Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Like the Weather

You know the climate is fucked when you fly into New York during a rainstorm unlike any you've seen in the Pacific Northwest for quite some time and when you return to Vancouver to find the city blanketed in snow and temperatures well below freezing. We received another 30 centimeters on Sunday night, and more is expected:

Pretty, yes, and no doubt good for Olympics-related optics, but frankly the novelty has long passed. Were it not for my manic neighbour and her visiting, prairie-raised father--who attack snow shoveling like it's a competitive sport--my back would have given out long ago. Of course, rain is now in the long term forecast, which will turn the entire city into one huge puddle.

New York was a great success, starting with the ostensible reason for the visit: research at the New York Public Library's Performing Arts Division at Lincoln Center. I was specifically interested in combing through the extensive video and DVD collection of the Jerome Robbins Dance Archives in connection with an ongoing project on solo performance and sexual citizenship in the United States. I can't tell you how impressed I was with the system they have in place there. Once you negotiate your way through all the construction hoarding around Lincoln Center, find the entrance to the Library, make your way to the third floor, obtain your Access Card, and hand in your viewing requests (up to three at a time) to the librarian at the desk, you are then directed to a nearby television monitor and computer. No waiting for the physical object itself; rather, an unseen technician cues your requests remotely, and when they're ready, a message appears on the computer screen directing you to press play. The video then appears on the adjacent TV screen; you can fast forward, rewind, pause, etc, all via the computer and its mouse, and if for some reason something goes wrong, or the wrong video appears, you can send an instant message to the technician, who will fix the problem almost instantaneously (as was the case with me when the performance of Ron Brown's "Forgiveness" [1988] I was watching was interrupted by a master class on Shakespearean acting). Even this momentary ghost in the machine (no, it wasn't Hamlet) was instructive, and the whole day I spent there left me intellectually re-energized about a project I was considering abandoning.

Then there was the theatre. I list the performances in the order of their viewing:

1. Arias with a Twist (Friday, December 12): Downtown drag diva Joey and master puppeteer Basil in a collaboration that's truly inspired and wonderfully inappropriate (much physical and verbal innuendo around Joey's horse-haired wireless microphone). The show is loosely structured around an alien-in-the-wilderness theme, with an opening number that sees Joey, in Crawfordesque bangs and lipstick, and wearing a fetish corset, probed by space aliens, before being sent back to an especially fecund version of the "garden of earthly delights" (interestingly, a much-praised restaging of Martha Clarke's dance theatre piece of the same name, based on the Hieronymus Bosch painting, was taking place at the nearby Minetta Lane Theatre), and eventually making his way--via mise-en-scène and choreographic references to Godzilla and Busby Berkeley--to New York's gay village and the stage of the Here Arts Center. That stage is notably intimate, and the 6-foot plus Joey looms large in front of the audience; I loved that his in-between show patter was so transparently salacious, and that he performed it with such self-delighting whimsy (there were several moments when he cracked himself up). And then there's the singing voice, from the uncanny channeling of Billie Holiday to the digitally modulated rock opera opening and the power ballads that just wouldn't quit. Twist, who both designed and directed the show, is a genius, conjuring fantastical dreamscapes out of fabric, cardboard, and string, and choreographing a memorable number for Joey and two life-size alien go-go dancers. The production was also notable for its canny use of video projections and a transparent scrim, a feature of a number of other fall NY stagings, according to Joanna, who accompanied Richard and I to the show.

Digression: Joanna completed her MA under my direction several years ago, and is currently writing her Ph.D. thesis on the work of Paula Vogel at CUNY's Graduate Center. Joanna is my lifeline to the New York theatre scene (she sees a show a week, on average), and whenever we travel to the city we try to hook up, either for dinner or a show, or--as in this case--both (great meal beforehand at Smith's on Macdougal Street). Just prior to our visit, Joanna had traveled to New Haven to see the premiere of Vogel's latest play/musical pageant, A Civil War Christmas, at the Long Wharf Theatre, under the direction of Tina Landau. (Vogel recently moved to Yale from Brown--where she had a long and fruitful association with the Trinity Rep Theatre--in order to chair the Playwriting Program at the Yale School of Drama.) By Joanna's account, the play was a great success, and according to Vogel it will ideally be remounted at venues across the country every December for years to come, supplanting Dickens in audiences' imaginations about the ghosts of American Christmases past. (Digression upon digression: Basil Twist also did the traditional bunraku puppetry for Vogel's previous play, A Long Christmas Ride Home [2003]--one senses a bit of an obsession here on the playwright's part.)

2. Road Show (Saturday, December 13): Joanna strongly recommended Sondheim's latest musical--variously known as Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce during its long and bumpy creative gestation--and with John Doyle directing (Richard and I had seen and greatly admired both of his recent stripped-down, actors-doubling-as-musicians, productions of Sweeney Todd and Company on Broadway), and the always excellent and eminently watchable Michael Cerveris starring as the less prodigal of the two Mizner brothers, Willy, we needed no further encouragement. I gather from critics who have seen earlier versions of the show that this latest incarnation is darker and less vaudevillian. Given the current economic climate, the collapse of the American housing market, and the almost daily newspaper accounts of financial fraud on Wall Street (the Madoff story broke while we were in NYC), it is certainly hard not to read the play--which begins with the brothers seeking their fortune in the gold mines of Alaska and ends with them losing it through shady real estate speculation in Florida--as a cautionary tale about unbridled greed. This is reinforced in Doyle's staging by the currency-clad ensemble's matching costumes, and by the repeated Brechtian gestus of throwing wads of fake cash into the audience (for an insightful analysis of other Brechtian elements of the play highlighted by Doyle, see Jill Dolan's review on her Feminist Spectator blog). Still, I found the play to be filled with wonderful moments of (black) humour, as well as lots of genuine affection between the two brothers (another Sondheim/Doyle stalwart, Alexander Gemignani, plays the architect, Addison Mizner, to whom we owe many the pleasure palaces in present-day Palm Beach, and whose ambition to turn Boca Raton into the Venice of Florida was thwarted--or abetted?--by brother Willy's innate huksterism--note to self: find reliable biography of these two characters). Even more revelatory to this audience member, however, is that Road Show features the first open same-sex couple in the Sondheim oeuvre, with Addison's relationship with the impressionable young Hollis Bessemer (a charming, and charmingly named, Claybourne Elder) occupying a central part of the narrative. The love song that Addison and Hollis sing to each other, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," is as moving as "Somewhere," from West Side Story, and deserves to become equally classic.

