Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jitters at The Stanley

David French, perhaps English-Canada's most produced playwright of the 1970s and 80s, is getting two revivals in the Greater Vancouver Area right now. Salt-Water Moon, part of French's Mercer Family cycle, opened at the Gateway this past Friday; directed by Ravi Jain, this touring co-pro from Toronto's Factory Theatre and Jain's own Why Not Theatre is a heavily stylized take on French's period-set Newfoundland love story. The production got raves when it opened in Toronto in 2016, but according to our friends Richard Wolfe and Connie Kostiuk--with whom we had dinner last night, and who attended the Gateway opening--Jain's choices produce decidedly mixed results, and there were more than a few walkouts.

By contrast, the Arts Club staging of French's backstage comedy Jitters, on at the Stanley through February 25, adopts a reliably naturalistic take to its story, and the audience ate it up. Director David Mackay has chosen to set the play in the year it was first produced, 1979, in part as an homage to outgoing Arts Club AD Bill Millerd, who opened the company's second Granville Island venue that year. More practically--and very rewardingly--in terms of production design, this choice has given costume designer Mara Gottler free rein to reproduce the shaggy hairstyles and flared pants and garish colour palettes and clothing patterns of the period. An eye for authentic temporal specificity also extends to both sides of Ted Roberts' revolving set, including: the psychedelic hues of the wallpaper, throw pillows, and afghan in the living room of the play-within-the-play of acts one and three; and the grimy, overstuffed dressing rooms of act two. Even the pre-show and intermission music was chosen with care.

Likewise the entire cast feels at home--both emotionally and physically--in their parts. Megan Leitch, as the diva Jessica Logan, and Robert Moloney, as her cynical and hard-drinking co-star, Patrick Flanagan, are expert foils, their constant verbal sparring nevertheless allowing us to see the vulnerability that each is attempting to mask: for Jessica, the Canadian who has made it in New York, a fear that she is past her prime; for Patrick, the home-grown talent who has decided to remain a big fish in a small pond, the gnawing anxiety of failing on a bigger stage. James Fagan Tait, whom I mostly know as a director, reveals himself to be a hilarious master of comic timing in playing Phil Mastorakis, the jobbing character actor who has a habit of drying on stage and who still lives with his mother. Kamyar Pazandeh, as the company's male ingenue Tom Kent, conveys just the right amount of wanting-to-please-everybody desperation, and also gets a breakout moment of Y-fronts-wearing physical comedy in the second act. As, respectively, the put-upon director George Ellsworth and the alternately protective and self-doubting playwright Robert Ross, Martin Happer and Ryan Beil do their best to referee all of these egos, while also finding time to needle each other on various artistic choices. Raugi Yu, looking like an Asian member of the Bay City Rollers, gets in a few good digs against everyone as the martinet of a stage manager Nick. Kaitlin Williams, as the front of house manager Susi, and Lauren Bowler, as props person Peggy, make the most of what little their parts give them to do.

And in terms of action, French's play is not an all-out farce in the manner of Michael Frayn's Noises Off. Which perhaps explains why, as a spectator, I kept leaning in and out of yesterday's performance. All three acts have significantly different tonal qualities, which mostly pertain to the additional statement about Canadian artistic nationalism and our longstanding cultural cringe towards the United States that French wishes to make. Thus, in act one, the set-up of the animosity between Jessica and Patrick at a rehearsal four days before opening is skewed in its beats mainly towards punctuating the binary choices facing theatre artists in Canada in the 1970s: flee to the US to make it on Broadway; or plod along anonymously in rep in Canada. To be sure, the start-and-stop rhythms of the rehearsal--with everyone offering an opinion on the script or wanting something from director George, and with Nick in voiceover reminding everyone about the ticking clock--are a warmly affectionate poke at the world of the theatre more generally. But it's only towards the end of act one, with an aborted entrance by Phil, that we actually start edging into the comedic hijinks we've been waiting for. And it's only in act two--set on opening night, with both Phil and Tom seemingly AWOL, and with the Broadway producer who's come to see the show stuck at the airport--that we move into full-blown farce. Director Mackay and the entire ensemble nail all of the physical action here, and both the laughs and the pacing are satisfyingly relentless, with the audience exiting into intermission on a nice collective high. But in act three French makes another tonal shift, returning to meta-commentary via an extended dissection of a post-opening review in the Toronto Star. Again, there are some nice moments of insider recognition here, but the resolution of the supra-conflict around artistic integrity as distilled through the opposition between Jessica and Patrick feels somewhat forced.

And also dated. This is by no means a fault of the production. I'm merely noting my own feeling that the extra layer of quasi-political critique about Canadian cultural production that French attempts to fuse to the genre of farce (and for a Quebec-focused 70s-era take on this see Robert Lepage's film No) hasn't aged so well.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Chutzpah 2018: Open at The Rothstein

You gotta have a gimmick, right? Clearly Daniel Ezralow, Artistic Director of the LA-based Ezralow Dance, thinks that when it comes to Gypsy Rose Lee's maxim, the more the merrier. In Open, which--ha, ha--"opened" the 2018 Chutzpah! Festival last night at the Rothstein Theatre, gimmick after gimmick is trotted out in attempt to mask the empty ideas and utter lack of choreographic distinction at the heart of what is essentially a succession of brief dance-theatre vignettes. Roped-off boxing ring? Check. Potted palm trees? Check. Finger puppets? Check. Black and white face paint? Check. Mismatched costumes? Check. And let's not forget the supra-gimmick of the constantly moving screens, the locomotion of which was perhaps the most technically accomplished physical activity of the entire evening.

To be fair, the eight dancers are trying very hard. But it is clear that most are not classically trained and that they come from more commercial dance and musical theatre and even circus arts backgrounds. And then there's the fact that the choreography is itself better suited to a cruise ship than a concert stage. Ezralow clearly subscribes to the So You Think You Can Dance school of physical expressiveness: Faster! Bigger! More! And don't forget the costume changes. The partnering is especially clumsy and genitally awkward, with the lifts of the women more in line with the look-at-what-we-can-do posing of ice skating than the structural plot pointing of ballet. This was especially notable in an early man-at-beach-meets mermaid sequence and then later in what I can only describe as a gold laméd tribute to physique posing. (During the latter the women behind us burst into uncontrollable laughter.)

It would be one thing if this were all being done with a wink and a nudge, if Ezralow was taking the piss out of his audience. After all, he does pair most of the vignettes with iconic musical compositions by Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Bach, among others. However, I could detect absolutely no irony at work in the juxtaposition of musical and dance scores. Indeed the Prokofiev-themed homage to Romeo and Juliet was utterly sincere, which just made it that much more painful to watch--especially as the Robbinsesque choreography was so derivative. Likewise, a gum-booted line dance to Bach was clearly undertaken with the utmost seriousness, and was not meant as a burlesquing of either artistic variation.

