WHENEVER YOU’RE READY

(Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager)
By Shawn DeSouza-Coelho
ECW Press
394 pages
$22.95 (paperback)

Nora Polley’s very long tenure as a Stage Manager at the Stratford Festival was a distinguished one. Daughter of Vic Polley, administrative director for the Festival, she certainly had an easier entrée into the organization than many others, but she proved her mettle and deserved all the praise and special honours she eventually received. Polley evidently kept a diary, from which portions are used in this rather peculiar biography. Not strictly an “as told to” book, it presents a challenge to readers who need to persevere through many unnecessary devices and flat passages to reach a few valuable revelations.

After a Prologue in 1969, in which she breathlessly recounts how she fetched coffee for Nathan Cohen during his visit to Trinity College Drama Society, followed by an offer from Jean Gascon to become stage manager, the narrative wobbles and staggers for a long time. Overly generous quotations from Shakespearean scripts (sometimes repeated three times in one fell swoop) with parallel descriptions of technical cues for sound, lighting, and scene changes slow the rhythm. In one instance, the quotations run for the equivalent of six full pages, succeeding in little other than trying a reader’s patience.

There is a great deal of name-dropping (which is, perhaps, inevitable in a long career), but only trivial information as to why many of the dropped names are important. Polley’s capsule comments are frequently restricted to trivial adjectives about looks and coiffure: Leo Ciceri is called a “handsome actor from Montreal”; Barry MacGregor “a handsome British actor with lush black hair”; Rory Feore (brother to Colm) is described as having “short wavy hair and a constant vibration,” though it is not at all clear what he is vibrating to. Often only first names are used, and, for instance, only real theatre fans or scholars can determine who the visiting American actress (simply called Kathleen) was who walked out of a production because she couldn’t cope with Robin Phillips’s way of working. (It was Kathleen Widdoes.)

The narrative is highly idiosyncratic in other ways, exposing the lack of good editing for this book. Sometimes allusions are made to a character in a play without reference to the play’s title. There is also a strong sense of death that lingers as Polley recalls the passing of many family and theatre figures. There is a dramatic instance when Eric Donkin drops dead during a rehearsal, but there is also one strange episode where Leo Ciceri’s death is recounted in the middle of a description of a family turkey dinner, without any family member apparently having second thoughts about pausing over a wing or leg or gravy.

Fortunately, there are nuggets in the book. These are not usually the photos, which are generally too small and indistinct to be of much value to anyone other than an earnest archivist. What is of more interest is that Nora Polley reveals her vulnerabilities and antipathies on and off the job: a failed marriage; the deaths of relatives, friends, and colleagues; her triumph over breast cancer; some special friendships; a distaste for theatre politics (especially as manipulated by John Hirsch, who exacted his revenge against anyone who liked Phillips); her love-hate relationship with actors over their “bullshit political games” (to which I can relate with deep-down sympathy, knowing as I do that the bullshit has a whole lot to do with unjustified egomania); her genuine sentimentality for respected or beloved artistic directors (such as Phillips, David William, John Neville, Richard Monette); and her true feelings (not all positive) about her vocation and the direction of the Festival.

The best parts of the book are the glimpses into the sometimes quixotic, perplexing, unsettling natures of genuine artists. We learn that Maggie Smith wears only custom-made sable fur false eyelashes. We get to spy on Robin Phillips banging on timpani to pace actors or his fiddling with sliders on a dimmer board to set the mood. We also learn how he elicited marvellously spontaneous discoveries from actors in rehearsal. We discover the professional loyalty and consideration of Martha Henry and Seana McKenna who refused to sign new contracts unless Stage Managers had their own issues settled first. We learn yet again of William Hutt’s dry humour, Richard Monette’s early shyness about his body, and John Neville’s first duty as artistic director to rehire company personnel who hadn’t been asked back by Hirsch. Each reader will probably have his or her own favourite moments. Mine include Polley’s shocking discovery of and her pathos for the physical and, perhaps, mental deterioration of Robin Phillips shortly before his death, and, more tenderly, a vignette of Sara Topham reciting lines from Juliet as she sits beside Richard Monette’s grave.

