I DID IT MY WAY IN YIDDISH (IN ENGLISH)

By Deb Filler. At Factory Studio, May 23-28, 2017

Deb Filler (photo: Guntar Kravis)

She is billed as New Zealand’s only Jewish comic entertainer, and she has a Kiwi accent, though she lives and works in Toronto after also having lived in New York where she trained as an actress. She is also Jewish, without apology for her ethnic jokes and considerable fun with Yiddish—a hybrid, as she puts it, of High German and phlegm. And the joke about Yiddish sets a tone for her 90-minute stand-up routine, that she performs in casual dress with the help of only a single black stool, a microphone, and a guitar (on which she whips up audience singalong participation for popular folk ballads and pop hits dating back to the 60s and 70s). She jokes that the usual demographic for her travelling show is a little older, and like most of her jokes, she does not put a cruel sting on things. She jokes mainly about herself, portraying herself as a shy child with a gift for song—though she tried resisting her mother’s urgings to perform like a young Judy Garland. “It’s so yesterday,” she was apt to protest, but the fact of the matter is that she well knows and often relishes what was yesterday, whether it is Gershwin, Fiddler on the Roof, protest folk songs, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Broadway’s old 42nd Street. She obviously shares some of her father Sid’s chauvinism pride in Jewish talent, though her taste is eclectic and not all limited to a single ethnicity, and she has warm presence, wonderful comic timing, a facility for character sketches in two languages, and a wonderful way with anecdotes—especially the ones about her encounters with three great Lennys (Bernstein, Cohen, and Kravitz) that leave an audience gasping with laughter and not a little poignancy.

Her beloved parents survived the Holocaust—and there is an extraordinarily moving anecdote of how Leonard Bernstein played Gershwin in a concentration camp and how he paid tribute to her hardworking father and to her during a concert in Auckland after she took the conductor six loaves of challah baked by her father. It is such a defining quality, this ethnic ability to laugh or cry after nightmare, to continue with life’s complications like an odyssey in search of existential definition. But, perhaps, I am being too hifalutin about all this. The plain fact is that Deb Filler is an entertainer who has you in the palm of her hand from her opening song to her hilarious renditions of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Can Get No Satisfaction,” and, ultimately, “My Way” in Yiddish. Her comedy needs no translation.

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STRANGERS, BABIES

By Linda McLean
Directed by Paul Lampert
A Theatre Panik Production at the Artscape Sandbox, May 12-28, 2017

David Schurmann (Duncan) and Niki Landau (May) (photo: Neil Silcox)

Paul Lampert’s production is designed as five “exhibits” designed by Michael Gianfrancesco as if these were art installations with actors in their own private spaces. Only one of the exhibits is completely enclosed like a blue box with a door. The others are either completely open or can be easily accessed by an ambulatory audience that is supposed to be witnesses to an unfolding elliptical drama with hard edges and a nervous rhythm. In one instance, there is an old man asleep in a hospice bed; in another a middle-aged husband is engrossed in a newspaper crossword or puzzle, his coffee at hand; in a third, a grizzled young man on park bench picks at his stained fingers with a pen-knife; in a fourth, a man nattily dressed in suit and tie begins undressing in a hotel bed when he is not absorbed by his cell phone; and in a fifth, a young man, armed with a clipboard, sometimes makes stabbing motions with his pen. These installations purport mystery or, at least, something very unsettling, but this impression is somewhat contradicted by the rather pristine colours in each space: white for the man and wife, taupe or grey for the bedroom; blue for the social worker; green and some autumnal colours for the park.

The single character who enters each installation to further the narrative is Dan’s wife (May) with evident neurotic issues. At first, in her flat, she is mightily distressed at seeing a baby finch with a broken wing. Next, she is nervously eager for a masochistic sexual experience in a hotel with a male stranger (Roy) she has evidently met online; she suffers violently vituperative attacks by her cancer-ridden father (Duncan) in a hospice; then she is subjected to her brother Denis’s emotional onslaught in the park, where the dialogue suggests something criminal in their past; finally, part of her mystery is uncovered in the final scene with the social worker (Abel) who is bent on investigating the questionable health and care of May’s baby in its crib.

Award-winning Scottish playwright Linda McLean made a big splash with this 90-minute piece that is distinguished by raw poetry and a significant amount of subtext that cannot be played full out with explicit emotionality. The very structure and texture of the patchwork piece requires a skilful negotiation of ellipses, suppressed emotion, and subtle ambiguity—often missing or in short supply in Paul Lampert’s otherwise interesting production that shrewdly emphasizes themes of hurt and pain. The many references to injury, pain, violence, abuse, and death are not simply clinical in intent; they contain veils of significance.

