Monday, January 30, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #9: Turning Point's Colourful World at SFU Woodward's

These are some of the colours I heard last night at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's, where the magnificent Turning Point Ensemble performed a full evening of music as part of the PuSh Festival.

Morton Feldman's "Short Trumpet Piece," a solo overture played by Marcus Goddard from the back of the auditorium, heralded bright sunbursts in advance of "Rain Coming," a short orchestral work by Toru Takemitsu that was as changeable in its tonality as Vancouver weather, and that put me in mind of the way the German painter Gerhard Richter is able to capture the complexity and startling vibrancy of so many shades of grey.

Next up was a 1915 cello sonata by Claude Debussy. In this intimate and playful work in three movements, the call and response between Ariel Barnes on cello and Jane Hayes on piano, particularly in the middle movement when both set about plucking their instruments in striking ways, conjured a dance of light and shadow, as when late afternoon sun filters through a leafy tree on a windy day and dapples the sidewalk in constantly shifting patterns.

Then came the centrepiece of the evening, the world premiere of Rodney Sharman's Chamber Symphony. Written in two movements, the first was a weird and wonderful jangle of dissonant sounds, like silvery icicles crackling in a wintry landscape that can't decide if it's warming up or getting colder. Things definitely get hotter in the second movement, a rousing take on the scherzo form, the strings now alighting a red flame beneath the other instruments.

After intermission there were two more works by Takemitsu and Debussy. Takemitsu's "Archipelago S." positioned the ensemble in five separate instrumental groups--including clarinetists François Houle and Caroline Gauthier in the upper balconies stage left and right--lonely islands connected by a deep blue sea of sound. And finally we heard Debussy's "Jeux," newly arranged by Michael Bushnell. Listening to its bright tempo changes (and influenced no doubt by the original Ballet Russes commission), I couldn't help seeing tennis whites, albeit requisitely dotted with strategic grass stains.

A most enjoyable evening of music, and a fitting tribute to Milton Wong, to whom the concert was dedicated.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #8: Hot Pepper... at SFU Woodward's

Three years ago, at the 2009 PuSh Festival, Richard and I sat in Performance Works (next to soon-to-be Associate Curator Dani Fecko, in fact) and watched a group of young Japanese actors interact in a succession of oblique scenes in front of a white backdrop. The surtitles projected onto that backdrop suggested that most of the exchanges concerned whether or not these curiously affectless characters should leave off talking about the mostly banal goings on in their lives and join a protest wending its way through the streets of Tokyo, and gradually it became apparent that the historical backdrop to the piece was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mostly, however, I paid scant attention to the surtitles, so mesmerized was I by the curious gestural patterns and bouncy-jerky movements repeated by the actors as they spoke their dialogue.

Five Days in March was my first introduction to the work of Tokyo's chelfitsch Theatre Company and its quirky artistic director, Toshiki Okada. So taken was I with his unique juxtaposition of speech and movement that when I learned the company was coming back to this year's Festival with a new work, I immediately put it on my list of must-see shows. Last night I caught the final performance of Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech at SFU Woodward's Studio T, and it did not disappoint.

As per its title, the piece is divided into three related vignettes, all set within an unnamed office in Tokyo. In the first, three temporary workers discuss the farewell party they have been charged with organizing for Erika, a fellow part-time employee who is being let go. Their worries about where to hold the party, and what sort of cuisine Erika might like, gradually give way to speculation on which of them might be next to be axed, and what they'd like to eat at their own farewell dinner. Next up, two permanent workers--one male, one female--have a bizarrely circuitous and increasingly aggressive conversation about the temperature in the office. Finally, Erika herself is given the floor, her brief farewell remarks eventually turning into an epic story about how the shoes she has worn nearly every day to work for almost two years remind her of mating penguins, and the cicada she stepped on with them outside her apartment that morning.

All of this is told against a similarly stark white backdrop, onto which surtitles are again projected. But so, at various points, are kaleidoscopic washes of colour that, together with a soundtrack of cool jazz and pulsating electronica, enhance the surreal quality of the piece. However, nothing contributes more to that overall effect than the trademark movement patterns of the chelfitsch actors as they speak their lines. Waving fans, walking on their heels, rubbing arms and legs obsessively, and generally contorting their limbs and bodies into all sorts of strange positions, the staccato choreography suggests a generation of young people chafing not just against the facade of office decorum, but against their diminished expectations more generally.

