Thursday, May 22, 2014

Previewing Pauline

Yesterday Richard and I were lucky enough to be able to draw on some connections to sit in on a dress rehearsal of the new opera Pauline, about the Mohawk-Canadian poet and performance artist Pauline Johnson, who died in Vancouver in 1913 and is buried in Stanley Park. Commissioned by City Opera Vancouver, the intimate chamber opera features a libretto by CanLit icon Margaret Atwood and a beautiful score by Tobin Stokes. The work is being directed by PuSh Festival AD Norman Armour, assisted by Club PuSh Manager Cameron Mackenzie--hence our in.

Respecting the fact that what we saw was a working dress (in fact it was the first time the performers had tried on their costumes), I won't reveal any of the production or plot details here--except to say that the personal, professional and cultural conflicts between Pauline (the commanding mezzo Rose Ellen Nichols) and her sister Eva (Sarah Vardy, who has a stunning soprano) provide the work with much of its dramatic through-line, leading to a climactic coup-de-théâtre. And also that John Webber's lighting design is simply spectacular.

Johnson's story certainly makes for great tragic opera: an "Indian Princess" who channels her bi-cultural heritage into verse and stage stardom in Victorian-era Canada, but who is preyed upon by various "pale-faced men" (including a shiftless would-be lover and unscrupulous manager, both played by the tenor Adam Fisher), and who eventually dies in poverty and ravaged by cancer. Atwood's libretto both plays up and undermines these clichés, and the wider applications of her story to the consumption of First Nations culture are brought out (sorry, another production revelation) in Tim Matheson's projections. Ironically (or not), the libretto is at its strongest when it incorporates Johnson's own verse, its lyrical romanticism strangely well-suited to Stokes' atonal music.

And while we're on the subject of sound, I should mention that the York Theatre's acoustics are pretty bloody amazing. Richard and I were sitting in the second row of the balcony and when music director and conductor Charles Barber occasionally halted the proceedings in the first act to ask about the balance between the orchestra and the voices, we and our confrères were able to give him the thumbs up. Indeed, it was almost like we were down there in the pit with him.

It was a tremendous privilege to have been able to sit in on this run-through of such an important new work before leaving town. As we were exiting the theatre staff were working on the logistics of how to get Ms. Atwood in and out of the York's tiny lobby in advance of Friday's gala opening--which has the makings of an opera in and of itself.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Caezr: 33 Cuts

Upintheair's Revolver Festival of Independent Theatre wraps up its first week today at The Cultch. Yesterday I cycled over to take in a matinee of Caezr: 33 Cuts, by Human Theatre Collective (HTC).

An adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the devised work is set in the near future, with Canada fractured along regional lines (Quebec has finally separated) and facing a run on natural resources and energy supplies. Having successfully deposed the elected government of Cascadia, the corporate triumvirate of Julius (a suitably stentorian Jordon Navratil), Cassius (Nick Preston), and Brutus (Fojan Nixie Shabrang) agree on a plan to consolidate power and dupe the citizens into investing (quite literally) in their manufactured crisis. But when Julius starts enjoying the adulation of the crowds (Victoria Lyons and Tami Knight, forming a perfectly in sync chorus) and exercising a bit too much doit de seigneur for their liking, Cassius and Brutus, together with their fellow conspirator Casca (Randall vanderEnde), hatch a plot to bring Julius down.

Interestingly, the machinations of Cassius, Brutus and Casca are lifted directly from Shakespeare, with Preston and Shabrang especially showing great facility with the Bard's verse. While the speeches certainly work within the context of the piece's updated plot, and serve to foreground the vexed moral and ideological position of Brutus in particular, it's not clear to me why these sections weren't also adapted into the contemporary prose used throughout the rest of the play. A third verbal register is comprised of autobiographical address, with each cast member at a certain point stepping out of their role to speak directly to the audience about an aspect of their individual life stories that collectively add up to a portrait of the people versus institutional orthodoxy.

