Saturday, November 24, 2012

Back in the Groove with Ballet BC

Ballet BC's 2012-13 season opened in bravura style on Thursday, introducing audiences to some bright new faces on stage, as well as behind the scenes. I had a chance to speak with recently hired Executive Director Branislav Henselmann following last night's show, and was very impressed by his already considerable knowledge of the local performing arts scene, not least the PuSh Festival.

In/verse opens with the North American premiere of Jacopo Godani's A.U.R.A (Anarchist Unit Related to Art). An independent artist who is a self-described polymath, Godani is responsible not just for the choreography, but for the costumes, lighting design, and overall dramaturgical concept of the piece. It shows, as the moveable florescent lighting tubes, together with the TRON-like body suits worn by the dancers, lend the work the feel of a three-dimensional, animated video game. Set to a pulsating electro-acoustic score by the experimental German duo 48nord, the choreography is--as the work's title suggests--at once physically anarchic and conceptually integrated. The 15 dancers (including apprentices Emily Chessa and Scott Fowler, and standout guest artist Thibaut Eiferman) whirl about the stage with controlled abandon, breaking apart in patterns that defy any logical bodily line or grid, and coming back together in tableaux that are always off-centre, cores rooted but limbs splayed.

Next up was the world premiere of American choreographer Nicolo Fonte's Muse, which opens with a lone female dancer on point in a vertical shaft of light emanating from an open doorway upstage right. Over the course of the piece's opening movements, the men in the company interact with her and other of the women who occupy this space, but only from either side of it. They themselves never jump into the light, only over it. Until, that is, the light starts to get rolled up, and we realize what we have been observing is a clever trompe l'oeil effect created by the careful placement of some white stage matting, and its even more subtle illumination by lighting designer James Proudfoot. Rearranged horizontally along the stage, the mat then occasions the central movement of the piece, a duet between Dario Dinuzzi and the excellent new company member Darren Devaney. As technically complex as it is tender, the sequence features the men traveling the length of the mat and back again, guiding each other by the ankles, willing themselves to walk together, though only one of them will walk away.

Finally, the evening concludes with Artistic Director Emily Molnar's own world premiere, Aniel, a crowd-pleasing, eye-popping feast of danced whimsy set to the klezmer-inspired music of John Zorn. Into an empty, all-white box set the full company of 17 dancers race out, wearing Linda Chow's neon-coloured costumes, a riot of oranges and pinks and yellows and blues and greens. From this literally dazzling opening, which was greeted by instant applause, to Gilbert Small's closing kiss to the audience, this is a dual valentine from Molnar, one directed not just to her patrons, but also to her dancers. And those dancers are clearly having a lot of fun, bobbing and shuffling and grooving on and off stage in ways that telegraph their own personal kinesthetic responses to the music, but also coming together as a company for some highly structured choreography, especially with respect to Molnar's rhythmically complex hand and arm movements.

From beginning to end this was a program that announced: we're back.


Friday, November 23, 2012

10 Lies and a Truth

A quick shout-out to the program of SFU Contemporary Arts student directing projects on now through December 1st at Studio T, SFU Woodward's. Grouped under the collective title 10 Lies and a Truth, these 11 short works showcase the talents of the next generation of Vancouver theatre artists, giving senior students in the Theatre Program a chance to helm their own production.

Last night's pairing of one-acts featured two absurdist works of political theatre from the 1960s. The first was Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek's Striptease, about two similarly attired men trapped in a room, and forced to answer to a giant prosthetic hand. Director Sarah Bernstein handles the mix of humour and critique within Mrozek's irony with a sure touch, balancing physical whimsy with respect for the rhythms--linguistic and ideological--of the characters' speechifying. And lead performers Robert Andow and Marc Castellini have great chemistry.