Social realism is definitely not chelfitsch's aesthetic stock in trade; but compelling social commentary is nevertheless the result.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #7: Guided Tour at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Anyone who saw City of Dreams at last year's PuSh Festival knows of UK artist Peter Reder's uncanny ability to reveal a city anew to its residents. In that piece the pleasure of rediscovery was facilitated by the creation of an evolving historical and geographical map of Vancouver on the floor of the Roundhouse using a succession of everyday objects and found artifacts. This year Reder is back with Guided Tour, a site-specific work co-presented with Boca Del Lupo and the Vancouver Art Gallery that transports an audience of 30 after hours through the hidden corridors of the latter institution.

The fact that Reder first premiered this piece at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, and has since toured it to different galleries, museums and auditoriums in Russia, Romania, Singapore, Spain, and the United States should clue us in to the fact that, as our guide, Reder is not particularly interested in revealing the complete history and design of a building about which many of us in the audience know as much, if not more, than him. And, indeed, when at the start of last night's 9 pm tour, while we were standing in the magnificent first floor rotunda, one man asked a question about the concrete construction, Reder happily admitted that he hadn't the faintest idea what the answer might be. This is not to say that Reder hasn't done his research, delving into the building's origins as a courthouse and discussing with some authority its architectural conversion into an art gallery in the 1980s by Arthur Erickson.

But he is also up front in telling us that, as far as he has been able to determine, that's all the history there is to the place, just two layers: its present use and its past heritage. The competing dialectic between these temporal and spatial poles, and between which is real and which ersatz (the preserved courtroom that's now used as a film set or the representations of representations on the gallery walls?), obscures all of the sedimented layers in between, piling them up like rubble before the leaden feet of Walter Benjamin's recording angel. We actually meet that angel at the end of the tour: deep in the bowels of the building, among piles of crated art and empty display cases, she appears before us on a video, a sweet old granny wearing fluffy white wings, sipping tea, and reading Proust.

This is not the first juxtaposition of the two writers. Earlier in the tour, when we are shown into the gallery library, and someone in the group comments on the smell of old books, Reder launches into a discussion of Marcel biting into the tea-soaked madeleine in La Recherche, and the involuntary memories that come flooding back to him as a result. Afterwards, in the hallway outside, Reder pauses briefly to discuss Benjamin's angel of history being blown backwards into the future. And this, I would argue, is the more compelling dialectic at work in the piece: the juxtaposition of the violence of institutional history, which seeks not just to obliterate the past, but to re-purpose it, with the counter-narrative of personal memory, which always partially exceeds or escapes or resists aesthetic capture and exhibitionary display. How else to explain Reder's family slide show near the end of the tour, which far from containing his experiences within the gallery setting actually succeeds in taking us out of what we think that space should be for?

At the outset of the tour Reder informs us that in preparation he has been reading various "how to" guides on being a guide, and among other things learning various phrases to deploy on his audiences. The most important one, he tells us, is "follow me." And that, by the end of this intimate and revelatory piece, is precisely what we have done.


Friday, January 27, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #6: Looking for a Missing Employee at the Roundhouse

On September 25, 1996, a low-level bureaucrat in Lebanon's Ministry of Finance disappeared. Shortly thereafter there appeared a small item in one of Beirut's daily newspapers announcing this fact, and tying the disappearance to the loss of several billion Lebanese pounds from the coffers of the Ministry. A few days later the disappeared man's wife published an item denouncing the slander against her husband and appealing for information concerning his whereabouts. And so things continued for the next four months, with different newspapers tracking the story: quoting government sources and the disappeared man's family in equal measure; regularly reporting on the fluctuating amount of money stolen; implicating other individuals; linking the whole affair to a coincident scandal involving fraudulent stamps; and gradually revealing the depths of corruption within several other ministries.

Following every twist and turn in the story was Lebanese performance artist Rabih Mroué, who clipped related items from three different newspapers and pasted them into notebooks. Mroué has brought these notebooks with him to the PuSh Festival (in a performance co-presented with the Grunt and Contemporary Art Galleries), and out of this textual archive he weaves a Kafkaesque tale (and, yes, there is at one point a reference to a Josef K.) of deception, innuendo, and rumour that is as intriguing for how it is presented as for what it says. Indeed, because Mroué reconstructs the story of the missing employee entirely from published newspaper accounts that are two decades old, and for an international audience that would in large part be significantly removed--not just temporally and geographically, but also culturally and politically--from their import, drama and suspense must be created via their re-presentation and remediation. To that end, the notebooks of clipped and pasted newspaper articles are projected onto a screen via an overhead camera, with Mroué flipping through them and summarizing their content in largely chronological order, occasionally offering a comic aside or barbed comment on the contradictions contained within them, but for the most part literally letting them speak for themselves.

