JACK CHARLES V THE CROWN

By Jack Charles and John Romeril
Directed by Rachael Maza
A Canadian Stage Presentation at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs
March 29-April 8, 2017

 

Jack Charles (photo: Bindi Cole)

Offstage, after the performance, he is a spry, bright-eyed loveable little guy, with a thick white beard and head of hair that frames his tanned face. In his slight frame, he hardly looks like anyone’s idea of a weathered actor, musician, heroin addict, cat burglar, or prisoner. But, as his 75-minute monologue makes clear, he has been all of these things in a seven-decade and counting life of “Acting, drugs, burgs, and jail time.” He is Jack Charles, a Koori elder, activist, and performer supreme, who was born in a district that was once a communal utopia for the Yorta Yorta people before it became a virtual concentration camp.

The Australian aborigine, rather like our Canadian First Nations, has had to suffer centuries of indignity, humiliation, and racism. Born in Melbourne in 1943, Jack Charles was plucked from his mother’s breast at six months of age, and sent to a boys’ home in Box Hill, where, the only aborigine, he suffered physical and sexual abuse. Consequently, he grew up absolutely ignorant of his aborigine origins, “whitewashed” by colonial propaganda into believing that the Queen was his Mom. His narrative opens with old film of his shooting up heroin—an addiction that he claims made him no harm to anybody but himself. “If this is harmful, bring on the hurt,” he says in the film clip projected on a small stretch of canvas in Emily Barrie’s spare but practical set, skilfully lit by Danny Pettingill, without striking any vulgar accents. Jack Charles in the flesh says nothing for the longest while, as he sits working clay on his potter’s wheel. Charles doesn’t simply produce a bowl or mug or vase. His working with clay reminds him and us of who we are. His preliminary silence allows a three-piece band (headed by Nigel Maclean on keys, guitar, and violin, complemented by Phil Collings on Percussion and Malcolm Beveridge on Bass) to wail as prologue to a disturbing tale.

And what a tale it is! Always pointed, never sensationally over-dramatic, it builds incrementally in power, though audiences will have to be patient to attune their ears to his accent and quick speaking rhythm, a difficulty heightened at times by Charles’s tendency (at least on opening night) to allow the ends of his sentences to dip in volume and enunciation. It is a harrowing tale that doesn’t need any artificial heightening, and it gets none in this very stark, simple production, directed by Rachael Maza, who shrewdly knows that its most vivid, moving element is the subject himself. Jack Charles has evidently packed enough drama and pain into his life to make several plays, but he never pretends to be a saint. One of the “stolen generation,” he ironically turned to stealing from a society that stole his childhood, adolescence, and much of adulthood. He spent twenty years in jail, forty years in addiction, so he was incarcerated two-fold. Yet, he finds “Your mind can travel while you’re incarcerated.” And his performance does travel through miles and decades of aborigine history to reveal an eventual “miracle”—that of his getting his boyhood back.

Jack Charles and musicians (photo: Bindi Cole)

Deploying black and white archival photos and documents (including the Crown’s criminal charges against him and sensational newspaper reports on his exploits), the show gains greatly in dramatic irony by the songs sung by Charles to the small band’s accompaniment. And Charles’s voice can sound upbeat or bluesy or sweet and sour as he sings a military chant or a Leadbelly folk song or a Connie Francis pop hit or, best and most movingly of all, a blues number born from aboriginal pain, that is really a call to his ancestors and his own mother (whom he hardly knew even after he met her as an adult). This blues number is a second climax, and it comes after a slightly earlier climax where in a fantasy (“a wet dream,” as he satirically terms it), he launches into a courtroom apologia of his embattled, afflicted life. These are the two most affecting sequences, one looking back at the past and its enduring legacy of exploitation and self-violation, and the other looking to a future when Charles will eventually get his day in Australian court to clear his name and identity and move out of infamy to the fame he richly deserves after his pain of heartbreak, hatred blind, brutal wrong and deeds malign.

Does his nation really know and honour this brave artist, a man who rose out of the depths of degradation to a life of fame and infamy? A man who co-founded Australia’s first-ever indigenous theatre group in 1971, performing with the cream of Australia’s actors and directors in works by the cream of Australian playwrights. Jack Charles has been the subject of an award-winning documentary (Bastardy), and his show has toured many an international city. I derived more pleasure, instruction, and inspiration from his show than from all the other musicals or plays currently running in Toronto. And I salute Canadian Stage for presenting this show as part of its Spotlight on Australia that, while probably irritating to Canadian ultra-nationalists, highlights some of the shared experiences in two countries’ historically tainted and bedevilled colonial journeys.