Next up was Chilean playwright Jorge Diaz's Love Yourself Above All Others, a biting satire about class-consciousness whose central conceit is that the aristocrats--Carmine Santavenere as The Gentleman and Sharon Ramirez as The Lady--ride their servants--Kiki Al Rahmani as Placida and Wesley Rogers as Epifanio--like animals, all the while spouting rhetorically empty maxims about revolution and democracy. Layering on the Latin American stereotypes and iconography with wildly inventive theatricality, director Manuela Sosa creates a hot-house dance-musical (complete with breakout salsa steps and a climactic hip hop number) that doesn't let its knowing smirk get in the way of a clear-eyed presentation of some big ideas. Not the least of which are the representational and material inequities that continue to beset the relationship between the "West" and the "Global South." All the performers throw themselves into their parts with absolute abandon, and the entire piece is as visually and physically stunning as it is intellectually stimulating.

The Directing Projects continue tonight and tomorrow night at 8 pm, with offerings from Conor Wylie, Janelle Reid, and Sean Marshall, Jr.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

MusicFest, Ballet BC, and PuSh

As reported in today's Vancouver Sun, the fickle cultural landscape in BC has claimed another victim. MusicFest, Vancouver's annual August celebration of classical, jazz, and world music, has suspended operations after announcing an accumulated deficit of $160,000 over the past two years. There will be no 2013 festival, although the Board hasn't ruled out reconstituting in the future should a solution to its financial problems be found.

That's likely little comfort to outgoing program director Matthew Baird, who took over from founding director George Laverock only last year. Despite his best efforts to streamline this past summer's line-up without sacrificing quality or talent (something I believe he accomplished admirably based on the two shows we attended), ticket sales were apparently very soft.

I hope Richard and I weren't the jinx. After a hiatus of several years, we made an effort to seek out two challenging but immensely rewarding classical concerts this year. And we were looking forward to attending again next August. Let's hope the festival's hiatus is not as long as ours was.

Meanwhile, an article in today's Globe by Marsha Lederman on the resurgent Ballet BC, newly confident under the leadership of Emily Molnar, who has pushed the company in a boldly contemporary direction, and who has attracted leading choreographic talents from around the world to create new work on her dancers. The first show in the company's 2013/14 season, In/verse, opens tonight. Richard and I will be there tomorrow evening, and in even better seats this year thanks to the wizardry of Audience Services Manager Ashley Holm.

Of course, I'm equally excited about the fact that Ballet BC is also collaborating this year with the PuSh Festival on a remount of Encore, its wildly popular mixed program from two seasons ago. Indeed, there is lots of dance (from France and Belgium and Seattle and Japan) on offer as part of this year's PuSh Festival. Program guides have been out for a couple of weeks now, and discounted four and six-show PuSh passes are available until December 6th. To get yours, or to buy individual tickets, visit


Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Tempest Worth Replicating

Last night's performance of Kidd Pivot's The Tempest Replica at the Playhouse concluded what had to have been the city's most highly anticipated dance event of the fall season. Pite's latest, and most explicit, exploration of narrative in dance, the piece is also the result of her first time working with a pre-existing script.

The work begins with long-time company member Eric Beauchesne, who plays Prospero, sitting cross-legged downstage right, in front of a large shimmery and billowing silver cloth. He is intently folding sheet after sheet of white paper into perfect origami sail boats, which he promptly lines up in a row. It's another kind of kinesthetic labour that is as precise and elegant as classical dance,. Additionally, it not only telegraphs for those in the audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare's play (or who haven't bothered to read Pite's careful synopsis of the action in the program) the famous opening high seas storm, but in the number and colour and scale of the boats' replication recalls one of Pite's explanations for the inspiration for the faceless, all-white fencing-like costumes worn by all the other dancers in the first part of her work: they are meant to recall the replica human figures used in architectural models.

Manipulating one of the boats in the same way that he will soon manipulate the bodily figures occupying his own island, Prospero speaks aloud the word "shipwreck," and then promptly calls the spirit Ariel (Sandra Garcia), the real architect of his designs. Ariel does not look particularly pleased by the summons, a reminder that she has not chosen to do Prospero's bidding, something captured in two simple movements repeated here that will become signature gestures for her throughout the work: a fluttering of her hands over her heart; and an elbow thrust akimbo out from her side, as reflex response perhaps to a phantom wing that has been clipped or tamped down by her master. Taking the paper boat from Prospero, Ariel places it in her mouth and starts to chew, which is the signal for the storm to begin.

