Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Music on Main at Frankie's Jazz Club

Having just come back from the city of Brahms' birth (and having actually walked through the very square where his childhood house still stands), it was appropriate that last night Richard and I should attend a Music on Main fundraising concert that culminated in a sonata (Cello Sonata in F No. 2, Op. 99, to be precise) by the composer. It was part of a program pairing Jane Hayes on piano and Rebecca Wenham on cello that also featured works by Robert Schumann (his increasingly exuberant Fantasy Pieces Op. 73) and Claude Debussy (the late Spanish-inflected Cello Sonata from 1915).

All of this was presented in the intimate setting of Frankie's Jazz Club, on Beatty Street, a throwback to MoM's pioneering presentations of classical and contemporary music at The Cellar a few years ago. It was certainly a treat to be able to experience up close the musical chemistry between Hayes and Wenham, and to do so while enjoying a glass of wine. I also appreciated the commentary by both artists in between each piece, which added rich context to our listening enjoyment. For example, Wenham noted that Schumann, who wrote his Fantasy Pieces in three frenetic days, originally composed the work for piano and clarinet, but that he also authorized its transcription for cello. Hayes asked us to think about flamenco dancers as we absorbed the piano part of the last movement of Debussy's sonata. And both added equally rich commentary to their dual introduction of the concluding Brahms piece.

The evening was also a chance for MoM's David Pay to announce their upcoming 2017/18 season. One of the highlights will be MoM's co-hosting of the International Society for Contemporary Music's World New Music Days in Vancouver in 2017. This is the first time this globetrotting presentation of the best in contemporary world new music has been to Canada in 30+ years, and it will be a terrific opportunity to hear compositions representing some 50 nations. Good on MoM for taking the lead in bringing this event to Vancouver.

P

Friday, June 9, 2017

Vu du pont at Theater der Welt Festival

Our second outing to the Theater der Welt Festival here in Hamburg was to celebrated Belgian director Ivo van Hove's French-language version of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which is having its German premiere at the venerated Thalia Theater. I had always wanted to see a production by van Hove, whose radical adaptations/deconstructions of classics from the dramatic canon, most designed by his long-term partner Jan Versweyveld, have earned him an international reputation. He has a particular affinity for twentieth-century American plays, and this is his second major production of a Miller work; The Crucible ran on Broadway alongside Bridge in 2016, with the latter earning two Tony awards.

Miller's Bridge, which began as a one-act verse drama, and which also seeded the screenplay for On the Waterfront, was the playwright's attempt to transpose the structure and themes of classical Greek tragedy to an American context. It centres on Eddie Carbone, who works alongside his friend Louis as a longshoreman on the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Eddie is married to Beatrice, and together the childless couple has raised Catherine, the orphaned daughter of Beatrice's sister. At the play's opening Catherine has just turned 18 and has gotten a job as a stenographer, earning more money in a week than her stepfather. This is the first of the jolts to Eddie's old-school masculine sense of how the world should be. The second comes when Catherine falls in love with Rodolfo, one of two illegal Italian immigrants whom Eddie has agreed to take in and help find work. Eddie is convinced that Rodolfo, who is blond and likes to sing, cook and sew, is gay and only wants to marry Catherine so that he can stay in the country legally. This climaxes in Eddie publicly kissing Rodolfo in an attempt to expose the latter's hidden sexuality, but the act actually reveals more about Eddie's own latent tendencies. When Catherine still refuses to part with Rodolfo, a desperate Eddie calls the immigration authorities, a move that has graver consequences for the second of the two migrant workers, Marco; his subsequent revenge is the final piece of Eddie's tragic downfall.

All of this is narrated to us by the lawyer Alfieri, Miller's allusion to Vittorio Alfieri, considered the founder of Italian tragedy. In Bridge Alfieri is at once the conduit between the old world and the new world, and between the world of the play and the audience. His pronouncements--to both Eddie and Marco--on the coldness of the law, and the fateful consequences for those who would take it into their own hands, continue to have resonance. And, indeed, there is a way in which van Hove's production read to me on one level as a comment on the current global refugee crisis--and America's apparent indifference to that crisis under its current presidential administration. Versweyveld's set may have had something to do with this impression. At the top of the show the audience, which is configured in the round, is confronted with a huge steel-grey box that could double as a shipping container; when the play begins, the bottom half of the box rises to reveal the playing space, a bare white floor enclosed by a low glass wall, and with a single upstage door from which the actors enter and exit. All of the action--which takes place over a continuous two hours, with no scene breaks or blackouts--occurs in this space, and the spareness of van Hove's staging, together with the removal of any overt markers of the narrative's Brooklyn setting, seems to be part of the director's attempt to recuperate the play as a tragedy tout court--rather than as an expressly American tragedy.

