Friday, August 3, 2018

Timon of Athens at Bard on the Beach

It was back to Bard on the Beach last night, this time to see the all-female, modern-dress production of Timon of Athens, directed by Meg Roe. Timon is not often performed, and for good reason. It is resolutely dark. It is unevenly written (likely as a result of it having been co-authored by Thomas Middleton, which would also explain the darkness). And it has a thoroughly improbable plot.

Timon, played here with towering intensity and singular vision by the great Colleen Wheeler, is generous in spreading her wealth to an admiring group of friends, who fawn over and flatter her in order to keep the gifts coming. We meet this group in the opening scene, when they arrive at Timon's well-appointed home, which set designer Drew Facey has conceived as a beautiful and sleek modernist jewel. One by one, we meet Lucius (Michelle Fisk), Sempronius (an imperious Patti Allan), and Ventidius (Quelemia Sparrow, doing her best Real Housewives of West Vancouver impression), all kitted out in expensive couture (the amazing costumes are by Mara Gottler). This trio mixes with Timon's servants, PAs Flavius (an excellent Moya O'Connell) and Flaminius (Ming Hudson) and the silent male help (Joel D. Montgrand and Sebastian Archibald, the cops from Lysistrata), and the other guests, including a poet (Jennifer Lines) and painter (Kate Besworth), a late-to-arrive Isidore (Adele Noronha) and Timon's one honest friend, Apemantus (Marci T. House, delivering an unblinkingly truthful performance). With Wheeler's Timon sweeping in on her five-inch heels to bestow and receive air kisses, Roe plays the beginning of this opening scene as an overlapping hubbub of voices, knowing that it doesn't matter what of these characters' empty words we actually hear. Everything in this world is about appearances.

Which is why, when Timon eventually learns from Flavius, who had been trying to warn her, that she is bankrupt and is facing a posse of creditors demanding payment, she attempts to save face by dispatching Flavius and Flaminius to her friends to ask for a loan. Lucius, Ventidius, and Sempronius each spurn her request and in her rage Timon plans a final vengeful dinner party, the occasion here for a succession of coups-de-théâtre. First there is the huge round suspended table that descends from its hiding place in the overhead lighting fixture, and that the help set with expert precision. Then there is the unplating of Timon's surprise main course: bowls of warm water and smoke, one of which she promptly throws in Sempronius' face. That moment elicited a collective gasp from the audience, but it's when Wheeler started tearing up the set, lifting up a succession of floor panels and pulling out the supporting wooden joists to reveal the bare earth underneath that full pandemonium broke out. In Shakespeare's play text, Timon retreats to a cave following the dinner, vowing to spurn society. It's a genius decision on Roe's part to stage this as Timon pulling apart the literal foundations of her world. And Wheeler goes at it with absolute gusto, her white pantsuit becoming stained with earth, and her soignée chignon turning into a riot of rogue curls and loose strands.

Of course this is also where the already bizarre plot of the play becomes truly incredible. For what should Timon discover in the earth underneath her house but a treasure trove of money and gold? By this point, however, Timon is past caring, and in her complete nihilism forswears both financial redemption and, it must be said, the ex machina device of a happy ending. This perhaps explains her final exchanges with Apemantus and Flavius, the former offering simple hard reality in place of pity, the latter just not wanting her boss to die alone. But that is just what Timon does, and unlike in most of Shakespeare's other tragedies there is no attempt to sum up the moral of the story.