Layered on top of all of this, there is also a physical score, no doubt influenced by the Viewpoints training that several members of HTC have, I know, undertaken. When the collective is moving together and the physical score supports the words/story in recognizably illustrative displays of shape, gesture and spatial relationship (as when, at the beginning, Lyons hands each of her fellow company members an apple and they place the fruit between their index and pinky fingers on their left hands), then this compositional element can be quite beguiling. However, for too much of the piece, which takes place on an otherwise bare stage, with no exits or entrances, movement seems mostly to be a way to punctuate speeches. Consequently, there is so much to-ing and fro-ing of characters between upstage and downstage that one starts to think of a chessboard.

Which may not be a bad metaphor for the various maneuverings of power and politics being enacted in this work.

The Revolver Festival continues through next Sunday, May 25th. There is a lot more exciting new work to see.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Kiss the Rabbit

Last night at the Vancity Theatre on Seymour Street there was a special screening of Kiss the Rabbit, a commemorative documentary in celebration of the PuSh Festival's 10th anniversary. The main focus of the documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this past festival's opening gala presentation of Gob Squad's Super Night Shot, about which I have previously blogged here. On that front alone, the film is fascinating account of the Nottingham and Berlin-based collective's process, and the various contingencies and moments of placed-based serendipity that are a necessary part of the making of such a work.

However, the documentary is also a wonderful celebration of all things PuSh, and its legacy to the city over the past ten years. To that end, it features a series of talking head sound bites from the extended PuSh family. And what an amazingly articulate bunch we are! I was sitting in dread waiting to see what clips from my own interview would be used; but mercifully I sound kind of intelligent, with no glaring uhms or malapropisms marring my speech.

But the real star of the show is PuSh, and the film is a great calling card for our next decade. Thanks to our friends at Telus Optik Local for providing funds; you can catch the film on whatever platform you choose by visiting their on demand site.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Neither Here Nor There at SFU Woodward's

The MFA students at SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts are staging a year-end festival of new work called Neither Here Nor There at SFU Woodward's through this Sunday. Last night I caught a double bill of very intriguing dance pieces.

Stroking the Unknown Dog is a structured improvisation for five dancers and a musician conceived by choreographer Emmalena Fredriksson. Responding to a set of instructions from Fredriksson, to the music (by Alex Mah), to each other, and no doubt to the audience (who sit in the round), the dancers make real-time movement choices of shape, proximity, massing, etc. that, in the words of Fredriksson, reveal "notions of individuality, community and the animals within."

Aril is a collaboration between dancer-choreographer Yves Candau and lighting designer Kyla Gardiner (who was also responsible for the illumination in Stroking the Unknown Dog). Exploring "the interplay between form and function in ... emergent patterns of human locomotion," Candau isolates the drive toward mobility in individual limbs and joints, crafting out of everyday activities like reaching and bending a mesmerizing tapestry of movement. Embroidering and overlaying this tapestry with live lighting projections, Gardiner adds rich visual texture as she alternates her washes of colour from inky pools of blue and black to vibrant splashes of red and wispy swirls of white.

The festival kicked off on Wednesday with a durational five-hour performance installation by Luciana D'Anunciacao called The door is open, please come in. While I could only stay for a brief half hour, it was enough time to take in a gorgeous ritual cleansing sequence involving water, herbs, flower petals and a length of white muslin--into which D'Anunciacao first wrapped and then extricated her body. Additional installation elements included a large looping video projection at one end of the studio (wrapped around the corner of the wall and showcasing D'Anunciacao's trademark play with perspective), a hammock in another corner, ripe mangos laid out on the floor, and an immersive sound score by Alex Mah. The installation was certainly a feast for the senses. I only wished I could have stayed longer.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Belleville at CanStage

Yesterday, on my last rainy day in Toronto, I took in a matinee of Amy Herzog's Belleville. A hit Off-Broadway last spring, the play is being mounted by The Company Theatre in a co-presentation with Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre. The play revolves around a young American couple--white, well-educated, and affluent (apparently)--living in the culturally diverse Parisian suburb that gives the play its title. Zack (played by Allan Hawco, of Republic of Doyle fame, and also Co-Artistic Director of The Company Theatre) is a paediatrician working with Doctors without Borders. His wife, Abby (a superb Christine Horne) teaches the occasional yoga class, but otherwise seems still to be burdened by the death from cancer of her mother five years ago, and vexed that because of a snafu with their visas she and Zack can't make it home for Christmas and the birth of her sister's first child.

