Friday, October 27, 2017

Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages

Richard and I are in LA, where the temperatures have soared past 100 degrees fahrenheit the past three days. We've been enjoying the latest Pacific Standard Time conglomeration of visual art shows that have taken over the major public galleries here in the city; this time the linked series of exhibitions is focusing on Latinx artists along the west coast of the US and throughout Mexico and Central and South America. We especially enjoyed the Radical Women show at the Hammer, which was superbly curated, and which featured a ton of important work we wouldn't have otherwise ever seen.

However, truth be told, the real excuse for the trip was to finally take in a performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda's blockbuster musical Hamilton. The touring version of the show is on in LA through December, and this was the first chance we had to score non-resale tickets; that said, the regular orchestra price for our seats at the historic Hollywood Pantages Theater (a huge over-the-top art deco pile near Hollywood and Vine) was still the most I've ever paid for a theatre show. Was it worth it? In a word, yes: not least for the actual spectating experience itself. I don't think I've been in a house where the anticipation and excitement was so palpable, nor where the full diversity of its members (from the very young to the very old, and with the widest cross-representation of races I've ever seen) have been so consistently rapt in their attention.

As so much has already been said about this particular work, I don't think I will attempt to provide a standard review. Instead, I propose to offer a few impressions of the global experience of the production:

1. Getting there. The performance really started on the way to the venue. A bit pressed for time, we decided to grab a cab from the stand outside our hotel on Sunset Boulevard, rather than use Uber (which has been a mixed experience so far in LA). Traffic was literally bumper to bumper, as there had been an accident on Fountain and Hollywood was closed for some reason. However, knowing we had this particular curtain to make, our driver did an amazing job of negotiating the side streets, depositing us outside the theatre with ten minutes to spare.

2. Believe the Miranda hype. As book-writer, composer, lyricist and original star, there is no denying that this show is Lin-Manuel's baby. Two years after its Broadway debut, with the work now fully franchised and raking in the cash, and with Miranda single-handedly trying to save America, one might be tempted to cut this particular tall poppy down at his knees. But it's hard to deny the real talent behind what we see on stage. In terms of musical idioms alone, Miranda's abilities seem limitless. Of course, the way in which he has so seamlessly incorporated hip hop into the musical theatre form is what everyone has been obsessed about (and the rap battles between rival senator-MCs Alexander Hamilton and a boastful and self-obsessed Thomas Jefferson--who does not come off at all well in this version of history--are a real highlight of the show); however, Miranda has just as much facility with more lyric forms, and he gives most of his lead cast members an opportunity to let loose in a power ballad. His rhyming abilities also ably cross musical genres: someone who constructs a whole song around the multi-syllabic word "Unimaginable" has got to be respected.

3. The show is about today. While Miranda does not shy away from delving into the historical complexities of colonial America, the early days of the US republic, and Hamilton's own complicated personal life, the material never feels overly explanatory or didactic. Instead, we receive many of the scenes and plot details as resonantly contemporary. From the references to slavery and Wall Street (Hamilton having been the architect of the US's financial system), to King George's "I told you so" musings on the difficulties of governing and getting rid of a leader you do not like, it is hard to ignore how much the issues explored in the musical intersect with the pressing problems of a divided modern-day America. A case in point: Hamilton is arguably the first major American politician brought down by a sex scandal. Plus ca change.

4. Hamilton and Burr. One of the great strengths of this work is the central dynamic between its two leads. As with any great tragedy, we know from the beginning that the mercurial Aaron Burr is going to kill our hero, Hamilton. However, like Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, the two men--whose lives were thoroughly intertwined from a very young age--are presented as two halves of the same coin. Indeed, Hamilton is as much of an antihero as Burr, who as both character and narrator in many ways emerges as the work's central focalizing agent--particularly with respect to the idea of how historical legacy depends on who is telling the story.

