October 24th, 2018
Review of Simply Theatre's production of
by Aaron Sorkin
October 19th to 27th, 2018 at the Pumphouse (Joyce Doolittle Theatre). See here for details.
Go see it. That's the short version. Unless you have an aversion to court room dramas, there's no reason not to see it. The writing is excellent, the acting decent, production values fairly minimal but completely functional. It's a military court room drama (you may be familiar with the movie that starred Jack Nicholson), and examines US Marine culture in a fairly even handed way; yes, they get up to things they ought not, but as one character says, even if they hate your guts, they will put themselves between you and a bullet -- a dedication to justice, freedom, country, and all that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
So that's it, you don't need to read any more. It's just shout outs to my friends from here on. And yes, I'm totally biased, never said I wasn't, never will.
First shout out has to go to the director, James Noonan. Because so many directors are essentially frauds who can't find their own asses with both hands; actors who've finally found themselves in a position where they can take notes and tell other actors how they would do it if they were playing the part -- shows often fail or succeed in spite of them, not because of them. It's really hard to know just from watching what the director's actual contribution was, if any.
But the pace and timing of this large cast show is sufficiently what it needs to be to suggest there was an intelligence monitoring and encouraging it. This is a talky-talk talk talk show of a kind I'm not incredibly fond of -- seriously, if you can make a movie out of it (and especially if a movie has been made of it), maybe think two or three or nine times before doing it as theatre. Then don't.
So pulling it off as well as Noonan and his cast and crew have is an impressive achievement. I was engaged throughout, and wasn't even remotely tempted to flee into the night at intermission.
Noonan's staging contributed very positively to this as well. You aren't aware of the actors tap dancing and juggling because they aren't, they stop just short of that, with enough motion to keep things from becoming too static without being distracting.
So well done, Jim, for being a example of how a director can actually be useful.
And a shout out to Bryan Smith in the role of Daniel Kaffee. I've thought of Smith as primarily a competent enough musical theatre artist, but he really shone in this role. I was reminded of a young Bill Murray, as the character has this sort of casual American humour, the easy off the cuff quip or comment that Murray does so well, and Smith has no problem with either. And so many lines, how did he memorize them all? He must have started very early on in the process to nail them all in good time (Ha ha ha ha , I am such a dick).
Kudos, Bryan, you are seriously engaging, hitting all the levels in this complex character making him eminently watchable.
Then I want to do shout outs to my old buds, friends and peers, Greg Speilman and Stuart Bentley. Greg plays the Jack Nicholson part, Colonal Nathan Jessup. Everyone, even those of us who have not seen the film, know the famous line "You can't handle the truth," and poor Greg has to act through laughs conditioned by the fact that most of the time when we've heard that line, it has been in the context of satire and parody. Still, he keeps his cool as an actor while losing it as a character and powers on through the climax of the play.
Bentley is an amazing actor (will never forget his Nixon in Scorpio's Frost/Nixon, or his joyously manically evil serial killer in Bloodmania) who is perhaps a little wasted in the small and constrained part of the judge, Colonal Julius Randolph. While other actors can move about, he's pretty much trapped behind the bench, banging his little gavel. But in spite of such a small gavel (absolutely no reflection on the man), he conveys the necessary gravitas the role demands.
Lucas Seeger is another actor I associate primarily with musical theatre, but he certainly wasn't tap dancing in this one. Both of the accused, Louden Downey (Seeger) and Harold Dawson (Issiah Sanghera) are played as stand-at-attention-even-at-ease Marines, though Seeger plays Downey as being a little more simple, a little less poker faced, often looking to Dawson for guidance.
Dramaturgically (he said pretentiously), these characters constitute a characterological dyad requiring the actors to be tuned to each other at all times, even when they don't have lines, and there are a lot of times when they are just silently doing the Marine thing. They pull it off very well. We actually feel sympathy for these characters, and the way it is written, that is by no means guaranteed, as they can be characterized as bullies who pick on the weak kid leading to his death; The character of Sam Weinberg (Michael Brown) makes this very point -- he thinks they should be put away for a long time, in spite of being on their defense team.