However, this apparently placid idyll of two Americans in Paris shows cracks from the very top of the show when Amy returns home early from a cancelled yoga class to discover Zack masturbating to Internet porn. This isn't the only of Zack's recreational pursuits about which Abby pretends to be cool but clearly reproves. Zack also likes to get high with their Senegalese landlord Alioune (a fine Dalmar Abuzeid). However, Alioune has dropped in this particular afternoon, we soon learn when Abby is out of the room, to collect on four months overdue rent he and his wife Amina (Marsha Regis, in a small but pivotal role) are owed.

This isn't the only secret Zack is keeping from Abby, and part of the tense-making pleasure in watching this play is seeing just how carefully, and with what uncanny (a word parsed in the play by Abby) command of dramatic suspense, Herzog parcels out the troubling holes in her protagonists' life stories, blanks that are being filled in for each other simultaneously with us learning about them. Not that the play is a mere exercise in genre (though it certainly succeeds on that front, with obvious parallels to 19th-century melodrama--also a word self-consciously referenced in the play). Indeed, what elevates the play beyond the conventions of its plotting is the unique mix of personal empathy and social judgment that Herzog (a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize) brings to her portrait of a class of affluently aimless Millennials for whom the negotiation of a single day is disproportionately perilous and paralytic when placed in the context of people the world over who are struggling with far more complex burdens--and still getting on with their lives.

This is where Alioune and Amina come in. An early conversation between Abby and Alioune deftly cuts to the chase in a comic exchange about their respective ages (he thinks she's older than she is and she is surprised to learn he's only 25, but already has two children with Amina, as well as a successful property management company). This scene takes on added weight when, following the climax of the play (which is bloody, but not in the way we have been primed to expect), we witness an epilogue in which Alioune and Amina are literally cleaning up after their white tenants' mess.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

In Toronto

I'm in Toronto for a conference, though I confess I haven't been attending much of it. Instead, I've been braving the unseasonably cold and damp weather to take in some visual art and theatre. On the former front, I went to see the Francis Bacon and Henry Moore show at the AGO today. Not the very best works by Bacon, which is perhaps to be expected (though the Crucifixion triptych from the 1980s was on display, as well as several studies for his pope series). And I think the curators rely a little too much on the visual correlation between the twisted human figures in each artist's works, without accounting for differences in medium. Still, it does allow the AGO to take advantage of their vast Moore collection in a new (and, of course, ideally blockbuster) way. And it was very instructive to learn of Moore's experience of the Blitz as an official war artist, and to see the sketches he made of the sleeping bodies massed so tightly together in the Tube stations--prototypes for several of his later reclining sculptures. Interspersed amongst these sketches are several amazing photographs by Bill Brandt taken of London (both above ground and underground), so many in fact that one almost feels he should be included as the third master in the title of the show.

On the fifth floor, while taking in the Elevated show, I ran into Geoffrey Farmer, in town for a site visit relating to a show that he will install in July in the AGO's dedicated Moore rooms--and that, from what I understood, will recreate how those rooms originally looked. We also had a brief chat about Herzog and de Meuron being named the design team for the proposed new VAG. Geoffrey was pleased with the announcement, made just as I was leaving Vancouver.

My visit coincides with the opening of the Contact Photography Festival, and on Thursday morning I ambled down to Ryerson University's Image Centre. The big draw there is the work of another Vancouver artist, Stan Douglas having won the 2013 Scotiabank Photography Award, and thus getting one of main presentation shows from the sponsors of the Festival. And while it was certainly a treat to see Douglas's impeccably composed and historically sourced large-scale photos on display, including the wonderful panorama "Every Building on 100 East Hastings," I was more taken by a small show conceived by students in Ryerson's MA program in film and photography preservation and collections management. Called Curious Anarchy, it features a selection of "photographic objects" (from photos of/as objects to an assortment of postcards, curios, and jewelry, including a 19th-century mourning bracelet with a tiny black and white daguerreotype of the deceased). The displayed works all come from the private collection of Maia-Mari Sutnik, longtime curator of photography at the AGO, and an adjunct instructor in Ryerson's program. The exquisite show was at once a fascinating glimpse into the history of photography, the catholic and conceptually astute tastes of Sutnik, and the curatorial acumen of the Ryerson students.

