Thursday, December 19, 2013


… on this trip I have experienced the stage work of the English director John Tiffany. I wrote about his sublime remount of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway a few posts ago. And last night, at the Royal Alex in Toronto, my family and I took in Once, the musical adaptation of the indie film starring and featuring the music of The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Tiffany directed this work to acclaim in 2011--also on Broadway, where it is still playing. Now a North American touring production has just landed in Toronto.

While Once frequently trades in as many clichés as it upends (not least regarding ethnicity and gender), what makes it refreshing as a work of romantic musical theatre is how many of that genre’s apparently unassailable conventions it eschews. For the Guy and Girl leads (played here by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal), there is no star-crossed happy ending (she gets a piano instead). The performers, who remain on stage throughout the two acts, play all their own instruments--which, befitting an Irish folk-infused score, are mostly string- and bellows-heavy (when's the last time you saw a mandolin and a concertina featured in a big-budget musical?). And the movement, by longtime Tiffany collaborator Steve Hoggett, is deliberately low-key and pedestrian, employing a simple yet richly symbolic gestural vocabulary to texture a song, but also knowing when to use stillness in the same context, and combining brief bits of simple group unison with set and scene changes in a completely fluid and organic way. The mostly unsentimental book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh demonstrates a similar plasticity in terms of its relationship to the songs (all of course well-known from the film), and also manages to get in a clever critique of certain ideologies of linguistic translation in its use of surtitles.

All of the performers are ridiculously talented. Unlike at times in John Doyle’s recent Broadway remounts of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company, here the fact that the singer-performers also play their own instruments never feels like a gimmick. Because of course the whole premise of this story is making beautiful music together--for which everyone involved in this production deserves kudos.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why I Don't Live in Toronto

Well, in addition to this view from outside my parents' front door in suburban Burlington yesterday morning, there is the fact that Rob Ford continues to serve as mayor--if in name only. Following a brief break, Toronto City Council was back in session beginning this Monday, with Speaker Frances Nunziata calling for a return to more civil discourse. The civility lasted all of a minute, with Mayor Ford once again leading the show, calling fellow councillors corrupt, getting into an argument with another about voting procedures, dancing in council chambers, and issuing an impromptu apology to Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale for insinuating last year that he was a pedophile. Read all the details here.

Last night we went to a holiday concert at my niece Erika's high school in Oshawa. She's in a special performing arts program, and judging by last night's offerings, its vocal and musical programs are very rich. 

Today we're finally going in to the belly of the beast itself, with a planned visit by me and Erika (who's been allowed to skip school because her favourite uncle's in town) to the David Cronenberg show at the TIFF Lightbox, and then an evening performance of the musical Once, currently playing at the Royal Alex.

Home tomorrow, weather and flight schedules permitting.


Friday, December 13, 2013

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

It was instructive to see The Life and Death of Marina Abramović after having toured the Whitney Museum’s show on 1970s performance art in New York City earlier in the day. On the one hand, the heavily industrial, epically scaled, and highly operatic work now playing at the Park Avenue Armory through December 21st couldn’t be further from the anti-spectacular, makeshift and micro aesthetic of the loft and storefront performances by Jack Smith and Jill Kroesen and Sylvia Palacios Whitman and Squat Theater whose surprisingly extensive and well-preserved documentary traces comprise the Rituals of Rented Island show. At the same time, much of this performance art, I was interested to discover, was very theatrical, especially as it focused explicitly on objects and narrative.

That was never really the case with Abramović’s early performance art, which largely used the artist’s own body to explore, over long durations of time, extreme physical and emotional states. However, Abramović’s collaborator on Life and Death, Robert Wilson, was immersed in the New York scene documented at the Whitney: Rented Island showcases one of his early loft pieces, which featured some of his earliest light- and movement-based work. Perhaps not surprisingly from the director of Einstein on the Beach, it was the way Life and Death was lit and choreographed that I was most taken with. Wilson uses a bank of fluorescent footlights and a series of follow-spots in especially canny ways, and the repetition of different massings of bodies on the stage during many of the scenes not only evoked images of Communist-era militarism but also nineteenth-century tableaux vivants—appropriate for the artist who took performance art into the museum and turned it into a kind of living diorama. Of course, the music is also gorgeous, featuring not just the haunting vocals of Antony, but also additional contributions from Nico Muhly, William Basinski, and the Svetlana Spajić Group, whose keening Serbian folk songs were a perfect counterpoint to Antony’s lyricism.