5. Movement. In all of the press around the musical, I don't recall there being much discussion about Andy Blankenhuehler's choreography. That's a shame, because it's an integral aspect of one's enjoyment of the show. And while I haven't seen Christopher Wheeldon's celebrated adaptation of An American in Paris, I would hazard to say that there hasn't been as satisfying an integration of music and movement in an American musical since Jerome Robbins helped lift the music and lyrics of West Side Story (of course, I had to get a reference to Stephen Sondheim in here somewhere).

6. The cast. It is truly remarkable to cast one's eyes upon a professional theatre stage and see so many non-white bodies. But it's the depth of talent among these individuals that most resonates. A couple of members from the Broadway show have joined this touring ensemble (including Rory O'Malley as King George III and Emmy Raver-Lampman as Angelica Schuyler, both amazing); but most of the cast is new and relatively untested. You wouldn't know it. This production is as good as anything I've seen on Broadway or in London's West End. Consider, as well, the fact that three of this show's leads--the actors playing Hamilton, Burr, and Eliza Hamilton--were being replaced by their understudies last night; this did not diminish my appreciation of the work in any way. Everyone was at the very top of their game.

Throw in the fact that outside the theatre I also got to trod upon Bette Davis's Hollywood star and you have the makings of an amazing performance memory.


Monday, October 23, 2017

King Charles III at The Stanley

Following last season's staging of The Audience, the Arts Club continues its Stanley stage love affair with recent British plays about the royal family. On now through mid-November is Mike Bartlett's King Charles III. Cleverly written in blank verse and with all manner of Shakespearean references, the play imagines an all too real crisis of succession that just might ensue following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. In the days after his mummy's funeral and leading up to his official coronation, Charles (Ted Cole) starts not just to believe in, but to act upon, his droit du seigneur. In his first official meeting with the sitting Labour Party Prime Minister, Mr. Evans (Simon Webb, channelling Jeremy Corbyn, albeit in more sharply tailored suits), Charles queries a new bill that will soon come before him for royal assent. The bill applies restrictions on the freedom of the press and despite his own family's private life having been mercilessly subjected to the muckraking of the UK's notorious tabloid press, Charles believes that the bill is fundamentally flawed. Be that as it may, Evans instructs Charles that it is his duty to sign the bill, for not to do so would run counter to hundreds of years of ceremonial convention and undermine the very foundations of Britain's parliamentary democracy. However, receiving the Tory leader of the opposition, Mrs. Stevens (Christine Willes), immediately after Mr. Evans, Charles latches on to her not at all disinterested statement that, as King, it is his prerogative not to sign the bill.

Things escalate when, incensed by the Crown's usurpation of parliament's democratically elected power, Mr. Evans introduces a new bill that would eliminate the requirement for royal assent for all future legislation. Once again at the prompting of Mrs. Stevens, Charles exercises his power to dissolve parliament and call for new elections, alienating the populace and throwing the country into a constitutional crisis. Meanwhile, inside Buckingham Palace there is additional intrigue. Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant, sporting a bad ginger dye job) moons over the free-spirited commoner Jess (Agnes Tong), whose past will soon be splashed all over the pages of the press that Charles has lately come to defend. The ambitious Kate (Katherine Gauthier, a dead ringer for the Duchess of Cambridge), sensing an opening, does her best Lady Macbeth in convincing William (Oliver Rice) to force his father's hand, with the abdication that inevitably follows leading to William's coronation instead of Charles'.

Not everything in Bartlett's play works. I found the conceit of having Diana's ghost (Lauren Bowler) appear to both Charles and William somewhat clunky, and the character of Camilla (Gwynyth Walsh) was curiously marginalized. The final scene's pageantry and tying up of loose plot lines also tends to foreclose upon any tragic pathos we might feel for Charles as a fallen protagonist, his brief "hollow crown" speech not enough of an emotional punctuation to the play's larger themes--especially when, as in this staging, the blackout that follows seems to come almost as an afterthought. But Bartlett's plotting is absolutely gripping, not least because of his success in making us believe that this scenario could indeed be something that comes to pass. He also pulls off the use of blank verse, successfully adapting its rhythms to contemporary colloquial speech while also showcasing passages of beautiful poetic interiority in many of the characters' soliloquies to the audience. The character of Charles is also richly complex, someone who is at once Machiavellian and idealistically naive, a little bit Richard III and a lot Richard II. That Bartlett is channeling both the Houses of Lancaster and York in his portrait of the divided Windsors is to be expected, but it's his wider allusions to the corpus of Shakespeare (including King Lear) that make the work even more satisfying.