The programming of Open is a real head-scratcher. Normally the dance presentations at Chutzpah! are reliably rewarding, with Mary-Louise Albert bringing in top international companies and also showcasing amazing local talent. This work is definitely the worst piece I have seen at the festival, and ranks among the poorest dance performances I have ever attended. How it continues to tour in the way it does is beyond me.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

My Funny Valentine at The Dance Centre

Zee Zee Theatre's tenth anniversary production of Dave Deveau's My Funny Valentine is currently running at The Dance Centre, following a successful tour to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. It's an anniversary in two senses: it's the first play by Zee Zee playwright-in-residence Deveau that the company shared with an audience, beginning with workshop presentations overseen by Zee Zee Managing Artistic Director Cameron Mackenzie in the summer of 2009; and, more soberly, it also commemorates ten years since the death of Lawrence King, whose murder in February 2008 by a male classmate to whom he'd had the temerity to send a valentine inspired Deveau's own love letter of a play to all who have suffered violence for following their hearts.

This is not the first time My Funny Valentine, which has won many awards, has been remounted by the company. I previously attended and blogged about the last Vancouver production at the Firehall here. I won't rehearse all that I said in that earlier review about the play's structure. But I will note that one of the unique  features of Deveau's play--and also a way he solves the conundrum of writing for and to the ghost of someone whom we can only ever know through media reports, or as some group's positive or negative symbol--is how he tells his story at a slight remove, through the voices of those who knew the boy or have come to be affected--including, in some cases, positively or opportunistically--by his murder (Lawrence is never identified by name). These characters are all played by a single actor, in this case SFU Theatre alum Conor Wylie, who is as convincing inhabiting the body language and drawn out vowels of the bored and cynical tween Gloria as he is the at once bluffly swaggering and emotionally desperate working class masculinity of a homophonic father.

That said, two characters stand out for me, both in terms of the quality of Deveau's writing and the luminosity of Wylie's performance. The first is Helen, a teacher at the high school of the murdered boy who cannot let his death go. She is the only character we meet more than once, and the recurring conceit of her nervously and clumsily spilling whatever she is drinking all over herself is a sign of how shattered she is by these events--to the point where she burns through both her job and her marriage. Her final appearance at the end of the play, ten years after her student's murder, also allows Deveau, in this most recent staging, to do some subtle updates to the script--in part to show us all that hasn't changed in America in the past decade. The second character I found most affecting was little Ronda, a motormouth of a girl who has two Dads and who is awaiting a liver transplant--a final act of love from the dead boy that this time is reciprocated fully and completely, because that's all Ronda has herself been shown in her life. Wylie is able, in turn, to convey this joyful contagion to us in a way that is simple and direct and that feels like a blessing--just when we need it most. All while talking a mile a minute about hating the smell of tuna fish sandwiches.

Today's matinee audience was a bit sparse; no doubt we were partly competing with the weather. The play continues for another week and I urge folks to get out and see it. Quite simply, Deveau has written a classic, and Wylie is giving a star turn.


Friday, February 9, 2018

No Foreigners at The Cultch

No Foreigners is Hong Kong Exile's second major production to open in Vancouver in the past two weeks (I previously reviewed Foxconn Frequency [No. 3] here). The busy and artistically adventurous company continues its multidisciplinary exploration of diasporic Chineseness, this time in collaboration with Toronto-based fu-Gen Theatre's David Yee, who wrote the text. Originally commissioned by Theatre Conspiracy as part of its Migration Path Project, No Foreigners runs under the direction of HKE project lead Milton Lim at The Cultch's Culture Lab until February 17, before traveling to Toronto for a run at the Theatre Centre.

The story concerns an unnamed Asian-Canadian millennial (voiced by Derek Chan) who is neither fully assimilated into mainstream white culture nor conversant with the traditions of his Cantonese mother and grandfather. He discovers just how estranged he is from both parts of himself when he visits that quintessential global export: the Chinese mall. Wishing to browse among the Hermes bags at an upscale boutique called Milan Station, he is denied entry by the ancient storeowner (April Leung), who insists that "No foreigners are allowed!" Affronted by this attack on his cultural identity, and additionally spurred by the news that his grandfather has left him his estate, but only on the condition that he can supply the probate officer the correct codeword, our hero embarks on a three-year occupation of the mall in an effort to become authentically Chinese. His guide and mentor on this journey is the wise-beyond-her-years Sodapop Mah, the fugitive daughter of a bickering couple whose electronics business is all but bust.

All of this provides HKE and writer Yee with ample opportunity to open up the surreal space of the Chinese mall to theatrical exploitation and critical analysis, giving us a portrait of a place where fantasy and superstition intersect--sometimes sweetly, at other times more violently--with commerce and the geopolitics of fashion and pop culture. The anthropologist Marc Augé has described the shopping mall as a "non-place," a transient space of "supermodernity" that holds little cultural or architectural significance for its users, who consequently remain anonymous and indistinguishable within it. What is most compelling about No Foreigners is the suggestion that this is far from the case for Chinese malls of the sort one finds in Richmond or Markham. Instead, we learn that they are vital community gathering places, rich in drama, haunted by history, and deeply connected to the idea of a home away from home.

My problem has to do with how all of this is presented. Performers Derek Chan and April Leung function as a cross between voice actors and Bunraku puppet masters, moving miniature human figures and set pieces in front of a bank of computer screens, the projected images of which we then see transposed via live camera feeds to a larger movie screen (the miniatures are by Natalie Tin Yin Gan, the projections by Lim, working with Remy Siu, who also designed the sound). Our perspective as spectators is at once multiplied and telescoped all at once, and the seamless integration of the technology is on one level a marvel to behold--as, for example, with the fluttering of an eclipse of moths that begins on the smaller bank of computer screens and then migrates to overtake the whole of the larger movie screen. And yet while I appreciate how dispersed and multi-focal viewing in No Foreigners mimics the ways in which seeing has become split and distracted in today's media-saturated environments--of which the shopping mall is paradigmatic--as live theatre this production feels strangely static and emotionally inert. Despite all of the illuminated screens and the images and the translated surtitles being thrown at me, I found myself continuously looking to Chan and Leung, crouched below the computers and platforms of miniatures, speaking almost surreptitiously into their head mics. And it's surely no coincidence that the moment in the production that connects the most with the audience is when Chan--his character having graduated to the ultimate test of his Chineseness--breaks out into a rousing karaoke number, a single spot following him as he makes his way into the audience.

Yee's text is filled with beautiful poetry, and there are so many smart and interesting things going on in No Foreigners. I just wish they could break free a bit more often from the apparatus of their mediatic scaffolding.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

PuSh 2018: The Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

My 2018 PuSh Festival came to a close last night with a performance of Legend Lin Dance Theater's The Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. This two-hour intermissionless show, co-presented with Taiwanfest, marks the Canadian debut of choreographer Lin Lee-Chen, who is revered in her home country of Taiwan and also acclaimed internationally. However, to say that Lin is just a choreographer is to limit the scope of her creative vision. To judge by last night's performance, she builds works of total theatre (in Artaud's sense of that term), using music, dance, and design to compose exquisite stage tableaux that are as precise in their detailing as they are deliberately unhurried in their execution.

