Monday, January 30, 2017

PuSh 2017: Zappa Meets Varèse and Oswald

Who knew that Turning Point Ensemble Artistic Director Owen Underhill was such a Frank Zappa fan? Or that Zappa, who apparently kept putting out rock and roll records (first with his band the Mothers of Invention, and then as a solo artist) so he could keep composing his orchestral works, was so influenced by French composer Edgard Varèse, one of the pioneers of musique concrète? In fact, the answer to both questions forms the basis for TPE's latest concert, Zappa Meets Varèse and Oswald: The Present Day Composer Refuses to Die, presented with the PuSh Festival at SFU Woodward's this past weekend. The third composer in this equation of influence is Canadian John Oswald, whose early experiments in "plunderphonics" prefigured contemporary sampling practices, and who was commissioned to write a new work, Refuse, for this concert.

I don't think I've ever seen so many musicians on stage at a TPE concert, and in the large ensemble pieces by Zappa especially one really felt the swing and rhythm of the wind instruments and percussion (there were three artists overseeing that section) and, of course, guitars. Indeed, the last piece on the program, G-Spot Tornado, was accompanied by a brisk, mamboesque duet choreographed by my colleague Rob Kitsos and performed by dancers Diego Romero and Anya Saugstad. The commission by Oswald, in "emulating Varèse's ascending octaves and fifths, and incorporating Zappa's rapid-fire collage of disparate genres," takes as its starting point some of the pop songs that were at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list in January 1966. It also blends in references to other recognizable television and movie theme songs in order to suggest that in the detritus of musical history one can also find a shared signature that transcends time and place and narrow and isolationist ideologies (Varèse, who spent many years in the US teaching and conducting, was a committed internationalist, once proposing a "League of Nations of Art").

In these bleak times that's an idea I can snap my fingers to.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

PuSh 2017: Revenge of the Popinjay

Revenge of the Popinjay, which played Club PuSh last night in a co-presentation between the PuSh Festival and Zee Zee Theatre, takes the idea of art-as-therapy to an extreme. Created by AnimalParts, a New York-based collective founded by local Studio 58 grads Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz, the show has an interesting premise. What happens when you take the historically homophobic genres of hip hop and the serial killer film and reverse the dominant ideology underscoring them? Thus it is that we are presented with the story Anthony, a gay man living in New York with his boyfriend (also named Anthony) who gets mixed up with the Popinjay, an underground queer rapper who also seems to be targeting heterosexuals in the city, chopping up their bodies and throwing them in the East River.

Johnston, who plays all the roles, and Schwartz, who DJs from the stage, do not shy away from representing the reverse politics of hate, with the Popinjay's climactic blood-spattered call to Anthony and the rest of us in the audience to join his rampage identifying potential targets whose names deliberately resonate a little too close to home. At the same time, I couldn't always see, on a formal level, how this revenge fantasy was related to the other through-line of the show, which involves Anthony trying to work through his grief over his dead sister. Indeed, the show ends with a video montage that explicitly dedicates the show to Johnston's own deceased sibling.

The autobiographical framing invites us to interpret the work as a surreal version of the talking cure (and, indeed, we are introduced to Anthony's sexy female therapist, who in a twist on De Palma's Dressed to Kill, becomes one of the Popinjay's victims). And while there's nothing wrong with working out one's demons on stage, it strikes me that whatever social critique is embedded in the piece's "heterophobic satire" ends up blunted by the reinforcing of the frame of family romance.


PuSh 2017: Concord Floral

The Vancouver premiere of Concord Floral, a unique collaboration between the PuSh Festival, the Roundhouse Community Centre, Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Surrey Civic Theatres, and Touchstone Theatre, has been in development for two years. The play, written by Toronto playwright (and current PuSh curator-in-residence) Jordan Tannahill, and directed by Erin Brubacher with the assistance of Cara Spooner, casts ten local teenagers, most with little to no previous performance experience, in the roles of a group of grade nine neighbourhood kids who like to hang out at abandoned greenhouse. There they drink, smoke up, occasionally have sex, diss school and their parents and each other, and finally come to rue some of their more shameful actions.