Not that everything worked. The whole piece could have been at least a half-hour shorter, with many of the scenes going on for just a shade longer than was necessary, self-indulgence perhaps being the necessary byproduct when so many outsized artistic egos are collaborating together. Which brings me to Willem Dafoe as the narrator. Like Abramović, Dafoe is now something of an ex-communicant from the avant-garde performance scene, having long ago been banished from the Wooster Group. And so his presence in this piece carries several additional layers of meaning. Certainly he shoulders the bulk of the work as far as storytelling goes—but it is nearly impossible to separate the many roles he plays here (from Tito to Ulay) from the impish, slightly demented self he necessarily brings with him courtesy of his many film appearances and that inimitable voice.

As for Abramović herself, she is at once the centre of this piece and paradoxically absent from it, spending much of the show offstage, or quietly observing scenes from the sidelines. The one time she does stand alone in the spotlight downstage, it is to sing—by and large a mistake. Having turned herself into a bona fide personality with her Artist is Present show at MOMA in 2010 (and having, in many people’s minds, concomitantly pronounced the death of performance art by acceding to and even willfully abetting not just its reperformance, but its institutionalization), it makes sense, on one level, that she would turn to the theatre to explore the different personae that could never be a part of the focused and durational explorations of self (her own and others’) that formed her performance art practice. (And masks—from the death masques that cover the faces of Abramović and her two avatars on their funeral biers at the top of the show to the face paint that most of the other performers sport—are featured very prominently in Life and Death.) Many of those personae, we are given to understand, derive from Abramović’s painful childhood and this work functions, on one level, as an elaborate form of artistic therapy, one in which Abramović exorcises, especially, the painful memories of her physically and emotionally abusive mother.

And, indeed, at the end of the show, as Wilson pulls out all the deus ex machina stops and hoists Marina and her two angel-avatars into the air on pulleys while Antony and performer Oren Bloedow sing of “Volcanoes of Snow,” we get a sense that the artist is exactly where (when not branding herself on umbrellas and coffee mugs in support of the performance art institute she is apparently building on the Hudson) she has always wanted to be: starring in her own Greek tragedy.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Glass Menagerie (and Kinky Boots) on Broadway

Yesterday was our big Broadway day in NYC, with a matinee and evening performance. For the latter we chose Kinky Boots, a frothy confection that is hard to resist, featuring a fist-pumping, feel-good score by Cyndi Lauper, a star-making performance by Billy Porter as Lola, the drag queen-turned-shoe designer, and miles and miles of lace-up leather and latex. As Richard leaned over and said to me during the rousing final number, if Harvey Fierstein is writing the book, everyone is eventually going to end up in six-inch stiletto heels. This musical adaptation also goes a distance—though not as far as it could have—toward correcting some of the bizarre and frankly homophobic sexual politics of the British film upon which it is based (which I happened to watch on the plane to New York).

However, it is the afternoon production I wish to focus on in this post. For that we chose The Glass Menagerie, as apart from a mediocre staging of two of his later one-acts at the Kennedy Center several years ago, I had never seen a Williams play performed live. This production by John Tiffany (Once, Black Watch) received raves when it opened at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard earlier this year, and with the entire cast back—including the incomparable Cherry Jones as Amanda—for the Broadway transfer, it seemed like a good bet.

We weren’t disappointed. The first thing that stands out upon entering the theatre is Bob Crowley’s stunning set, with the Wingfields’ cramped living and dining rooms an island of wood floating just above a shiny pool of viscous black liquid—the wellsprings of Tom/Tennessee’s dark and unrepressable memories that also, famously, serve as the source of his creativity. For this is, as our narrator Tom (a subtle and suitably restless Zachary Quinto) reminds us at the top of the show—in a speech that I think it is fair to say helped change the course of modern American drama—a “memory play,” in which Williams counters the standard “tricks” of the “stage magician” by presenting not “illusion that has the appearance of truth” but “truth wrapped up in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Tiffany takes seriously this opening injunction, and builds a production that soars as a result of its symbolist effects, not in spite of them. From the stylized movement work and mimed gestures of longtime collaborator Steven Hoggett to the haunting music of Nico Muhly and the twinkling lighting by Natasha Katz that reappears throughout the two acts in that inky pool surrounding the stage: the design choices and stage effects all succeed in complementing and even elevating—rather than flattening, as if embarrassed by—the dream-like poetry of Williams’ text.

