Friday, December 30, 2011

Still Waiting

Blackbird Theatre is back at the Cultch with what has become for them something of a post-Christmas tradition: a new staging of one of the darker entries in the classic repertoire. This time it’s Waiting for Godot. Richard and I attended the second of the two preview performances this past Wednesday (the play opened last night and runs through January 21st). Despite how much I’ve enjoyed this company’s work in the past, I have to say I was disappointed.

Could it be that the production was almost too reverential? Notwithstanding the degree to which Beckett’s famously litigious estate has inspired an almost slavish devotion to the text among even the most experimental of contemporary interpreters, can we not at least move a smidgen beyond the same tired accents (Gogo’s Irish brogue setting him apart from the only slightly posher Didi) and the familiar Little Tramp costumes we’ve seen hundreds of times before (including Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s excellent version for the 2001 Beckett on Film series, starring Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy)? What about jeans and hightops and hoodies and baseball caps instead, and a bit of a hip-hop lilt to the music of Beckett’s writing? What about a post-apocalyptic, inner-city setting with condoms instead of leaves on the tree in Act Two? Granted, it’s harder—given the famous stage directions that open both acts—to think of tampering much with the limitations Beckett deliberately places upon the set, though even here I have some quibbles with Blackbird’s choices.

Thus invariably knowing what’s coming, the key for audiences familiar with the play is to find new (or renewed) subtleties in the performances. Anthony F. Ingram, as Vladimir, and Simon Webb, as Estragon, certainly have wonderful comic chemistry. I laughed out loud and at great length last night. And yet I still felt the nearly 2 ½ hour performance dragged. In this regard, I felt that some comic bits—including the opening sequence with Gogo’s boots—went on a bit too long, while others, like my beloved Laurel and Hardyesque bowler hat sequence from Act Two, were given short shrift. Likewise, where the visit by Pozzo (a wonderfully expansive—in all senses of that word—William Samples) and Lucky (Adam Henderson, who wears that rope with the best of them) flew by in Act One, their much shorter stay in Act Two seemed interminable, with too much time spent by all four actors lying prone on the stage floor. I also didn’t understand Pozzo’s falsetto in Act Two, which seems to emasculate him unduly.

However, what was most missing for me last night was an equal sense of tragic pathos to balance out the comic absurdity—a problem with many recent high-profile productions of the play on both sides of the Atlantic, with the notable exception of Paul Chan, Creative Time, and the Classical Theater of Harlem’s staging of the play in 2007 in the post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Watching Ingram’s Didi and Webb’s Gogo stare up at the tree and openly contemplate suicide, I couldn’t hear the aching desperation that should accompany their kibitzing about not having a rope, like the sound of ashes both characters hear in the rustle of the tree’s two leaves. And, where, in Didi’s crucial soliloquy at the end while Gogo dozes—“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”—is the cruel anguish that should underscore, like a knife blade, their impossible situation of both not being able to go on, and having to go on?

Back to that quibble with the set. I can’t for the life of me figure out why director John Wright and designer Marti Wright opted not to make use of the Cultch Historic Theatre’s own studio stage, choosing instead to construct a square raised platform above it, with ramps off it to either wing. I get that this visually reinforces the constrained and diminished circumstances in which Didi and Gogo find themselves, not to mention reminds us that surrounding their few square metres of shared space is a swampy bog, beyond which are thieves and ruffians lying in wait. However, it makes things somewhat awkward for the Boy (a charming Zander Constant), who enters from audience level at the end of both acts, and must interact with Didi for much of his brief time on stage with his back to us.

Other critics might think otherwise, but for me this was a rare miss from a local troupe that has otherwise distinguished itself as a bold interpreter of the classics. To be fair, it was a preview performance, and maybe my mood was soured somewhat by the person who threw up in the balcony hallway just as the performance was ending. Either way, I’ve at least waited to post this review till after the show has officially opened.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sleepless in Vancouver

Around this time of year it is customary for many of us to gather with friends and family at each others homes to share some food, maybe exchange gifts, sing songs, and/or play some goofy party games, and almost certainly raise a glass of holiday cheer. And, just as assuredly, witness at least one spectacular scene of relationship discord or breakdown. If you're looking to steel yourself for the latter event, or simply prefer to experience such things vicariously, I recommend checking out the inspired production of Caryl Churchill's Three More Sleepless Nights that's playing in different neighbourhoods around the city through this Friday.

Churchill's play was first produced in 1980, between Cloud Nine and Top Girls. Unlike these more famous works, Three More does not range boldly across great swathes of history, and contains little of their (at least at the time) radically experimental dramaturgy. Instead, it is a quiet domestic roundelay, sharply and accessibly written, involving two couples whose relationships, in the wee hours of the morning, have reached a crisis point. The innovation of this particular production, by a group of very talented SFU Contemporary Arts students and recent grads, is that the audience gets to witness the proceedings up close and personal, with the play being staged in a different borrowed apartment every evening--one which the actors, like us, are encountering for the first time.