While far from truly coherent, the book is the product of Nora Polley’s love for her vocation. A propos her career, she claims that “If anybody notices you doing your job, you’ve just made a mistake.” Polley is hard on herself for one big mistake she once made years ago, but she missed only two performances as SM all her career, and never through her own fault. She calls herself “stupidly lucky” to have worked with Phillips. She is too modest. The Festival has been stupidly lucky to have had her services for over half a century. And, ultimately, theatre lovers may feel lucky to have a book of some of her cherished memories.

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MAMA MIA!

By Catherine Johnson
Directed and Choreographed by Valerie Easton
An Arts Club Production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
May 10-August 12, 2018

Ensemble of ‘Mama Mia!’ (photo: David Cooper)

Based on the lively songs of ABBA and having long proved to be a mega money-making musical, Mama Mia! will never enter the pantheon of great musicals in terms of libretto and score, but does this really matter if it sets tons of hearts and legs to skipping ecstasy while leaving minds blissfully free of weighty thoughts about artistic quality? A rhetorical question, of course, to those who measure art by box-office jingle-jangle of coin or the commodity of credit card and paper money? Keeping my own cynicism in check, I confess to a guilty pleasure: I enjoy the disco trash of its music and dance, the paper-thin heft of characterization, as well as the formulaic plot and conflict-resolution—if only because it gets my mind off depressing matters of inevitably more pressing existential concerns. And the Arts Club production, under the direction of Valerie Easton, never pretends to be more than it needs to be for an improbable plot and stereotypical characters. What is has in pleasing abundance is exuberance and an uncondescending commitment to its less-than-prime material.

After all, let us not forget the imperishable plot: 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan is about to marry her suntanned hunk Sky (with bulges in all the right places) and she wants to invite her father to the wedding on the alluring Greek island where her single mom, Donna, runs a taverna. Trouble is that Sophie doesn’t know who her real father is, but having read her mother’s diaries, she knows it would have to be one of three lovers Donna had in her bohemian youth, when she headed a musical trio known as Donna and the Dynamos. Her life has now fallen into the sere, it seems, for she laments (in a rare instance of down-to-earth prose): “This is my reality—hard work and a crippling mortgage.” It is clear she needs a good holiday in Greece on some sort of Shirley Valentine F-Plan, except that she is already in Greece, though not without any evident F-Plan. Hence, Sophie, in a flash of indiscreet wisdom, invites all three men, without, of course, informing her mom. More trouble on the island and in the taverna, which gives excellent reason to bring in as many ABBA songs as could be reasonably crammed into the contrived plot, moving quickly along from the opening “I Have a Dream,” Sophie’s “Honey, Honey” with her backup girls’ support, and “Money, Money” (Donna and her aging dynamos’ reality-check) to other jukebox hits galore—some neatly stuffed into the storyline, some purely novelty numbers (“Chiquita,” “Super Trouper,” “Voulez-Vous,” etc.), and one outstanding diva solo of heart-wrenching poignancy (“The Winner Takes it All”) before the inevitable big finish of multiple weddings and innumerable wet dreams for those with raging hormones.

Stephanie Roth as Donna Sheridan

What sells this production is the cast’s exuberance. David Roberts’s set (mainly in white, blue, and green) is serviceable without being outstanding, as is Robert Sondergaard’s lighting that can do nothing to disguise the sheer plastic clumsiness of the background sea. However, Alison Green’s costumes (especially for the glittering bellbottoms for the former disco queens) are a delight, and the choreography is nothing less than acrobatic, with plenty of skin on freewheeling display. There are hunks in skin-tight briefs and delectably nubile girls who go through their paces with brio, and comedy aplenty from Donna’s chums from her old girl band (rotund Rosie, whose “Take a Chance on Me” is a palpably plump hit as delivered by Cathy Wilmot; and sun-tanned, stiletto-heeled jetsetter Tanya, whom Irene Karas Loeper articulates with drop-dead elan and gut-busting risibility). Michelle Bardach’s Sophie is a bit colourless in her acting, but her singing is more acceptable. She gets adequate support from Shannon Hanbury (Ali) and Jennifer Lynch (Lisa) as her girlfriends. The men also have their select moments, with Jay Hindle (as the rather straitlaced Brit, Harry), Warren Kimmel (as the rugged Aussie, Bill), and Michael Torontow (as the super-hunk, Sam) portraying well-differentiated types. Stuart Barkley’s tall, lean, sun-drenched Sky is eye-candy, and there is plenty more of that in the ensemble, especially with ingratiatingly charming Oliver Castillo as Eddie, Paul Almeida as Pepper, and the extremely supple and lithe Julio Fuentes as one of the backup dancers.

