Sunday, February 6, 2011

Holding Moonbeams

Last night we took a break from PuSh to attend the second presentation in this year's DanceHouse season at the Playhouse. Doug Elkins and Friends' Fräulein Maria is about as much fun as you're likely to have at the theatre in this or any other lifetime. It's also incredibly moving, fiercely intelligent, and wholly sincere as an homage not just to the cultural artifact that inspired it, but to the many dance genres from which it samples.

In his pre-show chat, Elkins gave a most engaging--and suitably elliptical--redaction of how he conceived the piece. Having grown up loving the The Sound of Music (the movie version with Julie Andrews, not the Broadway version with Mary Martin) and singing along to the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, Elkins' Proustian attachment to the work, and the memories it evoked, was reawakened while introducing his children to the film. First produced in a small-scale version at Joe's Pub in New York in 2006, it was an immediate hit, and after securing the permission of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate (no mean feat, that) the work was expanded to its current 13-performer, 65-minute scope in 2008. It has been touring the United States ever since, with Vancouver its first international stop.

The show begins with Michael Preston, the show's co-director, warming up the audience vocally in his role as an Uncle Max-like impresario, conducting us in a version of "Do-Re-Mi." Then we hear the voice of Richard Rodgers commenting on audiences' deep affection for the character of Maria, before the curtain parts and Preston, with the aid of other company members and a few unfurled bolts of green and blue cloth, literally sets about making the hills come alive. Julie Andrews' bright soprano is the cue for the appearance of our Maria, and this is the occasion for the first of many surprises in the evening: in Elkins' version there are three Marias, one of them played by a man! Not only does this allow for some creative partnering and group sequences over the course of the show, but it also serves as an interesting comment on the multiple layers of spectatorial identification (some of them cross-gender) at work in the complex of character/role/actor.

Nuns in hoodies voguing to "How Do You Solve a Problem?" (led by the wonderful Deborah Lohse, who later gives a spirited turn as the haughty Baroness); a six-foot tall male Liesl in a pink tutu (the classically trained John Sorensen-Jolink) dancing with black B-boy Kurt to "I am Sixteen"; a capoeira-infused reprise of "Do-Re-Mi"; and a moving pas de deux X 3 for our finally united heroine and Captain Von Trapp: these were just a few of my favourite things from last night. Elkins himself dances two of the stand-out numbers in the show: a duet on a park bench with Preston (menacing red arm band now in place) to "Edelweiss" that involves a tightly choreographed, Godot-style exchange of a fedora, and that also quietly acknowledges the Holocaust; and a hilarious hip-hop solo as Mother Superior to "Climb Every Mountain."

Fräulein Maria is witty and knowing without being overly clever and precious. The work moves beyond mere parody to something far more generous, inviting us to reflect on what about the original movie was so captivating in the first place, and to participate in the joyous act of aligning the human voice at its purist with physical movement at its most gleefully buoyant and euphoric. Don't get me wrong: the dancers last night were all serious technicians, as adept at step-dancing and salsa as ballet and ballroom. But virtuosity was less the point than a more profound sense of kinesthetic connection: communicating to us, through their bodies, their pleasure at dancing together--and together for us--on stage. Just as the singing nun works her surrogate magic on the Von Trapps, so are we proprioceptively transported (and I think I mean that quite literally) by Doug Elkins and his friends. Outside on the sidewalk as we hum along to the score and do a little shuffle, we become (if only for a moment) flibbertigibbets, will-o'-the-wisps, clowns.

How, finally, do you find the words that mean Fräulein Maria? You don't. You just hold on to the experience for as long as you can.


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