THEATRE SUCKS

(really?)

March 12th, 2018

Review of Scorpio Theatre's production of

1984     (8/10)

March 2nd to 10th, 2018 at the Pumphouse Theatre in Calgary. See here for details.

A N D

Review of Theatre Junction's production of

The Cows     (8.5/10)

March 8th to 11th, 2018 at Theatre Junction in Calgary. See here for details.

It was a wonderful weekend for theatre. I caught two shows, both of them super.

In Scorpio Theatre's production of Michael Jean Sullivan's adaptation of Orwell's 1984, Darcy Wilson gave a nausea inducing performance. That doesn't sound like a good review, but you know coming into this that it is NOT going to be the feel good play of the year: spoiler alert -- it doesn't end happily.

This adaptation is structured as a trial of Winston Smith, where the prime piece of evidence against him is his own journal. Smith (ably portrayed by Wilson) is bound by straps throughout the play, so, while he can stand upright and has some limited movement, he can't wander far from centre stage. His four inquisitors (Ted Lach, Tanis Laatsch, Carl Bishop, and Dorin McIntosh), and later five when the boss torturer (Luigino Savoia) joins them, are free to wander the stage where they wish in re-enacting events from his journal, so we are treated to an inquisitor version of Smith (Lach) performing before actual Smith.

Full disclosure; I'm a Darcy Wilson fan, so may be a bit biased. That said, I can also be something of a hypercritical asshole, and that applies to anyone, including friends. Wilson's signature style might be characterized as "more energy!" and sometimes that comes at the cost of levels and nuance. Not this time; it's as if this part was written for him, the extreme physical torment they subject Wilson to demanding all the energy this performer can muster, leaving what little is left to be rationed, as one imagines (having blessedly never been tortured) an actual torture victim might have to do. Wilson's portrayal is so seemingly true to life that one friend who saw it said she felt actually nauseated, very disturbed, leaving the theatre.

The supporting ensemble does a great job creating Smith's world around him. And the boss torturer brings a business like efficiency to the job that also seems true to life, considering what we know of the Nazi administration of the holocaust (ably aided by IBM!), and the bureaucracies of the Soviet Union that Solzhenitsyn described in The Gulag Archipelego. And that's really the extra layer of horror in 1984, isn't it; the sheer banality of evil, of the day to day mundane horror. Almost as if to say, "Don't take it personally." But with a performance as powerful as Wilson's, you just can't not.

And the other show I saw was Theatre Junction's production of The Cows (apologies, I didn't get a program if there was one, and couldn't find cast info online -- mea culpa). It's one of those shows which almost defies description. One thing I love in theatre is the diminshment or (better still) outright elimination of the fourth wall in favour of a direct connection between performers and audience, the kind of connection, ideally, that a story teller has with their audience when they really have them in the palm of their hand. Because that's what we do in theatre; we're story tellers, whether we're directors, or technicians, writers, or performers. Even the unsung heros of stage management are totally engaged in supporting this endeavour.

Performers are already on-stage milling about as the audience enters. Audience can sit in chairs at the sides, or on milk crates against the back wall, or on cushions before them. Zuess is seated on cushions in audience front and centre. Of course, he's top god, damned near omniscient, where else would he be? The lady next to him? Probably his wife.

What then ensues is.... a cabaret? With ancient Greek theme throughout? There is song, dance, a little seltzer down your pants; scenes comedic and dramatic, a hero and his lady fair (and unfair), and Dionysus (ably performed by Hayley Feigs) sparring verbally with Zuess in that classic battle between the romantic and the rational, the Dionysian and the Apollonian. S/he even has to admit at one point that ecstasy wears off, however you achieve it.

But until it does, a good time is had by all!

Very much my kind of theatre.

And a very good theatre weekend overall!

Deimon Slagg


 

February 23rd, 2018

Review of Old Trout Puppet Workshop's production of

JABBERWOCKY     (7.5/10)

Running February 21 - March 4, 2018 at the DJD Dance Centre in Calgary. See here for details.

