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.

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.