At once grounded in the everyday reality of its suburban setting (an artificial lawn and plastic orange desk chairs comprise the mise-en-scène and the script has been peppered with references to Lower Mainland geography), the play is also a mystical allegory modelled after Boccaccio's Decameron. To this end, the cast members take turns addressing the audience--sometimes as their teenage characters, sometimes as the nonhuman animals and material objects who are witness to and often adversely affected the teenagers' behaviour--in a series of monologues that capture the quotidian "whatever" rhythms of youthspeak and yet remain achingly honest and raw in their successive revelations of sexual secrets, thoughts of death, and repressed regret for their behaviour toward each other. For, notwithstanding the repeated references to the mysterious plague that has descended upon the teenagers' neighbourhood, there is a much more conventional puzzle to solve at the heart of this play, one that involves the naked girl who walks across the stage at the very beginning, and who mostly thereafter stands apart from the rest of the group.

All of this is staged by Brubacher and Spooner in a highly presentational manner, with the actors standing still, arms motionless at their sides, to deliver their monologues, and also the choral addresses that they share. I understand the choice: it's a demand for attention, a hail that asks the audience to judge these teenagers--both the characters being played and the remarkably talented nonprofessional actors playing them--on their own terms. At the same time, those scenes in the school cafeteria, or of peer-to-peer interaction, when the actors are allowed to fully inhabit their own physicalities came as such a relief, every slouch or collapse onto the floor or full-tilt run across the stage a kinetic reminder of the vitality of these kids' lives, and of the stories they have to tell us.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

PuSh 2017: The City and the City

Upintheair Theatre and The Only Animal's production of The City and the City, on at the Russian Hall on Campbell Avenue as part of this year's PuSh Festival, is two experiments in one. An adaptation of China Miéville's novel of the same name by the playwright Jason Patrick Rothery, the piece takes the author's literary mash-up of speculative and detective fiction and reworks it for live performance. In the novel, the cities of Besźel and UI Qoma occupy the same geographical space and yet have distinct civic governments, laws, and cultural traditions, with residents forbidden even to look at each other. This latter imperative is enforced by Breach, a secret unit whose very existence is doubted because its agents remain invisible. When our protagonist, Detective Borlú (a perfectly rumpled and world-weary Dave Mott), discovers the dead body of Mahalia Geary, a PhD student from UI Qoma, in Besźel, his investigation requires him to collaborate with police (headed by Conor Wylie) on the other side of an invisible border. The Borgesian plot eventually leads Borlú to discover a conspiracy within a conspiracy (and I have to say that I enjoyed the subtle critique of academic empiricism that Miéville seems to embed within his narrative), causing our detective himself to be "in breach," a transgression of both the physical and metaphysical borders within and between the two cities that leads to a surprising denouement.

So far so procedural. Had Upintheair producer Daniel Martin (who first brought the novel to Rothery) and The Only Animal director Kendra Fanconi left things there, it might have resulted in a satisfying, if dramaturgically conventional, murder mystery. Instead, they and the rest of the company decided to try a second experiment: involving the audience in the solving of the mystery by conscripting us as participants. To explain: after collecting our tickets, we are each assigned a number by Martin, our responses to his questions seeming to determine which one. The numbers correspond to individual mp3 players, which we are handed by technical director Pedro Chamale upon entering the auditorium of the newly renovated Russian Hall, with the instruction to affix just one of the attached ear buds and to find our seat (two stacked milk crates and a pillow, and which also corresponds to our number). Over the course of the production a voice in our ear (Darren Boquist or Heidi Taylor, speaking to us live and in real-time, and working in conjunction with stage manager Stephanie Elgersma and sound designer Nancy Tam) will instruct us--at times collectively and in unison, at other times in smaller or larger groups, and at still other times singly--to perform an action, to handle a prop, or to take on a role and speak lines from the script. Because one does not know when, and in what capacity, one might be called upon, and also because the choreographing of our fellow audience members alerts us externally to the differences in our interior experiences of the same space, the conceit helps to amplify the story's themes of surveillance, and how routinely our civic attention is always already geared toward seeing some things and some people, and not others.