Unfortunately, director Kevin Bennett's production does not always elevate the text in equally rich ways. The performances are uneven, with several actors having trouble speaking the verse. Some of the blocking choices are bewildering, especially when one character will stand in front of another downstage with his or her back to the audience. I also don't understand Bennett's penchant for upstage tableaux, often keeping his actors on stage as background figures to populate a scene. Sometimes it works, but mostly it's distracting and looks ridiculous, as when the company, in black trench coats, pulses in a line to techno music while Harry and Jess have a moment in a London club. The fourth wall is broken from the very start of the play, when the entire company does a version of a royal walkabout, kibitzing with and waving to the audience while the house lights are still up. Those lights continue to come up during Charles' and other of the main characters' soliloquies. However, the choice to have Harry climb down from the stage and walk out into the audience during a nighttime scene with his brother doesn't seem to fit at all within such a dramatic world. I did enjoy Kevin McAllister's set, which manages to feel sparely modern and imposingly medieval at the same time. And Christopher Gauthier's costumes were a monarchist's delight, especially Camilla's hats.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Animal Triste at The Dance Centre

Animal Triste is Montreal-based choreographer Mélanie Demers' take on the evolution of that most melancholic of species, the human. Co-presented by Demers' company, Mayday, and Vancouver's plastic orchid factory, the piece continues at The Dance Centre through this evening and opens with a striking image. Demers' four dancers--Brianna Lombardo, Marc Boivin, plastic orchid's James Gnam, and Riley Sims--are positioned as naked odalisques among the snake-like yellow cords attached to the floor lights that rim the stage. Slowly and methodically as audience members file into the auditorium and take their seats, the dancers wrap long strands of pearls around their necks, pulling them tight so that the resulting chocker looks something like a cross between an Elizabethan ruff and African or Asian neck-stretching jewelry. After this task is complete the dancers begin putting on their clothes, reversing the usual trajectory of the revelation of flesh in contemporary dance, but also telescoping through this simple montage of collective dressing the historical domestication of the human animal.

Once dressed, the quartet of dancers gathers in a horizontal line upstage right, stretching and jumping in place, a series of preparatory calisthenics preceding the subsequent physical striving that seems to constitute each member's attempt to define his or her relationship to the others, and to the group as a whole. This mostly take the form of individual bodies twisting in place, with the dancers' bent torsos, splayed knees and crooked arms adding up to a strange family tableau. Albeit one in which the human invention of binary genders is for the most part played with and resisted. In this respect, while one is tempted to read Boivin and Lombardo as the parental figures in this quirky brood, Boivin, despite his imposing size, remains a rather passive paterfamilias (at least to begin with). By contrast, the compact and muscular Lombardo's physicality seems far more intense and explosive, with her body shooting forward from the line at various moments, the restiveness of her limbs seeking to be freed from the torpidity of her male confrères' movement. Gnam is deliberately channeling an androgynous presence, both in the long tunic he wears and in his sinewy and languorous locomotion across the stage. And Sims seems to be pure id, the child whose impulses derive from pure instinct and polymorphous desires.