And a shout out as well to the props mistress, Mikee Ames. As usual, being a friend, I got to see props close up the way only cast and crew do. Such little things we as audience don't even think of when it's done right, like stacks of mail with cancelled stamps that are period correct, each of the cancel marks hand drawn. Man, she should get an award, but though she has received awards for other things like choreo and costume, this unobtrusive commitment to quality and detail just doesn't get noticed. And done right, it usually shouldn't be. So you're doing it right, Mikee, no one is noticing; it's just a little magic you provide towards creating a world.
And finally a shout out to ensemble member Nick Wensrich. I had the pleasure of coaching Nick on an Urban Stories show. At that time he was concerned about being type cast in comedies. Well, I suppose this play has its funny moments, but that doesn't seem to be turning out to be a problem. Good job, Nick, keep it up, look forward to seeing you one day in a comedy.
That's the people I know and am totally biased towards. Unbiasedly, kudos are also due to the actors who played Kaffee's wingmen, Joanne Galloway (Gillian Klassen) and Sam Weinberg (Michael Brown). Dramaturgically speaking, they constitute a characterological triad (see dyad blah, blah above)... This trio has so much stage time together that the play succeeds or fails on their performances. And it succeeds. It is a pleasure to watch them play together.
I ran into Bentley after the show in the lobby, and he wondered if I was going to "Slagg" the show in a review, and I got the impression he was regarding being slagged as not being an entirely positive thing. So...
I suppose I could note that the quality of the acting is uneven, but that's kind of to be expected in a large cast community theatre production. That's another thing Noonan really deserves kudos for, casting a cast this strong from community theatre volunteers. A little unevenness is not a big deal.
I suppose the worst thing is that the Pumphouse concession sells ice cream. I'm on a diet, but ice cream at the theatre is kind of a thing for me, very hard to resist. It would be helpful to me in future if Simply Theatre would choose venues that don't sell ice cream.
They are coming to the end of their run, so catch it if you can. I have heard that it may be remounted, so if you can't catch it this time, catch it next time. By then I'm sure the entire cast will be completely rock solid on their lines. Not that anyone isn't (I am such a dick).
September 25th, 2018
Review of Front Row Centre Theatre's production of
Book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle
September 21st to October 6th, 2018 at the Beddington Theatre Arts Centre. See here for details.
So before beginning my review of Front Row Centre's current production of Idle and Du Prez' Spamalot which is based quite a lot on the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with an additional layer of satire aimed at the Broadway musical, first I must disclose two sources of potential bias:
a) I LOVE Monty Python and have since I was a wee lad. I remember where I was the first time I saw Monty Python on TV. It warped my little mind and made me want to be English; it would not be until years later that I would realize that the Python's were actually quite critical of English culture and would not have endorsed anyone becoming an Anglophile, let alone contribute to a young Canadian boy actually becoming one.
b) While I don't often audition for community theatre, I did for this production, because see a). Since not being cast I have become horribly twisted and bitter and will now proceed to utterly demolish this production in order to have my revenge, bwa ha ha ha ha ha!
Well. In fairness, it didn't completely suck. There were some good things. For example, my friend Mikee Ames' costumes worked very well (and I should mention Lorna Stuber, as she is credited with costume design also), in conjunction with the overall design which was quite artistic. In fact, the set very much reminded me of Old Trout Puppet Workshop's Jabberwocky which used two vertical scrolls, whereas Alexandra May's design for this production uses a horizontal scroll. There is also more than a small nod to the work on the film by artist/animator Terry Gilliam. Against this artistic backdrop and other bits and pieces, Ames and Stuber's brightly coloured costumes worked very well.
There were no standout performances. But if I were not trying to make mincemeat of this production with venemous invective, I would quite likely single out Sara Me who played The Lady of the Lake. It is possible she can act. I would like to see her again in something better. There is absolutely no doubt that she can sing. She has been blessed with a sterling set of pipes, and she knows how to use them.
This production caused me to wonder if I had lost my love of Python, as so many of the old lines and routines simply fell flat for me. Until Logan Teske's French Taunter which was clearly and lovingly inspired by John Cleese's performance in Holy Grail. Suddenly a flame was kindled, and it was as if Cleese lived again (I know, he says he's still alive, but he's not fooling anyone).
