Friday, February 28, 2020

Theatre 2020: January-February Shows and Preparing for Hamilton

After my disgraceful procrastination of 2019 that led me to write about an entire year of theatre-watching all in one blog, I was determined to get a jump-start to 2020!  Just two months into the new year, we have already seen a wide variety of theatre performances, both live on stage and re-broadcasted film versions of productions from London’s National Theatre.

As part of our Mirvish subscription series, we saw a road show production of the 2017 Broadway stage musical Anastasia, which is based primarily on the 1997 animated musical film of the same name, voiced by Meg Ryan and John Cusack.  Both shows share the same premise (based on actual persistent rumours) that Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the royal Romanov dynasty, was the only survivor of the Bolsheviks attack that killed the rest of her family.  They both involve plots where con men Dimitri and Vlad find amnesiac Anya, an “Anastasia look-a-like”, and train her to impersonate the princess in order to gain reward money from her grandmother, only to discover that “imposter” is the real deal.

Where the two versions differ is in the portrayal of the protagonist.  The villain in the animated movie is the Russian mystic Rasputin who uses magical powers to curse the Romanov family, and whose minion sidekick is the albino bat Bartok.  With an obvious nod to old Disney movies, the Rasputin is a dead ringer for the evil Jafar in the film Aladdin and also reminiscent of the Evil Queen from Snow White.  By contrast, the musical version of Anastasia is more political and realistic.  The protagonist is Gleb Vaganov, a Boshevik general whose father was tasked with shooting the Romanov family.  When he learns that Anastasia might be alive, Gleb feels obligated to finish the job.

Anastasia the musical keeps the best tunes from the film including “A Rumour in St Petersburg”, “Once Upon a December”, “Journey to the Past” and “Learn to Do It”.  It then adds songs to fill out the back stories and provide more depth to each of the main characters.  The best new song is the haunting ballad  “The Neva Flows” which explains the motivation that drives Gleb.  The staging is impressive in depicting the attack on the royal family, their reappearance as ghosts in Anya’s imagination, the trolley ride out of Russia and their arrival in Paris.  The costumes are stunning in general, but especially the gorgeous red gown worn by Anastasia once she reclaims her true identity.

Last year we watched two very innovative plays (The Flick, and Ghost Quartet) at the Crow’s Theatre, so it was not surprising that their mounting of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar was equally creative and original in terms of wardrobe and stagecraft.  The plot and dialogue remained true to the Bard’s play, but this production has added a post-mortem where each character (spoiler alert … including the dead ones, which is most of them), uses modern vernacular to reflect upon what has happened or what is to come (for the ones still alive).

You know you are in for something different when you first walk into Crow’s Guloein Theatre and see stadium seating along all four walls of the space, and a table with headsets, microphones and laptops in the middle of the floor (stage) surrounded by see-through barricades.  Three actors approach the table and proceed to give a modern-day “newscast” recapping Caesar’s exploits and military victories, setting up the situation at the start of the play.  Following what now seems to be a common practice, the cast members of Julius Caesar are dressed in modern attire as opposed to togas and sandals, and they carry pistols which are use to assassinate Caesar, as opposed to daggers.  The civil war that results after Caesar’s death is depicted with soldiers decked in camouflage outfits, guerrilla warfare tactics, machine guns and drone strikes.

I often have trouble understanding the flowery, archaic dialogue and terminology used by Shakespeare, so having all the characters ambiguously dressed, with colour-blind and gender-blind casting as well as some actors playing multiple roles, added to my general confusion over who was who and what was happening.  It helped that I read the synopsis and some of the actual text of the play prior to seeing the show.  Unfortunately I did not have enough time to get through the entire work.  Regardless, I was impressed by this production and the passionate acting by the characters who sometimes stood so close to us that we could see them spit as they enunciated.

After the intensity of Julius Caesar, it was a relief to watch the light, frothy and hilarious musical Motherhood at the Lower Ossington Theatre.  A baby shower is held for first time mother-to-be Amy by her three friends Tina, Barb and Brooke who already have children.  As Amy dreamily and idealistically anticipates the blessed event, her friends give her a dose of reality by providing their personal insights on the challenges she will face.  This leads to goofy, laugh-out-loud songs about handling the demands of multiple kids (Mommy!, In the Minivan, At Costco) and the affects of pregnancy on the body (“We Leak”, “Ode to Boobs”, “Baby Weight Blues”).  Each mom has her own issues to deal with including Tina, the single mother in midst of a divorce (“Every Other Weekend”), Barb, who juggles the needs of five children, and Brooke, who balances her career as a hard-working lawyer with her role as a mom.  Throughout the party, Amy fields constant phone calls from her own intrusive mother.  Written by the creators of the hit show “Menopause The Musical”, Motherhood is a great escape and pure mindless fun.