Added bonus: Marian Seldes was sitting in the row in front of us! Richard and I had seen her years ago at the Promenade Theater in Albee's Three Tall Women, and most recently in a small but memorable role in the Richard Jenkins film The Visitor. A thrill to be so close to such an acting legend.

3. August: Osage County (Sunday, December 14): Tracey Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winner was the only Broadway entertainment we indulged in on this trip (not for lack of trying--Richard was keen to see Bartlett Sher's acclaimed remounting of South Pacific, but I couldn't get advance tickets, and didn't want to line up for returns). Though not without its problems, and desperately in need of an edit (we could have done without the incest theme between Ivy and Little Charles, in my opinion), it was nice to see--especially given my comments in recent blog posts--a classic large-cast, three-act play on Broadway, one that for the most part successfully updates (and regenders) O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night for the Prozac/Vicodin age, and that marries sharp writing to split-second physical timing. Estelle Parsons, taking over from Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan was riveting in the central role of the matriarch from hell, Violet Weston. That she has the stamina at her age (she must be over 80, though she certainly doesn't look it) to perform such an emotionally and physically taxing role 8 times a week is simply amazing.

Sidebar comment: we attended a weekend matinee performance, and the theatre (the relatively intimate Music Box on West 45th) was only three-quarters full. While in New York, we read of several prominent Broadway plays (including popular musicals like Gypsy and Hairspray, with Harvey Fierstein newly returned to the cast as Edna Turnblad) announcing plans to close early. Clearly the economic downturn is already having an effect on box office returns.

4. Blasted (Tuesday, December 16): Our final outing was to see the New York premiere of Sarah Kane's debut play at the Soho Rep. This was the hot ticket of the fall theatre season, and it was interesting to see people lined up around the block for possible returns to a play that features explicit and prolonged depictions of rape, extreme physical violence, and multiple forms of cannibalism. Much has been made of how long it has taken the play to get to New York (it premiered in 1995 at the Royal Court), but when one thinks of the baggage that comes with it--its notorious excoriation by outraged London critics, Kane's subsequent suicide in 1999 after cranking out four more eviscerating works of drama, and its critical reevaluation as a moral allegory of contemporary Western responses to reports of atrocities during the Bosnian War--one can perhaps understand why a director or company might start to second guess the reasons it merits staging. Then, too, there are the demands Blasted places upon its actors, with every physical brutality and indignity performed by them or visited upon them demanding a concomitant expenditure of emotional energy and longing. For all Ian's (a devastating and fearless Reed Birney) inherent misogyny and brutish insistence that Cate (Marin Ireland) suck him off, there is a part of him--the part that is actually terrified of the mortality he so casually scoffs at--that desperately needs to believe a deeper, even romantic, connection exists between them. The hotel room, the champagne, in this regard, are at once tawdry and powerfully mournful emblems of his (misplaced?) desire. Likewise, the long and incredibly realistic rape of Ian by the Soldier (Louis Cancelmi) is all the more painful to watch because of what the Soldier's tears betray about his own recognition of the thrall of bodily connection to which what he has witnessed in war has paradoxically reduced him, and about his need to share that corporeal vulnerability with Ian, even at the extreme price of assault. (Again, see Jill Dolan's brilliant assessment of the production over at her Feminist Spectator blog for more on this.)

To say that Kane blasts the lid off bourgeois dramatic realism (quite literally in the case of the explosion at the end of Scene 2 that tears the hotel room apart--kudos to Louisa Thompson for pulling off this incredible feat of design magic) is an understatement. We're deep in Artaud territory here (by way of Sophocles, Beckett, Pinter, Sartre, and others--Kane's first play clearly betrays its dramatic genealogy), and there is no escape from the assault on our senses and psyches. The single-access, tiered row seating at the Soho Rep doesn't make things any easier in this regard. One woman in the row in front of us was clearly desperate to leave, to the point of contemplating, I could tell, whether or not she could squeeze under the balustrade on her right. She couldn't, any more than Ian, in crawling underneath the hotel room's floorboards and in beside the dead baby's body from which he has just eaten, could will himself to die. 

Both had to wait to be cleansed by rain.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Re my comments on the ending of Now or Later: it's actually the mother character who interrupts the fight between father and son. The phone call from the psychiatrist (prompted, again, by the mother) comes later, resulting in the main character, John's, acquiescence to the will of the political machine now surrounding his father, the president-elect.

Hopefully the titles to future posts will start sounding a lot less editorial.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


I should clarify some of what I wrote at the end of the last post, which was composed in haste. In particular, I want to point out that I am not condemning the one-act play, wholesale, as a genre. Rather, I am suggesting that the contemporary one-act seems to have become a convenient economic expediency for playwrights and producers struggling to attract audiences raised on the 90-100 minute narrative film format. For the same reason it's increasingly rare to see new large-cast plays (too much money), financial backers of new work are loath to tax the patience (and attention spans) of their audiences by asking them to set aside three hours of their time to sit through as many acts and accompanying intermissions (where they'll be tempted to spend more money at the bar). To say nothing of the complexity (and expense) of having to squeeze dinner in before or after. The whole ritual of a languorous night out at the theatre has given way to something far more martialled in terms of time and expense. (The exception remains the big-budget Broadway musical, although I note that The Drowsy Chaperone was a compact, tight, and intermissionless 100 minutes--Man in Chair even goes so far as to forestall what might be most audience members' surprise at this by commenting that as a playgoer he himself disdains intermissions because they break the magical spell of the world created on stage with that mundane social reality he's always railing against.)  