That is perhaps why, as Roe suggests in her program notes, the play is such a powerful parable for our own uncertain times. Rapaciousness and falsity are in ascendence everywhere, it seems, and with greatly unequal social consequences. In this stripped-down, 90-minute assault of near unremitting cynicism Roe forces her audience to do two seemingly antithetical things: ask ourselves why we are enjoying watching someone else's misfortune; and challenge ourselves to find even a smidgen of hope amidst all this darkness.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Lysistrata at Bard on the Beach

By yesterday evening Vancouver's recent heat wave had finally abated, and so it was not at all uncomfortable sitting under the tent of the Howard Family Stage at Bard on the Beach with my friend and colleague Melissa Poll. We had gone there to see Lysistrata, which I will be teaching this fall, and which in Bard's production has been adapted by Jennifer Wise and Lois Anderson, who also directs. The comedy's scabrous sexual politics and anti-war message have, for better or worse, remained remarkably timely and on-point in the 2500 years since Aristophanes fist wrote the play (witness the world-wide Lysistrata Project in 2003, to protest the invasion of Iraq, and also Spike Lee's controversial recent film Chi-Raq, which I will be teaching alongside Bard's production). So I was curious how Wise and Anderson's version would make the text speak to our contemporary moment.

Their strategy has been to make this production resolutely local. This performance of Lysistrata is framed meta-theatrically as a play-within-a-play. The Howard Stage's Bard ensemble is meant to be doing an all-female Hamlet, but to protest a proposed plan by the city to expropriate and develop Vanier Park so that it can accommodate a shipping container, the company has hijacked the evening's performance in order to put on an impromptu protest performance of Lysistrata. The set-up for this conceit is wittily established via a bunch of pre-show stage business that also manages to incorporate Bard AD Christopher Gaze's curtain speech. Not everyone in the company, especially Colleen Wheeler, who is meant to be playing Prince Hamlet, is happy about this decision. The framing scenes in which the company--including Luisa Joijic as Lysistrata, Jennifer Lines as Kleonike, Marci T. House as the Spartan Lampito, and Ming Hudson as Myrrhine--argue about whether to continue, and the consequences of doing so, mirror the plot of Aristophanes' play, whose comedy turns on the fact that the women's sex strike is as painful to them as to their husbands. The framing scenes also incorporate the eventual arrival of two local cops (Sebastian Archibald and Joel D. Montgrand), who have come to question company member Adele Noronha, whose on-stage protest she has also extended to include the graffiti tagging of local landmarks. The different degrees of cluelessness of the cops, one of whom turns out to be married to Wheeler (a real-life plot point), leads to a series of lessons in feminist Indigenous pedagogy by company member Quelemia Sparrow, who somewhat uncomfortably to me is cast in the familiar role of the wise Indigenous woman who must educate her settler castmates and the audience about the real history of this place. At the same time, the frame narrative with the cops also occasions a lot of insider jokes not just about Equity theatre (who can and cannot be on stage, and for how long at a time), but about Bard as a company (as Melissa, who spent several seasons acting there herself, leaned over to let me know more than once). The risk here, however, is that the jokes becoming a little too knowing, and so end up excluding a portion of the audience from joining in the laughter.

This, of course, is always the risk of comedy, and especially of the kind of old, or sexually satirical, comedy practiced by Aristophanes. Part of my interest in attending this production of Lysistrata was also seeing how the bawdy jokes would land post-#MeToo, and also in the wake of Hannah Gadsby devastating indictment in Nanette of the very structural premises of comedy as a genre. This production doesn't shy away from those tensions, especially as they play out inequitably for women, who have historically been demeaned both for not being able to tell a good joke and for not being able to take one, no matter how bad or hurtful. In Act Two of this production of Lysistrata there is a noticeable shift in tone. Not only is this the act in which most of the singing and dancing happens (the composer and musical director is Mishelle Cuttler and the choreographer is Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg), but it also tackles head on the implicit sexual violence that underscores the climactic oath of peace that Lysistrata extracts from the men of Athens and Sparta. In Aristophanes' play Peace is incarnated as a beautiful woman, whose body the men jokingly carve up and verbally violate even as they pledge brotherhood to each other. In Anderson's staging, this violence is made material as the men rip bits of fabric from the beautiful green dress worn by Lines, who plays Peace (the wonderful costumes are designed by Barbara Claydon). It's an understandably unsettling moment for Lines and all of the other women on stage, and the edge it left me on helped redeem some of the lighter and more twee elements of the first act.