Notwithstanding this impulse, as well as the fact that van Hove has successfully staged a version of this production in London, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris, there is still a way in which this piece seems quintessentially of its time--and, even more so, of a particular period in Miller's writing life when he was wrestling with what it meant, for him, to be an American man. Eddie is such a curious character; to my mind, he comes across as a kind of male hysteric. Maybe it was this particular view, or maybe it was the overall acting style of this company from Paris' Odeon Theatre, that suggested to me that Bridge is fundamentally a work of melodrama rather than tragedy. Then again, we're having a melodramatic moment, so maybe this is exactly the right register in which to stage this play.

P

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Burning Doors at Theater Der Welt Festival in Hamburg

I'm in Hamburg, Germany at the moment attending the annual Performance Studies international conference. It has been programmed in conjunction with the biannual Theater der Welt Festival, which moves around different German cities every two years. Last night Richard and I attended a performance of Belarus Free Theatre's latest production, Burning Doors. As political theatre, it makes anything I've seen before in North America under that label pale by comparison, not least because BFT company members are clear that the stakes of their performance choices must match the stakes of the personal choices of the dissidents whose stories they are telling on stage.

Founded in 2005 in Minsk and banned from its own country on political grounds soon after, BFT works in exile from London, combining agitprop and physical theatre aesthetics in a manner that is at once virtuosic and visceral, making every moment seem as if it is a matter of life and death. For Burning Doors, the company is collaborating with Maria Aloyhina, one of the members of Pussy Riot. Inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the painter Egon Schiele, the piece explores the relationship between the body, power, and art, focussing specifically on the stories of incarceration of three dissident artists in Russia: Aloyhina; the St. Petersburg-based performance artist Petr Pavlensky; and the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remains in prison, serving a twenty year sentence. The production of Burning Doors is dedicated expressly to raising international awareness regarding Sentsov's detention.

As the performance was in Russian and Belarussian, with German surtitles, it is impossible for me to distill the entire narrative of the piece (although an English translation of the script was very graciously provided). That said, I could follow that each of the three artists' stories were being told in turn, and that these stories were likewise being juxtaposed with two additional layers of meta-narrative: one in which the Foucauldian routines of discipline and punishment inside the prison are clinically dissected for the audience; and one in which Russia's bureaucratic administration of political protest is played for existential--and scatological--laughs (most often featuring a pair of hapless Kremlin clerks, and accounting for the relevance of Dostoevsky as an authorial source). However, it is the scenes of extreme physicality that most affectively demonstrate how the brutality of dictatorial regimes is visited upon the bodies of its political dissidents. While these scenes occur throughout the piece, the last twenty minutes comprise a steady accretion of acts of physical extremity that in their duration and accumulation literally knocked the wind out of me: and repeated punches and kicks to the gut are indeed part of this sequence.

None of this is easy to watch, but it definitely conveys in a startlingly felt way that communicating the risks of protest demands similar aesthetic risks. I am so glad that I got to see the work of this brave and urgently relevant company.

Addendum: I just learned that Burning Doors will play Seattle's On the Boards from September 28-October 1. I urge folks in the Vancouver region to head down to check out this thrilling show.

P


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Soliloquy in English and All the Way at the rEvolver Festival

I had hoped to get to much more of this year's rEvolver Festival than at present looks likely. I blame the fact that, unusually for me, I'm teaching this summer, am fighting a cold, and am preparing for a conference in Hamburg next week.

That said, I did want to plug one show that has its last performance this evening. O, o, o, o's All the Way, playing The Russian Hall at 8 pm, promises to be a wild and surreal ride into the world of haunted houses and game shows (and what, really, is the difference). Any company that can use the word "hypnagogic" in its show description has to be on to something. This super-talented collective of SFU Theatre grads haven't made a ton of work (because they're all busy with other gigs), but when they do it's usually a stunner. Check out my review of their site-specific take on a short play by Caryl Churchill here.

And I also wanted to give a brief shout out to the one rEvolver show that I did get to, Patrick Blenkarn's Soliloquy in English. This intimate take on an old-fashioned reading circle has three more performances: today at 5 and 8 pm, and tomorrow at 7 pm. The piece involves audience members reading together from the contents of a hand-made book that Blenkarn has crafted from interviews with friends and acquaintances for whom English is an additional language. At once a political commentary on the hegemony of English as a global (and globalizing) lingua franca and an alternately funny and moving concatenation of voices remembering what it's like to dream and swear and sing in another tongue, Soliloquy's spare dramaturgy also effectively implicates participants in the story being told. For we each take turns reading different passages in the book, a pattern of arrows indicating when we are to pass the book to our left or to our right. I found this simple physical act of passing an open book to a neighbour and indicating the place on the page where they are to continue reading to be one of the purest elaborations of what I understand to be the goal of relational aesthetics in art and performance. That last Sunday our group of five (including Blenkarn) lingered after we'd turned the final page of the book to keep talking about what we'd just experienced certainly attests to the larger conversations this work will inevitably spark among those lucky enough to participate in it.

P