The problem, as I see it, is that form necessarily affects content here, and in the contemporary one-act play I see a similar attempt to martial complex ideas, histories and moral questions into a conveniently digestible form. This is particularly true of the socially realist one-act play, the kind of work that attempts to wed topicality (sex, religion, politics) and naturalist acting to the slick pacing and crisply designed mise-en-scene familiar from television and film. In other words, Ibsen and Chekhov-lite (and I think it's significant, in this regard, that the recent, apparently anomalous success that was Tom Stoppard's large-cast, multi-part theatrical extravaganza, The Coast of Utopia, was set in Russia during the 19th century). 

This points, as well, to the fact that the modern one-act, as perfected by Beckett and Albee and Pinter, for example, lends itself far better to abstraction and allegory than to explication and literal representation. One thinks here of the recent success enjoyed by Caryl Churchill with Far Away and A Number. With these playwrights, working outside the constraints of realism, temporality conforms to the needs and form of theatrical expression rather than the other way around (some of these plays are only a few minutes long, after all). By contrast, one gets the sense that Shanley in Doubt (see today's New York Times for an interview with Shanley on the film version of his play) and Morgan in Frost/Nixon and Shinn in Now or Later started with the clock set at 90 minutes, and then worked to fit the idea of--and the ideas in--their plays into that time limit. With Shinn it's actually closer to 70 minutes, and his Oedipal drama about presidential politics, family dysfunction, and conflicting sexual and religious ideologies, actually relies on a clunky deus ex machina device (a call from the son's psychiatrist just as he's being strangled by his father, no less) to bring abruptly to a close what could have easily extended into full-scale Sophoclean exegesis. 

That's what we get in spades in Granville Barker's Waste, which over the course of its four acts reveals that one can be politically topical without sacrificing the subtleties of dramatic structure as they contribute to a play's meaning. Indeed, there is still something to be said for what one can accomplish, as a modern-day director, by employing that old-fashioned lowering of a curtain (or more often now a blackout) not just as a tactical expediency to signal a temporal/spatial shift in the world of the play, but also to symbolically foreground (and historicize) the various ideologies circumscribing that world. Thus it was that in the Almeida production directed by Samuel West this past October the play's gender politics were telescoped wonderfully by having Act 1 open upon the drawing room of Lady Julia Farrant's country house, around which the women of the play are variously assembled (all seated) listening to Lady Julia play the piano before speculating on how best to convince Frances Trebell to likewise convince her brother, Henry, a well-regarded independent MP, to join Cyril Horsham's Conservative government and see through the plan for disestablishing Church and State. Following the interval, Act 3, by contrast, opens upon Horsham's London house, with Cyril's cabinet assembled to discuss how to dump Henry following revelations that the married woman with whom he was having an affair, Amy O'Connell, died while seeking an illegal abortion. In this scene the men are all standing and the piano top is pointedly closed.

I'm not sure what my point is beyond lamenting, perhaps somewhat old-fashionedly myself, the seeming death of the well-made play. But I do think the trend towards the realist one-act speaks to a larger structural crisis within the theatre today.

Okay, now that I've wrapped that thread up, a final comment on Risk from last night. It wasn't perfect--Barton tried a bit too hard to telegraph the narrative through-line of her piece and the shifting relationships between her character-dancers. And in trying to choreograph to the individual strengths of those dancers (which are manifold, but also manifoldly different), there was at times a lack of coherence in the movement, an arbitrariness in those movements and sequences which were repeated, and a resorting too often to unstructured improvisation to fill the dead space between sequences. That said, the dancing was top notch (to be expected with Barton, Josh Martin, and Josh Beamish in the cast), and individual sections (especially the pas de deux between Barton and Martin) were spellbinding. I welcome the addition of The Response to the ranks of Vancouver's dance companies (especially given the uncertain future of Ballet BC), and look forward to Barton's next creation with great anticipation.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Political Theatre (and Theatre Politics)

I had initially intended, with this post, to focus on more explicitly performance-related (i.e., theatre-related) topics, but it's been two weeks of high drama on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and so politics once again intrudes.

As any sentient being in the country well knows, Canadians have just passed through a constitutional crisis unprecedented in our history, one that has unfortunately resulted in an even bigger, and potentially more dangerous, procedural precedent being set, and that has seen Prime Minister Stephen Harper narrowly--and temporarily--retain power in a manner that, to turn his own language back upon him, is an egregious affront to democracy. 

It all started with a high-stakes game of political brinksmanship following the passing of the minority Conservative government's throne speech less than a month ago. Despite a chastened Harper's professed statement that his party would adopt a new spirit of cooperation in the House of Commons following his failure to win a desperately sought after majority in last October's election, the week after the throne speech (which the other parties voted to support), Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered an economic update that bore all the classic hallmarks of the PMO's mean-spirited, hit-them-when-they're-down approach to politics. Specifically, the Conservatives, in addition to fudging the numbers to make it look like Canada actually was heading into a potentially debilitating global recession with a small surplus rather than needing to worry just yet about deficit spending on infrastructure in order to stimulate the economy, proposed as one of their cost-cutting measures the elimination of public-financing for federal political parties. This financing, brought in by the Liberals under Jean Chretien, is based on a formula that sees all registered parties fielding federal candidates receiving a percentage of taxpayers' money based on the number of votes they captured in the last election. The Conservatives have the highest percentage of private and corporate donations among any of the major parties, and so don't really need the additional public financing. But the Liberals, still struggling to pay off lingering debt following a series of costly leadership contests, and having seen their fundraising abilities plummet alongside their approval ratings, very much need this money to remain competitive in any upcoming election. Ditto the NDP and the Greens, who especially as smaller, more-left of centre parties that appeal to an electoral base that doesn't have as deep pockets as the core Conservative constituency, rely on this money to field candidates and run ads and pay staff and criss-cross the largest country on the planet. With the Bloc Quebecois things are a bit more complicated, because as a party that campaigns solely in one province, they are less beholden on money to cover major travel expenses etc. No doubt Harper was counting on public outrage at the BQ, a party committed to the breakup of the country in his lingo, receiving taxpayers money at all (more on Harper's BQ-bashing in a bit).