At the same time, in listening to that text spoken with such care yesterday afternoon I was reminded of just how much social commentary Williams does manage to weave into his play. In addition to the economic hardship of the depression that serves as the backdrop to single mother Amanda’s increasing desperation to see her children—and especially her fragile daughter Laura—financially settled, we are reminded more than once of the Spanish Civil War, and in a way that is meant as much as an indictment of America’s blinkered self-absorption as of Tom’s and Williams’. When, at the end of the play, Amanda issues her famous final dismissal of her son—“Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer”—it is hard not to read this as telegraphing in part Williams’ own self-doubts about the interiority that would become such a defining focus of his oeuvre.

As delivered by Jones, however, that line is filled with so much more than mere maternal disappointment: we also hear a rending womanly regret that conveys just how much she understands—and has internalized at great personal cost—the gendered divide that allows men like Tom and his father (the phone company man who “fell in love with long distances”) to succumb to wanderlust while she and Laura can only settle for so many forms of domestic confinement. And this, in addition to an incandescent performance by Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and a sterling turn by Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, is the true revelation of this production: the way in which Jones resists playing Amanda as a one-note gorgon. In her speeches about her youth and her obsession about seeing her children securely launched into the world we see a mother not so much living through her children as living for them. This is a woman who knows more than most—and certainly as much as her son—how fine is the line between illusion-as-truth and truth-as-illusion. We see Jones walk that line with perfect precision over and over again in this production. It is a performance, like the play, for the ages.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fun Home at The Public

Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home is not the first text one would expect to be adapted into a musical. The book is a self-consciously literary investigation into the author’s complicated relationship with her father, who in addition to teaching high school English and running the local funeral home was also an obsessive home renovator and closeted homosexual who committed suicide by stepping in front of a truck only a few months after his daughter announced her own coming out. It doesn’t exactly scream out for the standard song and dance treatment. But then, her scores for the Broadway hits Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek: The Musical notwithstanding, composer Jeanine Tesori’s most interesting work has always been in a darker vein: think Violet and Caroline, or Change. And, as the bassoon notes emanating from the pit during the orchestra’s pre-show tune-up announced, this is a deeply mournful work, one that understands that all stories of kinship—not least one as complicated as this—must be written in a minor key.

It helps, in this regard, that Tesori’s collaborator on the book and lyrics for Fun Home is the respected lesbian playwright Lisa Kron (The Well, 2.5 Minute Ride), no slouch in the family memoir department. Kron’s adaptation of Bechdel’s memoir is a marvel of intelligent condensation, one that focuses on key scenes to build character and an emotional through-line, while also respecting the atemporal, non-synchronous, retrospective and self-doubting chronology employed by Bechdel in the book’s visual panels and written captions. A compulsive diarist from a young age, Bechdel makes a point of emphasizing in the book the unreliability of her documentary record of her home life, itself a testament to what she was intuiting behind the apparently placid façade of her parents’ marriage—which is brought out nicely in the musical’s one razzmatazz number, with the entire cast joining in a parody of The Partridge Family. Splitting the character of Alison into three also helps with the book’s unique plot challenges, with Alison the jobbing 40-year old cartoonist (Beth Malone) a constant on-stage presence struggling to come up with the right captions as she looks back on her younger selves: a college-age Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs); and a 10-year old Small Alison (a remarkable Sydney Lucas). All three Alisons are superb, and each is given a breakout number that marks a pivotal point in Bechdel’s queer life: Small Alison sings of her fascination for a butch delivery woman and her “ring of keys”; Medium Alison sings about “changing her major to Joan,” her first girlfriend at college (played here by Roberta Colindrez); and grown-up Alison sings about the final car ride with her father, counting the “telegraph wires” as she struggles to find a way to broach all that remains unspoken between them.

The rest of the cast is equally compelling, with Tesori and Kron correctly recognizing that while Fun Home is focused primarily on the complicated relationship between Alison and her father Bruce, the family’s secrets affected everyone, including brothers Christian (Griffin Birney) and John (Noah Hinsdale) and mother Helen (the brilliant Judy Kuhn), who is given a heartbreaking lament of what she’s sacrificed to a marriage that was a lie in the song “Days and Days.” Joel Perez also stands out as Roy, the Bechdels’ babysitter and sometime yard-worker, who also happened to be one of Bruce’s teenage conquests. Finally, special mention must go to the amazing Michael Cerveris, who plays Bruce with just the right degree of narcissism and repressed rage, and who in the show’s penultimate number sings of how he lavishes onto his house all that he could not acknowledge in himself.

