Monday, April 28, 2014

Belleville and the Role of the Artist as Critic

I went to see BELLEVILLE this afternoon, Company Theatre's production of the Amy Herzog play about Americans in Paris.

The script owes a debt to GASLIGHT, but is really more about the cognitive dissonance contained in the space between a young American couple's aspirations, and their actual life.

Abby is a girl who'd be at home in a Woody Allan film.  She's trained as an actor, but works as a yoga teacher. She's a neurotic as a cat, can't hold her liquor, and is trying to withdraw from prescription anti-depressants.

Her husband Zack, trained as a doctor, and is in Paris working for Medicins Sans Frontieres, on a cure for HIV in children.  He smokes a lot of dope with their landlord, the male half of a house-owning couple of African immigrants, with two children under five, who lives downstairs.

Zack says they're in Paris because he wants to cheer Abby up.  Abby says they left the States for Zack's career. Early on, we find out the couple is four months behind with the rent.  Abby is unaware of this state of affairs, perhaps because she doesn't speak French.

I just saw BLUE JASMINE, and my question in both these pieces was the same:  who the hell are these university educated women in 2014, who don't know how, or if, the rent is paid?

I don't know: maybe this is commonplace among the bourgeoisie on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. I don't know a single woman of any age, in any class, who doesn't know how much the roof over her head costs, or who is footing the bill, or if the bill is paid.  It's a ridiculous, antediluvian premise, but if you can get past that, the script has merit.

BELLEVILE's strength rests on Herzog's nuanced examination of the marriage of two emotionally unstable people on shaky ground.  The couple reminded me of the twenty-somethings I see in GIRLS. The play works as a study of race, class, and culture. It absolutely nails the fact that French adults in that same age demographic are not, still, semi-adolescents.

Does it work as a thriller?  Almost: but not quite.  A thriller is a twenty-one jewel watch.  It requires a structure of exquisite mechanical precision. This is a collection of intriguing, but not quite functional parts. There was too much telegraphing of plot points, and the ambiguous ending felt lazy, and fell flat.

In the end, because of the script issues, the acting and solid direction by Jason Byrne couldn't sustain the tension he and the cast so carefully built up in the first 3/4 of the play. There's a meal here, thanks to fine work from Allan Hawco, Christine Horne, Dalmar Abuzeid and Marsha Regis. It's worth seeing for the acting, but don't expect great noir.

Now on to topic number two.

There was a very smart and interesting set of articles on theatre criticism on #CanCult Times last week.  Michael Wheeler, the director at Praxis Theatre and a sharp (and delightfully acidic) blogger, political commentator and fine stage director, wrote an article about why Praxis decided not to review their fellow artists' work on their blog. I think he has a valid point: reviewing pushes you outside.  It probably doesn't help you much when you go to be peer-reviewed by arts council juries, either.

There does seem to be a consensus that the community really needs more open and informed discussion about work onstage from more sources, a point well made by reviewer Carly Manga in her #CanCult article on the state of current professional theatre criticism.

When I started this blog back in 2009,  I decided to undertake critical examination of my colleagues' work because I wasn't seeing much writing about why scripts worked or didn't, or about certain issues in the community. I am trying to write less as a reviewer, and more as a writer thinking critically about writing for the stage, and, as an artist writing about the experience of working in the theatre.

There was some discussion by both Manga and Nikki Shaffeeullah about whether reviewers who are not members of a particular community are qualified to discuss work made by that community, an issue several theatre practitioners have raised this winter.

Are there many more theatre creators working now, coming out of a tradition that is not white, or Western?  Sure. It's about time!  Could we use more critical writing about theatre from practitioners who are not middle-aged men, mostly white?  Absolutely.  #CanCult Times issue did just that in a very thoughtful way this week.

For the record, I am a member, not yet carded, of the Metis Nation of Manitoba. My ancestors fought at Batoche.

I had a guy walk up to me in a restaurant over a year after I wrote about a show I didn't think worked very well and tell me we needed to support each other in the Aboriginal community, and that by writing critically about a play by a fellow Aboriginal artist, I had effectively betrayed the community.

I invited him to sit down and join us and discuss the show, and my criticism of it, but he just wanted to talk at me, not to me. After looming and finger-wagging, he walked off.  

Is there anything more patronizing, belittling, and demeaning than assuming my fellow artists, Aboriginal and otherwise, can't tolerate a critical discussion of their work?  Are we really that insecure?Are we to treat each other like kindergarten students, and hand out gold stars just for showing up onstage? 

I'm not going to tell someone that a show works when it doesn't, and I don't care what "community" created the work, even if it is my own, especially if it is my own.  No talk about hegemony excuses a bad show.