This results in a most intriguing, and theatrically reinforcing, dynamic: that is, the audience's initial timidity and discomfort about following the actors around an unfamiliar space and observing them at their most intimate and vulnerable (ie, semi-clothed and in bed) is played off of the actors' equally improvisatory negotiation of a space that is likewise new to them, but which they must nevertheless move through and, indeed, command as if it were their own. No doubt this places just as much stress on the director (Conor Wylie) and the stage/production manager (Chelsea MacDonald): how to ensure your actors hit, night after night, both the comic and achingly anguished grace notes of Churchill's script while also giving them individual latitude on where--and when--to hit them?; how to find seven different workable spaces in the first place, and then to ensure that the few key props that are needed are where the actors would logically expect to find them? That both these questions are answered in this production is a credit to Wylie and MacDonald, respectively.

After we are all settled in the designated space, after we have been offered wine or beer, and after--most importantly--we have been encouraged to make a donation towards the evening's entertainment, the proceedings begin when Frank (Sean Marshall Jr.) arrives. He's drunk and his wife, Margaret (Tara Gallagher Harris), has been waiting up for him. Recrimination, in this instance, is less about how much he's had to drink at the pub than whether or not he was there with his mistress. Frank doesn't confirm or deny Margaret's suspicions; instead he taunts her by suggesting it's her fault for his infidelity, that her constant nagging, her poor housekeeping, and, perhaps most tellingly, her own ongoing flirtation with a man named Pete at the same pub has essentially driven him into another woman's arms. Marshall and Gallagher Harris, trailing each other back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom, telegraph expertly in their overlapping dialogue, their tightly coiled movements, and especially in the weariness of their barely raised voices the complex mix of hurt and desire and regret of a couple who clearly still love each other, but who can no longer live together. That they find it impossible to move beyond this impasse is made clear at one point when we hear the offstage voice of a child being kept awake by their arguing (well, okay, it was Chelsea, kneeling beside me in the bedroom doorway).

The scene between Frank and Margaret ends when she goes to cool off--literally--in the shower. Two different actors--who until that point had just been fellow members of the audience--then strip to their underwear and hop into the bed just vacated by Frank. We are immediately plunged into the insomniac world of Dawn (Jamie Taylor) and Pete (Dan Borzillo). For the first few minutes it's just the two of them exchanging an occasional foggy grunt, communicating to each other and to us a clearly recurring pattern of sleeplessness. Then Pete starts to recount the plot of the movie Alien (Churchill doing pop culture--who knew?), his childlike delight in its thrills likely doing nothing to calm the panic of his wife, who repeats more than once that she is frightened--of what exactly (her husband? unnamed forces in the world? merely the dark?) we're never sure. Taylor and Borzillo have to act most of this scene lying prone on a bed, and they do a marvelous job physically conveying the void at the heart of their marriage, with Taylor scrunched all the way to the edge of her side of the bed and Borzillo gathering the covers under his armpits like the grown-up kid Pete clearly is. Borzillo gets most of the dialogue and it is a testament to his gifts as an actor that he not only managed to make a movie I have seen many times new to me again, but that he was able to convey through his well-timed pauses and heavy swallows (each of which echoed like a clarion in that tiny room) that he has retreated to the fantasy world of action thrillers in part because his own relationship has become alien to him. Taylor, by contrast, must communicate her distress mostly through gesture, and just by the way she cuts and eats a piece of watermelon we get a clear sense of someone disquieted by even the most routine tasks--including sleeping.

The final scene is between Margaret and Pete, now together following what we surmise is the eventual collapse of their previous relationships. However, Frank and Dawn still haunt their former lovers, and as much time is spent talking about them as about each other. When Pete starts to tell Margaret the plot of Apocalypse Now, we can guess where this new liaison is headed.

All the principals involved in this production are to be applauded for their very fine efforts in staging this play. That I lay awake for much of the night thinking about various aspects of the performances is testament to their excellence. Tonight the cast will be performing in Yaletown, and on Friday the final performance will take place in East Van. I think both nights are technically sold out, but there might be last-minute cancelations or a waiting list. If you're interested, contact Chelsea at


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Things I Learned in Stockholm

In a comparison of J.M.W. Turner's, Claude Monet's, and Cy Twombly's late styles, Twombly emerges the definitive genius.

The Moderna Museet (at which the above exhibition was showing) has an amazing photography collection, and serves a mean bowl of mushroom soup.

It costs $7.00 to ride the subway!

King Carl Gustaf is not a Stieg Larsson fan, much to the consternation of his wife.

The Nobel Prize Committee has its own fleet of luxury cars to ferry around laureates staying at the Grand Hotel.

At a two Michelin star restaurant serving an eight course meal which costs almost as much as your entire hotel bill, it is not possible to joke with your server about the langoustines she brings live to your table.

It is possible to cross the same bridge once too often.

If your Circadian rhythms are already disrupted because of jet lag, then you'll likely never get a full night's sleep in a city where the sun begins to set at 2:30 pm.