Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jitters at The Stanley

David French, perhaps English-Canada's most produced playwright of the 1970s and 80s, is getting two revivals in the Greater Vancouver Area right now. Salt-Water Moon, part of French's Mercer Family cycle, opened at the Gateway this past Friday; directed by Ravi Jain, this touring co-pro from Toronto's Factory Theatre and Jain's own Why Not Theatre is a heavily stylized take on French's period-set Newfoundland love story. The production got raves when it opened in Toronto in 2016, but according to our friends Richard Wolfe and Connie Kostiuk--with whom we had dinner last night, and who attended the Gateway opening--Jain's choices produce decidedly mixed results, and there were more than a few walkouts.

By contrast, the Arts Club staging of French's backstage comedy Jitters, on at the Stanley through February 25, adopts a reliably naturalistic take to its story, and the audience ate it up. Director David Mackay has chosen to set the play in the year it was first produced, 1979, in part as an homage to outgoing Arts Club AD Bill Millerd, who opened the company's second Granville Island venue that year. More practically--and very rewardingly--in terms of production design, this choice has given costume designer Mara Gottler free rein to reproduce the shaggy hairstyles and flared pants and garish colour palettes and clothing patterns of the period. An eye for authentic temporal specificity also extends to both sides of Ted Roberts' revolving set, including: the psychedelic hues of the wallpaper, throw pillows, and afghan in the living room of the play-within-the-play of acts one and three; and the grimy, overstuffed dressing rooms of act two. Even the pre-show and intermission music was chosen with care.

Likewise the entire cast feels at home--both emotionally and physically--in their parts. Megan Leitch, as the diva Jessica Logan, and Robert Moloney, as her cynical and hard-drinking co-star, Patrick Flanagan, are expert foils, their constant verbal sparring nevertheless allowing us to see the vulnerability that each is attempting to mask: for Jessica, the Canadian who has made it in New York, a fear that she is past her prime; for Patrick, the home-grown talent who has decided to remain a big fish in a small pond, the gnawing anxiety of failing on a bigger stage. James Fagan Tait, whom I mostly know as a director, reveals himself to be a hilarious master of comic timing in playing Phil Mastorakis, the jobbing character actor who has a habit of drying on stage and who still lives with his mother. Kamyar Pazandeh, as the company's male ingenue Tom Kent, conveys just the right amount of wanting-to-please-everybody desperation, and also gets a breakout moment of Y-fronts-wearing physical comedy in the second act. As, respectively, the put-upon director George Ellsworth and the alternately protective and self-doubting playwright Robert Ross, Martin Happer and Ryan Beil do their best to referee all of these egos, while also finding time to needle each other on various artistic choices. Raugi Yu, looking like an Asian member of the Bay City Rollers, gets in a few good digs against everyone as the martinet of a stage manager Nick. Kaitlin Williams, as the front of house manager Susi, and Lauren Bowler, as props person Peggy, make the most of what little their parts give them to do.

And in terms of action, French's play is not an all-out farce in the manner of Michael Frayn's Noises Off. Which perhaps explains why, as a spectator, I kept leaning in and out of yesterday's performance. All three acts have significantly different tonal qualities, which mostly pertain to the additional statement about Canadian artistic nationalism and our longstanding cultural cringe towards the United States that French wishes to make. Thus, in act one, the set-up of the animosity between Jessica and Patrick at a rehearsal four days before opening is skewed in its beats mainly towards punctuating the binary choices facing theatre artists in Canada in the 1970s: flee to the US to make it on Broadway; or plod along anonymously in rep in Canada. To be sure, the start-and-stop rhythms of the rehearsal--with everyone offering an opinion on the script or wanting something from director George, and with Nick in voiceover reminding everyone about the ticking clock--are a warmly affectionate poke at the world of the theatre more generally. But it's only towards the end of act one, with an aborted entrance by Phil, that we actually start edging into the comedic hijinks we've been waiting for. And it's only in act two--set on opening night, with both Phil and Tom seemingly AWOL, and with the Broadway producer who's come to see the show stuck at the airport--that we move into full-blown farce. Director Mackay and the entire ensemble nail all of the physical action here, and both the laughs and the pacing are satisfyingly relentless, with the audience exiting into intermission on a nice collective high. But in act three French makes another tonal shift, returning to meta-commentary via an extended dissection of a post-opening review in the Toronto Star. Again, there are some nice moments of insider recognition here, but the resolution of the supra-conflict around artistic integrity as distilled through the opposition between Jessica and Patrick feels somewhat forced.