How long has it been since I last saw a European art film? Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman? I used to have infinite patience for those things. Not so much anymore, it seems.

Old Trout's production of Jabberwocky is like Fellini reimagined by Terry Gilliam while toasting an Edward Gorey caricature of Edgar Allen Poe over the grave of P.T. Barnum. It's beautiful, but very, very s l o w . . . . ; slow to start, slow to proceed, and slow to finish. And every frame is a work of art.

Or another analogy could be an amazing coffee table art book come vividly to life. This is theatre in 2½D. Even some of the puppets are simple 2D cutouts with minimal articulation.

I'm tempted to blame myself for finding it boring at times. Perhaps the Internet has irreparably damaged my attention span, robbed me of any patience I might once have had. But I think the story telling is at least partly to blame. I also wasn't the only one in the audience yawning, especially as we got past the middle.

As Theatre Encounter demonstrated with their Aeschylus: Fragments, theatre need not necessarily have narrative, but this production seems almost undecided, perhaps ambivalent with regard to narrative, starting with a free association stream of conscious parade of imagery on the theme of generation/conception, eventually segueing into a story about three generations of giant rabbits living in a giant rabbit world. Each generation fails ("Hast thou slain the Jabberwock?"). But that's ok? Because family and the passing of generations serves as a compensation for existential horror?

This could be a European film. Watership Down meets Wild Strawberries?

Should you see it? Yes, probably. It has giant rabbits. If that's not enough, the sound design is brilliant, integral, essential to creation of the environment of the piece. The lighting (Terry Middleton, designer) is not only functional, but playful, as are the brilliantly painted rolling backdrop units. The costumes, puppets, props and set pieces are all works of art in their own right -- the program features cut out finger puppets and back drops for goodness sake, so you can reenact the play at home (though my version would probably run less than two minutes and not miss any plot points).

In fact, it approaches Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work). The style of the whole thing is unified. The only place this fails is in the story telling, as though there was a struggle between aesthetic and story, and aesthetic won; predictably, since aesthetic here is incredibly strong, while the story is very weak; a kind of post-modern neomaudlinism that isn't entirely certain how seriously it ought to take itself.

The program is a glorious, artful joy designed to appeal to kids, including post-adolescent ones. It is not entirely clear from it, however, who is exactly responsible for what. But the first page lists no fewer than three fine artists; Katie Green, Lindsey Kapitake, and Jen Gareau, with Dawn Mark credited as scenic artist. This goes on my 'Ideas to Steal' list; working with fine artists, and working 2½D.

Jonathan Lewis is credited as a composer, violinist and sound designer, and for this soundscape, he deserves kudos. As does the ensemble of Nick Di Gaetano, Teddy Ivanova, Sebastian Kroon, and Pityu Kenderes for imbuing that 2½D world with their life force (imagine if we could bring art galleries alive like that without security kicking us out!). Indeed, kudos to everyone, except maybe playwright, and only a half a cookie to the director -- except no playwright or director is listed in the program. I wonder if perhaps they could use the input of a director/dramaturg as brilliant as the rest of the team. It seems to be the one thing missing.

Jabberwocky is an Old Trout Puppet Workshop production playing from February 21 - March 4, 2018 at the DJD Dance Centre.

Deimon Slagg


 

February 11th, 2018

Review of Storybook Theatre's production of

THE OUTSIDERS     (6.5/10)

Running February 9th through 24th at the Beddington Theatre Arts Centre in Calgary. See here for details.

When one sees a lovely set and lighting design at Storybook's Beddington Theatre, one thinks, "Of course -- JP." Artistic Director JP Thibodeau plays that theatre the way Anne-Sophie Mutter plays her Stradivarius. But for this production of The Outsiders, credit for this highly creative set and magical lighting go elsewhere; to Dale Marushy and Jenny Daigle respectively. The set is easy to describe schematically -- it is a tree on one side of the stage, and the frame of a building, possibly a barn, on the other. But the building can be a church or a home or whatever the story calls for at that moment, while the benches around the tree may be seats in a movie house, or parts of a car. The backdrop is an ever changing sky of light.