But the best acting is from Stephanie Roth as Donna, not so much in her dialogue scenes but in her devastatingly affecting “The Winner Takes it All,” a heart-rending unburdening of long-simmering hurt, which is the most truthful lyric in a libretto that usually indulges itself in flash and dash.

MACBETH

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
At Bard on the Beach, Vancouver. June 17-September 3, 2018

Moya O’Connell (Lady Macbeth) and Ben Carlson (Macbeth)  (photo: Tim Matheson)

“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come.” Indeed, though there is too much drumming in Owen Belton’s strong soundscape, though I liked the use of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy evocative of Scottish Highlands, and the melancholy melody for Lady Macbeth. Gerald King’s lighting design finds it hard to cope with the sunlight pouring in from outdoors in the first half, though by sunset, the colour and mood change naturally. Of course, from the first eerie scream of Lady Macbeth in tandem with that of the Second Witch in the Prologue, it is clear that Chris Abraham’s perspective of this play is jolting. In a set (by Pam Johnson) that pays homage to the open-air Globe in London with pillars (morphing into upper tree branches), mezzanine, and wooden floor with a trap, all grey and white to evoke a cold, stark world that can be menacing and otherworldly, the production is boldly aggressive. The ensemble enters (costumed by Christine Reimer chiefly in in linens, wools, and velvets), and they draw close in hunched kneeling, knocking on the wooden floor as if to summon something as yet unexpressed or made sensible, in addition to stirring a narrative into motion. The knocking grows louder, and erupts into a battle, the noise of which peaks with the simultaneous screams of Lady Macbeth and the Second Witch. The lady’s is more significant: her scream issues from pain and frustration at the loss of her child (marked by an empty cradle that is abruptly removed by soldiers). Her maternal side gone, she must grow a new identity or, at least, the shape of one, with which to affect her dearest partner of greatness’s manhood and existential purpose. This is a world where the three witches (in corseted bodices and boots) are shabby, rough, and ready for war against the natural order. They could be camp-followers or vagrants, and their vocal attack is robust, though far too shrill and unsubtle, grotesque rather than supernaturally eerie. However, director Abraham doesn’t seem to mind this deficiency, electing, instead, to focus on the psychology of the two lead characters, played by Moya O’Connell and Ben Carlson, two superbly gifted and charismatic performers who give the production its greatest Shakespearean lift.

This is certainly a valid way of tackling this tragedy about two characters who lose their humanity in the cause of overweening ambition. The production never trivializes the private, domestic life of Macbeth and his lady. When they embrace and kiss after his return from heroic war victory, the sexual current is palpable. And she is all tactility, tracing his facial outline with her fingers, making him feel her support to correct his infirm purpose. Two heavy doors open and close on what could be other castle rooms and locations—places where malign plots can be laid. From this seed, an entire forest of human folly and self-destruction grows, haunted by horrors from the natural and supernatural realms. The problem, however, is that the title character (husband, soldier-hero, disillusioned poet) shrinks rather than grows in his humanity, ending up cornered, desperate, and fated to destruction. Ben Carlson, shaggily bearded, robust in voice and manner (while being clear in his speech and action), is a marvel of mounting excitement, never merely booming for sound and fury, but a man who begins to take himself and the witches’ prophecy too seriously until his lack of remorse, married to his repeated crimes, shrivels his humanity. Sometimes one feels in the soliloquies that the actor wishes Macbeth could be as philosophic as Hamlet, but Carlson’s Macbeth, while questing at times for intellectual security, is seized by fits of bewilderment and guilt. Wracked with convulsions of nauseous self-doubt, he is stunned and stunning in the dagger vision scene, knocking on the floor as if to be emphatic on “There’s no such thing.” And when apprised of his wife’s death, he takes one of the longest pauses imaginable before the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, clearly demonstrating a man who has been diminished and possibly lost to himself. The actor is not always well supported by the cast and on one occasion by his director. The banquet scene is not as strong as it should be (with a wavering blue light on Banquo’s ghost that often misses the actor), and Abraham’s use of kettle drums often intrudes on important dialogue. Macbeth’s revisit to the weird sisters, when he sees more ghosts of his victims, is pallid and lax. But these deficiencies wane whenever Moya O’Connell shares the stage with Carlson.