As I mentioned earlier, this is classic Harper political strategy: basically, use every opportunity you get to crush your opponents into the ground. But the would-be autocrat's mistake was that he forgot he didn't have a majority. No doubt he was relying on the fact that the Liberals, with a lame-duck leader, Stephane Dion, who had led his party to its worst electoral showing in several decades, and a convention to choose his replacement not scheduled till May 2009, would cave once again, and he would get his way, thereby ensuring Conservative party dominance for some time to come. But this time the Liberals didn't blink, and neither did the NDP or the Bloc. Instead, they got together and formed a Liberal-NDP coalition, with Bloc support, and declared their intention of bringing down the government in a non-confidence vote on Flaherty's economic update. 

While coalition governments in Canada, unlike in many European parliamentary systems, are rare, they are not unprecedented. And this proposed coalition was counting on the fact that, the country having so recently been to the polls, this parliamentary session being so young, and with no perceived direction regarding the economy, the Governor-General would seriously consider calling on them to form a government rather than acceding to Harper's likely wish for her to dissolve parliament and call another election. Time for the Conservatives to blink.

And blink they did, quickly postponing by a week the confidence vote, and withdrawing from what was to be voted on the controversial removal of public party financing, as well as another bone of contention for the opposition parties, the removal of the right to strike by public sector employees. They also agreed to move up the date of a proposed budget that would see a major economic stimulus package. But the coalition was not backing down, and with everyone apparently (and fatally, as it turned out) rallied behind the resurrected Dion as replacement Prime Minister, it was time for Harper to really sweat.

Which brings us to the truly appalling part of this mess. For, when Harper is cornered it is not his habit to show any humility or adopt a statesmanlike persona and own up to his mistakes; instead, he goes on the attack, in this case accusing the "unelected" coalition (somebody voted for them) of trying to hijack leadership of the government undemocratically, a desperate power grab that sees the Liberals willing, in these trying economic times (suddenly we go from a surplus to utter doom), to get into bed with "socialists" and "separatists." All of this was a lie, of course; a parliamentary system is all about having a viable opposition, and our constitution allows for another party or parties to have the opportunity to form a government (at the G-G's discretion) should the governing party lose the confidence of the House. And the Bloc were not part of the coalition, but rather agreed to support it for a fixed period of time. (Indeed, Harper and the Conservatives had themselves previously strategized about working with the Bloc to defeat Paul Martin's minority liberal government back in 2005.) But Harper has a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth, and appealing instead to the emotions of his core base, most of whom fastened on to the Dion-Bloc alliance as anathema. 

With a media blitz ensuring that public support (especially in the west) was firmly behind him, Harper then played the only card left to him, choosing to run away from the fight rather than face the consequences of a loss of confidence in the House. Specifically, he asked the GG to prorogue, or temporarily suspend, parliament until January 26th, at which time a new throne speech would introduce a new budget. Constitutional experts weighed in on all sides, many saying that the GG, Michaelle Jean, shouldn't grant the request, as it sets that dangerous precedent that I mentioned at the outset of this post--what's to prevent all future governments from doing the same? Just shutting down the House because you might lose a vote is about as undemocratic as things get, Mr. Harper. At the same time, the GG was in an impossible situation, especially as a Liberal appointee from Quebec with a husband whom many accuse of having his own separatist ties. To defy Harper's wishes, and to go against public opinion would have opened her up to accusations of political interference, and potentially have lead to an even greater crisis. Still, the word is that Jean made Harper work for his request (he met with her for more than 2 hours).

Then, too, Harper could it seems count on the cracks within the coalition starting to form, and above all on the well-meaning but unfortunately grossly incompetent and inept Dion screwing up. Which he did royally (no pun intended, Madame GG) with his televised address to the nation trying to explain why a coalition was a viable option. Dion, who has never been the most articulate of politicians at the best of times (especially in English), forgot Marshall McLuhan's cardinal rule, that the medium is the message. In short, he was done in by poor production values, with an amateurishly cropped and out-of-focus 5-minute clip that arrived late to broadcast networks, and without a separate French-language version (in the end, they dubbed his voice).

And so we do find our way back to the performative after all, although this is hardly my preferred kind of political theatre. Nevertheless, the curtain has dropped for now, and Harper will get his second act. I predict that before that the coalition and the Liberals in particular will have their own entracte/contretemps, perhaps a little something from Julius Caesar, with the dump-Dion-sooner-rather-than-later chorus growing steadily and a leadership vote moved up from May. I suspect whoever wins that vote (Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae) will quickly rethink the viability of the coalition, especially if he wants to seriously challenge the Conservatives in the next election. Which now Harper will be more emboldened to seek, based on the latest poll numbers. And while I refuse to cast him as the tragic hero in all of this, the one potential upside is that in classic hubristic fashion Harper may have forever scuttled his chances of achieving a majority by so alienating Quebeckers with his anti-separatist rhetoric (they themselves go to the polls provincially on Monday, and while there was initial fear that the Parti Quebecois would benefit from Harper's trash-talking, it appears Jean Charest's Liberals will win a third straight term, possibly a majority). The problem is that there's as much hubris on the other side and, as they did during the last leadership review that disastrously elected Dion as a compromise candidate, Ignatieff and Rae might, in refusing to put aside their enormous egos, further imperil their party. Et tu Brute?

Amidst all this madness, and despite Richard and my difficulty in tearing ourselves away from Peter Mansbridge and the sexy talking heads on the "At Issue" panel of the nightly newscast of CBC's The National, there has been some time for theatre. Most recently we went to see The Drowsy Chaperone, the Bob Martin/Don McKellar/Lisa Lambert/Greg Morrison musical that began as an improvised vignette at Martin's stag party in Toronto and eventually made its way to Broadway, where it won Tonys for Best Book and Best Original Score (though, oddly, given these awards, not Best Musical--that went to The Jersey Boys), among several others, in 2006--yet more evidence of stealth Canadians taking over the US's entertainment industry (you can have Celine Dion). It's a delightful bagatelle of a show-within-a-show, at once an affectionate parody of and homage to classic American musicals of the 20s and 30s, all presided over by the endearing Man in Chair, a show tune fanatic who prefers the wacky but predictable course of true love in musicals to the mundane, troubling reality of daily life. Jay Brazeau gave a wonderful performance as Man in Chair, and this production at the Vancouver Playhouse (the first independent production to be licensed post-Broadway and the ensuing national tour) was exuberantly and imaginatively staged. This was also Max Reimer's first production since assuming the helm at the Playhouse from Glynis Leyshon, and although he's a money-conscious populist, his work here (he directed as well) gives me hope that the institution might turn its programming around. 