Certainly in the program notes (accessible through plastic orchid's website) Demers makes no secret that her dancers function as allegorical figures, and many of the sequences in the piece have a distinctly ritualistic feel, especially when one pair's tribal-like movements are purposely framed by the bodies of a second pair, often arranged in a still Sphinx-like pose. But there comes a moment when the mythical and the untamed aspects of all of this energy seems to be brought under the thumb (or, more precisely, hand) of patriarchy. This happens when Sims sheds his t-shirt and Boivin, hitherto shirtless, dons his own. All of a sudden Boivin starts to corral the various members of his wayward family, bringing them in close to his now powerful and centrally positioned body. To be sure, they chafe against this, with Sims in particular twisting and fighting to be let free. However, Demers seems to be suggesting with this final image that what makes the human animal most sad is not its poverty of means for real communication despite its acquisition of language (as demonstrated in an earlier sequence in which the dancers spout tired maxims and various pop memes gleaned from song lyrics and other empty cliches), but the (hetero)normative organization of its kinship relations.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival

I'm in Burlington visiting my family for a few days and yesterday we all piled into the car to take in a matinee at the Stratford Festival, which is just winding up its 2017/18 season. The timing of my visit--combined with what seems like the steady yearly attrition of the festival's Shakespearean mandate--meant that it was Guys and Dolls which was in repertory that day at the main Festival theatre stage. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, who has established herself in recent years as Stratford's musical theatre hitmaker, the production had also received glowing reviews. So I was anticipating a pretty good time. Apart from the dancing of the male chorus, however, I was mostly bored.

With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (based on stories by Damon Runyon), Guys and Dolls has famously been dubbed "the perfect musical" and despite its antiquated gender politics is regularly revived. The movie adaptation starred an incongruously cast Marlon Brando as the high rolling gambler Sky Masterson, and Frank Sinatra turned the song "Luck Be a Lady" into a signature tune. The plot focuses on two apparently mismatched couples: Nathan Detroit (Sean Arbuckle) is a dice man who runs a weekly craps game in and around Times Square, and who has been engaged to his long-suffering fiancee, the nightclub performer Miss Adelaide (a winningly cartoonish Blythe Wilson), for fourteen years; Masterson (Evan Buliung) has never met a bet he wouldn't take, including as concerns our plot the challenge of convincing the straightlaced Salvation Army officer Sarah Brown (Alexis Gordon), who is not having much luck of her own saving souls among the denizens of Broadway, of flying with him to Havana to have dinner.

In between the two sets of lovers inevitably coming together--as, of course, they must--we get to hear a lot of great tunes, including "A Bushel and a Peck," "Adelaide's Lament," "If I Were a Bell," the aforementioned "Luck Be a Lady," and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," a gospel-tinged roof raiser which is delivered by the secondary character Nicely-Nicely Johnson (a scene-stealing Steve Ross) at a climactic Salvation Army prayer meeting attended by the grab-bag of gamblers from Nathan's craps game as a favour to Sky--who has promised to deliver to Sarah a roomful of sinners in order to impress her superior. These last two numbers feature spectacular choreography by Feore for the male ensemble, who far outshine their female counterparts in the hoofing department. By contrast, in terms of the acting and singing of the leads, it is the women who trump the men. In its depiction of the relationship between the sexes, one might say that Guys and Dolls is the Taming of the Shrew of Broadway musicals. And so much hinges on the penultimate number, "Marry the Man Today," in which Sarah and Adelaide decide together to take a risk on their hapless men, under the assumption that they'll be able to bend them to their respective wills after a ring is placed on each of their fingers. Happily, Feore has Gordon and Wilson telegraph proto-feminist resolve rather than wifely submission.

Elsewhere, however, some of the director's decisions are head-scratching. Why, for example, during the Hot Box number "Take Back Your Mink" would you send out Adelaide and her accompanying chorus girls wearing rhinestone necklaces rather than pearls (as indicated in the lyrics)? Much of the blocking between songs in this book-heavy production also seemed counter-intuitive. More generally the pacing felt sluggish, with the energy from the choreography accompanying the bigger numbers failing to be sustained in the dialogue between the actors.