Moya O’Connell as Lady Macbeth (photo: Tim Matheson)

This pairing is the best I have seen on stage for this play, far more vivid, more powerful, sexier, more profound in the psychological dimension than any of the Stratford Festival pairings to date. Beautiful, sensuous, and sensual, Moya O’Connell makes a great partner for Carlson, etching the deep physical connection she feels for a man who cannot give her more children even as he plans to kill the children of his most dangerous rivals. The thunder in her performance comes from her dramatic intensity rather than vocal volume and mass, and the actress clearly exposes the “spine” of Lady Macbeth, whom she portrays as a woman who keenly wishes to support and spur her husband but who is ultimately devastated by discovering how far apart they really are morally and metaphysically. Her opening scene is thrilling as she reads her husband’s letter and then invokes the dark powers to unsex her. Femininity shoved aside for a while, she concentrates on serving him. Her womb empty, she fills herself with hungry ambition but not merely for herself, but when her husband wades deeper and deeper into gore and unimaginable horror, she shrinks back in guilt and revulsion, vividly representing these passions in her sleepwalking scene that is calm and spastic in turns.

It is a pity that not many of the cast make worthy supporting players. For my taste, only Andrew Wheeler’s Macduff and Scott Bellis’s Duncan stand out, though there are moments of serviceable competence by Jeff Gladstone as Malcolm, Nadeem Phillip as Donalbain, Craig Erickson as Banquo, Harveen Sandhu as Witch 3 and blood-lipped Kate Besworth as Witch 2. Kayvon Khoshkam has flashes of equivocal wit as the drunken Porter who rises from the trap (hell?), but everyone should observe and learn from O’Connell and Carlson who make of their roles compasses into hearts of darkness, from the first knocking in the prologue to the knocking within Macbeth’s heart that unfixes reason, to the knocking at the gate, and the ultimate knocking to seal (echoing De Quincey) how time is annihilated while new pulses of life are beginning to beat again with the coronation of a new king.

GRAND HOTEL

By Luther Davis
Directed by Eda Holmes
At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, May 23-October 14, 2018

James Daly (Baron) and Michael Therriault (Kringelein) with the Company

This 1989 musical, based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel and the all-star MGM film of 1932, won 5 Tonys and ran for 1,107 performances, mainly because of Tommy Tune’s brilliant direction and choreography which earned two of those Tonys. Alas, the Shaw Festival version isn’t very grand, nor is the hotel much to write home about. Of course, it is a schematic musical because (as Ken Tynan reminded us in an old film review), like many old-fashioned extravaganzas, the story and characters are confined in cubicles or rooms or (if at sea) cabins, and characters are thrown together or, wander around, at any rate, in the same environment, whether this be an aeroplane, ship, bus, or island. Grand Hotel is set in Weimar Berlin but this is not quite the Berlin of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (a far superior musical because of far superior Isherwood source material and technical accomplishments from set, lighting, and music to choreography and acting), though the music and lyrics pay some homage to Kurt Weill and German jazz and director Eda Holmes probably desperately wishes it were Kander and Ebb. Without the seedy, devilishly seductive rogue-emcee of Cabaret, she gives us (with the collaborative performance of Steven Sutcliffe) a seriously crippled drug addict of a Colonel-Doctor who limps around on what could well be at least one wooden leg while sounding deliberately ironic: “People come and people go. Nothing ever happens.” Well, true on at least one count, though what really happens in this instance is a largely boring failure.