THE  PENELOPIAD used an all female, mixed race cast, to talk about war.  It  was brilliant.  Pamela Sinha used  South Asian myth and dance in CRASH to great effect, in a play about a violent sexual assault. She won a well-deserved DORA.  Aboriginal writer and performer Cliff Cardinal made an array of characters come to life in HUFF, and served up an incendiary cocktail of rage, pain and inter-generational abuse, placed very specifically on a reservation. He and Sinha are both at the Playwright's colony at Banff this week.  I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

I have been reviewed since I was eleven years old as an actor, director and writer.  I have had good reviews, mediocre reviews, and bad reviews that smarted like a smack up the side of the head. Some of them were well deserved, some weren't.  I wish more of them had been written by actual theatre practitioners.

If anyone can spend time and money at a show, hopefully it'll be reviewed by the mainstream media.  Why? Because good reviews are free p.r. and sell tickets (duh!) I don't think there's anyone making theatre, who could use less box office revenue.

Like it or not, this still means that means a play, will, most likely, be reviewed by white men, and a few women. If we, as a community, want that to change, more of us are going to have to stick our necks out, and talk about each others' work.

I wouldn't want my work to be reviewed exclusively by mixed race, middle-aged, unmarried, straight, feminist, left-leaning, theatre-making women, anymore than I only want to be seen by that group. Call me willfully naive, but I think if I'm willing to take any one's money for a ticket, anyone who saw the show, can weigh in on my show.

I hope that by thinking long and hard about why my fellow theatre practitioners' plays work, or don't work,  I'll become a better writer myself.  I see the critical thinking required to write about theatre as an important part of my artistic practice. I am trying to write from inside, not outside.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Each year 150 or so shows happen at each of the three big summer FRINGE festivals:  Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton.

About 10% of those shows are critical and commercial hits on the circuit.  A few of the intrepid creator/producers of those hit shows decide to try and remount in their hometowns during the main theatre season between September and May.

Two shows that ran here briefly this past week were remounted by their respective companies in independent rental spaces after being critical and box office hits on the Fringe.

I saw my first KEYSTONE Theatre show today.  Keystone has had DORA nominations for their work (for music) and had four and five star reviews in Edmonton and Calgary for THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, which I saw Sunday.

KEYSTONE performs theatre in style of silent film.

Like the lovely meringue pies onstage, the production was a frothy confection.  If you've ever made a meringue pie, you know it looks effortless, but it is not that easy to achieve that delicate, airy perfection.  I went with a friend and we ran into another actor-writer buddy of mine at the theatre. We all enjoyed it.

The work was highly stylized, using techniques derived from clown, buffoon, mime and physical theatre to create characters who are in make-up that functions as a kind of masque. Ginette Mohr did a great job of directing, making everything clean and precise. Dana Fradkin and Phil Rickaby were utterly charming as the star-crossed lovers and Sarah Joy Bennet, in a brilliant costume by Kimberly Beaune, very nearly stole the show as the Devil's minion.

In the end, the Devil (an excellent Stephen La Frenie) gets his due and everyone else also gets their just desserts, all puns fully intended.  The live accompaniment by David Atkinson was stellar. It was great good fun and unlike anything else I've seen staged in Toronto this year. They're doing GOLD FEVER at the Toronto Fringe this summer.  I'll be there!

I also saw THE HOMEMAKER, written and performed by Laura Anne Harris and SWELL BROAD which was written by Brooke Banning and directed by Harris. The shows went up this week at THE STOREFRONT THEATRE after being delayed by flooding in their venue back in February.  Friday night, they had a packed house and that made me happy. It was interesting and committed work, looking at women's lives in the 1950s, sexually, professionally and emotionally.

It doesn't surprise me that these shows were remounted by their creators.  What surprises me is that so few hit Fringe shows get picked up for a remount by one of the bigger theatres in town or offered a co-production deal.

KIM'S CONVENIENCE went to  MTC and the NAC in Ottawa, having had a long remount in Toronto at Soulpepper.  I think that's fabulous.  I also think it doesn't happen nearly often enough.

Laura Anne is a colleague and a friend.  I don't have to be her friend to say she had a five-star hit across the country with her previous show,  PITCH BLONDE.  I was astonished that no theatre in the country picked it up for a remount. The closest she got was a half-hour slot (for a polished one-hour show that had sold out the Tarragon Mainstage) from NextStage.

I don't think I'm alone when I say I've seen quite a few new scripts go onstage far from ready, here and elsewhere in larger theatres with systems for play development in place.  I also see great Canadian plays on the Fringe circuit that would be theatre ready, with minor tweaking, and a bigger production budget, and yet, never get a remount.