Pite has said in past conversations about the work that it began with the notion of incorporating a shipwreck in a dancer's body. But she has also said that she was excited about the theatrical possibilities--lighting and sound effects--of representing a storm on stage. She marries these two ideas in the next sequence, in which we witness pre-recorded digital images of Ferdinand's (Jermaine Spivey) Act Two shipwreck solo projected onto the stage left portion of the scrim, which are then overlain with pelting rain, and with which the live, white-costumed body of the Act One Ferdinand interacts behind the scrim. It's an uncanny doubling, supplemented by Alonso (Bryan Arias) and Sebastian (Jiří Pokorný) and Antonio (Yannick Matthon) rolling on the floor upstage right.

This was the first of the night's surprises: not just Pite's sophisticated use of projections, but the amount of movement contained within them, and the extent to which they merged with the shadow outline of live movement on stage via lighting effects in front of and behind the piece's two cloth scrims (the first downstage one is pulled down after the storm by Prospero, to reveal a second upstage one). Other projections, such as Prospero's explanation to Miranda (Cindy Salgado) following the shipwreck of how they came to find themselves on the island as a result of Antonio's usurpation of Prospero's dukedom in Milan, are more clearly cinematic (often expressionistically so). This makes sense given Pite's explanation for her complementary method of conveying the major plot points of Shakespeare's play in successive bodily tableaux during the first part of the piece: she has called it a movement-based equivalent of storyboarding.

But even here there was another surprise--just how dancey many of these tableaux were. I hadn't witnessed but a few of these scenes as part of Pite's open rehearsals at SFU Woodward's in September, and so while I was prepared for Prospero's marionette-like manipulations of Miranda as she witnesses the storm, I did not expect the exuberant jive that she and Ferdinand break into once Prospero releases the prince from his Sisyphean labours and consents to letting the young lovers wed. Cinematic and kinesthetic narrative combine most successfully in the first half of the work in the sequence when we're first introduced to Caliban (Arias again), who slithers across the stage on all fours, led by Prospero and towards Miranda, seated stage left, as the projections economically telegraph (in the same direction) how the monster came to be enslaved by Prospero. Equal in visual effect is the banquet conjured by Ariel for Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Text in this first part mostly comes in the form of projected surtitles providing act and scene numbers, and a brief, one-line synopsis of the action. Occasionally, however, key words are projected onto unexpected surfaces: "daughter" onto Miranda's raised skirt, for example, and "doubt" onto one of Prospero's unfurled paper boats, held up by an unidentified, white-cloaked avatar in the final Act 5 sequence, which crucially has no textual synopsis accompanying its projected surtitle, and which, as crucially, displaces the play's epilogue, cuing the transition into the second half of Pite's piece as Prospero, clearly in need of new magic, calls aloud for Ariel once again.

Her arrival, now dressed in regular street clothes, begins the process of replaying in more pure dance form key scenes that were storyboarded for us in the first half. To paraphrase Pite, now that we know who everyone is, and the nature of their relationships to one another, we can concentrate on how the movement intensifies the emotions behind those relationships. Although all the dancers get brief solo moments during these sequences--and none more stunning than Spivey's live reproduction of the bodily shipwreck that we had previously witnessed digitally--Pite's basic architecture during the second half is the duet: between Prospero and Ariel; Prospero and Miranda; Antonio and Sebastian, Prospero and Caliban; and finally Miranda and Ferdinand. This is some of Pite's most complex and stunningly original partnering, giving a physical form to the degrees of indebtedness and obligation, choice and constraint, power and reciprocity, that mark both the connection and the distance between different characters. Thus, for example, the opening duet between Prospero and Ariel is notable for its gorgeous lifts; but the striving for flight that we intuit in Ariel's impossibly fluid leg extensions especially is counterbalanced by arms that remain locked with and pinned down by Prospero's. Similarly, Caliban remains in a hammer-lock for much of his duet with Prospero, and even when he does break free and stands up straight and smoothes down the suit jacket he is wearing as a sop to his wounded dignity and pride, he is just as quickly forced back down to the ground by the unrelenting Prospero, and must propel himself about the stage via his sits bones and knees.