It also confirms my opinion that Leyshon has been a major problem in terms of what I and others have bemoaned as poor programming at the Playhouse over the past several years. The first production of this season, for example, was her last (she and Reimer overlapped), and though Frost/Nixon came with the same impressive Broadway and Tony-winning pedigree as Drowsy, in this case the results were a disaster. Though, to be fair, it wasn't all Leyshon's fault. Her star, Len Cariou (of the original Sweeney Todd fame), was all over the place in his performance as Nixon, including dropping several lines, and the play itself is structurally very weak, relying on a clunky narrator/expositor device (for the politically amnesiac, I guess), and failing to exploit the full dramatic potential from its central David and Goliath conceit. Building up to the final payoff of Nixon's admission of guilt is one too-long tease, and when the moment does come, it's over in a manner of seconds. Perhaps with a titan like Frank Langella in the lead role this would all work, but my suspicion is that first-time playwright Peter Morgan (screenwriter of The Queen, with Helen Mirren) is more comfortable in the television and film idioms. So perhaps the just-released Ron Howard movie version is worth watching for comparison.

But, to allude to a point I raised in an earlier post that I have yet to explore more fully, I think there is a larger structural crisis at work here in the one-act play as a genre. I was also disappointed with the Arts Club production of Doubt back in September/October, and could not understand why it had received the Pulitzer for John Patrick Shanley. The idea is a good one, and the did-he-or-didn't he question at the core keeps us guessing, but there seems to me to be a failure of will in Shanley's unwillingness to explore the questions he raises about religion, sexuality and race, let along faith and doubt, to their full potential. And the lead character of the head nun is too broadly drawn, leading to scenery chewing. That's what happened with Gabrielle Rose in the production I saw. And, to judge from what I've seen of the upcoming movie preview (also directed by Shanley), that's what's on offer in Meryl Streep's performance as well.

Again, there's more to say here, and hopefully I'll continue this discussion in future posts (and get back to Christopher Shinn and Harley Granville Barker as well). But for now I must sign off--Amber Funk Barton and her new company, The Response, are performing her first full-length dance work, Risk, at the Firehall Arts Centre tonight, and Richard and I have tickets. Then it's off to New York next week for research at the NYPL (wink, wink) and theatre-going aplenty. A full report when I return.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Happy Planets (sort of)

Finally, election results to celebrate. Last night, here in Vancouver, residents elected Gregor Robertson as our new mayor, and gave him a sweeping Vision/COPE majority on city council. Peter Ladner and the NPA party were crushed (only one NPA city councillor, Suzanne Anton, was reelected). There are Vision/COPE majorities on the Parks and School Boards as well. 

To explain: as a municipality, Vancouver has no ward system. Instead, voters elect a slate of candidates: up to 10 council candidates of their choice, plus the mayor. Historically, the party of choice has been the Non-Partisan Association, which, despite its name, is pretty partisan, leaning right on most issues, touting lower taxes and more crime fighting as their main issues, and fielding their candidates largely from the monied classes on the west side. The poorer, east side of the city has tended to favour the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), usually managing to get 2 or 3 candidates elected to council every term (and occasionally as many as 5), but only once a COPE mayor: Larry Campbell, who served one term as mayor from 2002-2005 (Mike Harcourt, who ran and won as an independent candidate for mayor in the 1980s, was endorsed by COPE, but was not a member of the party). And, really, Campbell was elected less on his COPE credentials than as a result of his media charisma, his tenure as Chief Coroner of Vancouver helping to inspire a popular local television crime series called Da Vinci's Inquest. Indeed, Campbell soon found himself with a deadlocked city council when his more centrist views, and those of councillors Jim Green, Tim Stevenson, and Raymond Louie, clashed with the further left positions of the traditional COPE core. When Campbell decided not to run again in November 2005, Green et al formed a new party called Vision Vancouver, but a divided left only succeeded in handing outgoing mayor Sam Sullivan and the NPA the keys to city hall on a platter. However, this time around the left united around a slate of shared candidates, and the strategy proved overwhelmingly successful.

Of course, it helped that they had Robertson as their top-man, with his Ken-doll good looks, his experience as a provincial MP, and his successful environmentally-friendly juice company (hence the title of this post). But really the race was likely decided in the very last week, when news of a secret in-camera meeting at city hall to authorize an emergency $100-million loan to the developers building the 2010 Athletes' Village (and earmarked afterwards for luxury condos) leaked to the press. The fact that it was Ladner's copy of the notes for the meeting that was the source of the leak didn't help his fortunes, nor did his subsequent justifications on why the deal was necessary, and why it was necessary to approve it in secret. Robertson seized on the lack of transparency over taxpayers' money, and on growing fears in the city about possible fiscal shortfalls related to the Olympics in the current slumping economy, and this time the keys to the mayor's office were more or less his for the asking.

So far so good. Now the hard work begins. Like Obama, the real test will be how successfully Robertson can follow through on his promises. Starting with eliminating homelessness in the city. In his victory speech last night, he reiterated this commitment, and I and thousands of others in the city are ready to believe him. But we'll also be watching closely...

