WHO KILLED SPALDING GRAY?

Written and Performed by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Produced by Rework Productions
Presented by Canadian Stage. December 2-11, 2016

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Daniel MacIvor (photo: Gunter Kravis) 

 

Daniel MacIvor is probably the foremost theatrical solo performer in Canada just as the late Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box) was one of the best-known (and most controversial) solo performers in the U.S. before he committed suicide by leaping off the Staten Island Ferry in 2004. MacIvor pays homage to Spalding Gray in this 80-minute monologue, but, as is usually the case with MacIvor, the work doesn’t have a linear simplicity. His piece has a visual economy: a single table, two chairs, a glass of water, and papers, illuminated by a cube of light from Kimberly Purtell. No projections, no special effects, no extraordinary sound design. Just the actor and minimal props. But these are a ruse for his meta-theatrical reflections: “I need to tell you the truth.” Oh, but what is the truth, and whose truth? MacIvor uses indirection to find direction out. A casual opening involving the participation of an (unsuspecting or planted?) audience member is effected in order to lead into answers of three of MacIvor’s fundamental questions: Who are you? Whom am I? Who is Spalding Gray?

The extent of MacIvor’s cleverness is evident even from his title that implies something dastardly, such as murder. But it is widely known that Spalding Gray had a host of psychological issues, and took his own life. Moreover, the title is not channelled into a single theme, for it soon becomes apparent that the answers to these underlying questions will not be direct or clear-cut. Instead, the audience gets three stories in one, and they encompass such things as psychoanalysis, suicide, “murder,” love, grief, depression, identity, and catharsis.

As MacIvor relates it, he was warned by an intuitive (euphemism for psychoanalyst) that he would have to remove the entity that was attached dangerously to him. So, he headed to the analyst in San Rafael, a town just north of San Francisco, for relief and therapy. The “surgeon” used trances to coax the entity to depart Gray’s body, but these sessions are interwoven into another story about a man named Howard who hires a hit man named Don to kill him at an unexpected moment. The plot in this story goes ironically awry, allowing MacIvor to indulge his superb penchant for wry black humour. Other bizarrely amusing and ironic subjects are added via discussions of the film Big Fish (the last film Gray reportedly saw and to which he had an upsetting emotional reaction), Helena Bonham Carter (who starred in it, directed by Tim Burton, her husband at the time), mythology, father-son relationships, and various signs of the universe. A rich stew, and a clever one for MacIvor’s overriding theme, which reveals itself as the nature, effects, and reliability of story-telling. We are such stuff as stories are made of, and in this piece, one story rests within another, making truth out of fiction.

There is no doubt that the show is a triumph for MacIvor as both writer and performer. Director Daniel Brooks seems unnecessary, but this is not to deny that his contribution remains virtually invisible, and therefore a good thing for he doesn’t allow anything to get in the way of MacIvor’s storytelling. Few performers can match MacIvor in absorbing an audience in his reflections, seemingly offhand or deliberate. Some of this themes may be well-worn but they are redeemed by his unique humour, lightness of bearing, and self-expressed vulnerability. In his interaction with the participant from the audience, he is sometimes charming, sometimes goofy (certainly his solo disco dancing is), and his main commodity is himself, of course, but what a compellingly interesting self that is, even though it is not necessarily exempt from questioning. In fact, questioning and self-questioning are part and parcel of MacIvor’s performance dynamic. He is not boxed in, and neither is his audience.

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SLEEPING BEAUTY

(The Deliriously Dreamy Family Musical)
by Jeremy Diamond
Directed by Tracey Flye
A Ross Petty Production at the Elgin Theatre
December 1-January 7, 2016

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Sleeping Beauty follows the tried and tested formula of a Ross Petty Christmas pantomime: lots of puns and physical gags, a mashed-up fairy tale mixed together with pop tunes to constitute a rough form of update, strategic breaks for parodic commercials, and a kids’s participatory routine. The libretto is more streamlined than it was in years past, which is all to the good, and the main plot emerges clearly. The newborn royal princess is blessed by three fairies and cursed by Malignicent, the upshot of which is that Her Royal Highness Rose must avoid contact with any sharp object whose prick will put her into a coma. One of the most comic inventions in the libretto is the device used by her parents to protect her from such harm: a large plastic bubble in which Rose is uncomfortably cocooned. Another interesting invention is the irony near the end where the sleeping beauty has to rescue her beau from his own sleeping spell. I leave you to figure out how the plot works itself out, but I can report that on opening night, the audience reaction was modified rapture.

Some of this was, no doubt, due to a sense that the show was somewhat under-rehearsed. Some of it was due to the fact that the show seems to miscalculate its effects. Although the duo of Eddie Glen (Jacob Grimm) and Laurie Murdoch (Wilhelm Grimm) pretend to be as sour as sauerkraut and with a firm taste for grim fairy tales, this freewheeling pantomime take on Sleeping Beauty is joyous stuff for the young. Oh, yes, there is Hillary Farr of Love It or List It television fame, playing the evil witch Malignicent in sparkling black, and she does get booed a lot for her nefarious schemes, but she is a glamour puss with show-off gams, and she doesn’t really enlarge the possibilities of theatrical wickedness. Farr’s singing voice is thinner than her speaking one, her wonderful legs aren’t given much of a choreographic workout, and her acting seems unnecessarily confined. She doesn’t indulge very much in repartee with the audience or encourage its partisan disapproval. So, she is only half as wide in her ham as Ross Petty used to be, and therefore less effective in her villainy than he was in theatrical terms. The comparison is brought home by the fleeting appearance of Petty as Hook via visual projection. He is missed more than even he thought possible.

Also sorely missed is Dan Chameroy, whose transvestite camp Plumbum was an utter scream every year. But Chameroy is starring in the musical Mathilda this season, so the gap is filled to a degree by comedian Paul Constable as cross-dressing Sparklebum, who has his moments as a fairy in training. A.J. Bridel, who was a real hoot as the embarrassingly shy and comic ingenue in Kinky Boots, is not allowed to exercise a similar gift this time around, though her Princess Rose is lovely to look at, and she sings very well. Her counterpart, tall, handsome James Daly makes a nice, shy, clunky lovelorn royal lutist as Luke, even though his lute is really a guitar, and he wears a green wig for much of the show. These two are an effective romantic duo, overbalanced, happily however, by the comic partnership of Laurie Murdoch as the King with a penchant for endless rhymes and Lisa Horner as the henpecking Queen, who has a pronounced taste for tinsel and an equally pronounced distaste for rhymes. The duo later transform in an unnecessary dreamland sequence as pyjama-clad Morpheus and Melatonin, attended by baaing sheep (baaing their puns) and a revival of melodic hits of yesteryear from the Eurythmics, Mama Cass, Aerosmith, the Chordettes, et cetera.

Director Tracey Flye doesn’t show an ability to get the most out of her cast. Neither does choreographer Julie Tomaino. Which is surprising. The best things about the show may well be the set and costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco. They show an extraordinary quality of fantasy, combining glamour, silliness, and playland horror. But, perhaps, the top billing should be shared by the husband-and-wife team of Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson that extends the fantasy by their magnificent projection design. The design is very much the thing this year.