The Eternal Tides seems to celebrate as well as issue a caution about humans' relationship with nature, and especially the sea. It unfolds almost like a fertility rite. Following the dimming of the house lights, the two onstage musicians emerge from the wings holding candles, and make their way slowly to their stations at the extreme stage right and left lips of the stage. One begins to sound a gong, and gradually the long white sails of cloth that have been draped over the stage start to recede heavenward, into the rafters. What they reveal are two figures, one crumpled up into a ball centre stage in the middle of a large circular white cloth, the other seeming to guard her from upstage. As both musicians begin to drum, the figure on the cloth (in white body paint, and naked to the waist) begins to move, rotating her torso round and round until her spine is vertical, and then eventually standing up--whence we discover the incredibly long mane of jet black hair that she sports. This she proceeds to spin through the air again and again as she keeps time with her body to the drumbeats; the whole sequence goes on for a good ten-fifteen minutes (the man next to me kept checking his watch), and after a while you just have to give yourself over to the rhythmic ritual--one in which it is not entirely clear if the figure (who may be a goddess or a ghost) is conjuring or exorcising something.

Whatever the case, the scene culminates with the figure issuing a series of piercing screams, and then picking up the cloth on which she has just danced so ecstatically, and slowly retreating with it upstage. As she does this, a whole ensemble of performers emerges from the wings, the women crouched low carrying candles, and the men standing tall and brandishing long fluffy reeds. A band of white light bisects the stage horizontally, and it is upon this that a man and a woman will walk slowly towards each other, eventually meeting and presumably coupling. To this point, the pacing of Lin's compositions has been fluidly protracted and carefully balanced, each new element introduced in such a harmonious way and with the slowness of the movement never devolving into absolute stillness. For me it was the theatrical equivalent of watching a single continuous filmic dissolve.

However, Lin jolts us out of any languorous spectating habits with a subsequent scene of warring male quartets, the violent thrusting and parrying between the groups to the relentlessly quickening beats of the drums culminating in the death--or sacrifice?--of one of the men. This whole sequence put me in mind of a reverse Rite of Spring. Whatever the intent or cultural reference point, the violence must be expatiated and this sets the stage (quite literally) for Lin's final masterstroke in choreographic painting: at the heart of this culminating tableau, we watch as one dancer unfurls a white cloth vertically from upstage and then daubs it with a succession of ink stains, as all around her other performers array themselves in perfect symmetry.

One can, of course, read any number of meanings into this ending. But, as with the work as a whole, it is much more rewarding to give oneself over to the formal beauty and the sensual pleasures evoked within and by it. Because, while The Eternal Tides is mostly a visual feast, its sounds and smells and textures also very much feed our other senses.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

PuSh 2018: Spokaoke at the Fox Cabaret

Last night concluded at the Fox Cabaret, with the Club PuSh presentation of Annie Dorsen's Spokaoke. Dorsen is a pioneer in algorithmic performance, and earlier this week she gave what was by all accounts a bravura artist talk about the creative possibilities of working with algorithms (I was unable to attend). For Spokaoke, however, it's Dorsen herself, rather than a computer, who is problem-solving the live sequencing of participants' performance operations.

The premise is pretty simple: an evening of karaoke, but featuring speeches rather than pop songs. A photocopied list of options is made available to audience members: a mix of famous political speeches (by Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Harvey Milk, etc.), pop culture memes (excerpts from Game of Thrones or the film Clueless or the Oscar acceptance speech of Michael Moore), and random Internet samplings (a generic eulogy for a friend named Michael, a beauty queen's answer to a skill-testing question). One is invited to put in a choice of speech, with Dorsen mixing the order for counterpoint and contrast. When your name is called, up you go to the stage, grabbing the mike and awaiting the colour-coded progress of the text on the monitor in front of you.

I had gotten there early, and selected Socrates' "Death Before Dishonour" speech at his trial (as recorded in Plato's Apology). I think I gave it the requisite moral weight, even conscripting the audience as my judges and accusers. Of course, any lofty pretensions to profundity were immediately undercut by Hilary Meredith's follow-up Miss South Carolina speech, an unwittingly hilarious and geographically skewed send-up of American exceptionalism. Part of the fun of the evening is the degree to which the speakers choose to "perform" their speeches (the prize on that one goes to the guy who impersonated Il Duce), and also the way in which they either work with or against what they are saying. Then, too, there is the issue of timeliness, with the thought given to how an historical speech from the past (even the recent past) might comment on the present moment often producing wild applause: kudos, on that front, to my friend Alexa Mardon for choosing Bill Clinton's pre-#MeToo apology for the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio. And we ended with a collectively cathartic performance of Peter Finch's "I'm Mad as Hell" speech, from the movie Network.

I absolutely love the concept of this work; my only critique has to do with the content of the speeches. They are heavily skewed towards American reference points, and it would have been nice to have some Canadian touchstones in there for juxtapositional reference/relevance.


PuSh 2018: Foxconn Frequency (No. 3) at Performance Works

Last night was a double-header at the PuSh Festival. It started at Performance Works, with local collective Hong Kong Exile's latest genre-defying work. In Foxconn Frequency (No. 3): For Three Visibly Chinese Performers, HKE project lead Remy Siu uses game systems software to drill three pianists (fellow HKE member Natalie Tin Yin Gan, the classically trained Vicky Chow, and a young male prodigy who unfortunately is not named) in various keyboard exercises. They do so while sitting in front of computer monitors hooked up to 3-D printers (the inclusion of which I did not fully understand). As they complete the exercises they have been assigned, a live camera feed projects their images on the screen behind them, a red countdown clock indicating the time in which they have to complete the task, and a white line showing the progress of their labour (the projections, including brilliantly edited satellite map images, are by HKE member Milton Lim). If the performers fail to complete their exercises in the assigned time, or if they make a mistake along the way, a red Chinese character will flash on the screen. If they succeed, a white character will appear.

Over the course of the work's 80 minutes, the repetition of this conceit moves from being dramatically compelling to being sensorily overwhelming and exhausting to being just plain boring, sometimes within the space of only a few minutes. In this, the "theatre" of human-machine interface that Siu and his collaborators create in this piece presumably mimics the conditions of factory-line assembly at any one of the plants owned by the real Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer (its clients include Apple and Sony), with the company's Shenzhen location having attracted worldwide attention for a spate of worker suicides. Competition is, of course, what structures most of the action in this work: the performers are playing against the computer, but also each other, and the countdown clocks, combined with the complexity of the exercises, ramp up the dramatic stakes. I was especially drawn in at one point when Gan kept failing at a particularly tricky passage; she had to do it over and over again until she got it right, and by the end the relief in my own body when she finally succeeded was physically palpable. It's perhaps to be expected that the professional pianist, Chow, would have the lowest failure count by the end of the piece; that said, at the beginning of Foxconn the young boy--a model of cool calm throughout--was more than keeping his own.

The work is not entirely cutthroat. At various moments, the pianists are required to collaborate, with Gan and the young boy, positioned on either side of Chow, performing one passage repeatedly, eventually finding the required synchronicity in their timing. And even more interesting is when, after the boy has mysteriously opted out of the game altogether by leaving the stage (perhaps a comment on child labour or on the suicides of young Foxconn workers), Chow and Gan work to game the system itself, deliberately failing at their assigned tasks. The somewhat heavy hand of social commentary that gets imposed at the end of the piece, including a projection of a poem by Xu Lizhi, a writer and Foxconn worker who committed suicide, suggests that there is still some work to be done integrating medium and message, especially in terms of implicating and involving the audience. To this end, I wonder if in future iterations of Foxconn Frequency (will there be a number 4?) whether an immersive and interactive stage design might not be something to explore. That the audience was invited to tour the performers' play stations after the end of the performance suggests the potential in such an option.