It may seem odd to start a review with praise of design, but that's what I think I will remember the longest. I learned that this story is a classic which everyone studied at school, or saw the movie of, but which somehow passed me right by, so my take on this production is just from this production; I don't have the same fond associations many others have for this.

The story itself seemed a bit formulaic, like Romeo and Juliet ("Two houses, the Greasers and the Socs, both alike in dignity in fair Tulsa where we set our scene..."), or West Side Story with the music removed and heroic sacrifice taking over thematically from young star crossed lovers. The 'get hurt while saving child from runaway carriage/speeding car/whatever' trope is central, so we may see that the tough, bad kids are really people with hearts of gold.

Except in this production, that's not much of a reveal. The acting is fine. The word 'competent' springs to mind; no brilliant standout performances, and no one sucking. Again, I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but the formula would seem to demand that the guys in the gang be real tough on the outside, but really good on the inside. However, this oh-so-Canadian cast is an adorable bunch of kids on the surface straight from the get go (well, The Greasers anyway, the male Socs are clearly established as dicks from the beginning). Jonathan Molinski's Dallas comes closest to an exception, as he does manage to imbue his character with at least a modicum of menace early on.

This may also be a show you want to catch later in its run, as it still feels like a lot of decent individual performances that haven't cooked long enough together for the flavours to merge into a single stew. As it settles in it may be that the connections between the characters will become stronger as the actors worry less about getting their own parts right and can devote more attention/listening to their scene partners. This is always important, but especially here, as this is very much an ensemble piece.

So in the end I feel a little bit short changed, like someone who had never read the Harry Potter books watching the A Very Potter Musical parody. Without fond associations from school or the film, it seemed to me to be like an after-school special with too nice kids and a predictable story. Judging from the audience reaction, these associations make a difference, which is something to bear in mind.

On the plus side, I know several of the cast members and it was fun to watch them work. It was nice to see Molinski in a serious role (he is a master of comedy), and to see Haylee Thompson (Cherry) get a decent size role at Storybook. I directed Mihai Dan (Two-Bit) last summer, and am happy he has been consistently working. Trevor Matheson always makes me smile, even in a relatively thankless role like the male grownups in this production. Conrad Belau (Randy) is an up and comer to watch out for in Calgary.

Likewise I'm friends with the properties department, Mikee Ames and Brad Laberge, so got to see the development of the props as they went along, many custom created from scratch, necessary because this is a period piece and you can't just go out and buy 1950s Hershey Bars anymore. They do great work, as much for the actors who are up close and personal with the props as for the audience who may not be able to see their detail and craftsmanship from where they are sitting.

So should you see it? If you've read the novel or liked the movie I'm guessing you'll probably like it. Or maybe if you're simply not heartless: A friend after the show asked how it was that I wasn't crying. I suggested that perhaps the impact was less the further back one sat. She said that couldn't be it, because she was near to the back as well. So I suggested that perhaps I am just heartless. She concurred that could very well be the reason.

So that may be the final recommendation; if you are unfamiliar with The Outsiders and are heartless, pass on this one. Otherwise you will probably enjoy it.

The Outsiders is a Storybook Theatre production of Christopher Sergel's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's novel by the same name. Playing from February 9th to 24th at the Beddington Theatre Arts Centre.

Deimon Slagg


 

February 1st, 2018

Review of Ghost River Theatre's presentation of Defiance Theatre's production of

OCD     (8/10)

Running February 1st through 10th at the West Village Theatre in Calgary. See here for details.

Naturalism; it's the default performance convention of theatre. There is no rule that says all theatre must be performed with this convention, and over time and across cultures there are many other conventions, for example, the Butoh convention so ably demonstrated recently by Theatre Encounter with their production of Aeschylus Fragments.

Appearing as an actual, believable person is so challenging that our audiences have come to accept a certain level of actiness from actors, because the level of truthfulness required to genuinely satisfy this naturalist convention is achieved by only a small percentage.