And also dated. This is by no means a fault of the production. I'm merely noting my own feeling that the extra layer of quasi-political critique about Canadian cultural production that French attempts to fuse to the genre of farce (and for a Quebec-focused 70s-era take on this see Robert Lepage's film No) hasn't aged so well.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Chutzpah 2018: Open at The Rothstein

You gotta have a gimmick, right? Clearly Daniel Ezralow, Artistic Director of the LA-based Ezralow Dance, thinks that when it comes to Gypsy Rose Lee's maxim, the more the merrier. In Open, which--ha, ha--"opened" the 2018 Chutzpah! Festival last night at the Rothstein Theatre, gimmick after gimmick is trotted out in attempt to mask the empty ideas and utter lack of choreographic distinction at the heart of what is essentially a succession of brief dance-theatre vignettes. Roped-off boxing ring? Check. Potted palm trees? Check. Finger puppets? Check. Black and white face paint? Check. Mismatched costumes? Check. And let's not forget the supra-gimmick of the constantly moving screens, the locomotion of which was perhaps the most technically accomplished physical activity of the entire evening.

To be fair, the eight dancers are trying very hard. But it is clear that most are not classically trained and that they come from more commercial dance and musical theatre and even circus arts backgrounds. And then there's the fact that the choreography is itself better suited to a cruise ship than a concert stage. Ezralow clearly subscribes to the So You Think You Can Dance school of physical expressiveness: Faster! Bigger! More! And don't forget the costume changes. The partnering is especially clumsy and genitally awkward, with the lifts of the women more in line with the look-at-what-we-can-do posing of ice skating than the structural plot pointing of ballet. This was especially notable in an early man-at-beach-meets mermaid sequence and then later in what I can only describe as a gold laméd tribute to physique posing. (During the latter the women behind us burst into uncontrollable laughter.)

It would be one thing if this were all being done with a wink and a nudge, if Ezralow was taking the piss out of his audience. After all, he does pair most of the vignettes with iconic musical compositions by Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Bach, among others. However, I could detect absolutely no irony at work in the juxtaposition of musical and dance scores. Indeed the Prokofiev-themed homage to Romeo and Juliet was utterly sincere, which just made it that much more painful to watch--especially as the Robbinsesque choreography was so derivative. Likewise, a gum-booted line dance to Bach was clearly undertaken with the utmost seriousness, and was not meant as a burlesquing of either artistic variation.

The programming of Open is a real head-scratcher. Normally the dance presentations at Chutzpah! are reliably rewarding, with Mary-Louise Albert bringing in top international companies and also showcasing amazing local talent. This work is definitely the worst piece I have seen at the festival, and ranks among the poorest dance performances I have ever attended. How it continues to tour in the way it does is beyond me.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

My Funny Valentine at The Dance Centre

Zee Zee Theatre's tenth anniversary production of Dave Deveau's My Funny Valentine is currently running at The Dance Centre, following a successful tour to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. It's an anniversary in two senses: it's the first play by Zee Zee playwright-in-residence Deveau that the company shared with an audience, beginning with workshop presentations overseen by Zee Zee Managing Artistic Director Cameron Mackenzie in the summer of 2009; and, more soberly, it also commemorates ten years since the death of Lawrence King, whose murder in February 2008 by a male classmate to whom he'd had the temerity to send a valentine inspired Deveau's own love letter of a play to all who have suffered violence for following their hearts.

This is not the first time My Funny Valentine, which has won many awards, has been remounted by the company. I previously attended and blogged about the last Vancouver production at the Firehall here. I won't rehearse all that I said in that earlier review about the play's structure. But I will note that one of the unique  features of Deveau's play--and also a way he solves the conundrum of writing for and to the ghost of someone whom we can only ever know through media reports, or as some group's positive or negative symbol--is how he tells his story at a slight remove, through the voices of those who knew the boy or have come to be affected--including, in some cases, positively or opportunistically--by his murder (Lawrence is never identified by name). These characters are all played by a single actor, in this case SFU Theatre alum Conor Wylie, who is as convincing inhabiting the body language and drawn out vowels of the bored and cynical tween Gloria as he is the at once bluffly swaggering and emotionally desperate working class masculinity of a homophonic father.