Interestingly, Caliban is the only character/dancer other than Prospero who speaks while moving, in this case uttering, despite Prospero's best attempts to stifle his voice, his famous oath: "You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse." Otherwise, text in the second half comes mostly in the form of key projected lines that explicate further the movement sequences we see taking shape before us, or else layered in voice-over as part of the dense soundscape designed by Meg Roe and Alessandro Juliani to complement Owen Belton's electronic score.

The Tempest Replica ends with the epilogue that was forestalled in the first half, with Prospero, having given up magic, now being shadowed and eventually overwhelmed by the four other male dancers, now also back in their all-white costumes. In the final tableau, Prospero has been placed prone on the floor in a position akin to the one in which we first encounter Miranda at the start of the work; the other dancers stand over the stilled creator, silently clapping as the the lights fade to black. The image alludes, of course, to Prospero's concluding speech, in which he asks to be released from his own creative bondage via the audience's applause, and which most critics read as a self-reflexive comment, in this his final play, on Shakespeare's setting aside of his writing quill. 

Given Pite's own longstanding concerns with the dialectic of creation and destruction, and taken together with her announcement that following this tour of The Tempest Replica she plans to take a year's sabbatical, it is hard not to interpret this as simultaneously a farewell of sorts for a choreographer who does not know in what form--or even if--her company will reconstitute itself. In her pre-show talk Pite stated that she hoped, following their break, that the company would be back, and ideally with its current full and full-time employed complement of dancers--all of whom, it must be said, were on fire last night. But Pite also stated that such an arrangement would depend on finding a replacement for the funding from Frankfurt that in essence has allowed the company to create and tour for the past two years. I hope the cultural power brokers in this city were listening and that they throw all available resources her way.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Creative Conversations and City Lights

So, at yesterday evening's "creative conversation" between Robert Lepage and Crystal Pite at SFU Woodward's, I learned that Lepage is not buying a condo in Vancouver. Quel dommage.

I also learned that Lepage is happy not to claim authorship of his work; that he feels himself to be inadequately equipped as a filmmaker; that he kind of got off on the massive boos that greeted the premiere of the first part of The Ring he directed at The Met; and that he was the one who actively sought out Pite as a collaborator on his current acclaimed production of Thomas Adès's The Tempest at the same institution (not knowing she had just choreographed her own take on the Shakespeare play).

From Pite, I learned that she began choreographing at age three (she even remembers the music she chose and the costume she wore!); that she needs to impose incredibly high artistic stakes on herself before she feels ready to plunge into a new work; that the impetus for The Tempest Replica (which opens tonight at the Playhouse) came from the choreographic challenge of incorporating the idea of a shipwreck into the body; and that when directing actors, as opposed to trained dancers, to move, it's all about finding the right language ("pretend you're listening at a door" as opposed to "lead with your right ear").

After a quick dinner it was off to the Orpheum with Richard for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's live accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, in honour of the 85th anniversary of this landmark building (which, as Maestro Bramwell Tovey told the audience in his opening remarks--and as Richard has been whispering in my ear for years--was almost torn down in the 1970s). It really was an amazing experience to see what I think is Chaplin's greatest screen representation of his Tramp character brought sonically to life by the full VSO. As delightful were the warm-up acts: Tovey's solo improvisation of the live musical score to a little-known short by Chaplin, How To Make Movies, a quasi-behind-the-scenes look at what went into the artist's unique brand of physical comedy and cinematic magic; and a special performance by Michael Dirk on the original (and hydraulically operated) 1927 Wurlitzer Organ.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Back to the Moon

Last night Richard and I were at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's for a sold-out performance of Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon, a co-production with Théâtre la Seizième, who together with the now departed Playhouse first brought the show to Vancouver back in 2003. That was, I believe, Lepage's first visit to the city since he toured here in the 1980s with The Dragon's Trilogy, but he's since been back with The Andersen Project (2005) and, most recently, The Blue Dragon, which was also mounted at SFU Woodward's as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2010. And if the rumours are true of him buying a condo here, we may be seeing a whole lot more of him.