And I liked the band. I'm not a conductor/music director, not my area of expertise, or maybe I could savage those poor souls behind Plexiglas as well, but I pretty much always like the band and appreciate FRC's use of live musicians in their productions. I would have liked it better if they had played preshow music rather than having it canned, but perhaps that's just being greedy. Though if you've got a band just sitting there with all their musical instruments at the ready...
So should you see it?
That's a tough one. I enjoyed it the last time they mounted it. So perhaps if you like Python and you haven't seen it before, then maybe? If you don't like Python then you should avoid not only this, but even a top notch professional production, because it is Python, Python, Python, Python, Python, Python, baked beans, and Python.
And if you've seen it before, then you may simply have become, like me, much harder to please. Suddenly the fact that it fails to live up to the quality of a Broadway musical makes a difference, since it really must in order for the parody of Broadway to strike home most effectively. It may no longer be a very good choice for community theatre now that you can't simply depend on people being Python fans to sell it, now that you actually have to have an excellent musical by Broadway standards, with excellent choreography and singing across the board, while at the same time mastering that particular style of English humour: Suddenly what seemed easy becomes hard.
It has to be more than memorizing a bunch of lines and acting silly. And I suspect this may be true of theatre in general. What if it is an art form as legitimate as any other, and as demanding of skill and talent? Now there's a frightening thought.
And in full disclosure I should say I didn't see the second act. Maybe it got a lot better. Perhaps this somewhat tepid production totally redeemed itself there. But almost as much as the costumes, the artistic set, Teske's Taunter (I'm sure his Herbert was lovely as well), and Me's astonishing voice, I really, really liked the intermission; I didn't want it to end.
But I will end here, before I taunt this poor production a second time.
June 16th, 2018
Review of StoryBook Theatres production of
June 6th to 17th, 2018 at the Vertigo Studio Theatre. See here for details.
Another just in time review! 3 shows left, all occuring tomorrow.
Ty Rex' story is not hugely original; a boy overcomes a classroom conflict through imagination and learning to play well with others. But originality isn't everything, and this presentation is full of wonderful theatrical performance. It could be adapted to other mediums, of course, but would not be best served by such.
AJ Baragar and Neil James do a wonderful job as the grade three students Ty and Artie respectively. They avoid the pitfall of TYA acting that is all phoney, disconnected, over the top energy and instead turn in very credible performances for a couple of adults. Kids in the audience seemed to buy in, as did adults. They are the best written of the four parts.
Actors Laura Solilo and Justine Westby are not as well served by the playwright in the roles of the aunt and the teacher. The teacher starts each class with a new comical hat in the belief that this will help pedagogically, engaging the students, but it also is very representative of Mason's approach to the adult characters; try to disguise their preachiness with a little razzle dazzle, an appearance of weird to disguise the fact that they are the voices of establishment and orthodoxy. The performances smell a bit of TYA acting as well. There is less buy in by the young audience, except for when the teacher is addressing them directly as the class, and then we see the very best part of the production, the kids in the audience responding as they might to an actual teacher; putting up their hands, answering back, as the classroom effectively extends out for a moment to embrace the audience. But when they are not so engaged, the adult heavy scenes have them fidgiting and having to be parent minded more as they lose interest.
Jennifer Arsenault's set is a thing of low tech beauty and magic. The backdrop of the class room can split into five pieces and rotate to form the aunt's house, or the world of Ty's imagination. The reverses are colourfully and somewhat wildly painted, but the aunt is an artist, so that explains why her walls are perhaps a tad unorthodox. It takes practically no time to make the switch, and the switch itself is fun to watch.
Krish Mish's sound design, and Lisa Floyd's lighting design perfectly support the story and the changing locals actual or imaginary in the way such design does when done well, unobstrusively creating a universe without unduly calling attention to themselves.
And Mad Props (Mikee Ames and Brad Laberge) are at work on this production as well. It is easier, I think, to ask Mikee what currently running shows she didn't work on rather than have her list the ones she did. Here we have another of her signature food props, the pizza with white sauce, and both her psychedelic grade three clipboard and dinosaur backpack featured nicely. The custom work that Mad Props does adds lovely detail to all the shows they work on.