This was something that came out in the talkback that I had the privilege to lead after last night's performance, with members of the cast and the creative team relating the experience of building this work in the context of a city like Vancouver and a neighbourhood like Strathcona. Something else that came up was how richly and dynamically this work enacts a "dramaturgy of liveness," one that is necessarily different from performance to performance. That is, the experience of the piece will change according to how audience members react to and carry out their prompts. The conversation around how test and preview audiences responded to certain directions, and the adjustments that the company would then make (and are continuing to make), was truly fascinating and made me rethink how participatory performance can be truly collaborative rather than merely delegated.


Friday, January 27, 2017

PuSh 2017: As I Lay Dying

Theatre Smith-Gilmour'As I Lay Dying, on at the BMO Theatre Centre in a co-presentation between the Arts Club and the PuSh Festival, is a wildly imaginative, intensely physical and overlong adaptation of William Faulkner's classic novel. There were moments last night when I was swept away by the company's evocative conjuring--mostly with just their bodies and their voices--of the absurd gothic plight of the Bundren family; just as frequently I found myself checking my watch, worried that the journey we were witnessing would never end.

At the start of Faulkner's novel the family matriarch, Addie Bundren (Michele Smith), is dying. From her bedroom window she can see her oldest son, Cash (Eli Ham), building her coffin. Addie wishes to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi, normally a day's drive from the family's rural homestead. But the night Addie dies, a cyclone sweeps in, bringing torrential rain and washing away the bridges that will have to be crossed in order to get to Jefferson. Nevertheless, Addie's stubborn husband, Anse (a grizzled Dean Gilmour), insists on honouring his wife's wishes--though not, as we discover at the novel's end, out of any abiding love or grief for the woman he has lost. And so the entire family, which includes sons Darl (a compelling Julian De Zotti), Jewel (Benjamin Muir) and Vardaman (Daniel Roberts), and daughter Dewey Dell (a luminous Nina Gilmour), set out by wagon with their mother's coffin.

The narrative innovation of Faulkner's novel, published in 1930, is that he has each of the novel's chapters is told from a different point of view, with the above mentioned family members supplemented by local townsfolk, and with Addie even taking a turn after she's died. The montage-like effect of the novel, with several incidents presented from multiple, overlapping perspectives, falls curiously flat on stage, with the frequent blackouts and spotlit outs to the audience in which different characters reveal to us aspects of their interior lives, actually doing more to disrupt than to establish a sense of dramatic rhythm. I actually think the production errs by being too discursive.

Much more successful is the piece's physical score. Smith and Gilmour, who trained with Jacques Lecoq, are known for their stripped-down staging, using only a bare stage, a few props and their actors' bodies to create whole worlds. And so it is that we can see and hear Addie's coffin being built for us, the sound of Cash's saw and later the back and forth sweep of his lathe both brought to life for us solely through actor Ham's voice and bodily movements. The scene in which the three oldest sons are trying to cross the rushing river with their mother's coffin is a marvel of choreographic complexity. Ditto the equally elemental scene in which Jewel later rescues the coffin from a burning barn, a blaze which it turns out has been set deliberately by Darl. The slow-motion tableau of the family on the wagon at the end of the play as they await the surprise appearance of Anse's new bride is also a highlight.

I also give credit to Smith-Gilmour for brining out what still feels contemporary about Faulkner's novel, including how little has changed (and what in fact has since been eroded) in the southern US about women's access to abortion. This particular subplot explains Dewey Dell's wish to accompany her mother's body to Jefferson, and Anse's thwarting of this goal by absconding with her money in order to purchase a set of false teeth makes clear the feminist critique Faulkner has embedded in his narrative. Then, too, as Julian De Zotti pointed out in the talkback after last night's performance, the so-called "madness" of Darl, a veteran from WW I, is likely a product of what today we would call PTSD. One can see, then, why the ensemble would want to mine so assiduously, in language and in movement, this text's rich themes. That said, I think there is still more stripping away that can be undertaken in this production in order to provide more direct access to the emotional truths that the company is after.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

PuSh 2017: Four Thousand Holes

Outside of jazz, one doesn't often think of the piano and drums going together. But as Richard reminded me last night at the Fox Cabaret as we waited for the start of Four Thousand Holes, the concert showcasing the immense talents of musicians Vicky Chow and Ben Reimer that was co-presented by Music on Main and the PuSh Festival, the piano is technically a percussion instrument.