Robertson sort of referenced Obama in the opening of his speech, and it is amazing how contagious the magic of November 4th continues to be. Although for me, and many others I'm sure, the magic of that moment was tempered somewhat by the success of anti-queer ballot initiatives in California, Arkansas, and Florida. The passing of Proposition 8, nullifying the California Supreme Court's earlier endorsement of same-sex marriage, was a real blow. Not that I'm particularly in favour of marriage as an institution, gay or straight. However, in this instance, celebrating its post hoc repeal is also to support legislated homophobia. Same-sex marriage has been the law of the land in Canada since 2005, and I've actually recently published an article in Text and Performance Quarterly that compares the politics of same-sex marriage in Canada and the US. It also looks at recent theatre and performance work referencing same-sex marriage, including Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens' ongoing performance art wedding project: check it out at www.loveartlab.org

A revised version of the article also serves as a chapter in the book I'm finishing, the one that lends its subtitle to the title of this blog (see first post). There, I attempt to broaden the comparative national and geopolitical focus of my analysis on Canada and the US, as well as complexify my discussion of same-sex marriage as a civil institution, by turning my attention to the trans-Atlantic routes of dissension within the Anglican Church over the blessing of same-sex unions. Here, I explore the local/global dynamics of both the religious rites and Religious Right that are never far from the same-sex marriage debate, in this case pitting liberal Anglican/Episcopalian congregations and leaders in North America against more traditional members of their own dioceses, the Church hierarchy in Canterbury, as well as Anglican provinces from the global south (Africa, Asia, Latin America), which today comprise the majority of the worldwide Anglican Communion's 77-million members. 

I also attempt to contextualize the whole same-sex marriage debate within the framework of the ongoing war on terror, and Iraq serves as the backdrop here. Indeed, in the final section described above I also return to some of the legal and linguistic parsing of marriage-related performatives undertaken in the first sections of the chapter by analyzing how we might relate the Anglican Church's decision (at Lambeth 2008) to seek a binding covenant on the blessing of same-sex unions to the new obliquity governing personal status laws in Iraq under their new, largely shari'a-codified constitution, and to the incitement toward explanation contained within the act of blessing itself. 

Not sure, exactly, how I got from Vancouver municipal politics to same-sex marriage, but then such convergences are the nature of this blog. I'll return soon with further thoughts on these and other planetary consolations.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Election Day in America, and the whole world, it seems, is collectively holding its breath re the outcome. Most of the polls and pundits indicate that Obama's victory is all but assured, but we've heard similar prognostications regarding Gore and Kerry before. So I'm not counting any chickens just yet. Nor, to extend the hen metaphor, placing my fragile-like-an-eggshell hopes in the singular basket of Virginia, or Florida, or Ohio. It does seem strange to me, as a Canadian, that while most of the rest of the world overwhelmingly favours Obama, in the United States the possibility of his election still largely hinges on the votes of individuals in a few counties in select swing states. I mean, I've always thought that the electoral college system is outdated (especially in terms of current urban demographics in the US), but that's just whacked! Then, too, there is the fact that in Canada a government can be dissolved, an election called, a campaign run, and a new government formed all in little over a month's time. Whereas in the States this thing has been going on for upwards of two years, with voter fatigue only further compounded by the long lines and wait times when the polls finally do open. They do elections better in Iraq. Not that the last one here in Canada produced the results I was hoping for in my last post. Or, as my American colleagues like to chide me, that in the bland political landscape here we even have something resembling a two-party system...

Of course, US presidential elections are largely media spectacles, and so it is entirely appropriate that we will all be glued to our television screens from about 7 pm onwards this evening (4 pm here on the west coast), watching Anderson Cooper and his square-jawed and Madonna-miked colleague John King play with their "Magic Board," colouring this state red, that state blue. The global television audience is estimated to be in the billions, and that kind of temporary electronic public formation tells us something not just about the role of media (in bringing people together, in influencing opinion) but also about how the tradition of America-as-a-beacon is now much more about what the world expects of America rather than what America can presume to expect of the world. And it is a safe bet that chief among those expectations is that by the end of the evening that magic electoral map will be more blue than red.

Certainly the media coverage in Europe, from whence Richard and I have just returned, was unabashedly pro-Obama. When it wasn't focussing on the collapsing economy. Or the scandalous deaths of its own far-right politicians. I refer to the fact that our trip to Vienna coincided with the death of former Austrian Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider, who crashed his car while drunk and speeding along a stretch of highway in the southern province of Carinthia, where he was governor. Reports soon emerged that earlier that evening Haider was seen downing a fifth of straight vodka at a local gay bar in his hometown, and possibly visiting the backroom with a trick he picked up there. Whatever the exact details, it soon emerged that Haider had long been rumoured to be gay, rumours only further compounded by the emotional collapse of his former Freedom Party deputy, Stefan Petzner, on national television. Petzner said he was devastated by Haider's death, declaring that the two had a "special relationship," and referring to Haider as his Lebensmensch, which in German has the dual meaning of mentor or icon and intimate friend. All of this evoked shades of a previous trip to Europe (in 2002, and about which I have written in connection with a discussion of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul in a special issue of Theatre Journal), when the gay Dutch far-right leader Pim Fortuyn was assassinated. At any rate, to say the whole episode unleashed a torrent of schadenfreude among Haider's political enemies would be an understatement, as attested in this hilarious video posted to YouTube, in which Gloria Gaynor's "I Am What I Am" has never been used to greater effect.

Speaking of Freud, Vienna certainly gave me a greater appreciation of his theories. All those baroque buildings with those giant caryatids staring down at one. Franz-Joseph as the ultimate Oedipal patriarch. The city's multiple sackings by the Turks figuring a raced return of the repressed. No wonder psychoanalysis was born there. Ditto the Secession, whose 1908 group show, at which Klimt's The Kiss was first unveiled, was celebrated with a 100th anniversary retrospective at the Unters Belvedere. Several of the original rooms devoted to individual artists, architects, and designers in 1908 were recreated for the exhibition. For Richard and I the real discoveries here were not Klimt and Schiele, two of Vienna's favourite modernist sons, but the architect and designer Joseph Hoffman and the artistic polymath Kolomon Moser, who it seems could do almost anything--and beautifully.