The crucial element in the story is the ease with which it interweaves characters and stories from different strata of society. There is the industrialist Preysing (Jay Turvey), whose shady tactics are catching up with him. His secretary Flaemmchen (Vanessa Sears) has Hollywood stars in her eyes and is more than willing to sell her glam body for stardom. Then there are the aging ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Deborah Hay) who is desperate to revive her fading career, and her loyal personal aide Raffaele (Patty Jameson) who has more than a platonic affection for her employer. The ballerina comes to life when she meets a charming young Baron (James Daly) who for all his dash is a rather broke jewel-thief. This mixture of sociology and romantic danger is complemented by a dash of comic pathos in the figure of the fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Michael Therriault) who is determined to have a wild fling with adventure at the hotel before death claims him.  An assortment of very busy and noisy telephone operators and a corps of hotel maids, bellhops, chauffeur, scullery worker, courtesan, and two Jimmys round out the ensemble, along with a nervous young assistant concierge Erik (Travis Seetoo) who is an expectant father-to-be.

The Broadway original had all the dash, sass, verve, and vigour of an American musical, with a spectacular double-decker set and a staircase to rival those in Hello, Dolly or Gone with the Wind. In other words, the decadence was divine for the concoction of lust, love, deception, and doom. At the Shaw, Judith Bowden’s design wants to thrive on decadence without the divine. Her largely empty set seems deconstructed, with chairs either suspended mid-air or upturned on the floor where a chandelier also lies, and Kevin Fraser’s lighting is adapted to the general gloom, though, thankfully, it recovers for the big show-stopping numbers. But, truly, these are few and far between because there is really only a single outstanding male dancer (Matt Nethersole) and two female ones (Kiera Sangster and Vanessa Sears). As for the singing, nothing really hit the heights, apart from Sears’s life-affirming “Girl in the Mirror,” though Hay (terribly miscast visually and physically as the despondent ballerina) is touchingly wistful in her solo “Bonjour Amour.”

The general acting is cliched and rather empty, and I was mainly bored with the show, though Michael Therriault as the old, suffering Jew with a heart of gold, provides small relief as he repeats some of his highly praised and practised physical clowning from last season’s justly celebrated Me and My Girl. He is funny without being truly moving, but his very drunken, rubbery-legged “We’ll Take a Glass Together” (with support from the Baron, the Jimmys, and the Company) is a definite relief in this mediocre hotel, where banalities thrive in the shallows of creative imagination.

THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW

By C.S. Lewis
Adapted by Michael O’Brien
Directed by Tim Carroll
At the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Till October 13, 2018

Travis Seetoo (Digory), Vanessa Sears (Polly), and Matt Nethersole (Fledge) (photo: Emily Cooper)

The world premiere of Michael O’Brien’s stage adaptation of a C.S. Lewis classic (one part of a seven-part fantasy series) is given added lustre by Tim Carroll’s whole-hearted belief in the power of our own “imaginary forces.” The story in The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel to the world-famous The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but was actually published later. In it, the audience is taken back to the start of how Narnia came into being when two children left their own home to time-travel, as it were, into another, strange but magical one. As director, Englishman Carroll himself travels between worlds, not only as artistic director of the largest Canadian theatre company dedicated to the plays of George Bernard Shaw but as a resourceful theatre director diving back into his own boyhood in England when he grew up reading the Narnia books, when children were not seduced by mega Hollywood films with mega-expensive special effects. The strongest artistic resource, he knows, is also the simplest one: human imagination that can charm an audience into becoming collaborators with tale-tellers. Carroll had a larger production budget at Stratford a couple of years ago when he directed a colourfully expansive version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the Shaw this season, he works more economically on a children’s tale but no less magically.

Before the tale proper is told, there are “dream detectives”—in this case, characters in tweed who speak in English accents because, of course, this is a tale from England about very English (which is to say, articulate) children of a certain class in a literate era. The “detectives” are investigating dream activity in wartime England—really London of a century ago. They are experts in the reconstruction of dreams, and they wish for the audience to share a particular dream—and herein starts the tale proper about young Digory (Travis Seetoo), whose father is away in the army, and whose mother is ailing. Digory’s Uncle Andrew (Steven Sutcliffe in the most detailed character study) is always in his study or attic lair, concocting some magic or other having to do with coloured rings made from fairy dust (one colour to take you somewhere, another to bring you back). The prospect of Digory and his friend Polly’s (Vanessa Sears) travelling between worlds is wonderfully brought to stage life—and it is chiefly achieved by cardboard boxes and by paper masks. Talk about wartime austerity in Britain, but austerity is very much the mother of invention in this case.

