Sunday, September 24, 2017

Loot at the Park Theatre

When Joe Orton's second major play, Loot, premiered 50 years ago, it ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain's office on two fronts. First, London's theatrical censor insisted that Orton's more overt references to the sexual relationship between best mates and hapless thieves Hal and Dennis be removed, or else coded in layers of subtext. Second, the playwright's stipulation in the script that the corpse at the centre of the plot's farcical antics be played by a real actor was vetoed. A dummy had to be substituted.

Both of these cuts have been restored in a 50th anniversary production of the play that is currently running at the Park Theatre in the Finsbury Park neighbourhood of North London. Assuredly directed by Michael Fentiman, this staging is the first to be based on Orton's original, uncensored script, recently rediscovered, and given the go-ahead by Orton's sister and his estate. Orton's scabrous wit and savage satirizing of social mores remain as fresh and breathtakingly funny as ever--notwithstanding the odd racist and misogynistic joke that might offend the politically correct. Luckily for us, Orton is so far from being a PC playwright as to make comedic offense into a blunt force weapon. Not for him the smooth sliding in of the skewering dagger alongside indulgently mocking Wildean aphorisms; Orton serves up his comic barbs the way the Greeks did--lewd and in yer face. I realize I'm mixing a lot of different theatrical references in that last sentence, but as Fentiman writes in his program note, Orton's dramatic knowledge and reading were prodigious, as is his own influence on a subsequent generation of taboo-smashing British playwrights.

For Orton, whose entire writerly project might be summed up as an epic battle to demolish the binary between the sacred and the profane (this was someone who went to prison, remember, for defacing library books), taboos are made to be smashed. And in Loot we see them come down in spades. Defiling a corpse: check. Hiding stolen money in a coffin: check. Lampooning Catholic piety and blind faith in the absolving power of confession: check. Openly celebrating buggery and getting away with murder: check and check.

But what elevates Orton beyond being a playwright who merely wishes to shock (in addition, that is, to his truly astonishing command of language) is that his satire is expressly political. Indeed, the biggest taboo to be smashed in Loot has to do with our liberal democratic belief in--and willful adherence to--the benignly just execution of the law. Thus, the most menacing character in the play is not the murdering Black Widow of a nurse, Fay (an excellent Sinead Matthews), nor the larcenous lovers Hal and Dennis (Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba, both also terrific), but the incognito detective, Truscott (Christopher Fulford, in a toweringly funny performance). Entering the McLeavy residence under the guise of a city water inspector in order to avoid the inconvenience of needing a search warrant, by the end of the play he ends up colluding with the criminals, taking a cut of their "loot," and sending an innocent man, the grieving Mr. McLeavy (Ian Redford, moving from befuddlement to outrage and back again with great aplomb), to jail. That this also enables the closing tableau of this production of the play, in which Hal and Dennis kiss passionately, while simultaneously each rubbing a breast of the imperiously self-satisfied surrogate mummy figure Fay, still clutching her rosary, is a fittingly queer victory for a playwright whose own untimely death coincided with the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.

This production, then, is a double anniversary, and on both the level of hilarious physical comedy (major kudos on that front to Anah Ruddin as the put-upon corpse) and savage political commentary, it lives up to the weight of expectations. Added bonus at the performance we attended: the legendary Tom Stoppard was in the audience. He was laughing uproariously. If that's not an imprimatur, I don't know what is.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 38

If you're at the Dance Centre in the coming weeks, you'll be able to catch sight of the installation that Natalie Purschwitz has conceived for our Dance Histories project taking shape. On Wednesday, with the help of DC technician Daniel O'Shea, we rigged the main supporting platform into place. This was no easy task, as the installation is essentially a very complicated Calderesque mobile that will hang from the ceiling above the stairwell leading down to the main Faris Studio. And because Natalie will need to be able to raise and lower the platform while she is working on the installation, this involved figuring out a very complicated system of rope pulleys. And finding a three-quarter inch drill bit--which proved the most difficult task of all.

Nevertheless, success was eventually achieved, and now the main task is threading the hundreds and hundreds of names that Natalie has attached to different playing cards through the holes that I punctured through the platform. Having spent seven hours yesterday and Wednesday doing so, I can attest to how finicky and time-consuming this work is. Add to this the very real risk of the different bits of dangling threads getting hopelessly tangled as the platform is raised and lowered and just generally moved around, and you can understand how stressful all of this can quickly become. And it doesn't help that we're doing all of this in a tiny corner of the Faris lobby near the bar, and having to work around matinee and evening performances.

