MIDSUMMER (a play with songs)

By David Greig & Gordon McIntyre
Directed by Tamara Bernier Evans
At Tarragon Theatre (Mainspace). April 26-May 28, 2017

Brandon McGibbon (Bob) and Carly Street (Helena) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Midsummer charts fluctuations in the relationship of two mid-30’s somethings, who meet in a wine-bar on a rainy summer night in Edinburgh. He is Bob, a small-time crook, who once aspired to becoming a rock star. Nicknamed Medium Bob in the underworld because of his ordinary appearance, he is a pessimist who reads Dostoevsky to cheer himself up. She is Helena, a divorce lawyer, at loose ends because of an unfulfilling affair with a married man. Despite her name and the title’s echoes of Shakespeare, this is very much a gritty urban conflicted romance, with undernotes of cynicism and a gloss of black comedy. They meet, have sex, suffer hangovers, and become embroiled in dangerous escapades over the next 48 hours, that encompass such things as Japanese rope-bondage, sex in the presence of plush-toy Elmo, a sister’s wedding gone horribly awry because of Helena’s hangover and bitter rage against her sister, binge drinking with teenage Goths, Bob’s inability to bank a ton of money from a car sale, and a chase sequence that is described more than it is enacted. The plot is stuffed to the point of strenuous farce, but there are too many contrivances that could exhaust a viewer’s patience.

The radical fun of the piece is its deliberate scrambling of first and third-person narrative in the form of winding, jumping back, and doubling back. Much depends on the versatility of two performers, and their ability to negotiate Greig’s wit and McIntyre’s rock music, both adroitly suited to context. While blonde and buxom Carly Street gives a largely gorgeous performance, at once sexy, wanly desperate, and menacingly cool, turning in accompanying sketches as a pint-sized violent hood and a cheery, bubble-headed TV weather girl, Brandon McGibbon is shaggy and pitchy as Bob, neither charmingly sexy nor convincing as a man with poetry in his head. His comic sense is stronger than his romantic side, and, spurred by a song lyric, he gets good comedy from a lecture-song from his erect member about his reckless life. When the duo work with interior monologues (which are plentiful), they do better than with dialogue, but the play also compromises them somewhat by its offbeat casualness and stand-up comedy flavour.

Graeme S. Thomson’s set design is too much of a black space with a few coloured trunks and props; it hardly conveys the spirit of place demanded by the show’s shifting locales. Moreover, while the coloured trunks suggest a restless mobility, they also create the illusion of a show to be taken on the road, a sort of buskers’ entertainment. True, the script often thrives on direct address to the audience rather than fancy stage craft (a sort of alienation effect), but while this is exploited by director Tamara Bernier Evans, the production and play are both stamped as a wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than a quirky existential weekend with significant after-shocks. The over-arching point is existential change, but this point is made by a car park metre that doles out philosophical advice (“Change is possible”), almost comparable to a Chinese fortune cookie.

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BANANA BOYS

by Leon Aureus
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
At Factory Theatre Studio. Opened April 20, 2017.

(L-R): Darrel Gamotin (Sheldon), Matthew Gin (Mike), Jeff Yung (Rick), Miquelon Rodriguez (Luke), and Oliver Koomsatira (Dave) in Banana Boys (photo: Joseph Michael)

It may well be time to retire Banana Boys, Leon Aureus’s stage adaptation of Terry Woo’s novel about the problems confronting five young Asian Canadians. The first work developed by fu-Gen Canadian Theatre Company in 2002, and a big hit then and subsequently in early 2004 at Factory Theatre, the Magnetic North Festival of 2005, it was remounted last fall at Factory, and now has yet another remount by Nina Lee Aquino, who has been part and parcel of the play’s success. I had reservations about the first and second versions, and these reservations have now grown to the point where I cannot support a work that seems terribly out of touch with contemporary Canadian social reality and with contemporary international theatre, where it is simply enough to be multi-cultural to merit approval.