Not that any of this seemed to bother yesterday's audience, which was instantly on its feet at the end. That included the class of high school students sitting behind us, Guys and Dolls being a staple of high school musical theatre repertoires. My drama teaching sister-in-law Arline has seen many such versions of the musical, and also directed one of her own. She, like me, was not impressed with this one.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

1 Hour Photo at The Cultch

Tetsuro Shigematsu's 1 Hour Photo, which opened last night at The Cultch's Historic Theatre, is his follow-up to the wildly successful Empire of the Son. Like Empire, 1 Hour Photo is once again being produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT), and Richard Wolfe returns as director. The two shows also follow a similar format, with Shigematsu, as writer-performer, recounting his story directly to the audience and using miniature digital cameras and live video feeds to animate various on-stage objects to startling effect, including in this newest work a miniature dioramic model of the North Vancouver house where Shigematsu lives with his family.

The replica house is a significant symbol, and in many ways represents the bridge between these two works. Thus, near the top of 1 Hour Photo, we learn that Shigematsu moved into it with his wife, children and parents at the insistence of its owner, VACT's Artistic Producer, Donna Yamamoto. It was here that Shigematsu cared for his dying father (who was the subject of Empire), and also where he discovered, in the form of an old Japan Camera coffee mug, the first clue to the life story of Yamamoto's father, who is the focus of this piece.

Mas Yamamoto, 91 years old and still going strong, owned a string of Japan Camera outlets, which were among the first photo development franchises that began offering one-hour return service in the early 1980s--hence the title of the show. But before he became a successful businessman, Mas lived several other lives, which coincided with some of the signal events in twentieth-century British Columbian and Canadian history. Distilling 36 hours of interviews with Mas into an 18-minute first-person narrative that he then pressed into a vinyl recording, Shigematsu, aided by composer and onstage musical sidekick, Steve Charles, proceeds to spin his tale, giving us an excerpt of Mas's voice, and then elaborating on the larger social and political context. We learn, for example, that Mas was interned with his family during World War II at Lemon Creek, and that it was there that he met his first love, Midge. With only a Grade 9 education at the end of the war, Mas went to work to support his family, losing touch with Midge, and eventually working on the Distant Early Warning Line in the Canadian Arctic during the height of the Cold War. It was during this period that he met Joan, whom he would marry. Their growing family, and the need to supplement his meagre blue collar wages, prompted Mas to return to school, completing his high school equivalency, and a BSc, MSc and PhD in Pharmacology at UBC in less than a decade. And then, chucking his comfortable job as a government scientist, at the age of 50 Mas decided to become a photo shop entrepreneur. The story comes full circle when, later in life, Mas reencounters Midge, who will join Mas and his family in the gallery at the BC Legislature to witness Mas's daughter and Liberal Minister of Advanced Education, Naomi Yamomoto, deliver a speech endorsing a motion of apology to Japanese Canadians on the 70th anniversary of their interment.

All of this is supplemented by amazing archival photographs and film footage (the video design is by Jamie Nesbitt), and Shigematsu creates some wonderful effects with his live camera feed, as when a single miniature bunkbed placed within a mirrored box becomes multiplied into row upon row when projected on the backstage screen. Paradoxically, however, the visual design of the show points to the underdevelopment of the photographic metaphor in Shigematsu's script. Apart from one arresting description of multiple exposure as a way to think of the collapsing of time into a single stilled moment, I was struck by how Shigematsu's narrative portrait mostly eschewed such analogies. Indeed, it is the recording of Mas's voice that instead tends to dominate, and that via the repeated ritual of Shigematsu or Charles dropping the turntable needle into a given groove on the spinning record accords that voice a necessarily auratic quality (Shigematsu's likening of this audio document to the recordings that were sent into space on the Voyager satellites only deepens this feeling). As a result, Shigematsu's own voice at times registered to me as more adjunct than central to the story, mostly serving to amplify or illustrate the gist of what Mas had to say. Most telling, in this regard, is that the references to Shigematsu's own father felt extraneous to this piece, almost as if they had been imported to tie Empire of the Son and I Hour Photo more tightly together.