Certainly composer Vincent Ho made the most of that symbiotic relationship between the instruments as Chow pounded away at the keyboard in his Kickin' It, keeping up measure for measure with the impossible beats thrown down by Reimer. Things got a little more mellow with MoM composer-in-residence Nicole Lizée Softcore, her tribute to Prince, which was accompanied by a very moving video sequence. By the time the musicians got to John Luther Adams' Four Thousand Holes I was positively blissed out; the intensely melodic work, which mostly has Chow playing at the higher, treble end of the keyboard, and which features Reimer on xylophone, is the sonic equivalent of watching a lava lamp, and it sent the audience out the doors on a wave of calm.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

PuSh 2017: Macbeth

For me, one of the most anticipated shows at this year's PuSh Festival was Macbeth, a radical re-interpretation of Verdi's opera of Shakespeare's Scottish play from South Africa's Third World Bunfight. A co-presentation with the Vancouver Opera and the Italian Cultural Centre, director and designer Brett Bailey has set his adaptation of the story of the original House of Cards couple in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with Verdi's score having likewise been radically reworked for just 12 on-stage musicians by the Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol. Given the DRC's colonial history, I couldn't help commenting on the irony of Cassol's nationality to Richard, although that's not the only transnational jolt of surprise/confusion one receives from this production.

Bailey's Macbeth is not the first work for the stage to set a well-known Western dramatic classic in the DRC. Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined is a loose version of Brecht's Mother Courage that uses the history of the populous Central African country to comment on the ravages of war--particularly, in the case of Nottage, for women. Both Bailey and Nottage see in the DRC's ongoing civil wars, which have been fuelled by the country's rich mineral deposits, extra-territorial commercial interests, the bitter legacy of colonialism, and state corruption and poor infrastructure, an allegory of ambition, greed and personal betrayal. In Bailey's case, his Macbeth (a terrific Owen Metsileng) is initially just a soldier trying to do his job; however, when he and his buddy Banquo (the commanding baritone Otto Maidi) come across three witches in the jungle who prophesy Macbeth's ascent to power, the wheels of fate begin to turn. It's one of Bailey's savvy innovations to have the "witches" in this version of the story coerced into telling what they know about Macbeth by an armed captor, at once suggesting that this is all being manipulated by outside agents attached to the multinational mining corporation Hexagon about which we hear later and pointing to the fact that kidnapping and sexual enslavement, alongside rape and genital mutilation, have been some of the most grievous (and internationally ignored) consequences of the decades-long ethnic conflict in the DRC.

Bailey also hits a high note, quite literally, with his casting of the magnificent mezzo-soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth. With her red gloves and pumps, her skin-tight leopard-print dresses, her righteous indignation, and her cajoling of her husband to "be a man" and get on with killing General Duncan, she is a fearsome version of Taraji Henson's Cookie Lyon, from TV's Empire (another Shakespeare adaptation). The lower range of Mngxekeza's voice is especially captivating; it insinuates its way into your own body and the shiver that accompanies it viscerally telegraphs that this is not a woman to be crossed. At the same time, Mngxekeza displays amazing vulnerability during her aria about the blood that nevertheless remains on her hands. Watching and hearing all of this in the intimate setting of the Vancouver Playhouse was an added treat.