Except, of course, that it is Mroué doing the speaking, acting as our medium by translating the accounts from Arabic into English, and by helping to place the specifics of the missing employee's story in the larger political and cultural context not just of Lebanon, but of the entire Middle East region (the various reports of the employee having absconded to either Egypt or Syria or the no-man's land between Lebanon and Israel offer an occasion for Mroué to make oblique references to both present and past conflicts). Moreover, the spectral quality of Mroué's second-hand reportage is further enhanced by the fact that he does not sit, à la Spalding Gray (with whom he has justly been compared), at the empty table and chair positioned centre stage to tell us his tale, but rather among us in the audience, with his image then projected onto a small screen just behind the chair. It's an eerie and uncanny effect: Mroué is at once materially among us, re-discovering and in effect co-creating the story of the missing employee with us; at the same time, he is electronically and digitally removed from us, a virtual Big Brother governing how we receive the story. And, in this regard, the careful spectator starts to observe how Mroué at various moments chooses to edit the newspapers' own editing of the story, saying he is at loss for how to translate some of the Arabic phrasings, deciding not to convey the content of some of the articles at all, going back and forth between different newspapers at strategic moments, and censoring some of the accompanying photographs from our view.

How, in the end, can we know what is true and what is a lie? This is in fact the question put to us at the start of the show by Ghassan Halawani, the visual artist who is Mroué's performance collaborator. Like Mroué, Halawani sits among us in the audience, but with blank sheets of bristol board in front of him, and upon which he first writes a couple of epigraphs (including the one about truth and lies being only a hair's breadth apart) and then attempts to construct the timeline and order the facts of the missing employee's story. By the end of Mroué's spoken account of that story, Halawani's visual record is a mess of scratched out names, competing figures, and cancelled possibilities, its inadequacy as a final explanation for what happened underscored (or overwritten?) by the water that Halawani squirts upon the board at the end, blurring the different colour-coded jottings into a hopeless jumble.

As for Mroué, after he finishes recounting the missing employee's story, he continues to stare at us from the small centre-stage screen--even after the house lights come up, even after he receives a smattering of applause, even as the audience gets up to leave. It's a challenge that makes us uncomfortable, maybe because it implicates us in the double violence done to the employee (real and textual), maybe because it refuses us the closure promised by the last of the recited newspaper items. As Mroué's witty, complex, and ultimately chilling piece shows, there is always more than one story to be told.

Looking for a Missing Employee continues at the Roundhouse through this Saturday; a talkback with the artist moderated by Vanessa Kwan follows this evening's performance.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #5: Do You Want What I Have Got? at Arts Club Revue Stage

I've only ever used Craigslist once: to sell a sofa. But I have friends and family members and colleagues and students who swear by it: to buy or trade all sorts of items; to find apartments or roommates; and, yes, to hook up. The concomitant (maybe consequent?) loss or proof of selfhood within our consumer culture is a major theme in Bill Richardson and Veda Hille's Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, on at the Arts Club Revue Stage until February 11th. Or, as one of their songs puts it, "acquisition and attrition." That could also easily describe my experience last night watching this hilarious and surprisingly moving show. For every moment of laugh-out-loud mirth I greedily lapped up over the course of its intermissionless 90 minutes, I was also emotionally undone by the vulnerability and desperation that clearly underscored so many of the lyrics.

That those lyrics come almost wholly from actual want ads culled by Richardson from the online classifieds site Craigslist is the central conceit of this sung-through musical, first developed as part of Theatre Replacement's 20 Minute Musicals offering at Club PuSh in 2009. With additional lyrics and original music provided by collaborator and co-writer Veda Hille, those ads are here shaped into a rich and deeply affecting portrait of the virtual marketplace, filled with longed for exchanges and missed connections. Indeed, for every song cataloguing something to buy or sell (headless dolls, a collection of stuffed penguins, a dead moose, a bathtub full of noodles) there is another opining a fleeting encounter at a coffee shop, a wordless look exchanged on a street corner, a stolen glance on a bus. The wistful "Did you see me?" becomes the counterpoint to the more assertive hawk of the title refrain.