Friday, February 2, 2018

PuSh 2018: Pour at The Dance Centre

Along with with Justine A. Chambers and Vanessa Goodman, Métis dance artist Daina Ashbee is one of the inaugural recipients of the Dance Centre's recently constituted Yulanda Faris Choreographers Program. Originally from BC, she now is based in Montreal, where her works have won multiple awards. Pour, on at the Dance Centre through tomorrow evening in conjunction with the PuSh Festival, is an entrancing solo performed by the amazing dancer Paige Culley in a power display of endurance, vulnerability, and control.

The piece begins in darkness, with the audience stumbling towards there seats as haunting cries emanating from the stage occasionally pierce the air. Soon everything quiets and it appears as if there is a body moving about before us, a ghostly figure whose aura haunts our imaginations precisely because her identity as yet remains unmarked. But then, with sudden violence--for both the audience and the performer--bright white lights come up, and we are literally blinded by what we see: Culley, naked to the waist, staring out at us. She moves downstage centre and stands absolutely still, holding our gaze in silence, for what seems like five long minutes. Then, ever so slowly, she moves her hands to the button and zipper at the top of her jeans, undoing both with an unhurried deliberateness that is both provocative and disturbing: does she feel compelled to do this because of our collective gaze, or is she doing this to test the quality, kind, and limits of that gaze? For she does, eventually, push down her jeans to reveal to us her sex, but in a way that is entirely unerotic, in fact, almost clinical, as if Ashbee is saying to both her dance audience and the world more generally: now that we've got the "fact" of woman's gender out of the way, we can get on to the far more interesting question of how she performs her sexuality.

That performance initially takes the form of Culley dropping to the floor, which looks to be made of some kind of white polyurethane substance, overlain with some kind of translucent mylar or viscous liquid, or maybe a combination of both. For as Culley begins rolling around the floor, her body becomes shinier and shinier, sweat mixing with whatever residue from the set that she is picking up as she reverses the masquerade of femininity, pouring herself out of (rather than into) the synthetic carapace of her jeans and back into not necessarily a more "natural," but certainly a more direct relationship between the materiality of her self and the materiality of her environment: a place where skin meets landscape in a surface encounter whose simultaneous porosity necessarily changes both. (In her program notes, Ashbee explains that she "used her own menstrual cycle as the hub of her interest throughout the development of the work.")

These changes we witness in the slow, repetitive cycle of Culley's rolling progress across the stage, lifting herself up onto her elbows, shifting the weight underneath her pelvis, slapping her arms and thighs and buttocks over and over again into the floor, her gaze never wavering from us even as the sound and the acts we can imagine it stands in for challenge us to look away. In these sequences and others--including an extended moment near the end when Culley struggles to find the voice we presumably heard at the beginning, but now only able to emit a few chocked hiccups--Ashbee refuses to resolve neat antimonies of pain and pleasure, power and resistance. Is Culley performing for us, or are we performing for Culley (and, interestingly, last night's audience was among the most quiet and attentive I've ever encountered at The Dance Centre)? The final sequence of the piece, in which Culley shuffles back and forth along the downstage lip of the stage with her back towards us once again cannily forecloses on an easy answer.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

PuSh 2018: King Arthur's Night at the Freddy Wood

Niall McNeil is a Vancouver-based actor with a distinguished professional pedigree, acting and making theatre as a child with the storied Caravan Farm Theatre, and appearing in several shows created by Leaky Heaven Circus. He also just happens to have Down's Syndrome. In 2011 Niall's first play, Peter Panties, co-written by Neworld Theatre's Marcus Youssef, and co-produced by Neworld and Leaky Heaven, premiered at the PuSh Festival. It was a boldly inventive and visually stunning reimagining of the Peter Pan story that was directed by my colleague Steven Hill (I blogged about it here). Now Niall and Marcus have collaborated on their follow-up work, King Arthur's Night, which opened last night at UBC's Frederic Wood Theatre as part of the 2018 PuSh Festival. A commission of Toronto's Luminato Festival, where it received it's premiere last summer. the piece has also toured to the National Arts Centre. But there's nothing like a hometown audience to bring the best out in a production. On that front, Niall and his team did not disappoint.

Many of the core collaborators on Peter Panties are back for King Arthur's Night, including composer and music director Veda Hille, this time not only leading the on-stage band (herself, drummer Skye Brooks, and the occasional additional accompanist), but also a 20-person choir. Theatre Replacement's James Long, who played the lead in Peter Panties (although Niall might dispute that), takes the helm as director this time. In addition to Niall, the cast includes three other Down's actors, including Tiffany King as Guinevere, Andrew Gordon as an axe-wielding Saxon warrior, and Matthew Tom-Wing as a goatherd. That the production very quickly moves from asking us to celebrate the presence and on-stage accomplishments of these differently abled performers to having us fall under the dramatic spell of the world they and the rest of the cast (Amber Funk-Barton, Nathan Kay, Billy Marchenski, Lucy McNulty, Kerry Sandomirsky, and Youssef) have collectively created is just one of many remarkable things about this show).

As with Peter Panties, the development process for King Arthur's Night involved Niall speaking the broad outlines of the story as he conceived it into an audio recorder, and then Marcus shaping and editing Niall's words into a loose narrative. An opening framing conversation and slide-show presentation by the two men contextualizes their working process, important aspects related to the development of this particular show, and the broad outlines of Arthurian legend. If in this prologue, Marcus-as-Merlin serves as amanuensis to the story of Niall-as-Arthur, the latter never lets the former forget who is star of this show. That said, one of the more interesting things about this telling of the Arthur story is how much stage time Niall cedes to the hero's rivals. In this respect, the play is loosely divided into two intersecting plot-lines. The first details the forbidden romance between Guinevere and Lancelot (Marchenski), which is beguiling both for the tenderness the lovers bestow upon each other, and for the tenderness they cannot help but still feel for the husband and best friend they are betraying. King is especially moving in the dancing she displays, which helps to convey both the excess of emotion she feels, and also how trapped she is as a woman in Camelot. Arthur's injunction to Lancelot early in the play not to overstep his station with Guinevere is also a subtle encoding of the dynamics of consent into the larger themes of the play--something that additionally resonates with our current #MeToo moment.

The second plot-line concerns Arthur's usurping son, Mordred (Kay), born of Arthur's incestuous relationship with his sister Morgana (Sandomirsky), who from her perch in Lothia is very much Merlin's equal in string-pulling: a slyly hilarious bit of downstage verbal jousting between the two telegraphs this perfectly. I don't know this part of the Arthur story well, but I gather that the siblings' forbidden coupling in a goat pen resulted in a cursed progeny who was born with horns. Whatever the exact details, spurred on by his mother's hatred for her brother, Mordred's destiny is to join Albion's sworn enemies, the Saxons, and attack the Knights of the Roundtable. The lead-up to this climax is punctuated by some wonderful additional movement sequences, first involving Funk-Barton leading Marchenski and McNulty in some bucking goat moves, and then this trio taking their cues from Gordon in how to wield their weapons in battle (the choreography is by Company 605's Josh Martin). All of this culminates in a coup-de-theatre that sees the choir descend from their upstage perch behind a scrim to become strewn corpses on the battlefield, McNulty's Sir Galahad and Tom-Wing's goatherd the only apparent survivors.