SOUSATZKA

By Craig Lucas
Directed by Adrian Noble
A Garth Drabinsky Production at the Elgin Theatre
March 23-April 9, 2017

Jordan Barrow (Themba) and Victoria Clark (Sousatzka)  (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)


Sousatzka
, the new musical by the creative team of book writer Craig Lucas, lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., and composer David Shire, is a colourful, bloated mess. Instead of following the contours of the original 1962 novel (Madame Sousatzka) by the late Bernice Rubens or the 1988 film that starred Shirley Maclaine, it strikes out on its own, ostensibly inspired by producer Garth Drabinsky’s vision of “bringing together onstage the world of the Jewish diaspora from Eastern Europe and the struggles of the South African anti-Apartheid activists in exile.” Warm-hearted, liberal, humane but utterly wrong-headed for what aspires to being a mega musical. The narrative kernel of an idiosyncratic but sensitive piano teacher guiding and inspiring a male prodigy gets lost in the large-scale patchwork fabric concocted by Craig Lucas’s unfocussed text, the eclectic score and lyrics, and Adrian Noble’s inability to find a cohesive, credible style for the production.

There are wonderful elements in the show. Anthony Ward’s rear scenic décor, accentuated by Howell Binkley’s effective lighting, provides a real sheen, beginning with glimmering gold Klimt colour, moving to a Mark Rothko red, and various other sensational colours in a rich palette. Paul Tazewell’s costumes, especially for the South African contexts, are vividly earthy and textured. Graciela Daniele and Maddie Kelly’s choreography is extraordinary all the way through, but particularly for the South African high leaps, martial kicks, and the disco boogie. And there are three utterly superb vocal performances by Victoria Clark (in the title role), Montego Glover (as the prodigy’s mother), and Judy Kaye (as Countess), as well as a wonderful sound design by Martin Levan.

Montego Glover (Xholiswa)  (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

But what is this musical about? Judging from what I saw on opening night, nobody connected with the show seems to have a clear, uncluttered idea, apart from a generalized benevolent hope about race, religion, and human relations. The score (buttressed by Lebo M.), too, fails to give the show a strong signature, because it tries to reach much farther than it could ever grasp. In the film, the boy was a prodigiously gifted East Indian teenager, already a departure from the novel’s Jewish boy. Now, the character has morphed into an African, giving the story a reason to sound its strident notes about Apartheid. Trouble is that the libretto opens by pushing racial politics into the foreground before later vulgarly projecting what look like hundreds of portraits of Jewish holocaust victims. And, in another vulgar irony, the resolution and denouement of the piece occurs at Christmas, with a large, decorated tree dominating the décor. So, there you have it: African, Jewish, and Christian, three huge motifs aspiring to a sort of moral benevolence.

But the characters are largely undeveloped and the dramatic surprise awaiting Mme. Sousatzka is eminently predictable, as is the triumphant artistic of Jordan Barrow’s Themba. True, the show moves from the many faceless to many with faces—in Africa, Warsaw, and London—but even the characters with actual faces (such as an eccentric osteopath, a lecherous impresario, and a beautiful ballerina girlfriend for Themba) are thinly drawn and far from engrossing. This Soustazka is woefully unripe for Toronto, let alone Broadway.

STUPID F____ING BIRD

by Aaron Posner
Directed by Vinetta Strombergs
The Bird Collective Presentation at Pop-Up Theatre
Toronto. February 28-March 19, 2017

(L-R): Daniel Maslany (Con), Brendan Hobin (Dev), Rachel Cairns (Mash), Richard Greenblatt (Sorn), Sarah Orenstein (Arkadina) and Craig Lauzon (Trigorin) (photo: Josie Di Luzio)

A loose, irreverent, contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, Aaron Posner’s off-Broadway hit receives a commendable production at a venue that is well-suited to site-specific theatre. Once a golf store, before it became the very famous Ed Mirvish Restaurant, Pop-Up is really a large space divided into sections that can be imaginatively used, budgets permitting. Vinetta Strombergs’s production capitalizes on the surviving mural expansively painted as a pastoral lakeside on long walls in what is being used as the first act setting—Madam Arkadina’s backyard. Chekhov’s 19th century characters—all of whom are unfortunately in love with those who do not or cannot return this love—have morphed into 21st century rough equivalents, though Posner conflates two of the original characters and drops a few others. Irena Arkadina, the famous, temperamental stage actress, is now Emma, a famous, egotistical stage, screen, and television actress, and her latest lover is not the Boris Trigorin of Chekhov’s original but Doyle Trigorin, a tattooed hunk -with an unfortunately mixed name. Konstantin, her neurotically insecure playwright son, is now Con, a neurotically insecure experimental playwright/director who inveighs against the contemporary theatre (calling Cirque du Soleil a hand-job that’s pleasurable but without producing real change) while pushing his own post-modernist agenda, including a site-specific theatre practice. Konstantin’s beloved, Nina, is still named Nina, and she does idealize the seagull (that appears only once, enclosed in a carrier bag) to the point where she identifies with it, but she falls in love with Trigorin and after having his baby (who dies), she goes mad or has an actress breakdown (with over-the-top Actors Studio realism).