This is a beautiful and intelligent work of musical theatre translation. I’m so glad we got a chance to see it.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Isa Genzken and Isaac Julien at MOMA

On this, our first full day in New York, Richard and I decided to walk up to MOMA from our midtown hotel to take in the Isa Genzken retrospective. One of Germany's preeminent postwar artists, Genzken works across a range of media, including painting, photography, sculpture, film, and mixed-media assemblage. We had first encountered her work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2009, which I wrote about here. This time around, seeing the full arc of Genzken's career, one understands how crucial space is as a concept in the artist's work: from her early interest in acoustic space (radio antennae stuck in blocks of concrete, geometric sound waves beautifully carved from wood, photographs of ears) to her stunning late career installation-cum-assemblages, which at once repurpose the detritus of consumer culture (see image below) and continue her longstanding architectural referencing of the built environment to comment on post-9/11 politics.

Also on view in the second-floor atrium is an immersive film installation by Isaac Julien called Ten Thousand Waves. Projected onto nine double-sided screens, the 55-minute piece stars, in one of its sequences, the Chinese film star Maggie Cheung as the sea goddess Mazu, leading lost fishermen to safety in a retelling of the 16th-century "Tale of Yishan Island"--a reference, in this case, to the 20 Chinese migrant workers drowned in a flood off the coast of northwest England in 2004. Another section, mixing images of modern-day and old Shanghai, and this time focusing on actress Zhao Tao, is a riff on a classic film from the 1930s called The Goddess. Accompanied by a rich soundscape, the work is mesmerizing and represents a spectacular return to form for the British artist.

Finally, there was also a small but brilliant exhibition called There Will Never Be Silence, the focus of which was MOMA's recent acquisition of the score for John Cage's iconic 4'33''. Around this, the curators showcase a range of different conceptual, minimalist, and Fluxus artists who were influenced by Cage or were, like him, working across media to challenge notions of space, time, materiality, and objecthood. These include Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, and Yoko Ono, among others. The show, in its tracing of artistic influence, also reminded me of another London exhibition, this one the recent Barbican show on "The Bride and the Bachelors," which explored the ongoing engagements with Marcel Duchamp and his work made by Cage, Merce Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, and about which I also wrote here.

No photography was permitted in the Cage show at MOMA, but no such interdiction was in force in their upstairs modernist galleries. And so I close this post with the following inter-artistic reference, which represents my second encounter in six months with a version of Duchamp's first--and, to my mind, most important--ready-made:


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jack and the Beanstalk at the York Theatre

Last night Richard and I had the privilege to be among the first audiences to see a production in the restored York Theatre, on Commercial Drive at East Georgia. Theatre Replacement's Jack and the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto officially inaugurated the newly renovated space last night, just over a century after it first opened in 1912, and more than 30 years after Tom Durrie founded the Save the York Theatre Society in 1981 following the Vancouver Little Theatre Association's vacating of the building and its conversion to a cinema.

Durrie was in attendance last night, as were a host of civic and provincial dignitaries, prominent local arts producers and administrators, the generally excited public, and a gaggle of even more excited kids. As with the equally important renovation of the Stanley Theatre on South Granville, the architectural challenge for the York was clearly to fit a fully functioning 400-seat theatre (complete with flies and wings) within the existing footprint while also creating a visually interesting street facade. From what I was able to see and explore last night (which didn't include the stage, as Richard and opted not to stay for the after-party), this has been accomplished--the sole expense being, as again with the Stanley, significant lobby space. Indeed, the York's downstairs and upstairs lobbies are even smaller than the Stanley's, just a long thin wedge between the box office and the bar in the case of the former, and into which several hundred bodies were crammed last night to listen to Vancouver East Cultural Centre Executive Director Heather Redfern's opening remarks at a pre-reception. The Cultch, now a thriving arts juggernaut on the east side, will oversee the York Theatre, mostly renting it out to outside presenters, but also, as in this case, partnering with local companies and organizations to premiere new work or host important touring productions (as will be the case during the PuSh Festival, when Tanya Tagak's take on Nanook of the North opens there).

Richard and I had tickets for the last row of the balcony (GG), but there was nothing wrong with our seats. The sight lines were perfect, the acoustics impeccable, and the show itself a total gas. Charlie Demers' script, in adapting the venerable fairy tale to its local setting, does not spare the satire (even when directed at several members of the audience) and also doesn't talk down to its pint-sized viewers, whose wonder and energy must inevitably sustain the piece. Veda Hille's score is another marvel of offbeat syncopation and humour, and I was thrilled to see she'd incorporated into it another version of Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" (complete with trademark headband). Amiel Gladstone's direction was snappy in tempo and filled with wonderfully visual bits of stage magic. The actors, all except for lead Maiko Bae Yamamoto (who should perform--and sing--more often) in multiple roles, filled their outsized panto peronas (quite literally in the case of Allan Zinyk, who played both the Giant and Jack's mom) with charismatic aplomb.