Ensemble configuring boxes in a scene change for The Magician’s Nephew (photo: Emily Cooper)

Carroll’s cast never pretends it is not pretending. Seetoo and Sears make for good foils to each other, he with a touch of premature chauvinism, she with totally non-cloying good sense. Jay Turvey calls out cues for scene changes, and the ensemble goes through its paces in multiple roles. Early 19th century London is evoked by cockneys (most prominently by Michael Therriault’s cabbie), gas lamps, Kyle Blair’s patriotic soldier (though not mysterious enough later in the actor’s doubling as Aslan), and horse-drawn carriages. The most memorable London horse is Strawberry, mimed excellently by Matt Nethersole. In another dimension, in a universe far away, the protagonists encounter Jadis, the sleeping witch who has killed off an entire kingdom with her deadly spells, and whom Deborah Hay plays vividly with a mixture of sinister arrogance and English music-hall comedy. Narnia is created right before our eyes out of common material. But there is real artistry at work. Douglas Paraschuk’s set is a semi-circular arrangement of hanging panels of coarsely-textured fabric that are coloured by Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and Cameron Davis’s projections—especially for the stunning appearance of Aslan the Lion whose function and power as a Christian symbol are muted here but who serves as catalyst to Digory’s mission to save the world. And the simple cardboard boxes assume various cut-out configurations, most pragmatically for the mechanical planetary system in Andrew’s study, and magically for the huge tree at the end while fantasy animals are superbly created by white masks and paper puppets, especially for the winged horse ridden by Diggory and Polly. Kudos to Alexis Milligan for movement and puppetry, and to Jennifer Goodman for costumes.

If a critic needs to carp (and which critic doesn’t?), objections could be made to Blair’s rather unimposing Aslan (though not to his soldier-father), the limited use of music, and the fact that the happy ending lands without enough oomph. Children, I am sure, would disagree.

SUTRA

Direction & Choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
A Sadler’s Wells London Production
At the Sony Centre. Toronto Premiere May 12, 2018

 

photo: Hugo Glendinning

Sutra is not a new dance piece, having debuted in London in 2008, but it seems brand new by virtue of its meditative minimalism that calibrates décor, costuming, lighting, music, and movement perfectly while tracing a mini odyssey into the mind (as it were) of Zen Buddhism. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (who even performed in it on its debut) has created over 50 fully-fledged choreographic pieces that have earned him numerous international awards. Sutra is his sterling collaboration with British artist Antony Gormley and kung-fu Shaolin monks. Sixty-minutes long, it has an abstract formalism that is open to interpretation because of its elliptical nature, but virtually everything about it is thrilling and not just in a common sense.

 

Sutra begins with a small boy (Xing Kaishuo) who observes a Western adult (Ali Thabet, co-choreographer and dancer) who traces patterns with his fingers and who has a wooden model of the boxes used in the piece. The adult’s gestures and the boy’s imitations of them mirror and expand what transpires apart from them—in the movements of the powerful Shaolin monks, all youths with fine physiques, balance, gymnastic verve, and versatile elasticity. The title of this dance derives from Sanskrit and means “threads.” The piece’s connections to Zen Buddhism show only filaments of links to that way of belief. However, they are absorbing and delightfully expressed in the scenography (a 3-sided grey box that uses 21 6-foot blonde wood boxes in various configurations), costumes that begin with grey and deepen to black, and lighting that is in pale shades and that uses black dramatically at important points. The boxes, designed by sculptor Gormely, create a mobile architectural space, as it were, continually changing planes, shapes, angles, surfaces. They serve as plinths, trapdoors, caves, tombs, river, wall, skyscrapers, coffins—once surprisingly as Stonehenge shapes, twice thrillingly as collapsing dominoes and as an unfolding lotus. But all this is merely an environment for the outer and inner movements of the piece for Sutra is always about being and becoming. When the boxes become coffins, they symbolize mortality. When they are building blocks, they represent creativity.