I don't think such dramaturgical stitching is needed. The two works already complement each other in myriad other ways.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Nederlands Dans Theater's Side A in Amsterdam

On our final day on the second leg of our journey to Amsterdam, I got to check something off my dance spectatorship bucket list when Richard and I attended a performance of the Nederlands Dans Theater's Company 1 at the ornate Stadsschouwburg in the Leidseplein neighbourhood. (Although the interior of the building has clearly had a major re-do recently, as the stunningly intimate presentation hall where we were looks brand new, and has a wonderfully deep stage and steep audience rake, which makes for near perfect viewing.) Overseen by the legendary Jiri Kylian for the past 25 years or so, but now it seems with longtime NDT house choreographer Paul Lightfoot installed as the current AD, NDT is renowned for the strength and virtuosity of its dancers, as well as for its commissioning of new work from top flight international choreographers (Vancouver's own Crystal Pite is an associate choreographer).

Indeed, the program we saw, Side A: Split into One, was comprised of three world premieres, all of them having a distinctive scenographic design element, and with the first two likewise structured around the musical oeuvre of contemporary pop composers. First up was Proof, by former NDT dancer Edward Clug. Kylian has a remarkable track record of seeding new choreographers from within NDT's own dance ranks, often by first providing opportunities to create work on NDT's Company 2. So it was with Clug, whose 2015 debut for NDT 2, mutual comfort, was very well received. In Proof, set to the music of Radiohead, we encounter seven dancers who move in and out of different duos and trios, sometimes with stunningly solicitous intimacy, and sometimes with bold aggression. Distinctive in each modality is the dancers' arm work, sometimes loose and looping, reminding me a bit of vogueing, and sometimes fast and choppy, as in karate. Clug is also not afraid of stillness, keeping several of his dancers frozen on stage as others move around them. The piece ends with a captivating bit of scenography, when a zeppelin-like installation descends from the ceiling, into which one of the dancers steps, and behind which another quartet, divided into pairs and attached at the waist, make ghostly silhouettes--all while another dancer impresses his head into one end of the plastic balloon. It was a wondrously powerful end to a terrific new piece.

The second piece on the program was a new work, SOON, by Mehdi Walerski, also a graduate from the NDT dance corps. Walerski  should be familiar to Ballet BC audiences who have seen his Petite Ceremonie, and who are no doubt eager for his take on Romeo and Juliet when it premieres at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next spring. For now, however, there is this beguiling new quartet, inspired by the music of Benjamin Clementine, a young British singer-songwriter who has been hailed as reinventing the art song, and whose albums I am going to be sure to download when I get back to Vancouver. As the curtain comes up, we see a male and female couple, clad in matching blue suits, standing in a circle of bright white light. The light is emitted by a lowered klieg light that is attached to a rotating contraption, at the other end of which is a large reflective disc. This device rotates continuously throughout the performance, at times blocking the dancers, but at other times becoming part of the choreography, as when the reflecting disc passes through the stilled and facing bodies of two of the dancers. The first couple is eventually joined by another, and in the tightly geometrical movement that Walerski composes for the quartet in the very centre of the white floor spot he seems to be drawing upon and reinventing aspects of the quadrille. At other moments, the dancers break off into pairs and also solo sequences, with one of the male dancers successively ghosting each of his fellow group members in a final bit of unison at the end of the piece, the space between the bodies, as with the switch to negative lighting that recurs throughout the piece, here suggesting the aspect of longing over time that is necessarily a part of any kind of belonging.

The evening concluded with Sisters, by NDT house choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon (they are also a couple). A work for six dancers, three men and three women, it aspires to be a surreal fantasy, complete with a splayed out roll of black plastic that dominates the set. Perhaps it's meant to evoke the inky depths of the unconscious, or the dark world of fairy tails. Whatever the case, I found most of the choices in this piece to be choreographic caprices, not least the decision to send out one of the women dancers with her right arm pinned to her chest inside her lyotard. Clearly there were no disability rights advocates in the house, as the audience gave the piece a standing ovation. Mostly I found the piece to be egregiously pretentious, and rife with imagistic cliches, as with the closing tableau, in which the three women, now clad in matching black cloaks, swaying their bodies in front of the men, bewitching them with their sorceresses' powers.