Should you see it? I would very much avoid it if you don't like kids, because the theatre is crawling with them. On the other hand, they are, in many ways, the ideal audience, very much, I imagine, like the groundlings in Shakespeare's day, capable of wide mouthed wonder, but also quite capable of letting you know when they're bored or not being entertained. And this is theatre as theatre should be; very physical, full of charm and magic, and at its best engaging us in such a way that we are all in the same space, erasing the sense of the performers over there, and we sitting over here watching them.
In fact, I would like to see a new genre emerge, TYAOA -- Theatre for Young Audiences for Old Audiences. Why should kids have all the fun? It seems very unfair that they get moving worlds of imagination and wonder, while we have to watch plays with people sitting around talking. But they would revolt if we tried to switch and make them watch the people sitting around talking. They literally would not sit still for it. And good for them. And good for StoryBook for providing them with theatrical experiences such as this.
June 15th, 2018
Review of DIY Theatre's production of
June 7th to 16th, 2018 at the Motel Theatre in Arts Commons. See here for details.
Ok, this is going to be a quicky, as of time of writing, you have only two more opportunities to see this show, both of them on Saturday, June 16th. One of the disadvantages of reviewing a show late in its run is that the publicity value of the review is somewhat diminished. But on the plus side, so many shows don't get the rehearsal time they need, so when one reviews a show from its preview or opening, the show often isn't fully cooked yet. The performance this cast gives has a feeling of people comfortable working together; it's a stew in which the flavours have mixed.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that director Shelby Reinitz is also directing a play I wrote, The Apple Kingdom, for the Canmore Summer Theatre Festival, July 4th to 8th. Stage manager Kristy Benz is playing a major role in the same play. Female lead Kaleigh Richards is choreographer for the other show in the Canmore festival, Romeo and Juliet, in which I play Friar Lawrence, so you will understand if I am a wee bit biased.
This one is interesting to compare to StoryBook's Mary Poppins (reviewed below). It also is a type of theatre I'm not fond of, in this case the play set in a living room or kitchen (or in this case open concept living-room/kitchen). These sorts of plays tend to be very talky, really radio plays disguised as theatre plays. I think a better place for them these days would be streaming from the Internet, given that there is very little about them which is necessarily theatrical.
With regard to design and performance, these productions are somewhat opposite; whereas the characters in Poppins are shallow and shallowly performed for the most part, in Time Stands Still they are more complex and performed with a sincere attempt at depth which is not entirely unsuccessful. Design, on the other hand, is a tour de force in Poppins, but looks a bit thrown together without a whole lot of creative thought in Time Stands Still.
Speaking to Reinitz after the performance she observed that that particular performance was perhaps not the best they had done. This being the case, I should very much like to have seen one where they were at their best, because all the performers turned in competent performances. Yes, I would have liked to have seen a smidgen more authenticity throughout, and more levels, especially from Richards. She is very good at earnestness, and this is an earnest character no doubt, coping, as she is, with PTSD. Richard's interpretation makes sense the way the character is written, but I wonder if Reinitz couldn't have worked with Richards in a way which sourced more from the heart than the head. Often when we can do that we come up with things which are surprising to us, and surprise is such a valuable gift to give an audience. There wasn't a whole lot surprising in this production, with perhaps one major exception in the design.
It was very cool that they used the actual windows in Motel Theatre looking out over Stephen Avenue. Usually these are covered over and behind blackout blinds. But you absolutely could not make fake windows in the set as nice as these real ones. And with the summer solstice approaching, day lasts the whole performance, fading to twilight across the time of the play.
That said, the set itself was functional, not awful, just not particularly adding of anything. Sofa, table, bric-a-brac that yuppies might have. Not strongly conspicuous was photojournalism as a central design concept, which would seem to be what this play asks for; either literally, as in how would an apartment belonging to photojournalists look, or else artistically -- colour palette of greys representing black and white photography, stark lines, whatever else that theme might suggest conceptually?
Likewise the sound design featured some sound effects, and pretty music here and there inconsistently applied across scene changes. At very least greater consistency was called for, and I would have liked to have seen the production have the courage to do away with between scene music altogether as part of an overall starker design theme suggestive of the kind of photojournalism the main characters engaged in.