There is so much else to admire about this production, including the virtuosic playing by members of the VO Orchestra, and especially the genius conducting by Premil Petrovic, who has been with the production since its premiere in Cape Town in 2014. Bailey's staging also moves fluidly, in its physical score, between scenes of simple Broadway-style choreography, overt pantomime, and a heartbreaking dumb show of grief to accompany the description of the massacre of Macduff's family and village that doubles as an after-image of too many real-life scenes from the DRC, and the continent of Africa as whole. Finally, there are the photographic, text-based, video and animated projections by Roger Williams. Most of these illustrate and supplement the performance in an integral way (for example, the bits of text that fill in parts of Shakespeare's story that have had to be compressed, or that provide additional context for the transposition of that story to the DRC); however, half a dozen of the slides relate to an additional narrative frame that Bailey has appended to his staging that left me a bit mystified.

I refer to the fact that we are told at the outset that the performers on stage are part of a company from the DRC that inherited the found story we are about to hear and that, subsequently, we get illustrated slides filling us in on the fictitious stories of their displacement, orphaning, conscription as child soldiers, and so on. I question the need for such theatrical subterfuge. Why present a South African cast as playing Congolese refugees playing transposed members of warring Scottish clans? Does that somehow make the story more authentic? Or does it assuage certain directorial anxieties about a white South African having the right to tell a story about the DRC in the first place? At the very least, the decision struck me as potentially (and I'm assuming unintentionally) reinforcing two problematic thoughts in the largely Western audiences to which the piece has toured: that all black performers are interchangeable; and that this is the story not just of the DRC, but of all of Africa.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

PuSh 2017: Dynasty Handbag

Last night, following the conclusion of By Heart at Performance Works (which ran far longer than the 75 minutes advertised in the PuSh program), I hopped in a cab and hurried to Club PuSh at the Fox Cabaret for the annual pop-up venue's opening by Dynasty Handbag, aka Jibz Cameron, a queer performance and video artist from Los Angeles.

Why had I not heard of this woman before? Looking like a cross between Freddy Krueger and Faye Dunaway from Mommie Dearest, Dynasty took to the stage following a hilarious opening video parody of Madonna's "Vogue," and dove head-first into her repertoire of postmodern (and post-gender) vaudeville: a mix of excoriating comic monologues ("no more white babies!") and song parodies that are delivered in Dynasty's signature style of antic physicality and barely intelligible gibberish. What Cameron can do with her voice is absolutely astonishing and even when you can't quite understand what she's saying, you nevertheless lean in to her physicality, responding on a visceral bodily level to the urgency of her comedy.

Indeed, as she suggested via her incomparable set last night (which included much discussion about whether she should move to Canada--or Berlin), there may be no better antidote to a Donald Trump as US President than the kind of in your face lesbian camp that Dynasty delivers. To that end, check out her website and check out the makeup tutorial she has posted there as a way of surviving a fascist dictatorship.


PuSh 2017: By Heart

The premise of Tiago Rodrigues' By Heart, playing at Performance Works as part of this year's PuSh Festival through this evening, is deceptively simple. Over the course of the performance he will teach 10 audience members to learn a sonnet by Shakespeare by heart: they will learn the first four lines together and declaim them as a group; thereafter each of the volunteers (of whom there were more than enough eager participants last night) is responsible for learning one remaining line, beginning with the first line of the second quatrain and moving through to the last line of the poem's concluding couplet. The performance will not be over until the sonnet is enunciated from beginning to end by the assembled group, and one of the physical delights of the show is to watch Rodrigues conduct his volunteers like a choir, inhaling deeply to announce the beginning of each recitation and using his arms to move from person to person, or to indicate that a line should be repeated.

The sonnet Rodrigues teaches the group is Sonnet 30, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought," and it has been chosen for a reason: the great Russian writer Boris Pasternak, facing almost certain arrest and imprisonment, spoke his own translation of the verse during Stalin's show trials in 1937 and the assembled citizens of Moscow rose en masse afterwards and repeated it back to him. It was, as Rodrigues tells us, a powerful statement against tyranny and censorship: literature, learned by heart, will always elude state control, and this is one of our most profound forms of resistance. The latter sentiment Rodrigues supplies to us via the philosopher and critic George Steiner, whose discourse about this very topic on a television program Rodrigues has himself committed to memory, and from which he quotes at length throughout the performance (indeed, images of Pasternak and Steiner are printed on either side of the t-shirt that Rodrigues wears on stage). Paralleling the focus on memorization as a form of protest and resistance, which Rodrigues illustrates with many anecdotes from history and excerpts from literature (including a bravura recitation of the opening pages of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451) is the story of Rodrigues's grandmother, a cook who was a voracious reader and who, as she was going blind, asked Rodrigues to pick a book for her to memorize so that she might be able to re-read it in her mind when she could no longer see.

