Tuesday, February 23, 2010

PEER GYNT, Ibsen, (Dir. Erika Batdorf) Church of the Holy Trinity 14.02.10

This is an ambitious project that ultimately fell very flat.

The Thistle Project, an outfit that grew out of the York U's grad program in theatre, worked with former prof Batdorf to pare down this Ibsen text into something that could be staged by two actors: Peer (Susan Coyne) and Everybody Else (Matthew Romantini). The setting in the Church of the Holy Trinity meant that the audience was invited to follow the actors throughout the space, largely emptied of pews, to various locations defined by ligth, sound and action.

I went with my buddy Gunther, a former Grotowski acolyte from Eastern Germany who has done his fair share of sweating expressively around the floors of churches in various eastern bloc countries in the pursuit of stern theatrical niravana. He had heard about the show, and, enthused about the prospect of witnessing the potentially interesting and revealing phenomenon of Susan Coyne pursuing Peer's quixotic and existential journey, easily talked me into coming along. Only thing was, I've rarely seen such a poor performance in the professional theatre: there was an attempt at a kind of elevated stylization, and perhaps it was the earnest attempt to fill the large space of the church, but the work throughout was overextended, imprecise, gusty, and quite uninteresting. Poor Gunther, committed teuton that he is, he's never a one to tolerate anything less than perfection and so started swearing under his breath in a remote german dialect shortly after the show began. He hated the show so much he began to sweat and needed to go lie down under the altar.

I tried to hang in there as best as possible. Romantini is cleary an able actor, but still, all the silly running about from one end of the church to the next, complete with clumsy transitions overplayed through a repetition to become very predictable, prompted the release of a couple of grunts and farts of percussive disdain from Gunther from his unholy vantage point (from under the altar I mean).

Seriously though, I don't mean to be disingenuous, but when you're doing a site specific piece it's really important to know why you've staged it there and make choices accordingly, otherwise the whole effort becomes quite random. Similarly, helping actors adjust to new locations involves calibrating the tonality and range of physical and vocal actions such that their work in the space resonates at the right frequencies, otherwise (as was the case in this instance) they just end up shouting.

What, I ask, have we done to deserve this!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Books and Film 2010

Films 2010:
Sherlock Holmes, Avatar, Nine, The Hurt Locker, Daybreakers, Legion, The Road, Fantastic Planet, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Polytechnique, Cold Souls, Precious, Zeitgeist Addendum, Love for Sale, The Piano Teacher, Cloverfield, Semi-Pro, Drag me to Hell, Hunger, Waltz with Bashir, Cougar Club, Crude Impact, Flow, Super Troopers, Alice in Wonderland, Those Damned United, The Reader, Blue Velvet, Capitalism: A Love Story, Food Inc., 50 Dead Men Walking, Green Zone, Broken Embraces, Underworld, Robin Hood, I'm not Alone, Iron Man 2, Lucky Number Sleven, Prince of Persia, A-Team, Shrek 3, The Last Airbender, Inception, Kinatay.
Books 2010 (in whole or in part)
Gould's Book of Fish (Flanagan), The Coming Insurrection (Invisible Committee), Stanislavski in Focus (Carnicke), Deleuze and Performance (Cull), Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (Marshall), Deleuze and Technology (Savat), Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos (Bell), Contemporary European Theatre Directors (Delgado & Rebellato), Theatre: Solitude, Craft, Revolt (Barba), Deleuze and the Social, Ecoholic (Vasil), The Player's Passion (Roach), Contemporary European Directors (Delgado and Rebellato), Postcards from Utopia: The Art of Political Propaganda (Roberts); Art as Abstract Machine (Zepke); Territory, Authority, Rights (Sassen); The Places That Scare You (Chodron); Ulysses (Joyce); Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
TV 2010
Arrested Development Seasons: all three seasons
Battlestar Galatica, all four frackin seasons
Deadwood, season one
Boston Legal, season one

Saturday, February 6, 2010

CLOUD 9, Caryl Churchill, Directed Alisa Palmer, Panasonic Theatre, Toronto 06.02.10