Meanwhile, Mash (a self-proclaimed chef, still in black, as in Chekhov, though not simply in mourning for her life but because black is a slimming colour) loves Con, but he doesn’t return that love, while Dev (evidently a version of Medvedenko, the hapless schoolteacher, and Con’s best friend and supporter) is foolishly in love with her (his thighs ache, he laments with testosterone frustration) to little avail for most of the show. And, finally and not least, there’s Emma older brother, Dr. Eugene Sorn (a fusion of Chekhov’s Dr. Dorn and Sorin, Arkadina’s brother), who serves as chorus, divorced from his wife and a voyeur who infiltrates the imaginary fourth wall, as others do as a matter of course.

All this serves to enhance the raw, theatrically audacious nature of the script that follows the general contours of Chekhov’s play but with what one American critic has termed an endless self-awareness. The characters frequently speak directly to the audience, explaining themselves, sometimes seeking advice on how to go forward in their own particular private worlds, but this is where parody has its limits. When Con asks the audience to help him answer how he can get Nina to love him, Dev pipes up that the audience cannot do this because they know Con is fictional. Meta-theatre, you say? Of course, it is, upending Chekhov’s delicacy, though sometimes with admirable comic effect, as when Mash apologizes to Dev for not feeling any love for him, but then striking up a ditty on her ukulele: “Life is a muddle, life is a chore/Life is a burden, life is a bore./This apple is rotten right down to its core./Life…is disappointing.” A disappointingly flat line for such a funny and sharp parody, but this type of friction between parody and paraphrase, period convention and contemporary experiment occurs frequently, and often with striking effects, as the audience becomes literally ambulatory, moving their chairs from room to room (backyard to kitchen to garden), adapting to the changing spatial geometry, as well as to the tropes of style.

Whatever its inclination to be overripe or seem spontaneous, Posner’s play is not haphazard. It has a rough symmetry, making a fugue out of the phrase “Here we are,” which, at first, is the title of Con’s post-modernist theatrical experiment, replete with parody expressionism by Nina, then repeated at other points by other characters, including Con and Dr. Sorn. Well, where, in fact, are we—the we being both the characters and the audience itself? The actors watch us, as we watch them, engage in dialogue with some of us, then melt back into the action, only to re-emerge from point to point and challenge our expectations. There is little point in trying to match Posner with Chekhov because the play is a riff, a parody, a meta-theatrical reflection of how Chekhov’s characters are self-obsessed or self-aware.

The acting style required for such a piece is difficult in that it has to be well calibrated to the tone of the writing. Strombergs’s cast largely succeeds because the director skilfully modulates between parody and paraphrase, melodrama and psychodrama. Though Rachel Cairns’s Mash pushes the depression a bit much, she can be disarmingly funny, especially in her hysterical catalogue of miscellaneous horrors of the modern world. Her Dev is splendid Brendan Hobin, whose instincts for stand-up comedy are used in a disciplined, effective way. Karen Knox’s thwarted Nina negotiates a line between earnestness and self-parody, naivete and shattering truma, and she is excellent in her scenes with Craig Lauzon’s masculine and not emasculated quintessentially restless Trigorin even when he seems at rest. Daniel Maslany makes a fair meal out of Con, playing him very much in the manner of a post-modern Hamlet, forever childishly anxious or excited, unpredictable, explosive, self-questioning, disillusioned. The most mature performances come, not unexpectedly, from two mature performers. Sarah Orenstein’s Arkadina is well-rounded: selfish and doting; careless and jealous, while Richard Greenblatt’s Sorn is a well gauged chorus and character, with or without a guitar and song, always seeking to probe human behaviour, or, at least, pose the right questions about motivation and feeling. They add extra lustre to a play that is piercingly candid, yet one that raises questions whether 21st century’s Angst excludes catharsis.