In short, it was a wonderful way to open an important new cultural space in the city. Congratulations to all involved in getting us to this moment.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Jacques and James at the Firehall

Local dance artist James Gnam, Co-Artistic Director of the plastic orchid factory, and Montreal-based Jacques Poulin-Denis, of Grand Poney, star in two paired talking dance solos at the Firehall Arts Centre through this Saturday evening.

Gnam and Poulin-Denis have been collaborating for the past couple of years on a new work called The Value of Things--which, according to Deborah Meyers in the Vancouver Sun yesterday, will premiere in Montreal in January. However, they've briefly taken some time away from that project to revisit in this program two earlier works from their solo repertoires.

In James, last seen at the 2011 Dance in Vancouver Biennial, Gnam uses his personal (and working) relationship with The Nutcracker (which he has danced more than 300 times) as the starting point to explore the institutional ideology of classical ballet training more generally. Working with battery opera's Lee Su-Feh, and combining spoken text and movement, Gnam weaves an autobiographical tale that moves from memories of his first 10-year-old walk-on part as one of dozens of skipping children from the National Ballet of Canada School to behind-the-scenes anecdotes about adult roles as a fill-in Cavalier in a 2008 semi-professional production in North Vancouver and his first time playing the Prince as a member of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Particularly in these last two sequences Gnam and Lee strip away the romanticism of ballet--and the sugar-coated fantasy of The Nutcracker, especially--revealing the economic and bodily labour, or work-time, that goes into the "timeless" execution of these familiar, and apparently effortless, steps.

For example, we learn that Gnam took the North Vancouver job following the collapse into financial insolvency of Ballet BC, of which he was then a member. Needing a job, he took the part of the Cavalier, whose main task is to accompany the Sugar Plum Fairy in the penultimate sequence of Act 2, a classically gendered scene of ballet partnering that is here recreated by having Gnam reproduce, to the strains of Tchaikovsky's music, various poses of male structural support, holding his invisible teenage partner's waist as he first moves her into a penchée and then dips her into an arabesque. However, in the studio there wasn't time to rehearse the Cavalier's solo variation that is meant to follow this pas de deux, and so as Gnam explains, when the music for said variation came on in performance he simply remained immobile, as he had nothing prepared to display.

Similarly, Gnam's debut as the Nutcracker Prince was a far less starry-eyed experience than one might at first expect. Suffering from food poisoning, weak with fatigue, and having dragged himself to class for the first time in more than a week, a still shaky Gnam is informed by the rehearsal director at the barre that he'll be going on as the Prince that night because the company member with whom he was sharing the part had broken his foot. This scene--and the piece as a whole--ends with Gnam repeating the sequence where the toy Prince, having magically come to life before Clara, steps from fifth position into a plié, before executing an explosive tour en l'air that is mean to end with the dancer landing on one knee, extending the other leg forward as he bows deeply before Clara. In that original Montreal performance, Gnam tells us, with his recent illness still lingering in his body, he had to extend a hand to the floor on the landing. But here, as he then goes on to show us, the wobble is allowed to become, in this retrospective excavation of dance memory, a signature part of the movement, with Gnam repeating it over and over again until he gets a smile from the statuary Drosselmeyer perched atop the Stahlbaums' clock.

In this moving and conceptually rich talking solo, Gnam and Lee have created a work that stands alongside the talking dance portraits of Jérôme Bel (particularly Véronique Doisneau and Cédric Andrieux), in which speech is used to ex-pose (in the double sense of presenting through exposition and decentering through arrested, suspended, and fragmented movement) the conceit of technical virtuosity, revealing in turn (quite literally in this case) the material conditions which always circumscribe moving bodies on stage. (The overlaps with Bel were confirmed in conversation with Natalie Lefebvre Gnam in the Firehall lobby, whose own material labour as a dance artist hovers over this presentation of James, her husband informing us at the start of his solo that but for an injury to Natalie's knee that he was accidentally responsible for, she would have been dancing on the program alongside him.) And, on that note, I'll just end by mentioning that it is a deconstructed port-de-bras phrase that serves as the choreographic refrain of the piece, one that links the various classic scenes from The Nutcracker that Gnam recreates for us. Perhaps the simplest move in ballet from an audience perspective, it is actually one over which the dancer labours intensely in order to make it seem effortlessly graceful.