Natalie has worked out a very complicated system for how all the different playing cards fit together, which perfectly captures our goal of illustrating how all of these histories overlap and intersect--and which will be represented in the finished installation by the bits of orange coloured thread that horizontally connect the dangling vertical cards. But in an Excel spreadsheet, as a list of names and a numbered count of times mentioned, such a system is one thing. Three-dimensionally it's quite another, and Natalie said that if it sounded like she was talking to us like children in explaining things we shouldn't take offence; she was simply figuring things out herself in the process of articulating them.

I feel bad abandoning Natalie and the rest of the crew just as the work is getting started (Richard and I are off to London and Amsterdam for 10 days); but I'm sure there will still be stuff to do when I get back. And, in truth, it's probably good to have me and my clumsy fingers out of the way during the main and hardest phase of work.

As Justine said yesterday, that work will take as long as is needed to complete. And when it's done, the piece is going to look amazing.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Embryotrophic Cavatina (Part 2) at the Roundhouse

So I guess if you're choreographing a dance to a piece of requiem music that introduces a saxophone in its second half, then that licenses you to shift the movement score pretty radically as well. Back in August I blogged about Kokoro Dance's free showing of the first part of Embryotrophic Cavatina, which was originally created in 1989 and 1990 and set to the opening half of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for My Friend. Last night at the Roundhouse the company unveiled the new second half to the piece, and it definitely wasn't what I was expecting--which is a good thing.

A shift in tone is first of all effected by the fact that following an exit of the performers (Kokoro co-founders Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, accompanied by regular dancers Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski) from the stage and a brief pause, they return wearing long and vibrantly hued shifts designed by Tsuneko Kokubo. The designer's large format paintings of edible and medicinal plants were also projected throughout this final section. While the program note indicates that Kokubo considers these images to be metaphors for "the migration of peoples," when combined with the impetus for the music (Preisner's mourning of the death of his friend, Krzysztof Kieslowski), we might also see them as gesturing toward the migration of souls, each of whose journeys in the afterlife is made singularly and alone.

This in turn perhaps explains the shift in movement. Whereas the first half of the piece was pretty tightly structured around a central quadrant of mostly unison sequences, in the second half the performers appear to be improvising their own individual scores. Eventually, however, we detect that a through-line of shared gestures and movement patterns (many of which I recognized from Barbara's recent morning dance classes at KW Studios) has been distributed throughout the bodies on stage, like an extended or staggered canon, each of the dancers completing the same combinations of spins and thrown arms and collapsed walks, just in radically different sequencings. Well, all of the dancers except Jay, who during this second half mostly stays upstage, repeating echoes of the movement from part one. Near the end, however, he joins the group as the apparent chaos of mass solo improvisation gels into a slow and simple cycling through of a gesture base associated with the senses, the sticking out of the tongue, the cupping of an ear, and the tracing of a hand up an arm continuing to attest to the vital materiality of the body even as the dancers slowly exit the stage.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Fringe 2017: Fifty Shades of Dave

My second Fringe show yesterday was Fifty Shades of Dave. Full disclosure: this one I went to because I know the writers and performers. Co-writer and performer Nico Dicecco was my former PhD student, and co-writer Kyle Carpenter is currently finishing his PhD in the English Department at SFU. With this work they both reveal additional hidden talents I didn't know either had.

Fifty Shades of Dave, punning on the E.L. James novel, is an erotic parody of Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe stories, with husband and wife protagonists Dave and Morley accidentally discovering a penchant for BDSM. Dicecco, doing what I gather is a spot-on impression of McLean's voice, spins three such tales in a hilariously homespun manner, the very dailiness of the details (Dave heading off to the hardware store to buy rope to tie up Morley) parcelled out in the set-up to each increasingly hot and heavy story climax making the narrative payoff that much more satisfying. While I confess to never having listened to The Vinyl Cafe, I do understand good writing, and this show has it in spades. To wit: after seeing this show, your understanding of the meaning of eating ice cream will forever be changed.

Nico, as McLean, is also a natural performer. And while I'd very much like for some academic institution to give him a job, I was delighted to discover that another possible career also awaits him. I look forward to hearing more from this duo.