It was by no means certain that last night's performance would go ahead as scheduled. SFU is in the midst of labour disputes with two separate unions, CUPE (representing staff) and TSSU (representing sessional instructors and TAs), and picketing of the downtown campuses over the weekend had forced the cancellation of at least two performances of Yves Jacques' performances. A campus-wide picket had been called for yesterday. But with Lepage himself taking over the role starting this Tuesday, Michael Boucher, Director of Cultural Programs at SFU Woodward's, and the man most responsible for bringing the show back to Vancouver, was anxious to avoid further disturbances if at all possible. To that end, Ex Machina Producer Michel Bernatchez read a prepared statement from CUPE in advance of the performance indicating that, in fact, no further picketing of SFU Woodward's would take place for the duration of Far Side's run.

This was as much a relief to those of us at the PuSh Festival as it no doubt was to Boucher. For PuSh is a community partner on this production and last night's performance was a special "PuSh night," which in addition to allowing us to secure discounted seats for our loyal Festival patrons, also saw us distributing our 2013 Festival program guides to all members of the audience in advance of their official release throughout the city today. Great publicity for us, and for our own ongoing SFU Woodward's presence, which Executive Director Norman Armour rightly highlighted in his portion of the curtain speech.

And now onto the performance itself. Far Side has always struck me as one of Lepage's more successful solo shows, in part because its images and theatrical conceits are so stunning (a washing machine door that becomes a portal to space), and in part because it is so personal (about the relationship between two brothers, Philippe and André, in the wake of their mother's death, the play was written just after the death of Lepage's own mother). The play was also turned into a very successful film by Lepage, one that, if it--as it seems--remains his last, will stand as an excellent synthesis of several recurring themes in his work (a focus on doubles and Oedipal family dynamics, symbolic use of colour, screens-within-screens, etc.). Indeed, this current production of the play has, if memory serves correctly, been changed to accommodate several new scenes that come directly from the film and, as is increasingly the case with any new Lepage stage production (witness The Blue Dragon), projected credits at the top of the show emphasize the cinematic feel of this piece of theatre.

And yet, for all the various projected film excerpts of the American and Soviet space race and the high-tech mechanics of the set, some of the most effective bits in the play still come when Lepage reverts to the basics of theatre-making, as with the frequent use of puppets, or when he turns a simple prop like an ironing board into a gym bench press in one instance and a scooter in another. In these moments Lepage understands that in the theatre, unlike in the cinema, the audience needs to work with the performer to create the illusion.

Would that Lepage worked just a little bit harder with us to create the same kind of shared emotional intimacy. The man has always been a cool, almost affectless performer. No doubt this anti-spectacular acting style allows the spectacle of his staging to stand out. But in a show like this one--which is, after all, partly about grief--I longed for just a bit more intensity and, dare I say, energy. However, I certainly can't fault Lepage for the effort he puts into the amazing final scene, which combines all the best elements of his theatre into a singularly stunning, almost balletic image.

And speaking of ballet, Lepage will be in conversation with choreographer Crystal Pite at SFU Woodward's this evening, beginning at 5 pm. The two have collaborated on Lepage's staging of the opera of The Tempest, currently on at the Met in New York. Pite's own dance version of the Shakespeare play, The Tempest Replica, opens tomorrow at the Playhouse, the second show in DanceHouse's current season. And, as it happened, I was sitting beside Kidd Pivot dancer Sandra Garcia last night. She graciously let me gush about my admiration for the entire company's work. Which I look forward to immersing myself in once again this Saturday.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012


It felt fitting to be in the audience on election night in the United States watching Touchstone Theatre’s beautifully acted production of Anton Piatigorsky’s Eternal Hydra. The first play in Touchstone’s 2012-13 season, and compellingly and insightfully directed by Touchstone AD Katrina Dun, the work first began life as a one-act play commissioned by the Stratford Festival in 2002. Toronto-based Crow’s Theatre, under the able leadership of Chris Abraham (who worked closely with Piatigorsky in developing the play), premiered a three-act version in the spring of 2009, which went on to win several Dora Awards (including for best play), before traveling to the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Ottawa. The play’s West Coast premiere runs through this Sunday at Studio 16 on West 7th at Granville.