Should you go see it? Absolutely! I have friends working on it. Including my friend Mikee who headed props for Poppins and to this one contributed mini-quiche and cake, both very convincing though ultimately inedible.
But I hope you read this recommendation soon, as the last two shows are only hours away.
June 8th, 2018
Review of StoryBook Theatre's production of
May 18th to June 9th and July 6th to 15th, 2018 at the Beddington Theatre Arts Centre. See here for details.
I saw StoryBook Theatre's production of Mary Poppins,The Musical (adaptation credited to Disney and Cameron MacKintosh, this production directed by JP Thibodeau) last Thursday eve. I was mostly bored through it. Still, I'm giving it a 7.5, for two reasons; 1) I'm not a huge fan of musical theatre -- if you are, you will probably enjoy this more than I did, and 2) There was a lot right about this production, especially design and singing.
Mary Poppins was a series of books originally, by P. L. Travers. Some, when designing set for stage adaptions of books, think "I know, we'll make the set a giant book somehow." And sometimes there isn't anyone who says to them, "Ok, what's your next idea, something less literal?" Not a problem here: In this case we have a set which suggests life size paper art of some kind, all white, geometrics suggesting buildings, and lots of rolling things like trees and multipurpose platforms, all in a white paper cut out style which is very friendly to changing its mood through the simple application of light. While not literally imitating a book, it does have something of the quality of Mary Shepard's very clean black and white illustrations in the original books (Terry Gunvordahl, Set and Lighting Design).
Again, I had privileged insight into the props for this show, since they were done by my friends Mikee Ames and Brad Laberge (MAD PROPS). It was very cool to see in action the magic bag Brad welded the frame for and which Mikee made to look like the archetypal carpet bag. And the magic cake bit (no spoilers, you will have to go see it yourself), and you would never know that the chimney sweep brushes are made of long, black plastic zip ties, very actor friendly -- no matter how frenetically the sweeps step in time, no one is going to lose an eye. And the vase... But I've said enough, again, no spoilers.
Costumes were lovely (Sandy Forbes, Costume Designer). For the most part, they didn't call attention to themselves, which is what you hope for from perfect costume. Though I found myself admiring Mrs. Banks dress at one point thinking that it was perfectly period. Except that women's clothing from that period hardly lent themselves well to quick costume changes, and these costumes clearly have a lot of magic of a costume designer kind.
The choreography was fine, stand out moments being the dancing statuary (Ryan Maschke dances at least as brilliantly in this as he did in StoryBook's Wizard of Oz), and the Step-In-Time number (even if it did seem to go on a little long. Laura Solilo, Choreographer).
And flying people is always cool. In fact, the highlight of this production would have to be its stage magic. Very nicely done, from pulling impossible things from a bag, all the way to defying gravity and walking up walls (Kelley Cheetham, Harness & Flight Supervisor).
And the singing was quite good across the board (Joe Slabe, Musical Director). As is often the case with musicals, casting consideration appears to have prioritized singing ability. Acting was superficial for the most part, and while you could say that's not a big deal given that the writing is quite superficial as well, that might be something of a cop out. The stand out cast member for this production was, without a doubt, Eden Hildebrand as Mary Poppins. She did very well delivering on the saucy edge this practically perfect character requires in order to be something more than practically palatable. She is an actual triple threat who can act, sing, and dance.
What kept this from being an exceptional production was a problem I see a lot in theatre; a lack of real connection with the audience. The audience seemed to enjoy it, but from where I was seated at the side of the audience, I could look across them, and, except when reacting to the bits of stage magic, they looked like people watching television.
You could argue that a strong connection between performers and audience just isn't possible with spectacle, which arguably a big musical is. Except that much of the time in this musical the stage is occupied by only a few characters, or even just one. And disappointingly, some of the least engaging times were when the stage was occupied by only one person.
Imagine that; being a performer with a whole audience all to one's self! The average person's nightmare should be the performer's dream. What can I do with this audience, how can I connect, how can I have them in the palm of my hand? These moments should be different, but every bit as powerful as the big production numbers.