We went to the opera, of course, though not one of the grand productions at the Statsoper, which looks like a rococo wedding cake. Instead we opted for two of Jean-Philippe Rameau's baroque chamber works--La Guirlande and Zephyre--which were being performed in repertory at the far more intimate KammerOper on Fleishmarkt (not too far from Rachel Whitread's Holocaust Memorial, with its library of books with their spines turned inward--visiting the memorial in situ, one discovers it's in a square that also features a statue to Gotthold Lessing, and so one can't help but interpret Whitread's work as in part a self-conscious comment on the limits of art). The young company, including a quartet of semi-naked dancers, performed the works with brio, but what was most fascinating for me, sitting in the front row, was to watch the orchestra. It's the first time I've been so close to musicians in the theatre, and I'm here to tell you that they get bored. If you're a timpanist or flautist or second violinist in a baroque orchestra with not a lot to do between the mostly harpsichord-and-cello-driven score, you spend a lot of time scanning the audience for friends, or watching the singers on stage, or wiping fluff off your black performance ensemble. It was fascinating to watch, and more than once I found my attention divided between what was happening on stage, and what was going on below it.

We also went to a dance performance at the Tanzquartier Wien. It was a trio of linked works called "Three Spells" co-choreographed by the Belgians Damian Jalet and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, danced by Jalet and Alexandra Gilbert, and featuring a haunting, original score by Christian Fennesz. A meditation on mutation, transformation, animal-human relationships, racial stereotypes, and of course desire, the three movements were muscular and intellectual all at once. A Samson and Delilahesque pas-de-deux in the third movement, "Aleko," based on a 1942 ballet of the same name for which Marc Chagall painted the backdrops, and featuring a reversely gendered cutting of hair, was particularly affecting. Here's a video excerpt of Jalet dancing the second movement, "Venari."

There were politics and performance in London, as well, the two coming together in very topically relevant ways in a new play by Christopher Shinn (of Dying City fame), Now or Later, at the Royal Court, and in a revival of Harley Granville Barker's Waste at the Almeida. I'll save detailed comments on both for a future post, as my somewhat counterintuitive dissatisfaction for the compact one-act structure of the former (despite a brilliant lead performance by the young Eddie Redmayne, who was also so compelling in the recent Tom Kalin film Savage Grace) and surprising seduction by the classic four-act structure of the latter (whose daring social commentary on back alley abortions and the sacrificial dealmaking politics of Whitehall didn't pass the Lord Chamberlain's censors when the play was first written, in 1907) leads me to think that I might want to launch into a larger digression about play structure more generally.

Of relevance to this particular post, however, is the fact that Shinn's play is in part about election night in America. And in Shinn's play, the right guy (though by no means a saint in his own son's eyes) wins.


Friday, October 10, 2008

PPP: A Brief Introduction

Welcome to my blog, which emerges out of a book I am currently finishing that has the same subtitle. In both book and blog my aim is to connect my ongoing academic interests in theatre, film, literature, and the performing arts (I teach in the English Department at Simon Fraser University, in a suburb of Vancouver) with the material realities of life as a political being in an era when the local and the global have never been more dynamically interconnected (as the current world financial meltdown so dramatically reveals). My goal is to explore what, if anything going to a play in Vancouver (or a concert in Rio, or a soccer match in Seoul, or a political rally in Johannesburg) can teach us about becoming better citizens of the world--how the performance of place, and the place of performance, can lead to a progressive political engagement with issues of larger global concern.

In other words, in the posts that follow I am interested in exploring how the local aesthetic experience of, or participation in, performance (be it a theatrical production, a sporting event, a religious ceremony, or a political demonstration) relates to, and even provides a model for, how one lives in the world socially. As the parenthesis in the last sentence suggests, I define performance very broadly. In the weeks and months ahead expect to find analyses and interpretations of works of theatre, visual art, and social and religious ritual; comparisons of competing performances of promotion and protest that accompany global sporting events like the Olympics (just concluded in Beijing and coming to my hometown of Vancouver in 2010); perorations on unfolding social, political, historical, and environmental dramas like elections, wars, and natural disasters; discussions of local organizing around urban development and sustainability; and so on. To borrow a distinction from the influential performance studies theorist Richard Schechner, in this blog I give equal attention to "make-believe" performances, those pretend acts of dress-up and role-playing that we associate, for example, with the fictional world of the stage, and performances that are aimed more at "making belief," "real world" dramas that, in their unfolding, enact a particular vision of that world (see his Performance Studies: An Introduction, 2002). To the extent that belief in that vision might be more or less acceptable to different audiences depending on their place in the world, accounts for the competing social and political perspectives that will inevitably emerge in response to or alongside such performances.

Performance, or live art, is uniquely situated to engage with the political because its "unfolding-in-the-moment" quality forces audiences to consider carefully--and often to confront viscerally--the role of context, nor just the "what" or "how" of performance, but the "where," "when," and ideally "why" of performance, of what it means to come together as an audience in the first place, and what other as-yet imagined social relationships might emerge from this otherwise random connection to the work being performed. To put this another way, the very ephemerality and contingency of performance (one never knows who exactly one will be sitting or standing beside, or what precisely will happen) asks us to ponder, at some level, the ways we are obliged to each other as fellow human beings. In this way, the local spaces of performance, and the persons within whom it is embodied, constitute sites where broader political engagements and movements might be initiated. In turn, localness gets transposed back into a concept of worldness, of being in and of the world, by virtue of performance's double structure of address: that is, the particular place of its production, and the multiple spaces of its reception, recognition, and redistribution (including on the Internet--hence this blog).

Let me be clear: I don't wish to overstate the role that a work of local community theatre might play in helping to remedy complex world conflicts and crises. But I do believe that the structures of performance can help theatricalize and make newly compelling for local audiences various scenarios of present-day global political urgency. So, for example, that locally produced piece of community theatre might inspire its neighbourhood audience to connect their place-based behaviour to an issue like global climate change (as was the case with David Diamond and Headlines Theatre's series of forum theatre workshops, 2 degrees of fear and desire, in Vancouver last fall). At the same time, I want to suggest that events played out on the world stage (wars, acts of terror, religious gatherings, natural disasters, sporting contests, human rights protests) can never be interpreted apart from the local constituencies to whom they are being mediated, even if only electronically. In other words, to the extent that I am making a case in this blog for the way performance practice overlaps with political praxis as a project aimed at re-making the world, I am likewise arguing that we must never lose sight of the place of that overlap.