One is more likely to find it amongst stand-up comedians, though even there it is uncommon. You can watch a comedian like Stewart Lee play an audience as though it was the most natural thing in the world, as if it was all off the cuff and in the moment; then you see him do the same show in a different venue and are amazed by how much the same it is; so carefully crafted, timing worked out to the millisecond.

But still it is not as challenging as what an actor must do performing unamplified on a stage, having to appear completely natural while projecting to the back row and for the benefit of blue hairs whose hearing aid batteries may not be 100%. It's damn near impossible.

It requires a combination of truthfulness and technique, with truthfulness being the most challenging of the pair, though they are related; as a performer when I am in that zone of truthfulness, my vocal technique may suffer, especially in the presence of quiet emotion, like sadness --- it's easy to be overwhelmed and for the energy which needs to go all the way to the back of the hall to be diminished. So they are not unrelated, but while most actors can master technique, many never even make the acquaintance of real truthfulness.

Such is not the case with Louise Casemore who ably demonstrated moments of truthful performance at the preview January 31st of OCD, of which she is also the playwright. I am not going to go into the details of the story, because there are surprises which will work best if you go in not knowing what to expect.

I will say that it is a one woman show (at the preview, crew got a bit of stage time due to a technical glitch off the top, but hopefully that will be fixed for the run) with much relating to the audience; the house lights remain up the entire performance so performer can see audience just as much as audience can see performer.

I rejoice any time we can get rid of the fourth wall, the more completely the better: As actors we are story tellers, and the connection with the audience is absolutely critical even when there is that lie of the fourth wall, a division which cannot be allowed to divide if we are to really touch the hearts of our audience.

Casemore's connection was most natural when she was relating to the audience, 100% believable. However, her script has long sections of monologue where, though it has been established that she is addressing us, it is much more like the theatre I am used to seeing; the connection is not as strong. The fourth wall coming up during a particularly intense part of the play may have been something of a mercy, allowing the audience some distance; but I am not sure that was the playwright's intention. Or maybe it was -- aesthetic distance and all that. That is the challenge of this piece, I think, to maintain that truthful connection even in the parts where the performer is not directly addressing audience.

I also would remind the reader that this was a preview performance, the actor in a brand new situation. While there have been rehearsals in the space, with an audience it is a completely different dynamic, especially for a play like this where the audience is often scene partner. I expect Casemore will be even more brilliant as the run progresses and she comes to own the space. And the audience.

I have given this an 8 out of 10 not only for Casemore's performance, but for what seems to be the mission of the piece and its success in achieving it; namely educating.... no, personalizing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder -- we all think we know something about it, but this piece makes it personal and brings it home in the person of its protagonist.

OCD is a Defiance Theatre production written and performed by Louise Casemore and presented by Ghost River Theatre. Playing from February 1st to 10th at the West Village Theatre.

Deimon Slagg


 

December 10th, 2017

Review of Theatre Canmore's production of

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE     (7.5/10)

Running December 9, 10 and 16, 17, 2017 at the Canmore Opera House in Canmore. See here for details.

Did you know there are two Canmore Opera Houses? Calgarians will be familiar with the one in Heritage Park which came to Calgary in 1964, donated by its then owner, Canmore Mines Ltd. With theatre blossoming in Canmore, it might be nice if Heritage Park were to give it back. That not being too likely, developer Frank Kernick has built a new one, modelled on the log cabin aesthetic of the original.

This is where Theatre Canmore is performing their production of the Joe Landry adaptation of Frank Capra's 1946 movie classic It's a Wonderful Life. It's like Christmas chocolates in a wonderful rustic box.

This production does have its rough edges. Landry sets his play in a recording studio back in the golden age of radio. But rather than treat the scripts the characters carry as props, actors actually read from them, giving this production something of the quality of a staged reading, complete with the sorts of stumbles one finds with them. Ideally, actors would memorize their lines and act reading them, much more reliable, and we would see noses in scripts less often.