So, Bon'Lay'Lay was in the city last night. (S)he's a drag king I know from my days gigging at the Sala Rossa, an old red-velour-curtained show hall way up on St Laurent Boulevard, in Montreal. The Sala's the kind of venue usually packed with argentinian tango fanatics from the old country entertaining sailors in off the ships that stop on their way down the St Lawrence. But every few months, a fantastically gay promoter named Serge would gather a ragtag group of singers, jugglers, fire breathers, exotic dancers, and extremely short people together at the Sala for what Serge described as 'un goddam freashow, ostie'. I'd invariably sing some Brel or Kurt Weil songs with Anisa C. and Laurel S. as my back ups, and they'd of course ensure to have carefully orchestrated various 'wardrobe malfunctions' in the movement score of their singing to keep the act spicy. The dusky warm glow of the Sala, where people demonstrated their general social subversion by occasionally (or so it was said) fellating each other in the bathrooms and regularly (and this I can attest to) smoking cigars in the audience, was certainly THE place to be in Montreal the nights of Serge's fantastic 'freaksow, ostie'.

For his part, Bon'Lay'Lay often performed this stunning kind of strip tease act that stimulated the audience, irrespective of their gender or sexual orientation, to dizzy heights of arousal. Bon'Lay'Lay's act, however—and this was the testament to his genius—usually only resulted in him removing one or two pieces of clothing, or even sometimes nothing more than him subtly opening his shirt to expose a ripped set of abs, before the Sala's tattered red curtain came down with the lights and, even as the audience moaned and yelled for more, smothered all further possibility of titillation. And yet, Bon'Lay'Lay was one of the stars of the show...

It took me forever to catch on that 'he' was a 'she' in drag, although the ever-evolving set of fake mustachios (70's porn 'tash, handlebar, fu manchu, occasional goatee) should have given it away. Anyway, it was only late one night after a gig when a band of ribald tango-istas, drunk on some kind of native palm wine and very angry at having been displaced yet again by the Serge's ostentatious crew, crashed the Sala, without their men partners, looking to dance. Most of those spectators still nursing their cigars and arguing about sex and Quebec politics quickly scattered in the face of the strident arrivals. But Bon'Lay'Lay stood up, affirmed a very masculine pose, and suggested quite loudly "GET THE 'ELL OUT OF 'ERE, YOU WHORES'. After a brief pause, during which surprise was no doubt being registered, the argentinian women remonstrated, shouting, variously suggesting that Bon 'Lay'Lay was not going to be able to stop them, spitting at him, and finally taunting him with statements to the effect of "You're not going to beat up a group of ladies, are you you coward? You're a man!'. In one quick gesture (and upon consideration, I now believe that velcro must have been involved) Bon'Lay'Lay removed the larger proportion of his clothing to reveal a svelte feminine physique, with a certain key area being defined by a gentle rise rather than a bulge, and two taped-down breasts masquerading as those famous (although heretofore never seen) pecs.

In the event that in our general shock we all hadn't quite understood exactly what was transpiring, Bon'Lay'Lay ripped her fake mustache with what one might describe as 'melodramatic' flair from her face and flung it to the floor in a defiant gesture where it landed as a kind of challenge to the now suddenly very quiet tango-istas. The room itself was also silent, even the cigar smoke stopped moving, eyes glared across dark spaces, and, as suddenly as they had arrived, the argentinian women withered and fled back onto the Boulevard from whence they had come, murmering invective as they danced off into the night. Needless to say that after a moment of apparently genuine bashfulness following her display of bravado, Bon'Lay'Lay retrieved her mustachio and, after not an insignificant amount of coaxing from a number of us, allowed herself to be celebrated late into the evening for her territorial trail-blazing with an excess of cheap wine, cigars, and increasingly boisterous retellings of the evening's events.

It only seemed appropriate that when Bon'Lay'Lay was in town that we go to see Churchill's Cloud 9, the cross-dressing fantasia described in the publicity material as 'Churchill's sex play': guaranteed to sell seats and with the promise of not a dry seat in the house. Quite used as I am to uneven, boring, unchallenging theatre in Toronto, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this show was at least even and competent on the level of performances. The actors, mostly featuring pedigrees from the Shaw Festival, were clearly experiencing the joy and jouissance of being emancipated from the Shaw's often highly restraining and composed acting regime into the playful and comedic stylization, a kind of amped up comedy of manners, that director Alisa Palmer had proposed to them. Maybe she was enjoying not being at the Shaw herself? In fact, it seems as if all these artists had perhaps one way or another had previously been cross-dressing as unimaginative bores (Isn't that what theatre in this country asks us to do?), but had come out in this show to reveal themselves as ironic, playful, fun loving embodiments of Churchill's vastly satyrical social critique of Empire, colonialization, gender, and the family.