That said, two characters stand out for me, both in terms of the quality of Deveau's writing and the luminosity of Wylie's performance. The first is Helen, a teacher at the high school of the murdered boy who cannot let his death go. She is the only character we meet more than once, and the recurring conceit of her nervously and clumsily spilling whatever she is drinking all over herself is a sign of how shattered she is by these events--to the point where she burns through both her job and her marriage. Her final appearance at the end of the play, ten years after her student's murder, also allows Deveau, in this most recent staging, to do some subtle updates to the script--in part to show us all that hasn't changed in America in the past decade. The second character I found most affecting was little Ronda, a motormouth of a girl who has two Dads and who is awaiting a liver transplant--a final act of love from the dead boy that this time is reciprocated fully and completely, because that's all Ronda has herself been shown in her life. Wylie is able, in turn, to convey this joyful contagion to us in a way that is simple and direct and that feels like a blessing--just when we need it most. All while talking a mile a minute about hating the smell of tuna fish sandwiches.

Today's matinee audience was a bit sparse; no doubt we were partly competing with the weather. The play continues for another week and I urge folks to get out and see it. Quite simply, Deveau has written a classic, and Wylie is giving a star turn.


Friday, February 9, 2018

No Foreigners at The Cultch

No Foreigners is Hong Kong Exile's second major production to open in Vancouver in the past two weeks (I previously reviewed Foxconn Frequency [No. 3] here). The busy and artistically adventurous company continues its multidisciplinary exploration of diasporic Chineseness, this time in collaboration with Toronto-based fu-Gen Theatre's David Yee, who wrote the text. Originally commissioned by Theatre Conspiracy as part of its Migration Path Project, No Foreigners runs under the direction of HKE project lead Milton Lim at The Cultch's Culture Lab until February 17, before traveling to Toronto for a run at the Theatre Centre.

The story concerns an unnamed Asian-Canadian millennial (voiced by Derek Chan) who is neither fully assimilated into mainstream white culture nor conversant with the traditions of his Cantonese mother and grandfather. He discovers just how estranged he is from both parts of himself when he visits that quintessential global export: the Chinese mall. Wishing to browse among the Hermes bags at an upscale boutique called Milan Station, he is denied entry by the ancient storeowner (April Leung), who insists that "No foreigners are allowed!" Affronted by this attack on his cultural identity, and additionally spurred by the news that his grandfather has left him his estate, but only on the condition that he can supply the probate officer the correct codeword, our hero embarks on a three-year occupation of the mall in an effort to become authentically Chinese. His guide and mentor on this journey is the wise-beyond-her-years Sodapop Mah, the fugitive daughter of a bickering couple whose electronics business is all but bust.

All of this provides HKE and writer Yee with ample opportunity to open up the surreal space of the Chinese mall to theatrical exploitation and critical analysis, giving us a portrait of a place where fantasy and superstition intersect--sometimes sweetly, at other times more violently--with commerce and the geopolitics of fashion and pop culture. The anthropologist Marc Augé has described the shopping mall as a "non-place," a transient space of "supermodernity" that holds little cultural or architectural significance for its users, who consequently remain anonymous and indistinguishable within it. What is most compelling about No Foreigners is the suggestion that this is far from the case for Chinese malls of the sort one finds in Richmond or Markham. Instead, we learn that they are vital community gathering places, rich in drama, haunted by history, and deeply connected to the idea of a home away from home.

My problem has to do with how all of this is presented. Performers Derek Chan and April Leung function as a cross between voice actors and Bunraku puppet masters, moving miniature human figures and set pieces in front of a bank of computer screens, the projected images of which we then see transposed via live camera feeds to a larger movie screen (the miniatures are by Natalie Tin Yin Gan, the projections by Lim, working with Remy Siu, who also designed the sound). Our perspective as spectators is at once multiplied and telescoped all at once, and the seamless integration of the technology is on one level a marvel to behold--as, for example, with the fluttering of an eclipse of moths that begins on the smaller bank of computer screens and then migrates to overtake the whole of the larger movie screen. And yet while I appreciate how dispersed and multi-focal viewing in No Foreigners mimics the ways in which seeing has become split and distracted in today's media-saturated environments--of which the shopping mall is paradigmatic--as live theatre this production feels strangely static and emotionally inert. Despite all of the illuminated screens and the images and the translated surtitles being thrown at me, I found myself continuously looking to Chan and Leung, crouched below the computers and platforms of miniatures, speaking almost surreptitiously into their head mics. And it's surely no coincidence that the moment in the production that connects the most with the audience is when Chan--his character having graduated to the ultimate test of his Chineseness--breaks out into a rousing karaoke number, a single spot following him as he makes his way into the audience.