Alternatively, if the actors have to read, then more rehearsal might be beneficial to perfect that art. The clumsiness in some of the musical moments with singing, as well as the somewhat uncoordinated curtain call, also suggest that this show may not have received sufficient rehearsal. As well, the director, Gerry McAuley also acts in the piece, which may have deprived the production at times of a critical outside eye. It may have been better if McAuley had restricted himself to acting. Because he turns in a wonderful performance.

The entire cast approaches the piece with a spirit appropriate to it and to the season. Two actors stand out in particular, McAuley and JeremyWhite. McAuley plays a variety of roles, Mr. Potter and the radio announcer. McAuley has worked in radio, and as an announcer he is absolutely perfect, the real deal, his dialect that of the period and his delivery flawless. His Mr. Potter is every bit as nasty and conniving as the character demands, his barking delivery exactly in the right key.

By far the most demanding role is that of George Bailey, and White rises to the challenge. He excels most at the gentle, quirky side of the character, at times almost being the living embodiment of Jimmy Stewart. He doesn't have Stewart's range yet; Stewart could be that gentle bumbler, but he could also let loose with the fire. I couldn't help feeling at times White was holding himself back, perhaps too much defining the character in those gentle terms he manages so well? I don't know, but I did want to see him reveal to us more of the very deep passion of the character that exists beneath that gentle, good exterior. But overall, White captures the essence.

Sound effects were ably provided live by Martin Finnerty, adding to the comic dimension and old time feel.

And, despite the rough edges, I give it a 7.5 in large measure because of the overall feel. It's wholesome without being Hallmark, and fits very neatly into that reflection of old times, the new Canmore Opera House. It succeeds very well in providing something genuinely Christmasy in this Christmasy season. If that's what you're looking for, then check it out if you have the opportunity (if you're short or have little ones arrive early and grab a seat near the front; the seats are not raked). Two more shows, December 16th and 17th at 7:30 pm.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that early in their rehearsal process I conducted a dialect workshop with some of the actors. That's why I drove out from Calgary to see it -- based on what I saw in workshop that early on, I had a feeling it would be something special.

Deimon Slagg


Review of Theatre Encounters production of

AESCHYLUS: FRAGMENTS     (8.5/10)

Running November 16th to 18th at cSpace. See here for details.

I saw Theatre Encounter's production of Aeschylus: Fragments last night. It is hard to define exactly as to form, but might be described as a dance piece in the Japanese Butoh style.

Music director John Warkentin is also a performer in the piece, primarily playing his trombone. His soundscape is a combination of classical pieces and original composition which demonstrate the range of sounds this instrument can make -- this is not what you would expect to hear from a trombone player in the philharmonic, or even mainstream jazz! Warkentin's ease with (and mastery of) the instrument is a pleasure to experience.

Performers and co-creators Kayla Bigras and Val Duncan move about in this soundscape in the very stark and often athletic Butoh style, which is interestingly evocative of formal Greek theatre as well; one would be tempted to call it a highly successful synthesis of two cultural traditions. I did find myself missing the clown at times, as the whole thing feels very archetypal, but oh so serious!

I suspect Bigras and Duncan have worked together before, as they move together like artists who have complete trust in one another.

I found myself missing story. I regard story as essential to theatre. But this is, as the title suggests, fragmentary, non-narrative, bits and pieces of lost work. I give it an 8.5 out of 10 for my impression of their success in achieving the objectives they set for themselves as I've divined them.

Also I've long thought theatre should subscribe to something of Wagner's idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork", but preferably without congealing into muscular Germanic melodrama. It ought to be possible to have wonderful artistic theatricality in the service of story and characters who engage us, who move us at the level of the heart. One so seldom sees that realized.

If you are as committed to story as I am, you may find parts of this production opaque and may want to give it a miss. If you like modern dance, or are intrigued by Butoh practice, then you will want to see this. If you hunger for theatricality in theatre, feel starved for it as I do, then you will definitely want to catch this production. It is food for a theatre artist's soul.

But catch it soon, as it is only a three day run, November 16th to 18th.

Deimon Slagg