All of this is perfectly captured by a ridiculously talented cast. J. Cameron Barnett is hilarious and heartbreaking in a number about offloading old dance trophies, which also allows him to show off a mean plié; later he also rocks out, including on the saxophone, in a unique take on male bonding. Dmitry Chepovetsky (the best thing about last year's This, at the Playhouse) brings down the house in a gypsy-inspired tune soliciting the attention of a pretty lady to whom he briefly said "Hi, hi, hi." Bree Greig is a standout from beginning to end, her powerful soprano and expressive face and body able to convey both pure innocence (in that song about the penguins, or the opening number about the guy she smelled on the bus) and down and dirty raunch (as in a Liza Minnelli-like bit about the roommate she doesn't want). And Selina Martin brings layers of hidden depth and subtle pathos to her mostly deadpan delivery in a variety of roles, including a woman mourning the death of her cat and another who edits Craigslist ads for grammar and spelling.

Joining these four on stage are Hille on piano and Barry Mirochnick on percussion (and a variety of other instruments). Hille also harmonizes throughout, and gets her own occasional solos (including a nice homage to Steve Jobs). Even Mirochnick sings an ode to a toupé. As with everything Hille composes and arranges, the score is just the right mix of catchy and quirky, and true to the cantata form is made up of a mix of recitative (as when different ads are sung through verbatim) and more lyrical songs repeated throughout at different intervals. It makes so much sense to apply this traditionally sacred musical form to a topic that is so profane, and I hope a cast album is recorded soon.

A shout out, as well, to director Amiel Gladstone for building a recognizable dramatic arc out of the material, for making great use of the Revue Stage space, and for keeping things moving at breakneck speed. Set designer Ted Roberts works magic with a bunch of strung-up lamps, the analogue technology by which we compose our digital dreams--which lighting designer John Webber in turn shines successive spots on with precise aplomb.

Everything about this show has the makings of a hit, and--despite the various local references in the lyrics (which, of course, can be easily adapted)--one that will definitely travel well. Could an extended run and then a tour follow, maybe even to New York? Although a chamber piece ideally suited to an intimate space like the one in which it is currently playing, I can also see this easily filling, whether in the same or expanded form, a much larger house. Drowsy Chaperone anyone? Get tickets now so that you can say you saw it when.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #4: Eve Egoyan at Heritage Hall

Classical music is the one performance modality about which I have always felt reluctant to offer critical commentary. I simply lack the knowledge and technical vocabulary to describe it accurately and in depth. But I do know what I like, including the repertoire of contemporary minimalist composers like Arvo Pärt (everything) and Philip Glass (not quite everything). I admit that I am shamefully ignorant of much of the oeuvre of the late Canadian composer Ann Southam, who blazed a trail both acoustically and electronically for women composers in this country until her untimely death in 2010. Last night that was remedied somewhat as the PuSh Festival, partnering with the amazing Music on Main series curated by David Pay, presented Eve Egoyan playing "Simple Lines of Enquiry," a piece composed for her by Southam in 2007.

"Simple Lines" is a 60-minute piece structured in 12 movements, each exploring what Southam calls "the emotional possibilities ... and the sonorities" within a 12-interval row. It is a gently contemplative piece; there is no percussive banging of the piano keys, and the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. Indeed, watching Egoyan's body as it rose and fell with each intake of breath, as her hands seemed to glide over rather than press upon the keyboard, and as she applied more or less pedal, reminded me that there is more than one way to create resonance from such a magnificent instrument (a Fazioli grand in this case). The ambient sounds of Heritage Hall and Main Street inevitably became part of the piece as well, with the clock tower's striking of 9 pm creating an especially wonderful counterpoint around the same movement in the work. However, I was less taken with some of the sounds created by my fellow patrons: I understand why drinks are served at such events, but can we not restrict them to beer and wine? Ice clinking in plastic cups is the last thing one wants to hear during a work like this.

Though beautiful to listen to, I wouldn't say that "Simple Lines" is the easiest work to sit through. In my struggle to make as little noise as possible, I found myself holding my breath and my limbs cramping at certain points. But, strangely, this disciplining of the body opens up further avenues into the music, almost like chakras traveling up one's spine, reminding one that the sound and silence are part of the same continuum.