Last night I also managed to crash the official Contact opening party at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Well, truth be told, it was free and open to the public--but I still felt like an outsider sipping my wine and moving invisibly among all the arty hipsters of Queen Streeet West. The two shows on view, Material Self and In Character, were well worth the effort and were linked via the twin themes of identity and performance.

Then I scooted further west along Queen to the new digs of the Theatre Centre to take in Death Married My Daughter, one of three new one-acts running in rep as part of TC's Independent Creators Cooperative, in which they have matched up two seasoned companies with three emerging ones to create original works of physical theatre for their new Incubator space. Sidebar on recent Toronto theatrical pairings: I had been scheduled to see Michael Hollingsworth's critically lauded Trudeau and the FLQ at Soulpepper's Tank Theatre (they're co-producing with Hollingsworth and Deanne Taylor's VideoCabaret) on Wednesday night; but the ride into the city from the airport proved to be almost as epic as the flight from Vancouver, so that by the time I got to my hotel I had no way of making curtain. I mention this only because the non-naturalist style and revisionist satire of Hollingsworth's Small Huts plays (of which Trudeau is the 19th installment) is something it has in common with Death. Conceived and performed by Play It Again Productions' Nina Gilmour and Danya Buonastella, in collaboration with Theatre Smith-Gilmour's Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour, the play unfolds in classic bouffon style (Buonastella and Nina Gilmour are recent graduates of the Ecole Philippe Gaulier, whereas Smith and Dean Gilmour trained more than thirty years ago with Gaulier's compatriot in clowning, Jacques Lecoq). In this case, our menacing jesters are none other than Desdemona and Ophelia, back from the dead and out for some feminist revenge.

Nothing is off limits for these two furies, from roasting their own babies to skewering (quite literally) a patriarchal culture in which misogyny and militarism are of a piece. And, in true bouffon style, the performers and their co-directors have great fun burlesquing the equally male high art canon. This is most effective when Desedemoma (Gilmour) and Ophelia (Buonastella) reenact their death scenes. The former's is delivered as a virtuosic lipsynch to Verdi's Otello, which has the effect, via its concentration of the acoustic register on the dominance of the male voice in the scene, of reflecting back to us how our pity for these characters is divided disproportionately between the victim and the perpetrator of patriarchal violence. Likewise, Ophelia's drowning, played to wonderful physical effect by Buonastella, becomes the occasion for yet more violence to be done to her body, with Gilmour using a male Ken doll to deliver Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man" speech from atop Ophelia's corpse.

As trained clowns, Gilmour and Buonastella are wonderful vocal mimics and fearlessly adept physical perfomers (the scene where Gilmour manipulates Buonastella's limbs like a puppet while delivering Ophelia's "Willow" speech from behind her body as Buonastella mouths the words was a wonder to behold); however, they and their dramaturgical mentors are also expert social critics, daring to take on in the ongoing backlash against feminism any and all taboos relating to the marginalization of women. In a town where the biggest clown of them all, Rob Ford (whose latest ignominy has coincided with my trip), continues to get away with his insultingly masculinist bigotry, that is even more fearless.

Concluding side note: also attending last night's show was my colleague and longtime Leaky Heaven dramaturg, Michele Valiquette, in town to visit her daughter, and thus the second Vancouverite I ran into in Hogtown in one day. The traffic between the two cities emanating from the Theatre Centre extends even further if one considers that not only is PuSh planning to present Smith and Dean Gilmour's adaptation of As I Lay Dying at next year's festival, but that we've also recently poached the TC's managing director, Roxanne Duncan.