Fringe 2017: Lovely Lady Lump

Once again my plans to see a whack of Vancouver International Fringe Festival shows were thwarted this year, my whole experience reduced to two shows on yesterday's final day. First up was Lovely Lady Lump, by Australia's Lana Schwarcz. The show fits the standard Fringe template of one-hour solo comedy, which if I'm honest is partly why I see fewer and fewer Fringe shows each year. The line between theatre and stand-up comedy is increasingly thin, and while the subject matter may change from show to show, I find the homogeneity of form to verge on stupefying my spectating sensibilities. Of course, I'm generalizing--lots of dramas and multi-character and longer form works do exist at the Fringe. And there are all sorts of reasons why the one-hour one-hander tends to proliferate--cheapness being one of them. But I do think fringe festivals are facing something of a crisis of identity when it comes to fostering meaningful new theatre voices.

Schwarcz makes her living as a stand-up comic, so there's no getting around this set up for Lovely Lady Lump. Except in this case the subject matter is novel: Schwarcz's breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and survival. That Schwarcz's breasts (she still has both of them) are the stars of the show is an understatement. She reveals them to us at the top of the show, as part of an explanatory vignette involving a visit for radiation treatment, and we see them again and again during subsequent visits. There is nothing titillating here; indeed, one of Schwarcz's concerns is to demonstrate that the very routine of cancer treatment is one of its most brutalizing effects. But mostly the mood is light and Schwarcz is, it has to be said, very very funny. She's also an amazing puppeteer, and she combines both skills memorably during a sequence involving a nightmare reference to The Shining, and also in a bit about her hormone blocking therapy in which a shadow puppet valley girl incarnation of estrogen becomes a pile of shit.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 37

All this week and next Justine and Alexa and I have bracketed off morning studio time to start pulling together the various threads of our Dance Histories project in advance of their unveiling at Dance in Vancouver this November. Actually, the first of those quite literal threads will be visible to Dance Centre patrons later this month--maybe even as early as the end of next week. That would be Natalie Purschwitz's rhizomatic installation based on the interconnected web of names and places we have collected via our interviews with local dance artists. She has a fantastic design concept for how to represent all of the overlapping layers of influence and attachment and bodily and spatial sedimentation--which I won't spoil here. Let's just hope it can be sustained by the actual material supports of the Dance Centre building...

The last piece of data collection necessary for Natalie's work was completed this morning when Justine and I finally interviewed Alexa about her own dance history. Afterwards Alexa said that she now understood why so many of our interview subjects likened the experience to a kind of therapy. Perhaps because this particular interview came at the end of our process, but more likely because Alexa is such a smart and reflective person, for me Alexa's narrative was at once singularly her own and also so consciously and respectfully connected to so many of our previous conversations: not least concerning the idea of developing an ethic care--with respect to our bodies, our collaborators, and our community.

Among other things, I learned that Alexa dates her Vancouver dance history from 2010. That's when she returned to the city from London, where she'd been trying--and in her words failing--to be a commercial dancer. While shooting a television commercial for the SyFy channel choreographed by Kelly Konno, and that featured Josh Beamish, Alexa learned about Modus Operandi. She promptly went to an Out Innerspace show, saw Elissa Hanson do something amazing, and said she wanted in. She did two and a half years of the program, before gravitating toward a cohort of dance artists affiliated with SFU, including Daisy Thompson, Katie DeVries, Emmalena Fredriksson, Erica Mitsuhashi and, eventually, my colleague Rob Kitsos.

In addition to dancing for and with Deanna Peters, Amber Funk Barton, and Vanessa Goodman (whose upcoming Wells Hill will premiere at the end of November, overlapping with Dance in Vancouver, and thus keeping Alexa extremely busy between now and then), Alexa is also an amazing dance writer and critic. Collaborations with Lee Su-Feh on the Migrant Bodies Project and Brynn McNab on An Exact Vertigo at UNIT/PITT Projects are just two instances in which Alexa has demonstrated her amazing choreographic facility with words. At one point in her interview, Alexa talked about an inspirational moment in a workshop in Toronto with Ame Henderson, in which she reported saying "I'm a writer and a dancer and I'm trying to figure out if both of those things are part of my practice." Mercifully for all of us--and especially for Justine and I on this project--Ame's definitive response was "Of course they are!"

In fact just today Alexa was instrumental in contributing to the short blurb that she and Justine and I crafted for what it is we think we're doing at Dance in Vancouver. We've given the various distributed component parts a three-part title: Our Present Dance Histories, or, Dance Histories Project, or, Vancouver Dance: an incomplete history of the present - Part 1. Because, of course, we didn't get to interview everyone we'd ambitiously planned to (on the way out of the Dance Centre today, I bumped into Joe Laughlin, who is somewhat egregiously missing from the hours and hours of our compiled video footage); because history is never finished and always moving; and because, after two years, we're only just getting started.