Indeed, Freddy Wood's large proscenium stage is the perfect venue for the imaginative scale of this production. That includes Long and his design team (including lighting designer Kyla Gardiner, sound designer Nancy Tam, and video designer Parjad Sharifi) matching Niall's interior dreamscape with equally vivid on-stage effects. But it also involves letting a sense of emotional intimacy pierce through all the spectacle. Hille's score is key to this; it manages to feel both rocking and whispered, and that after the battle scene we're left with Hille and the choir performing vocal murmurations as King's Guinevere flutters her hand above her heart reminds us that how ever dark this story gets, at its core there is love.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

PuSh 2018: Endings at the Roundhouse

The concept of Tamara Saulwick's Endings, on at the Roundhouse as part of this year's PuSh Festival, sounded so interesting on paper: record players, reel-to-reel tape recorders, live speech and song, all combining into a mix-tape of voices speaking about and with the dead and departed. But the content and execution of the work felt directionless and somewhat trite.

Saulwick, working with singer-songwriter Paddy Mann and composer and sound designer Peter Knight, spends much of her time moving sound and lighting equipment about an otherwise bare black stage, and one of the things that did compel me about the piece was its subtle choreography of objects and bodies. This extended to Saulwick and Mann's downstage, on-the-floor dual DJing of a series of vinyl recordings with interview subjects reflecting on the passings of loved ones. But what surprised me about the mixing and overlaying of these voices was how conventional was the cutting between them. Saulwick would spin one record, we'd hear a snippet of conversation, and then she'd press a finger on the record to stop it. This would be the cue for Mann to lift his finger from one of his records to let us hear a snippet from another voice. And then we'd return to Saulwick's interviewee, and so on. Surprisingly, however, the cumulative effect had less to do with the formal counterpointing of multiple voices than with Saulwick's apparent desire to have us clearly distinguish the continuities between individual narratives. I was frankly surprised that Saulwick didn't exploit the capacity of her technologies to manipulate and synthesize and distort the different voices she'd recorded. When it comes to death and voices from the beyond, it seems that for Saulwick the message clearly supersedes the medium.

Which is where that other kind of medium comes in--that is, the spritualist variety. We learn that Saulwick herself has consulted one in connection with her own father's death--which seems to be the impetus for the entire show. Clearly Saulwick is aware of the connections between analog recording technologies and nineteenth-century seances focused on the transmigration of voices from the spirit world. But whereas back then the gramophone was often used as a feint, or a means of deception, here the deployment of the record and tape players is utterly--perhaps even overly--sincere.

Endings has one more performance this afternoon at 2 pm.


Friday, January 26, 2018

PuSh 2018: Meeting at Performance Works

Meeting, presented by the PuSh Festival at Performance Works through this Saturday, is a collaboration between choreographer and dancer Antony Hamilton and composer and instrument builder Alisdair Macindoe. It's also a collaboration between the two men--who both perform in the piece--and the percussive objects that Macindoe has designed for it. These objects, tiny wooden blocks with pencils attached via levers to their sides, are arranged in a large circle on the floor of the stage. Outside the circle are an array of other objects: small round and larger rectangular tin dishes; some chunkier pencilless wooden blocks; what look like a couple of miniature didgeridoos. On either side of the downstage lip of the circle are two music stands.

At the top of the show, Hamilton and Macindoe walk from the wings and enter the circle. Nothing happens. Then, after a time we hear a tapping. It echoes around the circle and then repeats as we struggle to locate the block from which it emanates. Just as we do, all 64 of the blocks erupt into a cacophony of sound and the performers start to move. At first the choreography is angular and precise, almost like robot-style breaking as the dancers pivot and twist and turn and extend their arms joint by joint in response to the rhythm of the instruments. As this rhythm grows faster and increasingly complex, so does the choreography, with Hamilton and Macindoe moving in and out of unison and also every now and then interrupting their mostly staccato and vertically-oriented gesture phrases with more bendy and fluid torso ripples and head ducks, like they are Neo and Trinity from The Matrix slowing down time to dodge a bullet.

The synching of the physical and sound scores is a bravura feat (and also perhaps explains the presence of the two music stands, which otherwise do not move). There are many moments in the first part of the piece when the audience gasps or claps in delight at different displays of syncopated virtuosity, as when the men slice the air with their hands over and over again in a mind-boggling game of non-touching patty cake, or later when they start counting together in time to the instruments' beats. But in the second part of the piece, after the performers do a slow-mo retreat from the centre of the circle (this time looking very much like Neo and Trinity), they let the objects take over completely, deconstructing the circle block by block and moving the other objects in such a proximate manner as to produce, on cue, a whole symphony of taps and chimes and bongs.

After a moment of worshipful reflection (and a bit more choreography) before the idols they have thus arrayed, Hamilton and Macindoe exit the stage. The rest of the score is produced solely by the instruments. To be sure, there is someone in the tech booth sending wireless signals (I'm assuming) to produce said sounds. Nevertheless, we are left with an image of non-human agency that resonates quite powerfully with larger philosophies of vital materialism currently circulating in performance theory.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

PuSh 2018: The Events at the Russian Hall

David Greig's The Events, currently being mounted by Pi Theatre at the Russian Hall as part of this year's PuSh Festival, is inspired by Anders Breivik's 2011 mass killing of young camp goers on the island of Utøya in Norway. In adapting those horrific events for the stage, the Scottish Greig has at once made the story more particular and more universal, focusing on an individual survivor, but also refusing to specify her nationality or where she lives. With the aid of composer John Browne, Greig also incorporates a series of rotating community choirs into the play's mise-en-scène, ensuring that wherever the play is staged it will have direct local resonance.

Claire (Luisa Jojic) is a liberal lesbian minister and choir leader who is struggling to come to terms with a random act of violence that has resulted in the deaths of most of her flock, and that has made her question the very foundations of her faith. This aftermath is framed by an opening scene in which we see Claire, in the middle of conducting her choir, welcome a young boy (Douglas Ennenberg) into the church. "You don't have to sing," she says by way of encouragement. "Nobody wants to sing every day." What follows is Claire's desperate and soul-shattering struggle to make sense of the actions wrought by this boy, and to make her way back to a place where she herself might one day be able to sing again. Along the way she seeks but fails to find answers from a host of characters who are either concerned for her own well-being (her therapist, her partner) or who knew the boy (his father, an acquaintance from high school, the leader of a far right party whose ideology the shooter briefly flirted with). All of these characters are incarnated by the same actor playing the boy and Ennenberg's loose and easy physicality, combined with subtle modulations in voice and tone, makes each of them both distinguishable and believable.