When they're the most boring moments in the show, that is the fault of the director. The director's job is to support his artists in doing the best job of which they are capable. Failure is his. When he succeeds in supporting his artists, the success is theirs. That isn't fair, but that's how it is. And if the performer really is irredeemable (and none of the cast I saw struck me as such), then it is the director's fault for casting them.
One day I would like to be in the same space with a musical; not being over here watching it go on over there. But for that to happen, there needs to be a real connection, a real exchange of energy between performers and audience. When the audience is watching like it's TV, there is something seriously wrong; a failure to make the most of what makes live performance so much more than TV.
In the end, even though a great deal of work and rehearsal has gone into this production and a lot works, there's a strong element of meh. It doesn't matter how much goes into a production, without the strong connection a simple story teller has holding a room full of people enthralled with her tale, it's hard to really get the maximum pay off for all of that hard work.
So should you see it? If you like musicals or are a fan of stagecraft, then probably. StoryBook production values approach those of our main stages, but for a fraction of the ticket price.
May 16th, 2018
Review of TCS Theatre's production of
May 10th to May 17th, 2018 at Trinity Christian School in Calgary. See here for details.
Let's be honest, for the most part kids suck at acting. I don't mean improv, they're often brilliant at improv, but put a script in their hands, and suddenly cute factor alone sustains audience interest. And even then, for a limited duration. Proud parents probably will hold out the longest, but even they must eventually succumb to the dead, wooden, lisping, quality of most child acting.
I had the opportunity the other night to see a junior high school production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Now these kids are eleven to fourteen, and even the cute factor is something which for most of them is receding into the past with their childhoods faster than they realize, poor things, on the cusp of adulting and all the existential insecurity and horror that goes with that.
And if they want to be actors, they will have to make a transition from being really cute but sucking, to being at least competent at the craft. This is essential, not only for their own success, but because we live in a society where we are not allowed to shoot bad actors: The best way for us to not have to suffer them is for actors to possess a universal competence.
Director/teacher Charlotte Loeppky is doing her part to assure this universal competence. None of her students has an acting style which constitutes assault, in fact they are, as a bunch, quite watchable. Most importantly, they serve the text well; I don't think I lost a single word of what is a very literary text.
Loeppky, unable to find a stage adaptation that she liked, created her own from the novel using its actual text. The resulting script is rich, beautiful, and deep, but not necessarily forgiving of a less than precise delivery. I hope Loeppky will make her adaptation available to others, as it is very, very good.
In the interests of full disclosure I should note that I am a Loeppky fan, having been stage married to her three times; twice in Nazi occupied Amsterdam, and once when I had a relationship with a goat (I believe she has forgiven me). She's also musical director and arranger for a musical I wrote (PLUG ALERT: The Apple Kingdom is being produced as part of the Canmore Summer Theatre Festival, July 4th to 8th).
Also, for this production, adult human characters are recorded actors, with young actors acting to a soundtrack, as though the voice was theirs. So I'm sort of in it, as the voice of the Professor and the voice of Father Christmas. I must say that was a little surreal, in a happy way; to see these characters performing with a very familiar voice.
Someone else got to voice Aslan, but that's ok. All the performers did a wonderful job of embodying the voices; the professor gesturing articulately, Father Christmas laughing heartily, Aslan roaring and often being bipedially affable, more so than one would expect a Christ-lion to be, almost as though Lewis had an eye towards merchandising; if they had been selling action figures I would have bought one -- who am I kidding, I would have bought them all, as the lot of them were adorable, each in their own way.
Loeppky's design sense is excellent as well. Rather than perform in the school gym as has been normal in past years, she has turned her classroom into a black box theatre complete with trees that stretch up and up and up, as her class room was once a tv studio and has a very high ceiling.
But this betreed Narnia is not where we start, oh no, no one from the world of the Daughters of Eve and the Sons of Adam starts in Narnia right off the bat. We start in the hall outside the classroom, on benches along the walls. It's not until the story moves to Narnia that we the audience do too, passing, as we must, through the wardrobe and into the wintery world of Mr. Tumnus.
Very effective projections on two of the walls emphasize the snow and the cold and are used wonderfully throughout, in conjunction with a sound design which was also awesome, both in the foreground for effects and in the background for mood, atmosphere, and scene transitions.