There is no denying the historical facts about Canadian racism. Asians in this country were especially discriminated against even before Confederation. And many of the biases still prevail in certain sectors of the land. But there are successful Asians (especially Chinese) everywhere I look, and what I saw on stage hardly measured up as an accurate reflection of the Canadian Chinese I know and have seen around me, everywhere from Richmond Hill, Markham, Scarborough, Toronto, and North York to Etobicoke, Mississauga, and Brampton. But Banana Boys does not concern itself with these citizens, or with 21st century urban Chinese Canadians and their issues of psycho-sexuality, for instance, or vertical mobility. So, are there really “banana boys” today—young Chinese who are “yellow” on the outside, “white” on the inside? Perhaps, but parallels could similarly be drawn with other assimilated immigrants. The play thrives on its clichés and shallow representations. So, it presents us Rick, a BMW-driving businessman who boasts that he can see through things before they happen. He is a narcissist who boasts of having slept with over 60% of the women in his society, and he is defined by themes of conquest and domination, though his drug-addiction leads to his destruction. Jeff Yeung, looking like the oldest of the quintet, plays him mainly on one note, and grows increasingly monotonous. There is Sheldon, the guy who desperately wants a girlfriend. Darrel Gamotin has the requisite anxiety, but the role is narrow and does not allow him depth. As Luke, the DJ with the right dance moves but the wrong life ones, Miquelon Rodriguez is the largest Banana Boy in terms of physique, and he gets to play other small roles with enough versatility and colour to remain interesting. Oliver Koomsatira, in top knot, moustache and goatee, is Dave, the embittered drunk, forever volatile and forever violent—a provocateur whom is impossible to root for. Rounding off the group is Matthew Gin as Mike, the sensitive soul, pressured by his mother to be a doctor, though he yearns to be a writer. Gin also happens to give a sensitive performance, and perhaps the quietest one, which doubles his effectiveness.

There is no real plot. Monologues begin the piece, and episodes develop it, but they happen without a discernible arc or shape, and though there are amusing digressions (such as a beauty pageant or an amusing board game about love and relationships), these hardly go anywhere significant. And then there is the age-old cliché about small Chinese penises, as if this really mattered to anyone apart from a size-queen or a pseudo-sexologist. Nina Lee Aquino, who has an undeniable knack for moving her actors around a small stage, doesn’t know how to draw performances from them. In fact, this time out, she loses control of her choreography, having the youth practically bounce off the walls, or rush up the aisle so that they can be seen only partially or not at all by various sections of the audience.

It was impossible to tell what decade the play is set in or where precisely. Much use is made of cellphones and modern music, but at the end Matthew is presented with a battered typewriter as the emblem of his real vocation. A typewriter, not a computer or IPad—surely an irony meant to draw attention to something beyond the mere fact that the play is out of its time.

HIERNOMYUS BOSCH: THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS.

Written, Directed, and Choreographed by Marie Chouinard
A Canadian Stage Presentation at the Bluma Appel Theatre,
April 19-23, 2017

photo: Nicolas Ruel

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death, and Marie Chouinard’s 75-minute theatrical dance, derives its inspiration and some of its style from Bosch’s oil-on-oak triptych that hangs in the Prado. The original painting has three panels: one where God presents Eve to Adam; a central panel that depicts a dark, gruesome, nightmarish hell; and a third where naked figures frolic in a surreal landscape populated by fantastic mammals and fish. In many radical ways, Bosch was a critic or rebel. His art dared to defy orthodoxies of conventional painting, as well as orthodoxies of religion and the church. His God, for instance, is one of the smallest figures, tucked high away in one panel, whereas his devils are larger, literal animals that debase churchmen and nuns. There are also naked human figures engaged in a multitude of sexual and secular activities. In one panel, a figure sticks flowers into another person’s anus. And yet, The Garden of Earthly Delights is the most celebrated of Bosch’s paintings, and Marie Chouinard sticks to this art and its spirit by developing her own. What results, as she rightly claims in her program note, a spell-binding phantasmagoria that mirrors the angels or demons of our inner beings.