That said, here's a roughly chronological list of the 51 Vancouver dance artists we've interviewed (sometimes all together, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes individually) as part of this first phase of research:

Rob Kitsos
Vanessa Goodman
Ali Denham
Delia Brett
Lee Su-Feh
James Gnam
Deanna Peters
Ziyian Kwan
Judith Marcuse
Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg
Arash Khakpour
Aryo Khakpour
David McIntosh
Chick Snipper
Jennifer Mascall
Natalie LeFebvre Gnam
Alana Gerecke
Molly McDermott
Elissa Hanson
Sophia Wilde
Barbara Bourget
Jay Hirabayashi
Bevin Poole
Amber Funk Barton
Justine A. Chambers
Diego Romero
Paras Terezakis
Karissa Barry
Caroline Liffman
Lesley Telford
Natalie Tin Yin Gan
Noam Gagnon
Ralph Escamillan
Emmalena Fredriksson
Karen Jamieson
Josh Martin
Jane Osborne
Olivia Davies
Judith Garay
Alvin Tolentino
David Raymond
Margaret Grenier
Laura Avery
Anne Cooper
Lara Barclay
Kim Stevenson
Lexi Vajda
Wen Wei Wang
Peter Bingham
Alexa Mardon

Stay tuned for words and gestures from many of these individuals coming to souvenir t-shirted bodies near you this November.


Monday, August 28, 2017

The Winter's Tale at Bard on the Beach

Yesterday morning the only things I knew about Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale was that it was the play that contained the ambiguous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear," and that its ending--SPOILER ALERT!--featured a statue coming to life. So in advance of our visit to Bard on the Beach to take in a matinee performance of the play, I duly read Andrew Dickson's Rough Guide summary of the plot and notable major productions (as is to be expected, it is not revived as often as Shakespeare's more popular plays); I also quickly skimmed the acts in the pages of my Norton anthology. Note to last-minute Bard crammers: Dickson's more populist contextualizing of Shakespeare's plays is frankly far more astute (and readable) than the chain-yanking academese of the Norton's header notes.

As with the fellow late romance Pericles, which was produced at Bard last season, The Winter's Tale is a tonally and spatially fractured play involving a tyrannically jealous king, a dead queen, an abandoned child, a storm at sea, roguish cutpurses, and a happy ending magically reuniting a father and his daughter. However, unlike Lois Anderson's production of the former--which radically cut and rearranged the text, and which everyone but me seemed to adore--Dean Paul Gibson, in his take on the latter, wisely hues to Shakespeare's original design. Not that I'm a purist when it comes to such matters; I just think that in this case, unlike with Pericles last year, Gibson's directorial vision actually helps to bring out more clearly the sexual politics of The Winter's Tale, exposing the deep-seated misogyny at the heart of King Leontes' jealousy and, courtesy of lady-in-waiting Paulina's mysterious machinations, turning the play in a feminist allegory on the pitfalls of patriarchal power.

When the play opens we are in Sicily, at the court of Leontes (Kevin MacDonald). Having had no luck persuading his bosom friend from childhood, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Ian Butcher), to stay another week visiting the family, Leontes entreats his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione (a regal Sereana Malani), to try her luck. But her success actually piques Leontes' jealousy and after espying them enjoying what he thinks is too much intimacy during a court dance, the king convinces himself that his wife and best friend are having an affair and that his unborn child is not his own. Sounds like Othello 2.0, right? But whereas Shakespeare's earlier play about the "green-eyed monster" had the villainous Iago to poison the marital chalice, everyone else in The Winter's Tale has no idea what Leontes is on about. So when he instructs his faithful servant Camillo (Laara Sadiq) to kill Polixenes, she instead absconds with him back to Bohemia. Similarly, Rogero (Ashley O'Connell) and Antigonus (Andrew Wheeler) try to reason with Leontes, at least persuading him to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in advance of Hermione's trial for adultery and treason. But when Antigonus's wife Paulina (Jennifer Lines, taking over the role from Lois Anderson as of the middle of this month) brings Leontes his newborn daughter, thinking her sight and the consequent registering of his likeness will soften his heart, the king explodes in fury at Paulina's impudence, instructing Antigonus to take the child far away and leave her to fend for herself in the wilds. Even when the words of Apollo are read out from the oracle, pronouncing Hermione blameless and warning that if Leontes persists in his mad belief of her infidelity he will be left without an heir, the king refuses to swallow his wounded male pride; instead he rips up the oracle and orders Hermione executed. Whereupon, thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening, the king's son and sole remaining heir, Mamillius (Parmiss Sehat), is struck dead. And then his mother, the queen. This latter news is delivered by Paulina to a finally chastened Leontes in full righteous fury, berating him for not listening to her or believing his wife. In this scene, and in the earlier one in which she entreats the king to acknowledge his daughter as his own, Paulina emerges as the moral conscience of the play, daring to stand up to Leontes' and call out his wilfully blind narcissism where all others only cower and meekly do his bidding. In these scenes Lines is in full-throated physical command of not just the men on stage, but of the entire audience. You cannot take your eyes off of her as she swirls around a prostrate and weeping MacDonald, her gowns flowing around her like a sorceress. Except that, as she had earlier told Leontes, and what she will remind everyone of at the end of the play, what she sees (and eventually does) must not be called witchcraft or, in the current Trumpian lexicon, fake news; instead, we along with Leontes must call it what it is--speaking truth to power.