Yee's text is filled with beautiful poetry, and there are so many smart and interesting things going on in No Foreigners. I just wish they could break free a bit more often from the apparatus of their mediatic scaffolding.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

PuSh 2018: The Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

My 2018 PuSh Festival came to a close last night with a performance of Legend Lin Dance Theater's The Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. This two-hour intermissionless show, co-presented with Taiwanfest, marks the Canadian debut of choreographer Lin Lee-Chen, who is revered in her home country of Taiwan and also acclaimed internationally. However, to say that Lin is just a choreographer is to limit the scope of her creative vision. To judge by last night's performance, she builds works of total theatre (in Artaud's sense of that term), using music, dance, and design to compose exquisite stage tableaux that are as precise in their detailing as they are deliberately unhurried in their execution.

The Eternal Tides seems to celebrate as well as issue a caution about humans' relationship with nature, and especially the sea. It unfolds almost like a fertility rite. Following the dimming of the house lights, the two onstage musicians emerge from the wings holding candles, and make their way slowly to their stations at the extreme stage right and left lips of the stage. One begins to sound a gong, and gradually the long white sails of cloth that have been draped over the stage start to recede heavenward, into the rafters. What they reveal are two figures, one crumpled up into a ball centre stage in the middle of a large circular white cloth, the other seeming to guard her from upstage. As both musicians begin to drum, the figure on the cloth (in white body paint, and naked to the waist) begins to move, rotating her torso round and round until her spine is vertical, and then eventually standing up--whence we discover the incredibly long mane of jet black hair that she sports. This she proceeds to spin through the air again and again as she keeps time with her body to the drumbeats; the whole sequence goes on for a good ten-fifteen minutes (the man next to me kept checking his watch), and after a while you just have to give yourself over to the rhythmic ritual--one in which it is not entirely clear if the figure (who may be a goddess or a ghost) is conjuring or exorcising something.

Whatever the case, the scene culminates with the figure issuing a series of piercing screams, and then picking up the cloth on which she has just danced so ecstatically, and slowly retreating with it upstage. As she does this, a whole ensemble of performers emerges from the wings, the women crouched low carrying candles, and the men standing tall and brandishing long fluffy reeds. A band of white light bisects the stage horizontally, and it is upon this that a man and a woman will walk slowly towards each other, eventually meeting and presumably coupling. To this point, the pacing of Lin's compositions has been fluidly protracted and carefully balanced, each new element introduced in such a harmonious way and with the slowness of the movement never devolving into absolute stillness. For me it was the theatrical equivalent of watching a single continuous filmic dissolve.

However, Lin jolts us out of any languorous spectating habits with a subsequent scene of warring male quartets, the violent thrusting and parrying between the groups to the relentlessly quickening beats of the drums culminating in the death--or sacrifice?--of one of the men. This whole sequence put me in mind of a reverse Rite of Spring. Whatever the intent or cultural reference point, the violence must be expatiated and this sets the stage (quite literally) for Lin's final masterstroke in choreographic painting: at the heart of this culminating tableau, we watch as one dancer unfurls a white cloth vertically from upstage and then daubs it with a succession of ink stains, as all around her other performers array themselves in perfect symmetry.

One can, of course, read any number of meanings into this ending. But, as with the work as a whole, it is much more rewarding to give oneself over to the formal beauty and the sensual pleasures evoked within and by it. Because, while The Eternal Tides is mostly a visual feast, its sounds and smells and textures also very much feed our other senses.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

PuSh 2018: Spokaoke at the Fox Cabaret

Last night concluded at the Fox Cabaret, with the Club PuSh presentation of Annie Dorsen's Spokaoke. Dorsen is a pioneer in algorithmic performance, and earlier this week she gave what was by all accounts a bravura artist talk about the creative possibilities of working with algorithms (I was unable to attend). For Spokaoke, however, it's Dorsen herself, rather than a computer, who is problem-solving the live sequencing of participants' performance operations.