Jeff Lillico (Denis) and Niki Landau (May) (photo: Neil Silcox)

Lampert is noted for strong expressionism, but such abstract metaphor, while visually absorbing, detracts from the text’s vocal power and connotative mystery. For one thing, the segmented design creates aesthetic distance between characters and audience, even in such an intimate space with a small audience capacity, and where setting changes are represented on a television screen or wall. Austar Stewart as Dan, May’s husband, gives a quietly patient performance that does not avoid the patronizing. Many in the cast are experienced versatile performers. David Schurmann as the embittered dying father is vehement to the point of pathology, though he correctly shows the terminally ill man’s personal shame for his daughter’s past, just as Jeff Lillico as May’s caustically contemptuous brother is especially strong and disturbing, though he fails to make the language seem like a stream of consciousness or Pinterian mystery. Richard Lee’s Roy is comically delightful in his awkward attempt to practise SM on a willing but nervous May, though neither he nor Niki Landau’s May makes their scene about erotic asphyxiation as dangerously uncomfortable as it could be. For one thing, Roy has to show rage at his own impotence or premature ejaculation, but Lee manages only short exasperation as if coitus were, indeed, prematurely interrupted.

Which leaves Edmund Stapleton as Abel and Niki Landau as May. Stapleton is a handsome blond young actor who captures the social worker’s seriousness of purpose beneath his bland surface. Landau, on the other hand, is pathologically disturbed throughout, starting on a high note of anxiety that is repeated without deeper exploration of the character’s other psychic anomalies. In other words, Landau rehearses clichés of nervousness rather than exploring fresh semaphores or angles through the character’s silences and uses of space. Surely, the significance of the play’s title could not have escaped the director or his cast. It connotes something minimalist, a story constructed of 15-20 minute vignettes with seemingly disconnected characters (metaphysical strangers) who have vulnerabilities or hurts going back in time, portending absent histories. The characters’ psychological barriers are denoted too plainly, and the ending falls flat in its abruptness, though this is more the playwright’s fault than the director’s. Definitely worth seeing, though it falls short on several counts.

RED GISELLE

A Ballet by Boris Eifman. Eifman Ballet St. Petersburg
at the Sony Centre, May 11-13, 2017

Dedicated to Olga Spessivtseva, one of the greatest ballerinas to become a cult figure in Russia in the 20th century, Boris Eifman’s Red Giselle is dramatically bold ballet theatre that does not pretend to be a dance biography. More of a generalized picture of Spessivtseva’s unhappy fate and of those of many talented people who were forced to leave Russia and experienced a tragic end, it is a narrative executed in quick, broad strokes that are potently expressive despite a choreography that is often schematically repetitive as far as the corps is concerned. Eifman’s anonymous Ballerina is traced from her beginnings as the embodiment of perfect beauty and mystery through to her dark romantic involvement with the Commissar, who represents the new political authority and who suppresses her will. It culminates in the Ballerina’s complex relationships with her Teacher, the Commissar, the Parisian Dancer/Choreographer, and her malignly fateful identification with the role of Giselle.

The red in the title becomes a symbol of the new Revolutionary Petrograd, as well as of the Ballerina’s haunting fate, such as her treacherous entanglement with the Commissar, her subjugation to his radical political ideology, her despair, exile, and eventually madness. The piece is romantic tragedy that leaves little or no room for meditation in its compelling impetus and velocity. The Ballerina is a beautiful but fragile creature, danced by Maria Abashova with exquisite grace in the ballet rehearsal before the superbly supple and admiring Teacher of Oleg Markov. Vyacheslav Okunev’s sets and costumes are striking echoes of Bakst and Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, though on a very modified scale. When the narrative shifts into the new political chaos and strife, there is a palpable darkening of tone and colour, not the least of which is heralded by Eifman’s sudden and unsubtle tropes of lighting. However, Abashova and the muscular, gymnastics of Sergey Volubev’s blond Commissar in black leather produce a pas de deux of stunning eroticism, highlighted by her bold splayed thighs, knees, and feet and his brutally uncompromising machismo with brusque, violent, staccato movements. Volubev’s lifts and Abashova’s balances have extraordinary height and virtuosity, and the choreography denotes a different rhythm and power from the orthodox classicism of traditional ballet.