An intellectually ambitious and self-consciously literary work of drama, Eternal Hydra is a theatrical detective story that focuses on three central couples in three different time periods (contemporary New York City, Paris between the two world wars, and post-Civil War New Orleans) arguing over the importance and authenticity of three different texts, each of which progressively displaces, or “de-authorizes,” the centrality of the preceding one. Thus, at the outset of the play we are introduced to the overeager English scholar Vivian Ezra (Laara Sadiq), who reveals to New York publisher Randall Wellington, Jr. (Andrew Wheeler) that she has discovered the long-lost manuscript that gives the play its title, the final masterwork of the iconoclastic Irish-Jewish writer Gordias Carbuncle (John Murphy), a fictional James Joyce-like character who died in Paris in 1940, in advance of the Nazi invasion. The book was to have been a 1,000-page novel in which each of the 100 chapters would be told by a different voice in a different place on the globe at a different time in history, all the stories at once compiled by, filtered through, and eventually deconstructed by the consciousness of an overarching Herculean consciousness. Thought lost for more than 60 years, Ezra has discovered the manuscript in the apartment of Carbuncle’s former research assistant, Gwendolyn Jackson (Sadiq), and has brought it to Wellington to publish, as his father, Randall Wellington, Sr. (Wheeler) was Carbuncle’s publisher. In doing so, she hopes to secure Carbuncle’s place in literary history, but also to secure her own fame as his scholarly amanuensis. Enter Pauline Newberry (Cherissa Richards), a postmodern black novelist who is about to publish a work of historical fiction about an obscure African-American woman expat writer in Paris, Selma Thomas (Richards again), whom Newberry posits had an affair with Carbuncle. Galleys of her novel just happen to be at hand, and at the urging of Wellington—who arranged for his meetings with Ezra and Newberry to overlap—she begins to read from the scene in which Carbuncle appears. Ezra is incensed at the portrait of her literary hero, whose ghost it should be noted she communicates with throughout this long opening scene. But in exchange for another textual artifact, the 1936 Paris diary of Carbuncle that has been willed by Jackson to Wellington, Jr., Ezra eventually concedes to the terms of the publisher: 10% royalties and a marketing tie-in with Newberry’s novel.

The Paris diary of Carbuncle then becomes the central text of Act Two; but it doesn’t add to Carbuncle’s luster, as Vivian had hoped. Rather, it begins the process of debunking the myth of his artistic genius. Indeed, taken together, the two scenes staged from the diary’s pages—an entry detailing a visit from Jackson in which Carbuncle refuses her demands for scholarly credit, and for love, and the entry documenting the scene between Carbuncle and Thomas in which he convinces Thomas to sell him one of her stories for inclusion in his Eternal Hydra manuscript—at once de-authorize Vivian’s Act One account of Carbuncle’s solitary genius and re-authorize Newberry’s argument for the             unacknowledged importance of Thomas as a writer unjustly written out of the record of literary modernism. And the exchange in between the staged scenes from the diary in which, back in the present-day, Ezra and Newberry argue in Vivian’s office about the ghosting of Thomas’s story nicely shows the stakes (personal and professional) of the competing interpretive imperatives of the two women on behalf of their respective authors.