Everything quickly announces itself as reversed, layered, troubled, and complex in this play. The opening number features all actors on stage singing together and annoucing their various roles and functions to the audience. It is 1880s Africa, and the natives are restless. In the colonial home around which the action revolves are Edward the son, played by Anne-Marie Macdonald, who just can't stop playing with dolls; Betty, his mother, played by a man (Evan Buluing); her mother by a black woman (Yanna McIntosh); and the black servant by a white man with an afro (Ben Carlson). The father of the family, Clive (David Jansen), demands respectable and appropriate behaviour from everyone around him, but spends his time chasing and giving oral sex to the butch Mrs Saunders (Megan Follows--crap, what would Lucy Maud have said!). Similarly, the swashbuckling hero Harry Bagley (Blair Williams) arrived in to help with the uprising by local blacks seems to be fucking everyone, including his friend Clives' wife, the servant, and even Clive's boy (again, poor Lucy Maude!). It's messed up, witty, playful, unabashedly direct, to the point where Bon'Lay'Lay informed me that he had heard even some of the many couples of old gay men in Burberry scarves that seemed to populate at least half the audience harrumphedly describe the show as 'shocking' while peeking at each others willies at the next urinal over in the john during intermission.

In the second act, the date is 1980, but time has only moved forward 25 years for the characters. Vicky (a doll in the first act) has grown up, as has Edward, and we see them trying to figure out their lives and children, ultimately living together (and sleeping with, as we were reminded not a few times) with a lesbian. Sexuality either is discursive commodity, a series of predatorial flings, or orgies in parks, all tied together by Churchill's charcateristically loose dramaturgy (no pun intended. really) that leaves the audience drifting somewhat by the end. In fact, audience response at the end was tepid, although they seem to have been pretty thoroughly engaged throughout...

What I found most interesting about this show is the question it raised about the audience's ability to shift registers and to consider this text's relevance to the Canadian context. There we were, smoked-salmon socialists who had all just dropped $160 for two tickets, fiddling with the Prince Alberts in our pockets and chuckling away at the contradictions and collapse of the British Emire and all their 'problems' in Africa and London, forgetting perhaps that we're sitting in a theatre on blood-land stolen from Canadian first peoples in a theatre called The Panasonic, a stark reminder of the fact that the multi-national rules supreme in it's patronage of the arts these days. What would have spurred all the erstwhile rebels in the audience out on the streets to demand recognition of Canada's ongoing pornographic relationship of exploitation of natives, women, immigrants, the poor, homosexuals, and the very land itself? Did actor David Janssen not feel a burning pain in his nether regions brought about by the fact that one of his last creations, the almost camply racist 'Ubuntu' at the Tarragon (see my letter to the editor at http://www.nowtoronto.com/letters/index.cfm?content=167334 ), represents a direct continuation of the kind of activity being parodied in Cloud Nine?

Perhaps I underestimate my confrères and consoeurs, but how can we ourselves come out of political closets, our social and artistic concealments in which we collectively suppress our desire and hope for a different world so as to be able to pass as a neo-con like everyone else, to emerge from these coccoons to create and demand both beauty and the spirit of universal justice to be made manifest in every piece of theatre we work on and see? Bon'Lay'Lay (who sometimes goes by Bob'Lai'Lai in Toronto in-order to help fend off the kind of literal minded anglo pleasure seekers you get down here) was moved to vigorous applause at the general tenor of the evening, but I could tell from his silence after that no night at the theatre had yet ever been able to match the showdown with the argentinians at the Sala Rossa, and that his peripatetic search for universal rebellion would have to continue unabated...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The White Cabin, AKHE Theatre Group (Russia), Theatre Centre, Toronto, 30.01.10

This piece is a deluge of creative effluent, light, and rot that variously washes over the audience throughout the course of a meandering evening, one that invites its audience into a number of discreet and explosively imaginative spaces.