The affair of Ballerina and Commissar intertwines attraction and fear, political, aesthetic, and psychological, and the Teacher’s despair (he is tortured in an unforgettable tableau vivant) is more than matched by the Ballerina’s confusion, though she is allowed to leave Russia and find a new path in Paris at the Grand Opera, where a young dancer/choreographer (Oleg Gabyshev), who brilliantly evokes Serge Lifar without slavish mimicry. The new Partner, however, happens to have a gay partner, performed by Dmitry Fisher with a virility that one wishes were not so sketchily dictated by Eifman. The hot jazz of Paris in the 20s and 30s is given a colourful exercise musically and choreographically, and it does provide relief from the Ballerina’s morbid consciousness and experiences. However, this sequence lacks dramatic definition beyond its role as a diversion or digression.

Indeed, whatever flaws and anomalies taint Red Giselle are really Eifman’s fault in that, though there is much to admire about the solos, duos, and trios in this piece, the ensemble choreography is unimaginatively repetitive with a lot of elbow swinging and militant semaphores for the masses and crucifixion poses for some of the principals. Though the musical score (an arrangement of Tchaikovsky, Alfred Schnittke, Bizet, and Adolphe Adam) is superbly apt, the abrupt changes in lighting do not help, nor does the libretto that rehearses clichés about exiled refugees and madness. The Ballerina’s nightmarish hallucination, like much of her interaction with the Commissar, is rendered in polyglot movement with a strong classical base, and Eifman does give each major character a distinctive stance, gestural style, and center of gravity, but the Ballerina’s disintegration is not charted with sufficient care or detail, so the climax of her disappearance into the flickering world of the mirror, identifying so much with Giselle that she never recovers sanity, falls a little flat. The sequence feels willed rather than organically generated. However, Red Giselle has enough thrilling bravura to transcend its flaws.

AN ICONIC JOURNEY (A CELEBRATION OF 35 YEARS)

By Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company
At the Fleck Dance Theatre, May 5-7, 2017

Esmeralda Enrique in “Serenidad y la Marea” (photo: Hamid Karimi)

Esmeralda Enrique founded her Spanish Dance Company and her school (Academy of Spanish Dance) in Toronto 35 years ago, and she remains Canada’s premier flamenco artist. Her celebration is a nostalgic re-visitation of several outstanding pieces from her impressive repertoire, but there are also two world premieres. Nostalgia, however, does not sugar-coat the dances. Though there are the expected exercises of various flamenco dance styles (buleria, guajiras, farruca, taranto, for instance), she does not use a single male dancer, but stamps the dances with strong feminine grace and virtuosity. The minute Enrique walks out of the wings to the stage, stretching her arms, warming up her feet without appearing to strain a single muscle, she shows the ordinariness of a gypsy dancer without relying on stagy glamour. This, of course, is no mere ordinariness: its freedom is a product of years of mastered technique, and when the first dance piece ensues, there is an easy transition between ordinary movement and heightened.

“¿Que Es El Amor?” (photo: Hamid Karimi)

Ana Morales’s ¿Que Es El Amor? is an upbeat, rapid dance, with spins and an emphasis on the arms rather than the midriff or feet, though the footwork with chufla, golpe, punta, and tacon come in colourfully as the quartet (Esmeralda Enrique, Pamela Briz, Virginia Castro, and Paloma Cortes) resemble beautiful birds with their fringed shawls spreading like wings. Arroyo de la Miel, a guajira from 2012’s Aguas/Waters, offers a languorous rhythm beautifully expressed by Ilse Gudino and Noelia la Morocha in their flowery headdress and long yellow batas de colas (dresses with ruffled trains).

Paloma Cortes’s interpretation of her own choreography in the solo Sevilla Flamenca (from 2013’s Portales), supported magnificently by Rebekah Wolkstein’s virtuosity on violin, emphasizes the beauty of a Spanish dancer’s mid-riff. It has the bearing of a Spanish gypsy, with the celebrated lift of the waist, an expressive stretch from the pit of the stomach to the small of the back, and it heightens the dancer’s presence.

Ilse Gudino and Noelia la Morocha in “Arroyo de la Miel” (photo: Hamid Karimi)

Flamenco doesn’t flounder between arrogant academicism and uncompromising private language. The dancer dances, making the strongest stage imagery from a rare duende rather than décor. The choreography should be secure, the variety accurately calculated, and an audience’s attention is compelled by no unladylike insistence. Much depends on the delicacy of the feet, with steps having an especial rapidity and brilliance. What is eye-catching is the poise of feet in the air, the lightness of little running steps, and lines of movement.