Egoyan plays "Simple Lines" again this evening at 8 pm.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Superhuman Steps

Richard and I played hooky from PuSh last night in order to attend DanceHouse's presentation of La La La Human Steps at the Centre on Homer Street. "New Work" (that is, in fact, the title of the piece), by La La La's Artistic Director and Choreographer, Édouard Lock, is set to updated scores of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Glück's Orpheus and Eurydice--by Gavin Bryars and Blake Hargreaves, respectively--and features a pianist, violinist, cellist, and saxophonist performing live on stage alongside the dancers (hence Vancouver New Music coming on board as a co-presenter of this piece).

New work, but trademark Lock steps: tight, precise, lightening quick, and with the graceful muscularity we have come to expect from La La La's women dancers, in particular, who are almost always en pointe, and whose quarter, half, and full pirouettes during partnering were dizzying. Those turns, like the rapidly fluttering arm extensions and movements of all the dancers, were given an added cinematic quality--akin to the early stop-motion experiments of an Eadweard Muybridge, for example--by the dramatic lighting for the piece, which consisted almost entirely of overhead follow-spots, and which, in addition to always keeping the dancers half in shadow, had the effect of creating momentary visual traces of their impossibly fast movements. If it is often said that dancers sculpt air, then this is one occasion where I can say that I actually saw how that happens.

One final element of the piece is the inclusion of a series of black and white filmed portraits of several of La La La's female dancers. These descend from the rafters at select moments in the work, and consist of extended close-ups of face and torso, both in the sitters' current glowing youthfulness and--via make-up and wigs--in terms of what they might look like in old age. Were these meant to be Dido and Eurydice, caught between youthful passion and bitter regret? I hesitate to make direct narrative and thematic connections in Lock's work, but whatever their meaning they were as compelling to watch as the dance itself.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #3: The Idiot at Freddy Wood

The creative team behind Crime and Punishment, the award-winning theatrical adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel that played the 2005 PuSh Festival, is back with another large-scale interpretation of one of the Russian writer's novels. Commissioned by Neworld Theatre in conjunction with PuSh (through the Arts Partners in Creative Development program), and in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre, Theatre at UBC, and the Playwrights Theatre Centre, the play premiered last night at the Frederic Wood Theatre, where it runs until January 29th. Once again the incredibly talented James Fagan Tait has taken on the monumental task of condensing a 1000-page novel of immense scope and complexity for the stage, as well as directing a cast that numbers 19. It no doubt helps that several in the cast were also in Crime and Punishment, and that music composer and director Joelysa Pankanea is also back on board. Joined by Mark Haney on bass and Molly MacKinnon on violin, Pankanea plays the marimba live on stage over the course of the evening's many scenes, her jazz-infused score the perfect accompaniment to the many instances of sung recitative in the play. Yes, this is in part a musical adaptation of Dostoyevsky--and it works.

The Idiot focuses on Prince Lyov Nikolayevich Myshkin (Kevin MacDonald), who is returning to Russia after four years convalescing in Switzerland, and almost cured of his youthful epileptic "fits." On a train bound for St. Petersburg he meets two men, Lebedev (Tom Pickett) and the rake Rogozhin (Andrew McNee), who shows him a picture of the beautiful woman with whom he is obsessed: Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov (Cherise Clarke). Myshkin is himself immediately smitten: with both Rogozhin and Nastasya. But Nastasya is damaged goods, having been kept for much of her life by the older businessman Totsky (Luke Day), who now tired of her, has entered into a deal with the general Yepanchin (David Adams) to have Yepanchin's young assistant, Ganya (Craig Erickson), marry her in exchange for 700 rubles, thus ensuring that Yepanchin has easy access to Nastasya's bed. Meanwhile, Yepanchin's wife (Patti Allan) turns out to be a cousin of the Prince's, who after meeting her three daughters becomes enraptured with the youngest, Aglaya (Adrienne Wong). But Aglaya is also beloved by Ganya, whom she keeps toying with, and whose impecunity and embarrassment about his alcoholic and kleptomaniacal father, Ivolgin (Richard Newman), seriously tempts him to take the marriage deal with Nastasya instead. Got all that?