Chouinard’s creation is homage that expands in its own right. It doesn’t just bow to an earlier masterpiece; it becomes its own masterpiece. The work is set off by a set and video design featuring a large reproduction of Bosch’s triptych, but narrowing in, panel by panel, to match specific poses, gestures, and attitudes to particular choreography. There are circular modules, one at each downstage corner, and these become literal close-ups of details in the triptych. The principal image is a transparent sphere, that suggests a plastic balloon, as well as connoting a cosmic egg, womb, microcosm, bubble of mind/soul, cage/cell, or a fragile shell. Bosch never left any explanation or clarification of the meaning of his artistic symbols, emblems, and signs, and this ambiguity allows Chouinard to create her own rite and trance, her own exploration and experience.

photo: Nicolas Ruel

The first section of the piece favours horizontals and floor work, duos, trios, and quartets offering splendid sequences. In one, an Adamic male feeds his Eve repeated bites of an imaginary apple, before touching her belly asexually, as if to signal the fruit of her womb. The all-but-nude dancers (four male, six female (including the brilliant veteran Carol Prieur)) make nakedness a form of pre-lapsarian reality rather than something erotic, though lewd gestures do infiltrate the choreography in a celebration of the carnal.

The second section is decidedly modern in tone, imagery, and style. Growls, screams of torment, and other vocalizations are amplified into a cacophony, and movement seems deconstructed. A skeleton at the rear, a high stepladder, garbage pails—visible emblems of a denuded, degraded world, marked for decay and death. The dancers trace starkly startling images: a snake curling out of a woman’s mouth; two battling women with prosthetic attachments to their arms; a four-headed mask; a male striking a crucifixion pose while entangled in the stepladder; a group forming a tableau vivant ship of fools. The choreography is deliberately disjointed, macabre, distorted, accompanied by a sound design amplifying mania. The tone is self-indulgent, with abrupt transitions, and yet all is stunningly eye-catching, mind-engaging.

Section Three opens with birdsong and insect buzz, with a closeup of an eye. Each of the two modules, however, has a differently coloured iris. And Chouinard’s inversions or reversals are alluring: a female Jesus presents Adam to Eve, rather than the other way round. Jesus holds Adam’s wrist as Eve rests a hand on the floor, both positions radically changing Bosch’s painted images, though the dancers’ gestures are identically matched to Bosch. The most salient body movement (angular crouches in the second section) is tiptoe and from the mid-riff, but with superb poise and balance effected. To the sounds of peaceful water and hymnal chant, the piece ends with a tone of sacred trance. The signature is Chouinard and her dancers’ unparalleled eloquent economy.

887

Written, Designed, Directed and Performed by Robert Lepage
An Ex Machina Production presented by Canadian Stage
April 7-16, 2017

Robert Lepage standing beside 887 Murray Avenue (photo: Erick Labbe)

A giant black box opens up to become a large doll-house populated by miniature toy figures of people and props from a middle-class apartment complex at 887 Murray Avenue, Quebec City. Its windows are like small screens lit up with video of animated figures representing the apartment occupants, a veritable gallery of diverse beings, tawdry or noble, idiosyncratic or conservative, lusty or worn-out. This obvious nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window is not meant to portend a murder-mystery. The cross-sections of class and language (French and English) are more in the mode of Michel Tremblay, and yet the entire enterprise is overwhelmingly a Robert Lepage creation. As writer, director, performer, and collaborative designer, he is a virtuoso theatre auteur with his unique signature. His stage imagery, exhibiting a mastery of several technologies, is supreme. And what unforgettable images in shifting perspectives, as the doll-house opens up to reveal various sections of the complex and represent other locales, becoming bedroom, kitchen, library, a 60s diner, a television set, Quebec’s Parc des Braves, an animated board game, or a route for Charles de Gaulle on his famous (or infamous) visit to Quebec during the heyday of fervent French-Canadian nationalism. Deploying computer imagery and technology, shadow puppetry, and filmic techniques and lighting (implemented by a wonderful creative team too numerous to name individually), Lepage is a returning wizard of stunning visual effects, as when a bunk bed transforms into a theatre, or when a screen filled with baffling electronic rays and shapes become an image of a grandmother’s defective brain synapses caused by Alzheimer’s or when a close-up of a soldier’s gleaming boots dramatize a boy’s vivid memory of his fear while running his paper route during the FLQ crisis. The boy is, of course, Lepage himself, and his play is a memory play about unreliable or unstable memory as it attempts to deal with themes of identity and legacy, historical as well as autobiographical.