It is, of course, belief that Claire is looking for--something, anything, to explain what, as a woman of God, she can't bring herself to accept is unexplainable. But Greig wisely resists offering Claire, or us, pat homilies. In scene after scene, Claire chases after that which will confirm her worst convictions about the boy: that he was abused as a child; that he was picked on at school; that he was blinded by extremist ideology. But in these encounters what Claire is actually forced to confront are the limits of her own naïveté and rigidly moralistic worldview. To her expression of unknowing horror at the protocols of bullying, the high school acquaintance of the boy says that she was obviously extremely popular growing up. And she is flummoxed by the fact that the leader of the far right party whose meetings the boy occasionally attended is a family man who completely disavows what the boy has done. Greig also ramps up the dramatic tension by slowly revealing that Claire's obsession with the boy's motives masks a far more painful self-examination that would force her to confront the rightness of her own actions on the night of the shooting. In this, it is worth noting that performance and trauma share a similar structuring principle: repetition. Every time we see Claire replay the events of the shooting, Jojic's increasingly manic desperation--which director Richard Wolfe, working with movement designer Jo Leslie, cannily externalizes in physical actions that have no purpose, or that go nowhere--inches us at once closer to and then away from the horrible truth of what happened in the music room, where Claire and Mrs. Singh find themselves staring down the barrel of the boy's gun.

As is often the case in these situations, the truth after which Claire and the audience have been questing for most of the play ends up being banal--or, rather, "silly," to quote the boy, whom Claire eventually visits in prison. She has gone there with the express purpose of poisoning him (the only implausible note in the play), her nihilism now so total and complete as to be a match for his own. But the emptiness of his answers to her repeated queries of "why?" once again upends her certitude--this time in a bottomless well of pure evil. Not that Greig leaves us with an Arendtian equivocation on the singularity of remorse (or lack thereof). For into the void of the boy's culpability and Claire's own guilt, Greig and Browne fill the performance hall with the collective catharsis of song. Here, as Wolfe writes in his program note, the play's creators are taking us back to the very origins of Western tragedy, with the Chorus in Greek drama functioning as "both spectator and performer."

Thus it was that last night Vancouver's Cyrilika Slavic Chamber Choir, under the direction of Emilija Lale, at once completed the fourth side of Wolfe's in-the-round staging and also seamlessly melded into the action of the play. Each of the twelve volunteer choirs participating over the course of this production's run receive a copy of the script and musical score in advance. But they rehearse on their own, meeting with music supervisor Mishelle Cuttler only once, and only encountering the actors (and vice-versa) on the night of their scheduled performance. I can only imagine how nerve-wracking this is for all concerned in terms of coordination; at the same time, watching the choir watching what we were watching had the reverberating effect of binding us all in an act of witnessing that apportioned some of the weight of Claire's trauma to the other bodies in the room. This is, of course, the power of song: it travels through time and space, and from body to body, actively moving us with its force and energy. Physically registering this sense of connection and obligation--a choir per force being the sum of its individual voices--is what makes this production of The Events so eventful.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

PuSh 2018: Songs of Insurrection at the Fox Cabaret

After a night off on Sunday, it was back to all things PuSh on Monday, with the North American premiere of American composer Frederic Rzewski's Songs of Insurrection at the Fox Cabaret. This was a co-presentation with Music on Main, who actually co-commissioned the work back in 2015 as a showcase for the virtuoso Flemish pianist Daan Vandewalle.

For Songs, Rzewski has taken classic protest tunes from around the world (Germany, Russian, the US, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Korea) and rewritten portions of their melodies. In so doing, he wrests the songs from the dustheap of history and makes them new again, showing their continued relevance for our present age. Indeed, the Civil Rights-era Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around seems especially pertinent in an America that's even more racially divided than ever.

I confess that I couldn't always distinguish one song from another, nor determine where one ended and the next began. As Music on Main Artistic Director David Pay writes in his program notes, Rzewski permits the pianist to improvise between movements, "improvisation being the greatest form of freedom and personal agency in music." And on this front Vandewalle--who is an exceptional post-classical interpreter--got progressively bolder as the program progressed, moving from flourishes on the keyboard to tapping the side of the piano and eventually standing up and plucking its strings.

For if in this work Rzewski turns the grand piano into a political instrument, then Vandewalle's performance showed that this includes all parts of it.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

PuSh 2018: Radio Rewrite at the Norman Rothstein Theatre

At last year's PuSh Festival, Turning Point Ensemble Artistic Director Owen Underhill put together an amazing program of music that situated the compositions of rock star Frank Zappa alongside the work of Edgard Varèse and John Oswald. For this year's festival he's done something similar, pairing work by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood with pieces by Olivier Messiaen, Christopher Butterfield, and Steve Reich. The concerts just concluded a two-evening run at the Norman Rothstein Theatre last night.

I had no idea that Greenwood had such an interest in classical and orchestral music, let alone that he had composed numerous pieces for the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in France after WWI that Messiaen favoured, and which looks like a keyboard and sounds a bit like a theremin. Two ondes martenots were on stage last night and guest TPE artists Estelle Lemire and Geneviève Grenier were featured soloists on all but three pieces. These included a world premiere, Short Room, by local composer Christopher Butterfield, and a new arrangement by Lemire of a 1937 piece by Messiaen, Dieuxième Oraison.

I was most taken with the sound of the ondes martenot when it was paired with the wind instruments, especially the lone french horn in Butterfield's piece. It really is a remarkable instrument and once again I am grateful to Underhill and TPE for bringing to audiences' attention its unsung musical history and influence.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

PuSh 2018: MDLSX at the Roundhouse

Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Niccolò, the co-artistic directors of the Rimini-based Italian company Motus, have been making acclaimed theatre together since 1991. Much of that work is adapted from classic texts (including works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Genet, Cocteau, and so on), and is built on a large ensemble. For the past twelve years Silvia Calderoni has been a key member of that ensemble. However, in MDLSX, the work Motus is currently touring to the PuSh Festival, and which plays the Roundhouse through this Sunday, Calderoni is alone on stage, and the story she tells is mostly based on her own life.

That story is one of the terrors of gender binarism: about how Silvia grew up as a tomboy; about her parents' and medical practitioners' struggles to diagnose and understand her condition clinically; about how she eventually ran away from home, cut her hair, and lived for a time as a man; and, finally, how she decided to refuse the straitjacket of gender identification altogether (despite still answering to female pronouns). While much of this is narrated to us by Silvia (in Italian, with English surtitles), two additional--and dramaturgically essential--elements of the production design are the soundtrack of songs that Silvia plays (twenty-two tracks in all, starting with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and ending with REM), and the video projected onto a circular portal in the upstage screen with which Silvia interacts.

For the music, Silvia acts as both DJ and interpreter, each song cued to a stage of shameful discovery or political enlightenment in her life, and with the movement that accompanies it on a triangular bit of shiny cloth placed between her console and props table and the audience at once playing to and confounding our desire for bodily legibility (as when, early on in the show, doing her best Iggy Pop, the hipless Silvia shimmies out of her buttoned pants without the help of her hands). This deliberate thwarting of the standard spectating protocols for how we read performers' bodies within a proscenium staging is augmented by the fact that for much of the show Silvia acts with her back to the audience--an "affront" that is all about scrambling the traditional dramaturgy of social interaction, which in turn is all about how we present to others (to paraphrase Erving Goffman).