Dostoevksy is obsessed with doubles in this novel, and in his entire oeuvre more generally. At the centre is the contrast between the essential and unprepossessing goodness of Myshkin and the calculated guile of Rogozhin. But Nastasya and Aglaya are also paired, although in ways that are more complicated. Externally, Nastasya is compromised and sexually available, while Aglaya is pure innocence. But, inside Nastasya remains loyal to Myshkin (even though she dies at the hand of Rogozhin) while Aglaya is rather promiscuous in her affections. Similarly, the two patriarchs, Yepanchin and Ivolgin, are meant to be contrasted, with the former's outward moral rectitude masking his secret lechery, and with the latter's present fallen state unable to cancel out completely memories of a more glorious past, including as Napoleon's page. It is a credit to all of the actors, and to Tait's canny direction, that these novelistic nuances in character are given definite shape and substance in performance. At the centre of this constellation of types, whose motives and means keep shifting in relation to each other, is the Prince, the only person who remains pure and true of heart from beginning to end. Myshkin, despite the idiocy attributed to him as a result of his epilepsy, is neither simple nor guileless, and it is one of the great strengths of MacDonald's remarkable performance that he is able to convey both the generous depths of Myshkin's empathy for others and the extent to which he is also subject to his own divided conflicts and appetites.

That much of this conflict is conveyed through humour surprised me. Granted, Dostoevsky's novel is a mix of comedy and social commentary, especially at the beginning. But there are moments in this production that are downright slapstick, and Tait's updating of the language, especially with respect to the liberal oaths and epithets unleashed by nearly all of the characters, keeps the audience cackling. This is a good strategy in a production that runs 3 1/2 hours long. And while Tait has done a remarkable job in distilling both the novel's complicated plot and its grand themes, I do think there is room to trim another half hour, especially in the second act scenes at the summer spa town of Pavlovsk. For example, I don't think the scene where Burdovsky (Alexander Keurvorst) and Keller (Stephen Lytton) attempt to shake Myshkin down for money is needed; the Prince's goodness and social equanimity has already been indisputably established. To be sure, in a novel as rich as this one in scenes of social commentary and contrast, it can be hard to know where to cut, especially if you want to give each member of your large ensemble a brief moment in the spotlight.

That said, I was never less than gripped last night, and in ways that I haven't always been with the work of Catalyst Theatre, for example, who have also adapted classic works of literature (by Poe and Mary Shelley) for the stage--including the PuSh Festival stage--in a mix of sung/spoken narrative exposition and dramatization. I think Tait and his collaborators find a better balance between these two forms of presentation, wisely leaving most of the narration to the musical bits and letting the actual encounters between the characters on stage organically take shape in terms of those classic staples of good theatrical drama: rich dialogue and physical blocking and movement. On the latter front, one of the things I was most taken with in this staging was the canny spatial uses to which the large cast was put, creating various tableaux and massings that not only obviate the need for elaborate sets (as with the three stunning train rides that are evoked at various points) but also help materially represent the social maw Myshkin's virtue is at once separate from and will eventually be stripped by.

There is no doubt that this production of The Idiot requires a significant investment on the part of its audience: not of money, to be sure (it's cheap by half in that regard); rather it requires an investment of time and energy, of both affective and intellectual engagement. But what you put in will be rewarded many times over. This is a production, like the novel upon which it is based, that is overflowing with ideas, with richly drawn characters and social situations, with theatrical conceits and choric commentary. It is not to be missed.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #2: Woody Sed at Club PuSh

What happens when the artist from New York whom you've invited to open Club PuSh--the cabaret-cum-festival-within-the festival at Performance Works on Granville Island--cancels at the last minute? Why, you phone up Thomas Jones, of course. Jones is a local writer and performer whose one-man show, Woody Sed, played at The Cultch's Culture Lab last October. My loss at having missed it then was my gain last night, as on four days notice Jones got back into character as the legendary American folksinger and political activist, Woody Guthrie, tuned up his guitar, and wowed us all through a combination of story and song.

Actually, Jones got into more than just Guthrie's character, for this solo biographical show (the title is a riff on a column Guthrie wrote for the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker in 1939-40) calls for him to incarnate many other roles as well, including Guthrie's three wives, the radio broadcaster Ed Robbin, and the Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax, whose conversations and recordings with Guthrie in the 1940s led to his first record, Dust Bowl Ballads. Jones steps in and out of each character deftly, moving into a spot, modulating his voice slightly, and adopting a small gesture or significant pose to distinguish different speakers, as well as to mark for us where we are in the story. For the play, while mostly chronological, does weave back and forth in time, beginning with Guthrie's struggles in New York in 1940 to find the right words for his most famous song, "This Land is Your Land," which was inspired by his distaste for Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." We are then transported to the hospital where Guthrie spent the last 15 years of his life, his body and mind slowly deteriorating as a result of Huntington's disease, and with his second wife, Marjorie Mazia (a dancer with the Martha Graham Company), keeping vigil. Only then do we go back to his childhood in Oklahoma, his early troubadouring between there and California during the Depression, his politicization and radio work, and of course those famous conversations with Lomax.