The one thing I really find myself missing is a program, because it would be great to be able to put names to all the various contributions, performance-wise and on the technical/design side; all people who helped to make this a school play on steroids, entertaining from beginning to end. All involved should be very proud of their accomplishment.
Additional info from Charlotte: Sound Design - Mory Peterson and Fight/movement direction - Anastasia St. Amand (who also helped to build the tall trees) . Couldn't have done this without these two amazingly talented people.
May 10th, 2018
Review of Theatre Disponibilite's production of
May 8th to May 12th, 2018 at the Motel Theatre in Calgary. See here for details.
Okay, going to crank this out fast, because this is one of those short runs where if you blink, you miss it.
Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner is an adaptation of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. The following is from the original (Signet Classic, Ann Dunnigan, translator):
SORIN: We can't do without the theatre.
TREPLEV: We need new forms. New forms are needed, and if we can't have them, then we had better have nothing at all.
So, that could be seen as a challenge for anyone doing an adaptation. Does Posner deliver us an new form?
Not really. We do get that meta thing where characters address the audience. At one point a character lets us know that they can see us, the audience. Oddly enough, perhaps given the quality of the cast, what could come off a yet another sophomoric reinvention of Pirandello for the gazillionth time actually seems to work. Maybe because it doesn't seem as though it's trying to be clever, but rather the opposite, almost despondent, with a quality of "Here we go again. We all know the drill. Can we unpretentiously drop pretense?"
I was inspired to reread the original. This version is surprisingly faithful, given that it seems so contemporary. Posner does what one might have thought very difficult, make The Seagull seem to a modern, North American audience exactly like what Chekhov called it, "a comedy in four acts".
I found myself laughing a lot. This cast is brilliant right across the board, achieving all the right levels for this intimate little theatre. There aren't really any standouts, but Owen Bishop should be applauded for carrying much of the story and the audience interaction -- in this adaptation I think it's fair to say that this is his character's story (Con, Konstantin in the original). That said, it really is an ensemble piece with choice parts for all the actors who make the most of them.
Should you see it? Yes, I can't think of a single reason why you wouldn't want to see this. It makes a Russian classic come so alive you might as well just forget that it's a Russian classic, especially if that feels daunting. This is the dark comedy I believe Chekhov himself intended, ably delivered by a wonderful cast under the direction of Josephine Christensen.
May 3rd, 2018
Review of Morpheus' production of
April 27th to May 12th, 2018 at the Pumphouse Theatre in Calgary. See here for details.
Ok, this is going to be a quicky, just a heads up that there's some choice Gilbert and Sullivan going on which you may want to check out before it's gone.
Let's jump directly to the main question: should you go see this? That's easy; if you like Gilbert and Sullivan, then YES! This production is full of Gilbert and Sullivany goodness, with nods to the English panto tradition as well with director Sean Anderson feeling completely comfortable adding additional material and localizing content.
If you are not a fan of of G & S, then, no, for all the same reasons.
This is community theatre at its best; yes, quality of performance is uneven, but clearly a good time is being had by all.
It would have been better if the performers were miked, as some voices are stronger than others (the romantic leads are very strong (Carey Unger and Jennifer Michaud)), and miking would allow for evening out the mix and helping those performers who just don't have the same vocal power as Unger and Michaud. Ideally it shouldn't be a contest between the singers and the piano, with even odds being placed for who will prevail.
That said, if you are a G & S fan, you will likely forgive the weaknesses for the great good fun that G & S can be, falling, as it does, in that tradition of British comedy that runs from Shakespeare at his silliest, to panto, G & S, the amateur and college theatrical, and through Python to today.
March 12th, 2018
Review of Scorpio Theatre's production of
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
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!
February 23rd, 2018
Review of Old Trout Puppet Workshop's production of
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.
February 11th, 2018
Review of Storybook Theatre's production of
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 (MAD PROPS), 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.
February 1st, 2018
Review of Ghost River Theatre's presentation of Defiance Theatre's production of
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.
December 10th, 2017
Review of Theatre Canmore's production of
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.
Review of Theatre Encounters production of
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.