Instead of spending a fortune putting on a new play that's two drafts shy of a production, I don't understand why more ADs don't take more work that's already been developed independently on the festival circuit or smaller stages into a mainstage season.

At the Winnipeg Fringe, the Manitoba Association of Playwrights presents a Harry Rintoul Award for best new play.  That script is usually pretty great and rarely remounted by a theatre. Daniel Thau Ellef was here with a monologue at Summerworks this year.  I really wish someone had remounted his REMEMBER THE NIGHT here which took the Rintoul a few years back. SCAR TISSUE by Muriel Hogue also won, had a lot of great parts for women and it's never had a remount.

The CENTAUR Theatre in Montreal offers the best English language play in the Montreal Fringe a cash prize and a remount in their theatre.  Boy do I wish that happened across the country.

Ken Brown is a National Theatre school grad, theatre professor and creator of an epic trilogy of plays  called SPIRAL DIVE about WWII pilots. The critically acclaimed work sold out across the West on the Fringe circuit. He brought part one here a few summers ago and once he finally got reviewed, he got 5 stars and they sold out their last show.  Before that, they were a bunch of unknowns from Edmonton and played to tiny houses.  It's been remounted once in Edmonton and I think it got done in once in Ottawa.

Why Ken Brown, who wrote LIFE AFTER HOCKEY, one of the most successful plays ever produced in this country hasn't had a show put up at one of theatres in Toronto in over a decade is beyond me.  It's not like he hasn't written any hits.

Stewart Lemoine, another Edmonton stalwart has had a few shows produced here, but not many. Why in heaven's name has no one ever remounted a TJ Dawe show in Toronto as part of the season?  It's not like the guy can't fill a house. MEDICINE was fantastic.

The best production of Brecht I've seen in ages was done by PRAXIS Theatre at NextStage.  I really hope someone is going to give those guys an in-town show next year.  The writer who did the adaptation, Nicholas Billon, just won the GG for his ICELAND Trilogy.  Remount the trilogy, any ADs out there?

Yes I know, we have a sprawling farm system for play development.  There are pitch opportunities and playwright development money available from nearly every theatre in the province in Ontario, and festivals of new work all over Toronto:  Rhubarb, HATCH, Paprika, Wired, New Ideas.  I'd love to to know the ratio of production to development, from those incubators.

For those of us who put our bums in the seats and our cash in the box office, it is pretty obvious that the current new play development system isn't working very well.  Bad to mediocre new show, after bad to mediocre new show goes up, discouraging the writers from trying again, and dulling the appetites of audiences for new work.

What about paying a talent scout to find a show (or shows) that worked pretty well somewhere else, take it in, hammer it into shape and remount it?  I know it does happen, and I know there are a few people who run around town looking for companies to co-produce with or shows to remount.  The Theatre Centre has just given  several independent companies residency to develop work.  It's a great strategy and I hope more theatres in town will look for ways to co-produce with independent companies to bring more work here from other cities.

Great Canadian theatre gets made across the county but you wouldn't necessarily know that, looking at the season in Toronto. I'd love some shout-outs for great shows from the rest of  Canada you think are ready for a bigger audience.

I'm taking the next week off to celebrate Easter and have a much needed vacation.  Enjoy whatever spring festival you celebrate and the warmer weather.  I'll see BELLEVILLE when I get back and tell you all about it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

50 SHADES...The Musical Parody and COCK: Date Night Theatre

Sometimes you want to be intellectually challenged by art.  You want to have your world view shaken up.  You want the show you go to see to challenge and provoke you, to ask hard questions, to demand  something of you, to make you think.

Other times, you've had a long tough week at work, or home, or both and you just want to go grab a drink, your besties or your significant other and head into a theatre to forget your troubles and have fun.

50 the latter sort of theatrical experience.

You don't have to be one of the 50 million people who bought the book to enjoy this musical parody.

For those of you who have been on a voyage to Mars for the past two years, "50 Shades... " is a trilogy of erotic fiction following the romantic adventures of Anastasia Steele, a virginal English lit undergraduate and hardware store clerk who falls under the spell of Christian Grey, a handsome billionaire with dark secrets.

There were a lot of women there Friday night who appeared to be having "girls' night out".  Many female patrons had worn their black boots and bits of leather in homage to the BSDM theme of the books and some did bring their own handcuffs, as suggested in the publicity.  I saw a pink fuzzy pair pinned to the front of one young lady's sweater like a brooch. Men were definitely in a minority shareholder position. My friend and I estimated the audience was 70% women and 30% men.