And everywhere along the way we are treated to music, Jones wisely studding his tale--which, despite Guthrie's undeniable legacy today, is not at all a happy one--with both popular and lesser-known tunes from throughout his subject's career. Jones has a rich and warm singing voice and is also an accomplished guitar-player; combined with the deliberate lack of vocal or instrumental amplification and the intimate Club PuSh setting, it really felt that we were sitting around a campfire swapping stories and songs. Which is, of course, what Woody would have wanted. The self-taught musician who famously thumbed his nose at copywriting his work believed, as Jones tells us in a brief program note, that music was above all something to share. And, to that end, the show ended with all of us in chorus on a version of "This Train is Bound for Glory."

A most fitting tribute to Guthrie in the centenary of his birth, and an inspired choice to open the Club.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #1: Amarillo at Woodward's and Gala Opening at The Waldorf

This year's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival got off to a roaring success last night with a packed house at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's for the opening of Amarillo, by Mexico's Teatro Linea de Sombra. Amarillo is a mid-size city in the Texas panhandle, a long way from the Mexican border, but it is the destination of our nameless, faceless, ageless protagonist in this piece, who departs his native Mexico for its unknown horizons, only to come up against the wall the US has erected to bar his entry, as well as the wall of silence surrounding his disappearance. And, in fact, we learn that there are many names, with many different faces, and of many different ages who have so disappeared, with performer Raúl Mendoza at one particularly mesmerizing moment donning a series of sweatshirts to signify the thousands of Mexican citizens who yearly risk their lives in flight for what they imagine will be a better life as an illegal immigrant in a country that has stated in no uncertain terms that they are not welcome, and will be repelled at all costs.

All of this is conveyed in a series of monologues (translated via English surtitles, although they aren't really needed to follow the story) that are accompanied by recorded and live video projections on the giant white wall that serves as the monumental backdrop to the set. The live feeds, in particular, result in some stunning tableaux, as when Mendoza climbs some ladder-like steps jutting out of the stage-right side of the wall, eventually hanging off of the top one while the image of a train is projected behind him. The creators have even rigged cameras up in the rafters, which results in equally arresting images of the various patterns created by the objects and material substances strewn across the stage over the course of the production (there are a lot of them and, as with White Cabin at Club PuSh from a couple of years ago, I wouldn't want to have to stage manage or tech this show!). Two of the most prominent of those substances are water and sand. When, for example, Mendoza is recounting the dangers of dying from dehydration in the desert, performers Alicia Laguna, María Luna, and Antígona González set out what had to have been at least 40-50 gallon size plastic jugs, some of them already filled, others with a smaller container emptying its contents into them--which, when illuminated with a small flashlight and captured via the overhead video, creates a projected image that's at once magical and threatening. Ditto the sand--mostly white, but occasionally coloured red--that empties out of bags attached to cables that are lowered and raised at different points, or that the performers spill from shoes and bottles and their own hands to create lines and borders and compasses on the stage. At once the impassable desert that sucks dry all that moisture in those water bottles and that literally swallows up so many Mexican bodies, the bags of sand also neatly telegraph the image of illegal drugs being conveyed across the border, whether phantasmatically in the minds of American law enforcement officers or very materially in the backpacks of desperate Mexican immigrants corralled into becoming mules for drug lords who (often also phantasmatically) promise them money and safe passage across the border. Then, too, the suspended and slowly emptying bags of sand also convey an image of the hourglass, time slowly but surely slipping away from all who find themselves in this no man's land of the border.

Two things I wasn't prepared for in this production were the prodigious use of movement and Jesús Cuevas' haunting vocalizations. On the former front, lots of extreme physical activity (running, jumping, spinning, fighting, even a bit of gymnastics involving a table and two chairs) combines with simple folk and line dance sequences played out near or against the back wall to convey the trajectory between stasis and movement. When Mendoza is still in this piece (most prominently at the beginning and end), we understand the import. As for Cuevas, he plays a sort of Trickster/seer/sheriff character, his basso profundo--which erupts at various points in the evening from the back of his throat (and from a diaphragm that must have untold depths)--as well as his echoed recitative to some of the monologues, variously a lure, a warning, a dirge.