Having raised the stakes in this way about what the on-stage audience members' real-time exercise in rote learning has come to symbolize--at once a political statement of freedom and a personal tribute to Rodrigues' grandmother--by the end of the performance, when Rodrigues conducts his choir one last time, we are on the edges of our seats willing each of them to get it right. And there was certainly lots of drama when one of the volunteers seemed to blank completely on his individual line. But with help from Rodrigues, as well as some of us not on stage, he eventually got it out and the poem continued to the end, which felt like a collective exhalation, a breath that said we will be alright if we continue in this way together--even as newly repressive regimes sweep to power across the globe. Yesterday, above all, it was reassuring to attend a performance like By Heart and know there are some things that can still escape demagogic pillorying via Twitter.


Friday, January 20, 2017

PuSh 2017: Sweat Baby Sweat

I have a new choreographic man crush. When Jan Martens was here in 2015 with The Dog Days Are Over I was first smitten, so enthralled was I by his rigorously minimalist and physically taxing exploration of jumping in that work (and which I wrote about here). So when I learned he was returning this year with Sweat Baby Sweat in a co-presentation between The Dance Centre and the PuSh Festival I knew I had to be there. At the same time, I had a bit of trepidation, as I knew the latter piece was a love duet between a man and a woman, with Martens deliberately troping on all the cliches of this signature sequence from dance. Was it possible for Martens and his dancers, the incredibly talented Kimmy Ligtvoet and Steven Michel, to interrogate those cliches without reproducing and reinforcing the gendered power dynamics in partnering that contemporary dance, no matter its apparent or avowed conceptualism, has necessarily inherited from the pas de deux in classical ballet? Happily after seeing the piece last night, and especially after listening to the incredibly smart and charming Martens discourse on the building of it during the talkback with his dancers and facilitator Alana Gerecke, I can say yes.

The piece, which we learned has been touring since 2012 (its last performance tonight here in Vancouver will be the hundredth iteration of the work), begins with the two dancers already on stage facing each other as the audience enters the auditorium. Like the stage, which is completely bare (even the legs on both sides and the backstage safety curtain have been removed), the dancers are stripped to their underwear and are staring intensely into each other's eyes. The lights dim and as they slowly come back up we gradually become aware that Kimmy is now standing on Steven's thighs, clasping her hands behind his neck as both dancers lean away from each other, holding that pose for what seems like forever, and still not breaking their shared gaze. What follows is a series of equally gymnastic clinches: Kimmy wrapping her legs around Steven's neck and hanging upside down as she slowly raises her torso to horizontal; Steven, lying supine on the floor, balancing in airplane mode Kimmy's outstretched body on one extended leg. All are entered into with the utmost precision and care, with the dancers never losing touch with each other's bodies and never looking away. Indeed, there is a way in which the somatic practices Martens is drawing from in the choreography (in the talkback he mentioned yoga as an influence, as well as acro-gymnastics and butoh) turn the partnering into much more of a technical exercise. The slowness of the movement and the stretching of the duration of each held pose means we focus as much, if not more, on the effort and balance and weight distribution and breath of the dancers as on any overtly expressive meaning that might be attached to their relationship. It becomes almost clinical, but in a way that is also tender and utterly compelling to watch, and in the talkback Martens noted that it was the discovery in the studio of slowness and the held gaze that led him to understand how he could upend the rules of contemporary dance, in which speed, strength, rhythm, changes of direction, falls and recovery nevertheless combine to reinforce a strict binary division between male and female. To that end, this work is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Edouard Lock's La La La Human Steps choreography post his split with Louise Lecavalier, in which the speed of the point work especially ends up turning his wraith-thin female dancers into mechanical dolls to be turned this way and that.