Much of the video footage is taken from home movies, and features images of Silvia as a young child and teenager growing up before our eyes. As Enrico said in the talkback following the performance that I was privileged to moderate, this archive of old VHS tapes proved a goldmine for the creators, its projection and overlaying with a live feed of Silvia's on-stage image as she interacts with or stares down her younger self producing an uncanny palimpsest of identities in which sum and parts are neither collapsable nor wholly separable. That video footage of Silvia singing with her father both begins and ends the performance is also a very moving testament to the fact that part of the tyranny of a binary gender system is that it doesn't just divide individuals, but also families.

Not that this show is on-stage therapy for Silvia--or the audience, for that matter. In print, and again last night at the talkback, Silvia and Daniela confirmed that it's designed to be a party, a celebration, an emancipation even. To that end, mixed in with the first-person testimony, we also get excerpts from Silvia's reading in queer and trans theory, in particular Paul B. Periciado's Contrasexual Manifesto. And, finally, while it is not announced officially anywhere in the print materials associated with the show, a main intertext for Silvia's story is Jeffrey Eugenides' 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex, about the unforgettable Detroit-born intersex character of Callie/Cal. Passages and plot points from the novel are woven liberally into the stage show's 80 minutes. The fact that the creators make no effort to distinguish what is Silvia's story and what is Cal's is an apt metaphor for the entire fiction that is gender. As I suggested at the end of the talkback last night, the problem of fit between bodies and categories is a problem with the categories, not the bodies.


Friday, January 19, 2018

PuSh 2018: Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster at The Dance Centre

A man with two children throwing stones at a duck along a canal in Ghent. A woman running along said canal who is outraged by what she sees, but also uncertain about whether she should intervene. This moral conundrum is the starting point for Melbourne-based Nicola Gunn's remarkable work of dance-theatre, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, co-presented by the PuSh Festival and the Dance Centre, where it plays through this evening.

Gunn is a virtuoso storyteller, taking everyday incidents and observations from her own life and crafting them into compelling, but also wickedly hilarious, commentaries on social relations and the human condition. She also has a way with the finer points of narrative, introducing what you think are throwaway descriptive details or meaningless digressions (Hercule Poirot actor David Suchet's secret heart surgery, her art world encounter with Marina Abramovic, a synopsis of the plot of the film Brief Encounter, the fact that she told her friends on Facebook that she was out for a walk rather than a run), only to bring those various threads together into a most surprising and satisfying conclusion at the end. And she does this all while moving non-stop, Gunn having collaborated with choreographer Jo Lloyd on a physical score that sees Gunn cycle through a series of gestures and phrases as she unspools her story. The movements are relatively simple, an accretive vocabulary of arm swings and leg pulses and step-touches and swivel jumps and all manner of floor crawls. That doesn't mean that they don't become increasingly taxing to perform, nor that their execution doesn't require incredible powers of mental concentration on the part of Gunn--not least because their abstractness bears very little direct explanatory relation to the story being told (except insofar as they might punctuate a point for emphasis).

However, the movement does relate, conceptually, to Gunn's concern with necessary and unnecessary actions. Indeed, there is a direct philosophical through-line between asking why Gunn is moving her arm such-and-such a way while speaking to why the man is throwing stones at the duck to why Gunn feels compelled to intervene to why all of this is grist for an art piece and, finally, to why we take pleasure in watching said art piece. Gunn doesn't attempt to answer definitively any of these questions. Rather, she eschews black and white problem solving for imagining so many more shades of grey: speculating, for example, on what might be motivating the man (who seems to be an immigrant) to throw the stones and what effect her crazed intervention might have on the future mental health of the daughters who are with him; gradually copping to the fact that her run by the canal that morning is not itself unmotivated; and implicating us in an art historical tradition--from Bruegel to Abramovic to Gunn herself--that seems to place no limits on what is acceptable representationally, and that catches us in the act of looking while also looking away. On this latter front, there is a moment in the performance when things shift and Gunn, who until now had been performing at a safe remove from the audience on a strip of white marley that is oriented more upstage, wades into the audience, using all available surfaces and limbs to balance herself while asking if we mind her pelvis gyrating in our faces. We don't say anything, just titter nervously: because this is contemporary performance--right?--and anything goes. Maybe, and maybe not: when Gunn returns to the stage, we're perhaps not wholly on her side anymore, and as she starts adding even more shades of grey to the story, lighting and AV designers Niklas Pajanti and Martyn Coutts also create effects on the upstage screen that start to make Gunn seem a lot more threatening.

And what about that ghetto blaster in the title, also for much of the piece the only additional prop on the stage? It, too, is somewhat unnecessary. At a certain point Gunn moves it stage right and turns it on and her movements now become additionally syncopated with composer and sound designer Kelly Ryall's beats. It's oversized, early 80s design puts one in mind of the kind of devices used by breakers and B-boys to claim public space--which is not irrelevant to the story Gunn is telling. But, technically speaking, the ghetto blaster doesn't really need to be there. Except perhaps as an object-oriented ontological reminder of who else might be missing from this two-sided story. And, indeed, at the end of the piece the non-human ghetto blaster becomes a key interlocutor for the non-human duck, who up until this point has only been spoken about. Here music and movement combine to transcend the limits of language as a tool for (mis)communication.

It's a surprising and wholly satisfying conclusion to a deeply thoughtful work of performance.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

PuSh 2018: Reassembled, Slightly Askew at The Cultch

Reassembled, Slightly Askew, playing at The Cultch's Culture Lab as part of this year's PuSh Festival, is a cross between a radio play and an immersive sound installation. It is based on writer Shannon Yee's personal experience with a life-threatening medical emergency, her recovery, and the acquired brain injury that resulted.

SPOILER ALERT!!!: Do not read any further if you are planning to see the show.

The piece is divided into two distinct, though related, parts. In the first, eight audience members (the maximum capacity for the show) are greeted in The Cultch's lobby by a docent dressed in hospital scrubs. He asks us to fill out an admitting form (really, an audience survey for the production team), affixes each of us with a plastic bracelet, and explains the concept and performance parameters of the piece. Then he leads us into the Culture Lab, where we are told to remove our coats and shoes (and glasses should, like me, we wear them), and to climb into an empty hospital bed. This man then affixes each of us with a pair of eyeshades and headphones. What follows is a 50-minute acoustic journey inside Shannon's brain as she reconstructs her memories of her near-death experience as a result of a cranial hematoma, the painful nine-week hospital stay to treat resulting infections and rehabilitate compromised sensory-motor functions, and, finally, the slow process of readjusting to the world and a new disability once she is released.

Along the way, we hear not only Shannon's voice, but also the different voices speaking at her, including: her worried partner, Gronya; her attending physician; a succession of nurses trying to find a vein to insert an IV drip or from which to draw blood; and a concerned neuropsychologist who is key to climactic breakthrough in Shannon's post-release therapy. We also hear the voice(s) inside Shannon's head as she struggles to understand what is happening to her, and as she chastises herself for the slowness of her recovery. In essence, during these moments Shannon is having a conversation with her own brain, which for all intents and purposes becomes another character in the piece--and which for much of the piece is, physiologically speaking, partially exposed due to a recurrence of abscesses which the doctors are struggling to treat.