All these qualities come to the fore in the program, with the strongest dramatic flair shown in the finale for the first-half: Zona Zero, a farruca choreographed by Manuel Betanzos in 2013, and performed by Pamela Briz, Virginia Castro, Paloma Cortes, and Noelia la Morocha in severe, heavy grey and black, at first statically positioned in chairs before rising as if in reaction to the strong, grainy tones of Manuel Soto, a passionate cantaor. The sharp angularities of their movement and their eloquent dramatic flair (incorporating held lifted feet) create an indelible highlight, matched only by the zapateado trio of Briz, Castro, and Cortes for Enrique’s Grazalema, a homage to Jose Greco or, at least, to his rugged seriousness and precision at their heights. Less a concert than a superb rhythmic drama with stamping feet and suggestions of erotic power by the leather-booted trio with riding crops.

Pamela Briz, Virginia Castro, and Paloma Cortes in “Grazalema” (photo: Hamid Karimi)

Nothing weak in the entire program, nothing weak about the musical accompaniment either (from Manuel Soto on vocals, Caroline Plante and Benjamin Barrile on guitar, Rebekah Wolkstein on violin, and Derek Gray on hand drum), and nothing weak about the costumes, lighting, or video design. And the alegrias finale for the full company, where the white shawls create a rhythmic illusion of billowing sea waves, and that begins with Esmeralda Enrique’s solo in black and white, is a perfect conclusion. Brava and encore!

THE RETURN (IL RITORNO)

By Yaron Lifschitz, Quincy Grant, and the Circa Ensemble
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz
At the Bluma Appel Theatre, May 3-7, 2017

Ensemble of ‘The Return’ (photo: Chris Herzfeld)

It began sensationally, with the seven dancers (three female) lit and grouped like marmoreal sculptures. Mighty Todd Kilby’s free standing backward flip, sudden, solid, with a soft landing, striking the first vivid movement note.  The disjunctive angles, slow steps, knotted muscular limbs, legs and arms stretched or interlocked in the most grotesquely strained positions imaginable seemed deliberately counter to Monteverdi’s baroque music from his 1640 opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, with its languorous strings and sublime vocal renditions by rich-toned Benedict Nelson and mezzo-soprano Kate Howden. With minimal set design (basically a black wall to the rear and naked space) and lighting that accentuated skin, muscle, and a sense of humans caught in mortal coils (sometimes literally by straps), the piece had a cold mood. Bodies bent backwards tensely or collapsed slowly, some literally flung themselves about or were thrown, others flipped, rolled, tumbled, climbed, one was forcibly pinned to the rear wall. But as the acrobatics and gymnastics progressed, with some truly breathtaking sequences (especially the aerial strap work by Bridie Hooper, three-storey human towers, incredible balancing acts on these towers, etc), the 75-minute piece seemed to be endlessly repeating choreography without actually advancing any narrative. Although various components were impressive in themselves, they failed to coalesce into a coherent whole or to describe an arc of development as drama. And a viewer’s attention and focus were frequently blurred, with the singers or musicians compelling attention while the dancers struck their positions or shifted shapes.

Indeed, the lack of narrative cohesion was nearly fatal. For what was the piece truly about? It was clearly not simply about circus acrobatics. Nor was it really an unadulterated baroque entertainment: the mixed score of Monteverdi, Quincy Grant, and assorted, unnamed contemporary music saw to that. Director Lifschitz’s program note advanced a personal view of a tale-within-a-tale, with purposeful physical movement and singing going across styles. Yes, indeed, but what was being communicated was less clear.

Ensemble from ‘The Return’ (photo: Chris Herzfeld)

Advance publicity suggested such things as exile, return to homeland, persecution or oppression, freedom. A real grab-bag of themes. Certainly, the group work, with its vigorous interplay of acrobatics and music, puppet-like manipulated bodies, incredible images of punishment and endurance, fusion and fission could lead to assumptions about contemporary conflicts. The rear wall, for instance, could be read in multiple ways: it could have signified the old Berlin wall or a wall between Israel and Palestine or other walls. But without a defined context, any connotation lacked grounding. So it was with the human figures. Who was the Ulysses, who the Penelope, or her drunken suitors? Or, perhaps, the figures were contemporary representations of refugees in flight or captivity, in concentration camps or in exodus. Nothing was clear; nothing defined. Consequently, there was no real dramatic progression, not even a regression; simply repetition with diminishing returns.