Shaolin kung-fu is well established and celebrated as martial arts spectacle, with its men wielding lances, swords, and staffs with eye-popping velocity and ease, and executing their repertoire of high leaps, rolls, backward flips, deep plies, scissored kicks, and backbends with speed and finesse, building canons of explosive movement. But Cherkaoui has managed (with the help of four musicians behind a background scrim who play Szymon Brzoska’s melancholy Polish music on percussion, violin, cello, and piano) to temper its innate force and tight practised shapes, turning the warriors on occasion into lyrical dancers of extraordinary balletic grace and balance, as well as, briefly, into hip hop virtuosos. This is achieved by And, even more thrillingly, he and Thabet have created a contrast of energy and movement with young male dancers who are not easily trained in Western dance styles. So, for instance, a warrior can leap high on a solitary pole, balancing with one leg on its slant in raw defiance of gravity. Or another can seem to pause in a towering leap before landing softly. There are even comic moments, where the boy imitates a mischievous monkey or walks into a wall. These moments can seem cheesy to some audiences but they do have a showbiz allure.

photo: Hugo Glendinning

But what of the filaments of Buddhism? They are present from the outset, with the adult’s being a cultural and spiritual outsider (an autobiographical connection to Cherkaoui, who sought to be accepted by the monks in Henan) who is questing to imitate the monks’ unity of mind and body. He often struggles literally to be accepted, even though he offers sturdy and consistent physical support to the boy while training himself to execute the monks’ hazardous and demanding corporeal routines. At one point, he walks around with one foot trapped in a box, as if he can go nowhere significant; at another, he is bumped off a high wall by a group of monks as if he was an unwanted alien. And the boy represents a Shaolin warrior and temple guard in the making. Even his miming of a monkey and fish have connections to Buddhism for the first creature represents folly, vanity, and mischief (real vices we must learn to expunge), while the second represents freedom, happiness, and fearlessness for it thrives in its natural domain. Eventually, the boy becomes the young Buddha in prayer, seated at the center of a large lotus, surrounded by respectful monks.

(photos: Hugo Glendinning)

A TASTE OF EMPIRE

A rice & Beans Theatre and Cahoots Theatre Co-production
At the Factory Studio. Opened May 2, 2018

Derek Chan (image: Brenda Nicole Kent and Jules Le Masson)

The theatrical conceit is a “live” cooking show; the tone satirical; the principal theme imperialism. Derek Chan, born and raised in colonial Hong Kong, speaks the text in Cantonese (with English and simplified Chinese captioning) serves as translator, as well as the principal performer, with a talent to amuse, even while assiduously struggling to prepare rellenong bangus (stuffed milkfish), a Filipino specialty (really a fish sausage, as it were). According to the conceit, Chan enters the scene at the last-minute to replace the formidably vaunted chef Maximo Cortes (who owns three three-star Michelin restaurants) has been called away to an emergency appeal by an anonymous VIP. Chan impersonates the rather overbearing, stentorian Cortes, or at least his vocal manner, and in a manner that suggests something of the pompous Iron Chef shows, where competing Asian and Caucasian chefs acquire some of the fervour of martial artists. These moments are the least convincing and interesting ones, but otherwise Chan does excellent service to the script as sous-chef, accentuating the comedy by handling the milkfish with practised comic vulgarity, eviscerating it in a highly obscene fashion, while simultaneously making points about colonial imperialism with illustrations and didactic summaries. The dish, of course, is a fusion of Philippine fish and colonial Spanish flavours, but if the results of colonialism were but a rather tasty fish sausage, no matter how coarsely prepared, history would never amount to much more than diversionary bunk. Fortunately, the history lesson encompasses colonial Spain, the United States, China, and Canada, so it ranges far and wide, also bringing in economic, political, and social implications. What makes it all palatable (in a way that far transcends any dull academic dissection that has plagued many a Canadian documentary play for the past half century) is the satiric quotient which is entertainingly pointed enough to justify 90 uninterrupted minutes with Chan and his poker-faced, silent kitchen help played by Pedro Chamale with even funnier seriousness as he suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous vocal abuse in Cantonese, no less! And at the end, audiences get an opportunity to taste a very small portion of the fish sausage, whether or not they care to recall Mark Twain’s dictum (repeated in the play): “People who love sausage and respect the law never watch either one being made.”