The premise is pretty simple: an evening of karaoke, but featuring speeches rather than pop songs. A photocopied list of options is made available to audience members: a mix of famous political speeches (by Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Harvey Milk, etc.), pop culture memes (excerpts from Game of Thrones or the film Clueless or the Oscar acceptance speech of Michael Moore), and random Internet samplings (a generic eulogy for a friend named Michael, a beauty queen's answer to a skill-testing question). One is invited to put in a choice of speech, with Dorsen mixing the order for counterpoint and contrast. When your name is called, up you go to the stage, grabbing the mike and awaiting the colour-coded progress of the text on the monitor in front of you.

I had gotten there early, and selected Socrates' "Death Before Dishonour" speech at his trial (as recorded in Plato's Apology). I think I gave it the requisite moral weight, even conscripting the audience as my judges and accusers. Of course, any lofty pretensions to profundity were immediately undercut by Hilary Meredith's follow-up Miss South Carolina speech, an unwittingly hilarious and geographically skewed send-up of American exceptionalism. Part of the fun of the evening is the degree to which the speakers choose to "perform" their speeches (the prize on that one goes to the guy who impersonated Il Duce), and also the way in which they either work with or against what they are saying. Then, too, there is the issue of timeliness, with the thought given to how an historical speech from the past (even the recent past) might comment on the present moment often producing wild applause: kudos, on that front, to my friend Alexa Mardon for choosing Bill Clinton's pre-#MeToo apology for the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio. And we ended with a collectively cathartic performance of Peter Finch's "I'm Mad as Hell" speech, from the movie Network.

I absolutely love the concept of this work; my only critique has to do with the content of the speeches. They are heavily skewed towards American reference points, and it would have been nice to have some Canadian touchstones in there for juxtapositional reference/relevance.


PuSh 2018: Foxconn Frequency (No. 3) at Performance Works

Last night was a double-header at the PuSh Festival. It started at Performance Works, with local collective Hong Kong Exile's latest genre-defying work. In Foxconn Frequency (No. 3): For Three Visibly Chinese Performers, HKE project lead Remy Siu uses game systems software to drill three pianists (fellow HKE member Natalie Tin Yin Gan, the classically trained Vicky Chow, and a young male prodigy who unfortunately is not named) in various keyboard exercises. They do so while sitting in front of computer monitors hooked up to 3-D printers (the inclusion of which I did not fully understand). As they complete the exercises they have been assigned, a live camera feed projects their images on the screen behind them, a red countdown clock indicating the time in which they have to complete the task, and a white line showing the progress of their labour (the projections, including brilliantly edited satellite map images, are by HKE member Milton Lim). If the performers fail to complete their exercises in the assigned time, or if they make a mistake along the way, a red Chinese character will flash on the screen. If they succeed, a white character will appear.

Over the course of the work's 80 minutes, the repetition of this conceit moves from being dramatically compelling to being sensorily overwhelming and exhausting to being just plain boring, sometimes within the space of only a few minutes. In this, the "theatre" of human-machine interface that Siu and his collaborators create in this piece presumably mimics the conditions of factory-line assembly at any one of the plants owned by the real Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer (its clients include Apple and Sony), with the company's Shenzhen location having attracted worldwide attention for a spate of worker suicides. Competition is, of course, what structures most of the action in this work: the performers are playing against the computer, but also each other, and the countdown clocks, combined with the complexity of the exercises, ramp up the dramatic stakes. I was especially drawn in at one point when Gan kept failing at a particularly tricky passage; she had to do it over and over again until she got it right, and by the end the relief in my own body when she finally succeeded was physically palpable. It's perhaps to be expected that the professional pianist, Chow, would have the lowest failure count by the end of the piece; that said, at the beginning of Foxconn the young boy--a model of cool calm throughout--was more than keeping his own.

The work is not entirely cutthroat. At various moments, the pianists are required to collaborate, with Gan and the young boy, positioned on either side of Chow, performing one passage repeatedly, eventually finding the required synchronicity in their timing. And even more interesting is when, after the boy has mysteriously opted out of the game altogether by leaving the stage (perhaps a comment on child labour or on the suicides of young Foxconn workers), Chow and Gan work to game the system itself, deliberately failing at their assigned tasks. The somewhat heavy hand of social commentary that gets imposed at the end of the piece, including a projection of a poem by Xu Lizhi, a writer and Foxconn worker who committed suicide, suggests that there is still some work to be done integrating medium and message, especially in terms of implicating and involving the audience. To this end, I wonder if in future iterations of Foxconn Frequency (will there be a number 4?) whether an immersive and interactive stage design might not be something to explore. That the audience was invited to tour the performers' play stations after the end of the performance suggests the potential in such an option.