Which brings me to the role of Vancouver in this blog. I've lived in the city for close to two decades now, and while it still ain't no London or New York, in that time the local performing arts scene has improved exponentially. While there are heaps of individuals, companies, and artist collectives responsible for this--the majority of whom I hope eventually to write about in some form or another in future posts--let me single out initially some folks and institutions that are especially dear to my heart:

1. The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (held here every January) and its tireless impresario, Norman Armour: although the acts might not always be as big or famous, I think that in terms of the boldness of the work presented, PuSh rivals BAM's Next Wave Festival for cutting-edge experimental theatre and performance. The image above is of me getting my haircut by children at last year's festival, as part of Darren O'Donnell and Mammalian Diving Reflex's presentation of Haircuts by Children.

2. The Scotiabank Dance Centre; the Dancing on the Edge Festival; the annual Dances for Small Stages event on Commercial Drive; Dance All Sorts; companies like battery opera, Edam, Judith Marcuse Projects (who recently co-founded the Centre for Art and Social Change at my university), kidd pivot (Crystal Pite is a goddess), and the 605 Collective: Vancouver has a happening dance scene, let me tell you.

3. The LIVE Performance Art Biennale, which will have its 6th iteration in the fall of 2009, and which in 2007 was organized around the theme of the "public." I quote from their website, as it bears on what I'm trying to get at in introducing this blog: "Public is always local--yet defines global. Who and where are we? Who and where are others? How are we similar? How are we different? What do we have in common? In interpreting 'Public,' performative art might manifest as: an action presented in public, an intervention into public, the participation of public, or a descriptive reference to public. Intent, form and expression can shift and change. The theme of 'Public' affords us occasion to examine performance art both locally and globally. A new generation of artists is reinventing boundaries through an exploding world-wide network of organizations, venues, symposia, and festivals."

4. The Vancouver International Film Festival, the 27th annual version of which is just winding down this week, and which in its intimacy and intellectualism is the antithesis of Toronto: i.e., it's about the films, not about the stars. (Two recommendations from this year from opposite generic poles: Terrence Davies' latest experimental documentary, Of Time and the City, at once a paean to and a pastiche of his birthplace, Liverpool; and the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, which is actually a complex allegory of adolescent outsiderness and the bullying that frequently accompanies it.)

5. Two experimental theatre companies, Boca del Lupo and the Electric Company, that grew out of productively synergistic relationships forged by their founders at Simon Fraser's School for the Contemporary Arts and Langara College's Studio 58, respectively.

6. Artist-run centres like the venerable Western Front and Artspeak Gallery: the latter, in recently going "off-site," has begin to generate some very interesting site-specific work, including Althea Thauberger's Carrall Street. At the September 30th event, Thauberger used the streetscape on which Artspeak fronts as her one-night stage (or, perhaps more accurately, film set), mixing hired "actors" performing scripted/improvised scenes with random interactions between local denizens and passers-by to actively blur the roles between performer and spectator, and in the process to show some of the historical connections between the street's past (as a tavern-lined, working-class byway connecting Vancouver's old port to Chinatown), present (as a thoroughfare traversed on one end by visiting tourists and local hipsters negotiating both the tack and trend of Gastown, and, on the other, by the homeless, addicted, and mentally ill citizens of the Downtown Eastside [DTES], the poorest postal zone in Canada), and future (as a showcase street ripe for civic greening and Olympic redevelopment).

Despite some reservations I have about the overall success and politics of Thauberger's work, it does get at what I see as a crucial connection between live art and what it only seems right to call an urban ethics of livability. In the 20 years since the sale of the former Expo lands in Vancouver's False Creek North neighbourhood to Li Ka-shing's Concord Pacific, the area has been transformed into one of the most densely populated downtown neighbourhoods in North America, and has become a model, in terms of urban planning, for similar developments targeted at the globe-trotting super-rich around the world. And yet this global performance of place has come at a local price--quite literally--with an increasing lack of affordable housing in Vancouver's urban core resulting in a form of enclosure that sees companies like Concord Pacific at once encroaching on and seeking to contain the social blight of the DTES, for example, through a phalanx of luxury condominium towers, most of whose units are owned internationally. As the city now looks across the water, to South False Creek, site of the Athletes' Village for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and earmarked for major redevelopment thereafter, it would do well to seek alternative models of place promotion, ones that better reconcile local integration with global destination.

Indeed, let me lay all my cards on the table and state that one of the main reasons I am starting this blog at this particular moment--after forswearing numerous times ever joining this particular electronic revolution--is to monitor the pace and progress of change in Vancouver (in all its forms) in the lead-up to the Olympics, and to connect these changes to larger patterns of urban and political transformation around the world. I am proposing to do so through the particular lens of performance because I believe, along with the curators of LIVE 5 cited above, that the publics and counter-publics formed as a result of us coming together--however temporarily or fragmentarily--as an audience tell us in turn something about how we participate in the world, and about the concrete material conditions of the local as it both produces and is produced by that world.

On that note, I think I'll sign off on this first post. I promise future ones won't be quite so earnest and dryly academic in tone (though I can't promise with what frequency they will appear--this one was supposed to make its debut last month and took three separate tries to finally get posted). A few performance-related thoughts on several upcoming elections (local, national, and international) should produce much occasion for satire. I promise not to go on about Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin (though we could have used her last night on a rather weak Thursday night version of SNL's Weekend Update). But taking swipes at Stephen Harper and his supercilious grin is, I think, fair game. The backlash around the Conservatives' cuts to the arts in this country has already forced their hand regarding Bill C-10, it seems; now let's use the momentum from Harper's stumbling performance in response to the economic panic to boot his party out of office altogether, or at the very least sizably reduce their existing minority. A shout-out, in this regard, to Michael Byers, NDP candidate for my riding of Vancouver Centre. And, looking ahead to November's municipal elections in Vancouver, consider this my endorsement for Gregor Robertson and the Vision Vancouver slate.

But before all that, and before I can regale you with further descriptions and analyses of performances specific to Vancouver, there's a trip to the UK and Europe in the offing. Richard and I are making the most of our respective leave years by fitting in lots of travel--work-related, of course. (More on Richard, my partner in the theatre of life, in future posts.) Expect a report on the art and theatre we see.