Finally, last night's performance had added significance for those of us sitting in a venue that is officially known as the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, as at one point in the performance Mendoza reads a letter from Mexico to the "citizens of Vancouver" urging us to protest the damage wrought upon the environment and local indigenous populations by mining companies operating in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The audience, which included the president of my university, was absolutely silent at that point.

In short, Amarillo is a thrilling work of theatre. I am so grateful to have been introduced to this amazing company (well-known in Mexico and widely toured, but new to Vancouver), and it was another inspired choice to open the Festival. The show runs tonight and tomorrow at SFU Woodward's, and I strongly urge people to see it while they can. Tonight's show is preceded by a free screening of the film Norteado (in conjunction with the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival) and followed by a post-show talkback on the issue of borders, national and otherwise.

On a personal note, I was also pleased (and relieved) that my own pre-show performance--that is, the fundraising appeal from the Board that I volunteered to pitch--seemed to be a success. We exceeded our matching gift goal last night (!) and many folks came up to me at our Gala party at the Waldorf afterwards saying how heartfelt my words seemed and, most importantly, how much they supported the work of PuSh.

The party itself was great fun: the right mix of people, entertainment, and of course fabulous venue. If only I hadn't walked into that glass door upon exiting--and I wasn't even drunk.

Tonight it's the opening of Club PuSh, where we'll also be hosting a reception for our amazing Patron's Circle members. I'll be there, sore nose and all.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Gambling, Marriage, and Great Theatre

A new year and already the same old news: governments giveth, and they taketh away. To wit:

BC Premier Christy Clark announced this week that her provincial Liberals were reversing a decision of her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, and re-instituting gaming grants eligibility for arts groups, sports organizations, and the environmental sector, as well as permanently extending her previous one-time boost in available monies from $120 million to $135 million per year. But that's still well below 2009 levels, which is what an independent review of the gaming grants program called for by Clark herself recommended returning to. And such announcements notwithstanding, Clark can't outrun Campbell's long shadow, not least in the inevitable delays in reversing the HST based on last year's referendum results, and which will almost certainly follow her into the next provincial election. Perhaps that's why she's looking so grim these days.

Then came front-page headlines from the federal Conservatives that cast doubt on the legal validity of same-sex marriages of foreign nationals performed in Canada. While Prime Minister Harper quickly dismissed any notion that the stunning announcement from his Justice Minister, Rob Nicholson, was a covert way of re-opening the same-sex marriage debate in this country, there was a lot of nervous chatter on various news wires and Twitter feeds until Nicholson clarified that the government would act quickly to amend legislation to guarantee the legality of said marriages--as well as to provide easy mechanisms for their dissolution (which is what prompted the whole tempest in the first place). One such tweet came from sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who married his partner Terry Miller in Vancouver in 2005, and who quipped that he woke up to discover he had been divorced overnight.

Speaking of Dan Savage (and sustainable arts funding), he's part of a group of Seattle-based cultural figures who have come together in a recent YouTube appeal by the Intiman Theatre in support of their goal to raise $1 million towards their reinvention as a sustainable live theatre company after their financial collapse and canceling of their 2011 season. If they are successful (they've raised just shy of half so far, but have only three weeks more to raise the rest), that reinvention will be launched this summer with a four-play festival performed by a repertory of 12 actors, and featuring a new work written and directed by Savage himself (who began his career as a theatre artist). Richard and I have seen many very fine productions at the Intiman over the years, and it would be a tragic loss to Seattle, and west coast theatre more generally, to see this institution disappear. That's why we've pledged money, and that's why I urge those of you who can to do the same. They are not asking for the money up front, just commitments to give. If they reach their goal, they will be in contact to collect the money; if not, well, let's not even go there. Here's the link to give. And here's the YouTube video describing the appeal:

Finally, speaking of great theatre and performance in our own backyard: only two more sleeps to the start of the PuSh Festival! We launch at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre (and we'll be thinking of you, Milton--RIP) this Tuesday with Amarillo, from Mexico. Join us there if you can, or afterwards at our opening gala party at the Waldorf Hotel. Tickets for both events and a host of other great shows are available at And, as I've already shamelessly solicited your dollars on behalf of a rival arts organization, I would be remiss (especially as the Board's Fundraising Chair!) if I didn't also make an appeal for donations on behalf of PuSh. You can give online when you buy your tickets, or by taking away a pledge card at any of the performances over the next two weeks.

Thanks in advance for your support and hope to see you at a show. I will, as per past practice, try to blog about all the productions I see on this site.