The sound mixing and audio overlaying is absolutely brilliant. For example, when the doctor tries to treat the left side of Shannon's body, which for a time remains partially paralyzed, his voice is muffled and indistinct. Later, on a post-release trip to the pharmacy for some toothpaste, Shannon is overwhelmed by a cacophony of crying babies. All of this makes sensorially visceral the experience of sound sensitivity that is one of the lasting consequences of Shannon's injury.

The second half of Reassembled is a documentary that recounts the making of the piece, including interviews with both the production team and the medical staff that treated Shannon at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital. That the work has since been taken up as an educational tool for both brain trauma survivors and medical practitioners is a wonderful testament to Shannon's creativity.


PuSh 2018: Inside/Out at Performance Works

I've seen and admired Patrick Keating's work as an actor about town (including as a memorable Fitz in Rumble's 2013 production of Enda Walsh's Penelope) for many years. He's also had a long and successful career in television and film. His current starring role is in a work--his first--for which he is also the playwright. Inside/Out had its PuSh premiere last night at Performance Works, in a co-presentation by Touchstone Theatre, and produced by Neworld Theatre, Main Street Theatre, and Urban Crawl.

The play is an autobiographical solo reflection on Keating's ten years in and out of prison, starting when he was sixteen and continuing off and on until his mid-30s. Most of that time was spent in the Quebec penitentiary system (Keating grew up in Montreal), but during his last sentence--which coincided with the first Quebec referendum--Keating requested a transfer to Matsqui prison in BC. (Keating's account of his hand-off at the Vancouver airport--a Kafkaesque whirl of paper-signing and briefcase-opening and closing--is hilarious.) It was while at Matsqui that Keating enrolled in his first theatre class, which focused on clown, and the end of which happened to come after his scheduled release. He requested a five-week delay in his release so that he could complete the course.

Preceding that climactic revelation, and following a brief opening set-up recounting his teenage problems with authority and drug use, we are essentially treated to a series of anecdotes about life on the inside. In the richness of their documentary detail, these stories offer fascinating insight into the different ethnic and cultural rivalries between inmates, as well as the surprisingly tender affective relationships that can sometimes form. Keating's affectionate relating of a trans prisoner's love affair with her body-building boyfriend, her heartbreak at his release, and then her anger at him when he reoffends and they are reunited put me in mind of the wonderful Queenie in John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes.

On their own, these episodes are frequently compelling and build to satisfying narrative payoffs. Collectively, however, they do not combine into a dramatic structure that has a parallel overarching emotional reward at the end. Stephen Malloy's direction is also surprisingly static, with Keating essentially moving back and forth from downstage to upstage, and from sitting to standing, to tell each successive story. Noah Drew's sound design and Jaylene Pratt's lighting design occasionally add additional sensory texture. But for the most part Inside/Out relies for its theatricality on the instrument of Keating's voice--which, to be sure, is what he eventually found by doing time.

The piece is bookended by Keating's reference to a box of files that he carries with him onto the stage at the outset--his life history as it has been documented and recorded by a series of officials. For most of the play it remains stage right, unreferenced. At the very end, Keating opens it and sifts through the colour-coded files, reading off their titles. They can't possibly explain, let alone compete, with what we have just heard. As a framing device, it feels a bit contrived. But as that which helped to unlock Keating's playwriting voice, I can understand why it's necessary.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

PuSh 2018: Some Hope for the Bastards at the Playhouse

I have renewed my love affair with Montreal choreographer-musician Frédérik Gravel. I fell hard for him following the premiere of Usually Beauty Fails at the 2014 PuSh Festival. But when he returned to the city in 2016 for the Dancing on the Edge Festival, I found the piece he presented, Thus Spoke..., to lack coherence and to border on self-indulgence. Some Hope for the Bastards, which opened this year's PuSh Festival last night at the Vancouver Playhouse, showcases Gravel at his most sublimely seductive, constructing an epic dance marathon in which the point of the party is less who's left standing at the end than the summation of highs and lows along the way.

When we enter the auditorium, Gravel's nine dancers are already lounging on the stage, sipping from bottles of Corona. They watch us as we take our seats, sometimes interacting with us (SFU theatre student Nicola Rough somehow made it on to the stage itself and was handed a beer), coming and going at random, but definitely aware--and maybe even amused--by our presence. At a certain point, with the house lights remaining up, the dancers' apparent pre-show casualness morphs slowly into performance mode, their poses slipping into stylized and increasingly exaggerated contortions, like time-lapse versions of drunken partygoers falling off their chairs and into a stupefied tableau. Which is in fact how this sequence ends, the dancers ranged with splayed legs and outstretched arms and rubberized heads and torsos among the plastic chairs that line the stage. It is at this point that guitarist Gravel, who in the middle of this sequence had emerged from the stage right wing with his fellow bandmates (a drummer and keyboardist/singer) to ascend the upstage bandstand and take up instruments, addresses the audience. He welcomes us to the start of the festival, worries about the responsibility of opening it, that that's a very adult thing, that after the assumption of such adult responsibility all there is left to do is die. Then he tells us the show is pretty long, that he doesn't mind if we leave before it's over, and that now they're going to start over because in making the show he couldn't decide how to begin.

This second beginning takes place to a recorded excerpt from what I think is a Bach misericordia, to which the dancers ever so gradually start to pulse their pelvises as Gravel gradually overlays more propulsive electronic beats. The sonic and kinetic marrying of sex and death, coming after Gravel's speech about adult responsibility, suggests that if all we do is live to die, then we might as well try to enjoy ourselves along the way. Indeed, the metaphor of life as an all-night dance party--filled with ecstatic highs and crashing lows, pockets of stillness amidst a non-stop whirl of movement--is what sustains this work conceptually, tonally, and stylistically. It explains, for example, the almost-but-not-quite hook-ups that occur as the dancers' gyrating hips lead them towards and then away from potential partners; the look-at me solos that occur soon after as different members of the ensemble preen or crash about the stage, or monkey wildly behind one another; and those moments of tender connection when couples do manage to form, even if only tentatively. That happens, for example, in a beautiful stuttered, bone-bending waltz between the tallest female and male dancers (the latter an incredibly willowy Ichabod Crane figure who nevertheless has utterly fluid liquid limbs) early on in the piece, and also later during a largely stilled rehearsal for touching among eight of the dancers as the ninth performs a reaching solo around them.

As with dance parties, there are also in Some Hope various time-outs, in which both the band members and the dancers take breaks and leave the stage, or else sit off to the sides watching as others work to sustain the energy. These moments, in which we in the audience also get a chance to catch our breaths, are juxtaposed to the relentlessly propulsive group movement sequences, with Gravel using a series of staggered canons to throw his dancers in and out of syncopated unison. And I do mean throw: the dancers fling their bodies onto the floor; whip themselves into twisted lunges; fall to their knees. My head exploded just thinking about the complexity of the dancers' counts, and one could forgive some necessary spotting among members of the group. Because absolute precision is not the point. Indeed, when a version of this choreography repeats at the end of the piece--in a coda I'm not entirely sure is necessary, especially after we arrive back at the core beat pulsing through their bodies with which we started--the dancers seem to be given license to fall into and out of rhythm when and with whom they see fit. That's part of the entrainment of life itself. Sometimes we're in step with others, and sometimes we're not. Sometimes we move this way, and sometimes that way.

The point is to not stop moving.