in part as a local anticipatory response to the 2010 Winter Olympics here in Vancouver, you would think I’d have something to say about the most recent Summer spectacle that has just concluded in London. Especially now that the postmortems have begun: on the pre-Games embarrassments for the host country (the line-ups at Heathrow, the security concerns and costs) that slowly gave way to collective national pride as the weather cleared and their athletes started racking up the medals; on the potential post-Games legacy for East London, and for Mayor Boris Johnson, who many are already touting to replace David Cameron as ruler of the Conservative Party (especially now that Cameron’s coalition with the Lib Dems seems to have collapsed); on the rote American jingoism and frustrating time delays of NBC’s television coverage; on the IOC’s continued corporate fascism in monitoring everything from British citizens’ infringements of the official Olympic brand to what messages athletes could or could not tweet; and, as is usually the case here in Canada, on our failure once again to ascend the heights of the medal podium in several events that were supposed to be a lock.

Let the public bloodletting begin!

In fact, I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to avoid, as much as possible, anything to do with the Olympics (which is easier said than done, believe me—even for someone who doesn’t have cable and was squiring around visiting relatives to local tourist destinations). I maintain that the entire enterprise is a colossal waste of money, a media spectacle whose excesses seem grotesque when set alongside the corresponding diminution of coverage for real crises like the civil war in Syria, and a largely pre-determined sporting contest whose outcomes seem designed only to maintain the divide between moneyed Western nations and the entire global South (though we’ll see if that changes somewhat when the Games move to Rio in 2016).

What I wrote about the Olympics in my book World Stages, Local Audiences two years ago (in a chapter comparing the Beijing and Vancouver showcases) still seems the most apt performative response. At the Olympics, I suggested, “tribal nationalisms join forces with late capitalism, neo-liberal individualism, cultural tourism, gender binarism, the modern security state, and local weather patterns to produce a two-week media showcase of drug and judging scandals, political grand-standing, corporate sponsorships, regional boosterism, heart-tugging human interest stories, spectacular opening and closing production numbers and, very occasionally, sublime moments of athletic excellence” (18-19).

Plus ça change à Londre.