It's after this climactic scene in Sicily that the play abruptly shifts tone and location. We next encounter Antigonus abandoning the babe Perdita in the woods of Bohemia, but not before fending off the aforementioned bear, which is here wonderfully realized by puppet designers Heidi Wilkinson and Frances Henry as a limber-limbed War Horse-like mechanical being operated underneath by a partially visible human player (later some adorable braying sheep will also make an appearance). Threat duly taken care of, cue the shift to a more appropriately pastoral setting as the requisite shepherd and his son (a perfectly in sync David M. Adams and Chris Cochrane) discover the "wee bairn" and decide to raise her as part of their family. Sixteen years then pass, a fact which is duly announced to us in the play by the allegorical figure of Time, and in Gibson's hands here cleverly collapsed into the figure of the all-seeing and all-knowing Paulina. The remainder of the play concerns the working out of the improbable romance between the now grown shepherd's daughter Perdita (Kaitlin Williams) and Polixenes' son, Florizel (Austin Eckert). Polixenes is of course against his son marrying beneath him, but owing to Camillo once again failing to do her master's bidding, the young couple hightails it to Sicily. Shakespeare leavens the rather creaky mechanics of the play's resolution (and distracts us, it has to be said, from the insipidness of the young lovers) by introducing the cutpurse Autolycus (a superb Ben Elliott), who has fun duping the shepherd and his son, often while singing a jaunty song and simultaneously relieving them of their money. Eventually all of the players make it back to Sicily, where it is revealed that Perdita is the long-lost daughter of Leontes and that both kings, having reignited their interrupted bromance, consent to have their children marry.

But the biggest reveal of all is left to Paulina, who announces that a sculpture in Hermione's likeness that has long been in the works is now ready to be shown to the court. When the curtain is drawn to reveal the actress, Malani, who plays the queen, everyone marvels at the verisimilitude of the sculpture, including the fact that the artist seems to have coincidentally made Hermione age sixteen years like the rest of them. Then, counselling Leontes and the others that they mustn't succumb to superstition in explaining what they're about to see, Paulina announces that she will make the sculpture move. And with that, she brings Hermione back to life, to be reunited with her grown daughter and, for better or worse, her feckless husband.

The play's ending, a coup de theatre that is here all the more effective for the lack of spectacle that accompanies it, is utterly fantastical but precisely because of that underscores the themes of faith and belief--or the lack thereof--that course through it. And here we must come back to the central figure of Paulina and how in this production the focusing of our gaze through hers (both acts open with Paulina/Paulina-as-Time functioning as a chorus and leading the company in a group dance) makes the sexual politics of the play feel utterly contemporary without being heavy-handed. That is, Paulina's condemnation of Leontes for not believing in the faithfulness of his wife and her indignation at the spectacle of Hermione's trial should remind us of how in the prosecution of sex crimes, the burden of proof continues to remain with the female victim.

Then, too, the metatheatricality of the final scene--showing us how a work of art is made to come to life--reminds us that the make-believe world of the stage is also about making belief--and not merely by agreeing to suspend disbelief. In the case of this production we are aided immeasurably in our acceptance of the "magic of the theatre" by the simple and unfussy set design by Pam Johnson, by the similarly sleek costumes of Carmen Alatorre (including a fantastic use of masks), and by the movement score of Tracey Power. Gibson also coaxes mostly excellent performances from his cast, an unusual number of which (for a Shakespearean romance, at any rate) have moments where they are required to pitch their characters' speeches outward to the audience. None more so than Paulina. And I can think of no actress in Vancouver more skilled at inviting an audience to empathize and identify with the action unfolding before them on stage than Lines. When she opens her arms towards us, smiles and tilts her head in a gesture that says "come with me," it's awfully hard to resist.