887 is, in effect, Lepage’s “memory palace,” that is toured in this 125-minute show (without intermission). Premiered in 2015 as an offshoot of the Pan Am Games, where it received rave reviews and then toured successfully to Europe and New York City, 887 has a deeper story than many of Lepage’s more recent stage enterprises, and one with distinctive historical, cultural, socio-political, and autobiographical strands that are skilfully interwoven into a fabric rich with motifs of identity and legacy, memory and feeling. He is the sole life-size human figure on stage, and everything is seen through his eyes as he begins “a dive into the waters” of his past, dropping the liquid image for the most part, but stirring up many things. He is the only speaker on stage, even when he narrates anecdotes about Fred, his theatre school chum, who unexpectedly pays him a visit or two. Fred writes obituaries (“cold cuts”) for Radio Canada, and Lepage is eager to read what his friend will say of him when he passes. His reaction is one of priceless, wounded narcissism, especially as Lepage is the only one on stage, speaking as he does to an invisible Fred, either in person or on the phone.

Robert Lepage reciting “Speak White” (photo: Erick Labbe)

He uses a nice frame for his story, presenting his own power of memorization as a defective one because he confesses to being unable to memorize Michele Lalonde’s powerful political poem “Speak White” for his oral presentation at the 40th anniversary of Montreal’s “La Nuit de poesie.” This poem, of course, makes it eminently clear that one of the strongest subjects and provocations is Quebec nationalism, for Lalonde’s poem, like the province’s official motto (“Je me souviens”), takes relentless hold of his tribal consciousness. So, Lepage represents himself as a victim of short term memory loss, unable to recall his own cell phone number yet able to remember the family phone number at 887 Murray Avenue, where his family lived between 1960 and 1970.

His own father comes across as his personal hero—someone handsome, athletic, an inveterate smoker, war veteran, humiliated by circumstance to earning a living as a taxi-driver, often lost in his own thoughts in his cab where he smokes or listens to music from American radio stations. His siblings, mother, and paternal grandmother are mentioned, even highlighted for brief moments, and it does seem that his monologue wanders more than it should. Certainly, much of his text is entertainingly comic, as he provides thumbnail sketches of his neighbours in the apartment building: a Catholic Irish family with a mother who is an obsessive-compulsive; a man who lives with his mother (once a piano teacher); a high school teacher of French, with family in Haiti; a couple with a Great Dame named Hamlet; a young Elvis impersonator who would become a pop star; a chartered accountant married to an English flower child who would become a waitress at the Chateau Frontenac. To be candid, Ronnie Burkett would have made something much more vivid with his puppets than Lepage does with the miniature animated videos. But the true subject is not these “supporting” players. They are merely secondary or tertiary details in a narrative really about Lepage and his various anomalies.

With his great charm and narrative skill, Lepage negotiates the past, commemorating his father who sympathized with the aims of the violent FLQ but not their tactics, recalling the humiliations of colonial Quebec, especially after the Battle on the Plains of Abraham. He doesn’t miss his opportunity to explain the significance of the name “Murray,” informing us that it derives from the name of General Wolfe’s second-in-command and later Canada’s first Governor-General. While much of what he tells us does feel like an illustrated lecture, there is no questioning Lepage’s general talent. There is a lot to be remembered by a Quebecois, which Lepage certainly is, though his international celebrity and his warm reception by English-Canadians do not override his deep feeling of anger about how his people have been dehumanized or denatured by English imperialism. “Speak White” brings that anger to the fore, as Lepage delivers a phenomenally potent recitation in a thrilling dramatic climax. The only other time I felt so moved by a French-Canadian recitation was when the great, late Denise Pelletier recited “La Marseillaise” as Sarah Bernhardt.