Poulin-Denis' Cible de Dieu begins similarly to James, with the dancer striding boldly on stage and addressing the audience directly. We learn that the piece we are about to see is as a result of Poulin-Denis' recent training in circus techniques, particularly balancing acts. However, we are also told that the chair on stage is not the one Poulin-Denis normally works with, and so tonight things might not necessarily go according to plan. Couple that with the fact that Gnam, up in the tech booth, can't seem to get the music to work and, well, things are off to a very rocky start indeed. But the charismatic Poulin-Denis is undaunted and after getting the audience to hum along to the familiar strains of Beethoven's Für Elise, he begins to dance with the chair.

Needless to say, given my fascination with chairs as both aesthetic objects and supports/props for movement (not to mention the fact that Poulin-Denis' chosen chair was a Thonet bentwood knock-off), I was primed with expectation. However, the various feats of balance and physical dexterity that Poulin-Denis goes on to perform notwithstanding, the point here is that this particular substitute chair is not an aid to the dancer's movement, but rather an impediment, and even as we continue to hum the notes to Für Elise as encouragement, Poulin-Denis eventually breaks off in frustration. Later he is similarly thrown off by the presence of someone from his past who is apparently in the audience. And on it goes, with Poulin-Denis moving back and forth from issuing abject apologies to the audience for all that is going wrong to stunning feats of choreography in spite of this.

All of which, it gradually becomes clear, is Poulin-Denis' way of addressing by not addressing what should logically be the most insurmountable obstacle to his performance: his prosthetic leg. Indeed, it was only midway through his first sustained sequence with the chair that I even noticed that below his right knee Poulin-Denis wears an artificial limb. And it is only when, a bit later on, it comes off that we realize how conceptually central and practically insignificant the prosthesis is to the dance in this piece. By that I mean that the balancing act Poulin-Denis subsequently performs on one leg--no less virtuosic because, all of a sudden, more visually unassimilable--is meant to challenge our expectations not just of the body who is dancing, but also how that body is dancing.

Sounds an awful lot like the ideological apparatus of ballet itself.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Eddie Izzard at The Orpheum

Human sacrifice as a metaphor to understand the history of western politics; monotheism as an efficient means to streamline belief; moles digging for gold; the relationship between the Kraken and right-wing foreign policy; the myriad applications of the French phrase et voilà; the "non-mammalianness" of equestrian dressage and doping in sports: these are just some of the topics addressed by the hysterically funny British comic Eddie Izzard in his Force Majeure show at the Orpheum last night.

I have long been a fan of Izzard's, and not just because he's a straight man who likes to wear women's clothes and put on make up. While he was in a very smart tailored suit last night, Izzard was sporting a pair of heels (in which he pranced and darted about the stage quite spryly) and flashing bright red nail polish and expertly plucked eyebrows. And he did not shy away from addressing his penchant for transvestism, telling us about how as a teenager he used to hide his filched lipsticks in a shoebox with a false bottom and how this related to his two other youthful obsessions: joining the elite UK special forces organization SAS and learning languages.

But beyond the fact that Izzard is a dude who embraces his femininity and his love of the Die Hard film franchise with equal fervor, what appeals most about his comedy is that in its content it is sophisticatedly intellectual and unabashedly political without talking down to or hectoring its audience (which, in Izzard's case last night, was remarkably diverse), or forgetting that the point is to tell a joke; and in its form, it is gloriously free-associative and meandering and rich with narrative embroidery and physical and vocal embellishment without ever losing the through-line of the story. This latter point was most evident in Izzard's encore, in which he brought together almost of all of his references over the previous two hours (including those stomping Kraken and digging moles) in a dazzling display of comic virtuosity.

Then, too, there was the fact that Izzard was so generous in the length of his set. When, after ninety minutes, he announced he'd be back after a short interval, I couldn't believe it. How did he have anything left? And then following his encore he said he'd be available after the show to take questions in the lobby. Richard and I didn't stick around but had we done so I would have liked to have asked him about his claims to be working toward a London mayoral bid in 2020. There were more than a few Rob Ford references in Izzard's routine last night. Not that Ford's is a civic career Izzard would ever seek to model his own on. However, you can bet that as a politician Izzard would be damn funny--in the very best kind of way.