Finally, in the third act, we get Selma’s story literally taking centre stage, as back in Wellington, Jr.’s office in present-day New York, the crucial chapter 72 of Eternal Hydra is dramatized for us. In it, we learn about the life of Selma’s grandmother (Richards), a former slave and expert cobbler who goes to work for an educated Creole shop owner, Leon LaBas (Wheeler). LaBas is backing the political ambitions of a white politician from the north, Henry Warmoth (Murphy), who wants to be governor of Louisiana, and needs both the black vote and the support of local white insiders like Sarah Briggs (Sadiq) to achieve his goals. This he does, but not before LaBas is killed in the famous riot of 1866, and not before Selma’s grandmother is talked into selling her shoes to Warmoth so that he can in turn buy the affections of Briggs. This last transaction nicely materializes the ethics—and economics—of authorship at the heart of this dense play, and to this end it is wholly appropriate that the disenfranchised black woman whose voice has been triply appropriated on its way into Carbuncle’s manuscript (and which also ensures the fragmentation of that manuscript), should get the last word. Commenting on the experience of seeing Warmoth give a speech after having secured the governorship he so coveted, and during which he paraphrases from a previous conversation with her, Selma’s grandmother says: “To hear him say that. Felt like me up there, onstage. Not him at all. You never know. Might just be my voice coming from his mouth.” I wonder how many folks watching Obama’s victory speech last night felt the same way.

I have gone on at length about the plot of Piatigorsky’s play because it is so complicated. But the structure is also abetted by a number of unique theatrical conceits, not least the double- and triple-casting of parts. This gives, as Dunn commented in a wonderfully generous presentation to my Introduction to Drama class (where we’re studying the play), each of the actors a satisfyingly complex composite character arc, in which parallels between different roles add thematic resonance and symbolic texture to the play more generally. But it is tricky to at once suggest connections between different characters played by the same actor and ensure that each character is sufficiently distinguished in audience members’ minds. Happily, the entire cast is up to the challenge. Then, too, there are the quasi-omniscient narrative asides to the audience, also undertaken by all of the actors at different points in the play, and also helping to problematize the idea of single authorship. These could easily have become clichéd conspiratorial winks, but the actors wisely vary their deliveries depending on the specific content of the message they’re relaying to us, and their own conception of their authority or vulnerability at that moment. All of this is further enhanced by Dunn’s choice to use a thrust stage, with the outs to the audience thus occurring to three different sides of the theatre space.

There is much more I could say about this gorgeous production, including David Roberts’ amazing all-wood set, with its hidden drawers and cubby-holes that are opened at different moments by the actors to reveal crucial objects and icons. The sound design by Owen Belton is a rich mix of period music and an original electronic score that Dunn suggested to my class was like an impossible knot slowly being untangled. As apt a metaphor as any for Dunn’s own incredibly patient and intelligent approach to the hidden depths of this play—and to our experience in watching the results.


Friday, November 2, 2012

ASTR in Nashville

I'm writing this from Music City, aka Nashville, Tennessee, where the annual gathering of the American Society for Theater Research is currently underway. Last night Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw, of Split Britches fame, welcomed conference delegates with an opening performance, which was a kind of retrospective survey of past shows. As I had never seen this legendary group perform, it was a real treat, especially as former member Deb Margolin was also included via video footage of an hilarious routine featuring her as a ventriloquist's dummy lip-synching along with Weaver as the super-femme ventriloquist to Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand's "You Don't Bring Me Flowers."

Dinner afterwards coincided with the end of the Country Music Awards, which just happened to overlap with the start of the conference. I've never seen so many sequins and cowboy boots in my life. The size of my belt buckle was wholly inadequate. Along Broadway we gazed in various honky-tonk bars and generally soaked up the CMA vibe before tucking into some nouvelle-ish southern cooking (fried green tomatoes and fish tacos for me) at a restaurant whose name now escapes me. Our waitress, Ashley, was the epitome of Nashville hospitality, a theme that is additionally being explored at the conference via a series of events being curated and hosted by Weaver, who kicked things off nicely at the end of the Split Britches performance by introducing us to one of her newest characters, Tammy Why-Not.

So far not much election conversation among conference delegates. Maybe people are just too anxious to talk out loud about it--at least in this part of the States. Hard to avoid the ads on television, however. Which, needless to say, are wholly negative, no matter the party.

So much for hospitality.