In this version of the story, a women's book club (Shelia O'Conner, Tiffany Dissette and Kim David who also plays the ditzy roomie Katherine with great aplomb) decides on "50 Shades..." as their book of the month, having ruled out, "Cooking Soup for One"(too depressing) and "The Diary of Anne Frank" (the ending was too sad).  We come with them, so to speak, on their voyage of not-so-literary adventures.

"50 Shades..." is a grown-ups' version of of a Christmas pantomime, complete with sight-gag casting, singing and dancing and a loose and loud audience that felt free to shout suggestions ( "NO! take the hot guy!") at critical moments during the performance.

Instead of the ugly step-sisters or the evil queen being played by some middle-aged man in bad drag, we have a Christian Grey (the hilarious Jack Boice) who looks more like Santa's red-haired kid brother than a love god. The delightful Boice would not be out of place at Bears' Night at the Black Eagle. It was a bit like expecting George Clooney and getting Ron Jeremy instead.

Happily for the patrons, his back-up dancers ( BJ Gruber, who is also a very hot Elliot Grey and Datus Puryear)  more than had the good-looking man angle covered. The lovely Caroline Reade embodies Anastasia's "Inner Goddess" with some sultry tango dancing.

The entire cast is a talented bunch of singers, dancers and comedians with a great group dynamic and a lot of energy and charm. There was a certain amount of very cheeky engagement with the audience, especially by the show-stealing Boice in his big number "I Don't Make Love, I F...." and by O'Conner, the recently single housewife in the book club who tries to pick up a man in the front row.

There's a clever and well-performed Gilbert and Sullivan parody song detailing Christian's sexual interests.  The whole script makes great sport of the absolute absurdity of the books:  "I love you and I want to beat the crap out of you". "I'm totally controlled and I feel so free!" At one point, our heroine (Eileen Patterson who is a sweet-voiced ingenue) flees Mr. Spanky-Pants by bailing out of his helicopter. I thought that was a great decision, but as is always the case in these things, love trumps sense and conquers all.

With a bare-bones set, a fine back-up band and a lot of hoary sexual jokes, this over-the-top silly and mildly subversive show is a feather-light entertainment.  I hated the book ( I couldn't get through more than one) but this musical parody of a bad romance makes an enjoyable night out.

Then Saturday night, I went to see COCK at the new Theatre Centre.  It's a fabulous space and I hope they never move again.  They have taken in a few established independent theatre companies to share their new home and develop work. Studio 180  is one of those companies and this is their inaugural production in the new theatre.

COCK is a tight, tense and riveting story about a romantic triangle by Olivier award-winning British playwright Mike Bartlett.

John (well-played by Andrew Kushner) has spent seven years in a problematic live-in relationship with M (an excellent Jeff Miller), a somewhat older and intense man.  John meets the forthright and attractive W (a nicely nuanced Jessica Greenberg) and they begin an affair.  John has never slept with a woman before.  Complications ensue. At on point, M's dad (a terrific Ian D. Clark) turns up to ask John two very good questions: "who are you?" and "what do you want?"

If I say much more, I'll spoil it. The script had the audience laughing and wincing in recognition.

I've dated guys like John once or twice.  This play isn't so much about accepting a range of sexual preferences as it is about a nasty power game played by a passive-aggressive man with everyone around him.

A very wise friend of mine once said to me, "Any relationship is a decision and a commitment."

If you're at the "so, what are we doing here?" phase of your relationship, this could be a tense night out. If you both know who you are and what you want, it's a very good night of theatre. Certainly it is one of the best scripts I've seen on stage this year.

Finally, there was an absolute twitter-storm in the theatrical community in Toronto this week over "Conte D'Amour", the three hour durational performance art/theatre hybrid that was part of World Stage at Harbourfront this week. J. Kelly Nestruck, the Globe and Mail's main theatre critic, publicly declared he booed at the end of the performance.  Lynne Slotkin, a well-regarded and excellent theatre blogger applauded his decision. After that, all hell broke loose.

I decided not to see or review the show.

Nestruck made one comment which I did want to weigh in on.  He said the production was morally bankrupt.  That remark was far more interesting to me than whether or not he booed at the end of the show.

Oscar Wilde famously said of literature that, "Books are neither moral nor immoral.  They are simply well or badly written, that is all."  Is this also true of theatre?

I agree with Wilde for the most part.

When I see work I dislike, it often feels lazy and unfinished.  I feel insulted and ripped off because I paid money to and/or spent time with someone who hadn't cleaned up their thinking and their laziness showed up on stage. When a film or a play is really long, it often (but not always) is an indication of unfinished thinking.

Now, I was raised by old-school Catholics who taught me laziness is a sin and therefore immoral. Is this the kind of immorality under scrutiny here?  Or is this about something else? Talk amongst yourselves.