Not that Martens, having established a pattern, is afraid of breaking it and thereby upsetting our expectations. Thus, in the second pass through of the poses he has established, when at the end Kimmy is meant to climb up and down from Steven's legs, Martens has his two dancers lock lips and hold the kiss as they continue to execute their incredibly complicated and gravity-defying choreography. Once again, however, Martens undermines any romance we might want to read into the kiss by having it become another technical problem to work through: how will the dancers maintain mouth-to-mouth contact while they are simultaneously in the throes of a push-pull with the rest of their bodies? Here Martens is playing with notions of attraction and repulsion: for each of Kimmy's desperate scrambles up Steven's legs and chest he is ready with his arms to push her away. This is not done violently but the seeming rejection does register as a shock: after such sustained contact and mutual support, how can these two break apart? Martens catches us falling for the very hackneyed phrasing and trite image he is trying to deconstruct: we want these two to remain in contact, preferably with Kimmy draped languorously around Steven's neck. As the words that have been projected on the backstage wall for the length of the piece to this point announce, "As long as you are here, I am too."

These lines come from Cat Power's epic ballad "Willie Deadwilder," which begins to play through the final section of the piece, with the lyrics alternately flashing on the screen (conveniently highlighted in pink) and being interrupted by banalities imported from other songs and sayings. It's a strategy that works to resist a narrative reading of Steven and Kimmy's relationship as paralleling that of Willie and Rebecca in the song. For, indeed, after synching their bodies to the rhythm of the song with a series of torso pulses that begin while the dancers are standing and that continue as they move to the floor, the piece actually ends with the performers inching away from each other like earthworms, dragging their bodies toward opposite upstage sides, still in time with the music, but no longer ready for each other.

It's a terrific capstone to an amazing work, one that is at once sensually seductive and intellectually stimulating.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Love and Information at UBC

This semester I'm teaching Caryl Churchill's 2012 play Love and Information as part of a course on contemporary epic theatre at SFU. So I was pleased to discover that UBC Theatre was staging the work at the Frederic Wood Theatre this month. Helmed by MFA Directing candidate Lauren Taylor, the production is an ambitious and highly theatrical take on Churchill's elliptically dialectical staging of the relationship between knowledge and desire in the twenty-first century.

As with most of Churchill's work, Love and Information is a radical experiment in theatrical form. The play is made up of seven sections, each with seven scenes, plus a "last scene" called "Facts," which takes the form of a quiz, and which Taylor cleverly stages as a surreal game show that, with its eye-popping colour palette and fantastical costumes, looks like a diversion straight out of Panem in The Hunger Games. The scenes range in length from a few lines to several pages of dialogue. However, we are given no clues to setting, few stage directions, and the characters are not named or described in any way. But we are told that the characters must be different in each scene, which without the necessary strategy of actors (in this case an 18-strong team of very talented UBC BFA acting students) taking on five or six or more roles, would require a cast of more than 100. Additionally, Churchill instructs that the scenes in each section can be staged in any order. Finally, at the end of the playtext she includes several "random" scenes. Most of these (someone sneezing, someone reading bits of gossip from a magazine, multiplication tables or gene sequences, a display of sign language or morse code) are optional. However, the scenes she labels "Depression" are, in Churchill's words, an "essential part of the play," requiring one character to remain unresponsive as a succession of incomplete and banally offered non-sequiturs are articulated by someone else. Taylor's very smart choice for these scenes is to have each of the lines spoken in voice-over as a succession of cast members sit slumped on a chair downstage left, their morose and impassive faces projected in turn on a scrim behind them via a live video feed (the projection designer was Stefan Zubovic, who also did the lighting).