Finally, Lepage morphs into his own sad, lonely father, a man humiliated by the past, and grief-stricken by his mother’s death. What Lepage remembers is exactly what a son is supposed to remember of his beloved father, whose silence speaks volumes in the son’s remembrances. And because Lepage is a Quebecker, the remembrances have potent cultural and historical edges. It is these edges that will probably linger longer in an audience’s memory than the ample technical wizardry.

SPOON RIVER

By Edgar Lee Masters
Adapted by Mike Ross & Albert Schultz
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Opened April 3, 2017

(L-R): Brendan Wall, Mike Ross, Daniel Williston, Oliver Dennis, Jackie Richardson, and Raquel Duffy (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Broadway has already embraced Come From Away; now is the time for Off-Broadway to celebrate this moving musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’s free-verse poems in honour of “faithful, tender-hearted souls” remembered from his small town youth in the Midwest. This is a fresh reincarnation of what was a big hit for Soulpepper, artistically and financially, in late 2014, and with Jackie Richardson and Alana Bridgewater now in the large cast, Spoon River gains in musical power as never before. The production marks an artistic peak for Mike Ross as composer, but it is also a peak for Albert Schultz as director and for the Soulpepper acting company. Masters originally published what were epitaphs for more than 200 characters in serial form, using anonymity as his mask, but when the material caught on widely with the reading public, he quickly took credit. His original text is enormously accessible, and it ultimately provides an imperishable sense of an entire town in the 19th century American Heartland—Illinois, in this instance.

Mike Ross and Alana Bridgewater  (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Schultz and Ross use the frame of a funeral for a young woman, and treat each member of the audience as a Passer-by who files through a funeral parlour containing sepia portraits of the dead, a guest book, and an open casket in which the deceased rests. Grim attendants in black guide the audience through a ghostly wood of birches at night, and past the cemetery, where a large harvest moon hangs in the inky sky, and where a preacher (Diego Matamoros) delivers an eulogy, while invoking the image of death as a great leveller, for all the dead (as a chorus chants) are “sleeping, sleeping on the hill.” Matamoros sets a visual and tonal standard that others in the cast seek to match in their various ways, and the cast (many equipped with fiddles, banjos, ukuleles, auto-harps, and guitar, and one portly male with a set of drumsticks) rise to the occasion, lifting their voices in song or striking up coffin-thumping, jump-up gospel, bluegrass, to complement the prose-poetry musings of many colours and moods. Even when a very few of the voices are rather off-key or not precisely calibrated to a song, it doesn’t matter much because the singers have the correct grain and texture. They all sing in character, so it is the character rather than the loveliness of sound that matters more.

The character vignettes run the gamut from sombre to bawdy, sinister to romantic, witty to woeful, bitter to sweet, melancholy to ecstatic. While merely thumbnail sketches, the characters come to life as scholars, poets, craftsmen, musicians, children, husbands, wives, atheists, ministers, lawyers, bankers, soldiers, criminals, young lovers, and suicides. There are too many wonderful performances to mention here; a catalogue might require naming almost the entire cast, and it is very probable that members of an audience will all have their own special favourites. However, suffice it to say that such expert performers as Diego Matamoros, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Oliver Dennis, and Michelle Monteith create indelible memories (mournful or celebratory) by their thumbnail sketches.

2017 Spoon River ensemble (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann) 

With the help of Ken Mackenzie’s set and lighting design, Erika Connor’s costumes, and Jason Browning’s sound design, one memorable theatrical image follows another, as performers slide in and out of roles, multiplying versatility and entertainment, without ever losing a grip on life as a worthwhile test and death as a verdict on what was lived or avoided. Almost unfair, if not impossible, to select from a rich gallery, but mention must be made of an old couple loving so deeply that their deaths are a perfectly natural fate. Or of a drunken jig performed by two reprobates, one of whom is a toothless, shrunken Don Juan. Or of a husband’s lament (sounding remarkably like Leonard Cohen in tone) when his wife refuses to divorce him. Or a mother’s warm memory of an encounter with Lincoln during the Civil War. Or a female fiddler caught in a shower of red roses as she plays a haunting tune to the sound of an approaching train. Or a cooper’s lessons from life delivered as an allegory of the tub. Or of a fiddler who notes how the earth keeps vibrating.