The piece begins with a woman watching images on a small screen and an old projector as the theatre fills up with incense and smoke, with these environmental factors foreshadowing the feats of sensuality to come. The woman walks downstage through the thick goopy smoke, sits on a chair, and faces back upstage to watch the emergence from the penumbra of two clownlike characters: white squares of facepaint, round hats with burning incense sticks, tattered clothing referencing aristocratic as much as the serf tradition. They soon encumber the space with lines of string, pour wine over each other, litter the place with newspaper unwinding from a body previously covered in it, then crucify the woman—whose elegant dress we now see is quite tattered—to her chair before 'freeing' her into this difficult space marked by a strange and questionable dynamic between the three performers that always seems to have the woman on the losing end of the match. The evening progresses with an eventual move to a space of interlaced screens featuring increasingly larger square windows the further upstage they are placed, resulting in a rich projection environment.

The piece is ultimately unsatisfying for a variety of reasons: the relationships do not evolve or change between the characters; the notion of this being a 'physical theatre company' is misleading as the technical virtusoity of the male performers (who have art school backgrounds) leaves quite a bit to be desired; the environments created are sometimes not fully explored before being abandoned for no particular reason for the next one; a number of the introduced devices, like lights put inside mouths, are not really exploited; etc.

The whole thing left me kind of adrift at points.

Where this piece does excel is in the power of its rambunctious and seemingly effortless ability to present dozens if not hundreds of evocative and poetic images, sometimes in such a rapid succession that we are left happily overwhelmed by this eventful slurry: that's when the piece is luminous and transportive, through the dramaturgy of alluvial overload.

Is it retrograde of me to say that work like this—as with that of Castelluci, Foreman's Ontological Hysteric Theatre, or some of Forced Entertainment, etc—really needs some more traditional dramaturgical intervention? One gets the feeling of visual/performance artists wanting to have the temporal/narrative framework of an evening of theatre (why else have it start at 8pm in a theatr?), but don't really have the skills to keep our attention...

But hey, these guys are roly-poly-cigar-smoking-hard-scrappin'-liquor-spittin' Russians who've rustled a cute young actress into touring the world with them, and the Toronto theatre scene is SUCH a sucker for foreigners and role playing what it would mean to be a real mensch, so, hope you got to see this show and be a scenester too.

See a 10 minute highlight reel @:


Urinetown, BMT, Directed by Spencer Smith, Grantham Theatre, St Catharines, 04.02.10

As one cast member described it, this 'exceedingly metatheatrical' musical delivers: with witty lyrics, an amusingly taboo premise, a creative examination of the contradictions and exploitive practices of multinational corporations, not to mention a sardonic sending up of the shmaltzy expectations around how musicals should generate affect ('it has to be a hopeful ending'), the piece is brimming with potential. Smith has done a very good job at creating a vibrant choreography that works for the cast and keeps the audience engaged throughout, with a dynamic and rythmic understanding of space and composition that suggests that this young artist should definitely do this kind of work again. Also very effective are the comedic set ups, prat falls, and sight gags that are paraded before us at satifsyingly regular intervals. Apparently he hopes to be New York-bound to study the form further, and I wish him luck.

This is BMT's most successful show to date of the ones I've seen, with reduced numbers on stage leading to more controlled and clean stages images as well as much more effective storytelling. The chorus is energetic and committed throughout, save a slowish start in the opening number. Everyone on stage has at least a moment, with some of my favourites including: Celine Allen and Lauren Beaton's vocal work, Emerson Ross' rabbit moment, Sarah Latke's clear and comic physicality, Alex Best's confident relationship with the audience, Christi Musico's engagement of the audience, Ryan Blair's wrestling of the sock puppet, Mary Gray acting from the chair, Andrew Sutherland's napoleanic swagger, Adrian Petry's sustained vibrato. The cast deals with gusto and glee with the moments of celebratory violence toward the end of the piece, making me feel like I was watching a Grand Guignol show in 1890s Paris.

I mean, how can you not enjoy a musical that involves the torture and defenestration of blow up dolls?

With their new off-campus digs, one gets a sense of this being a producing organization beginning to grow into their own. My challenge to the group: either find as interesting a musical as Urinetown for next year, or write your own. Please don't lapse back into the ever so cheesy and un-ironized american musicals: successfully tackling a piece like Urinetown is a testament to your creative and critical intelligence.