Because all of the "information" we get in each of the scenes in the play comes via the dialogue, a creative team is afforded much liberty in its interpretation of the different conversations and interactions. Taylor exploits this to maximum effect, playing with gender and setting and costuming and sound design to create fully-realized and often surprising mini-worlds, opening up a window onto these characters' domestic or professional or social lives, sometimes in the space of less than a minute. For example, "Lab," in which one character is explaining to another what he does with the baby chickens' brains which he injects with radioactive liquid and then dissects, is set in what I took to be the waiting area of a fancy restaurant, with the lab technician clearly oblivious to the fact that he is failing abysmally at seducing his date with the description of his work. "Spies," which unfolds as a conversation about the misinformation fed to the media and the public about the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 (something that Churchill has allegorized before in Drunk Enough to Say I Love You), was staged as a debate between two spectators at a hockey game. And it was an inspired choice to have the dialogue in the super short "Decision," from section 6, delivered while the characters, ballroom dance partners, are engaged in a tango. And yet as much as I admired the deep thought that clearly went into constructing a back story for each of the play's scenes, and the relationship between the characters within them, I couldn't help feel that many of them were over-produced, with costume and prop and sound design choices often detracting from what I read as some of Churchill's more instrumental and frankly transactional exchanges of information between characters. For example, in Section 5, I'm not sure that anything fruitful was gained by having the "Children" scene (in which one character quizzes another about his infertility) preceded by a long live karaoke sequence. (While this production runs a compact and intermissionless 90 minutes, it still felt that the pacing could have been tighter, especially in the scene changes.)

There is a reason, I think, that the characters in Love and Information are presented as ciphers, bits of interchangeable binary code that, in the larger montage of scenes, form part of an algorithmic equation that suggests that everything, including people and feelings, is now data, and that it's not a question any longer of what we know but how we know--and maybe even more importantly who knows and who we know. This comes out in the one optional random scene that Taylor chooses to include, "Genes," in which a sequence of DNA codons unspools on a downstage scrim as the cast walks back and forth across the stage behind it. In this regard, I wonder what it might have meant for this production if a more uniformly coherent and, dare I say, clinical design aesthetic had been chosen for each of the scenes? Then, too, what additional discoveries might have transpired had Taylor taken up Churchill's invitation to mix up the order of the scenes in each section? The choices this play affords are on one level understandably overwhelming. At the same time, as Taylor states in her director's notes, being overloaded with choice is part of what Churchill is exploring in this play. Sifting through the structural rubik's cube that is this play to find its emotional core means not trying to resolve the contradictory pull between love and information, but rather isolating the feeling or epiphanic sensation or experience of the former amid all the memes that comprise the latter.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Happy Days at SFU Woodward's

Winnie, in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, is one of those classic female theatre roles--like Medea or Hedda Gabler--that I imagine all great actresses aspire to play. Except that Winnie is no tragic figure, and it would be a mistake to read her predicament--mired up to her waist in sand in Act 1, and then up to her neck in Act 2--as one that induces in her paroxysms of despair and self-pity. Above all what Beckett reveals to us through the mix of metaphysical and delightfully bawdy "prattle" that he gives to Winnie is that she is not just hyper-conscious of both the temporality and the materiality of her situation, but also accepting of them. Indeed, there is a way in which the routine of unpacking her bag, or gauging when to sing her song, or wondering if her companion, Willie, having crawled back into his cave, can nevertheless still hear her, approaches a kind of daily practice of Buddhist enlightenment.

Certainly it was a revelation last night, watching Square Planet's production of the play in Studio T at SFU Woodward's, to witness Penelope Stella, in essaying the role, convey within individual lines the genuinely joyful insights and moments of discovery that Winnie revels in. I could have watched Stella puzzle out the corporate imprint on Winnie's toothbrush all evening. Joining Stella as Willie is Greg Snider, who also designed the ziggurat-like set. Together, under the expert direction of my colleague DD Kugler, these two former faculty members of the School for the Contemporary Arts succeed in conveying just how full and, yes, happy are Winnie's days. Unlike in Waiting for Godot, this is another Beckett play seemingly about nothing where it nevertheless feels like so much happens.

At the very least it says something that after 90 minutes of apparent stasis all I wanted to do was move. No matter Winnie's conclusion about Willie that "mobility is a curse."