Mike Ross has described his music for the show as being O, Brother, Where Art Thou? meets A Prairie Home Companion meets The Walking Dead. But his music, while sometimes jaunty, rollicking, and vigorous is never truly coarse. It is sometimes beautifully tender and silvery, sometimes bluesy, always engaging. The truly outstanding numbers, apart from the powerful choruses, are arias: Alana Bridgewater does a gospel number (about the blindness of souls to other souls) that grows and grows in pitch and power; Jackie Richardson as Widow McFarlane, weaver of carpets for the village, sings about “loom of life,” her voice moving from the buttery rich to a deep-down velvet; and Hailey Gillis, as the woman who emerges from her coffin near the end, launches into a hypnotic solo, with melancholy notes about feeling the beauty of a world she has recently left but not forgotten. These numbers and the rich balance of grief and joy, pain and delight in the shadow of death reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but Spoon River takes the sting out of death, emphasizing the benevolent message in the show’s rousing finale: “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!” This production is utterly alive, and it feeds our souls with massive energy, colour, and generosity.

 

KISS

by Guillermo Calderon.
Directed by Ashlie Corcoran.
A Theatre Smash & Arc Co-Production in Partnership with Canadian Stage.
At the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.
March 28-April 16, 2017

(L-R rear: Greg Gale (Youssif), Dalal Badr (Bana), and Carlos Gonzalez-Vio (Ahmed); Naomi Wright in front (Hadeel)  (photo: James Heaslip)

Guillermo Calderon’s play-within-a-play has been upended by Ashlie Corcoran’s unconvincing production that starts off competently, only to degenerate into a hysterical, unconvincing melodrama. Calderon’s 80-minute piece (played through without intermission) is political allegory with fine passion and moral weight. It interrogates not only the fictional characters it deploys within the play-within-a-play (purportedly a Syrian play in Arabic under the name of Boosa found on the Internet), written by a woman named Ameera Al Diri, but it also interrogates the very nature, methods, and impact of political theatre itself, as well as universal ethical themes.

This “found” play unfolds like a soap opera, in which Hadeel (Naomi Wright) has to deal with marriage proposals from two men: her boyfriend Ahmed (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) and her best friend’s boyfriend Youssif (Greg Gale). The four meet at Hadeel’s apartment in Damascus, and the soap opera quotient is high, indeed, as Hadeel orders lusty Youssif to leave and never return because he importunes her too passionately to accept his proposal even though he is supposedly in love with Bana (Dalal Badr), Hadeel’s best friend. Youssif throws himself on his knees, claiming that Hadeel can love two men at the same time, though she insists that Ahmed (whom she has known since childhood) is the perfect one for her. This part of Calderon’s play (and it is the shortest part) is most entertaining, and does receive the right sort of life-scale acting in general from the cast, with Carlos Gonzalez-Vio’s jittery but masculine Ahmed, Dalal Badr’s fractious and devastated Bana, Naomi Wright’s conflicted and contradictory Hadeel, and Greg Gale’s anarchically charged Youssif.

After the cast takes its bows, the whole tone and style changes, without the production’s director quite knowing how to handle the tropes or the altered grain. There is a talk-back led by the director of the play-within-the-play (Bana), and a Skype interview with the female Syrian playwright, translated by her interpreter (Liza Balkan), during which the soap opera cast realizes that they have misread many things in the script and not understood some of the most significant and dire implications of the action. So, there are new attempts at getting the play right. Ironically, this is where Corcoran’s production goes woefully awry (despite rehearsing well-known theatrical conventions, such as video projections and sounds of static), descending into some of the worst clichés of melodramatic acting to such an extent that my urge to laugh out loud was muffled only by my disgust at the falsity of everything. It was as if the players were caught in a radically new Pirandello play without benefit of a proper cast or a true director. Seldom as meta-theatre seemed so literally absurd. And this is a pity because Calderon (who is probably Chile’s best playwright) deserves much better.