By contrast to Motherhood, Caroline, Or Change is a deeper, more complex musical both in terms of plot and themes, as well as songs and score which feature Sondheim-esque tunes with dissonant chords and eclectic musical styles that include blues, Motown, folk, classical, operatic and Jewish “klezmer”.  Played by R&B/Pop singer Jully Black (best known for her hit “Seven Day Fool”), Caroline Thibodeaux is a black maid working for the Jewish Gellman family which includes 8-year-old Noah who has recently lost his mother to cancer, his still-grieving father Stuart, and new step-mother Rose.  Caroline spends much of her time down in the basement, doing the laundry while listening to the radio.  The washer, dryer, and radio are personified by singers that channel Aretha Franklin, James Brown and The Supremes respectively while Opera singer Measha Brueggergosman plays the moon.  Noah often leaves spare change in his pockets which Caroline finds when doing the laundry.  To teach him the value of money, Rose wants Caroline to keep any coins that she finds—a request that prideful Caroline resists but is also tempted to accept since she needs the extra money to support her four kids.  Therefore the “change” in the title of Caroline, Or Change has multiple meanings, referring to the monetary change as well as changes happening in society and personal change which many of the characters go through.  Set in Louisana in 1963, the musical deals with important historic incidents of this turbulent times, including the assassination of  President Kennedy and the Civil Rights Movement as well as exploring themes of class distinction, income inequity, immigration and racial tensions.

Playing at the Winter Garden Theatre with its iconic leaf-lined ceiling, the set depicting the Gellman house is interesting as it needs to represent three levels, the basement, main floor and second floor.  To fit all the floors, the basement is actually located in what would usually be the first few rows of the audience just beneath the stage while the other two levels are represented on the physical stage.  While it was expected that Jully and Measha would have great singing voices, most surprising was the spectacular belting vocals of Vanessa Sears who played Caroline’s spunky, defiant daughter Emmie.  Also of note was the performance by the Evan Lefeuvre who played Noah.  The number of songs and amount of dialogue that he needed to remember was really impressive and his timing in singing some very difficult songs was spot on.

The final two shows that we watched in February were actually filmed versions of plays from London’s National Theatre.  The first was Hansard, a caustic, scathing and occasionally darkly humorous one-act two-hander set in the Margaret Thatcher era that is basically a 90-minute long argument/debate between Conservative Tory MP Robin Hesketh and his Liberal-minded wife Diana.  Yet being a British as opposed to an American play, there are no screaming scenes ala “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?”, but rather a calm but witty back-and-forth dialogue full of cutting comments, sarcasm and irony.  Robin returns to his home in the Cotswalds to find Diana still in her dressing gown and itching for a fight.  Their banter covers topics including politics (in particular the controversial Section 28 that banned the promotion of homosexuality), suspected extramarital affairs, the waning affections within their marriage and a pointed debate about nurturing or over-nuturing children as opposed to letting them learn to fend for themselves.  All this talk is a preamble to the actual elephant in the room that they finally get around to discussing, the issue of their deceased son Tom.  The term “Hansard” refers to the official transcripts of Parliamentary debates in Britain and many Commonwealth countries.  As the play draws towards the end, an excerpt of Tom’s diary, or his personal “hansard” is read aloud, providing insight into the true cause of strife in this marriage.  This is a highly intellectual and entertaining play but it may not do well outside of the U.K. because are so many references that only make sense to locals including names of relatively obscure politicians, authors, reporters, socialists and others.

The second filmed theatre production that we watched at Cineplex is a very unique version of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Scottish actor James McAvoy.  It is based on the similarly titled 1897 play written by French poet Edmond Rostand that very loosely dramatizes the life of  infamous 17th Century novelist, playwright and duelist.  The plot of Rostand’s play is well-known and has been widely adapted. Cyrano is a skilled swordsman who is bold, brash, quick-witted, and an accomplished poet with a gift for the romantic turn of phrase.  But due to his unusually large nose, he is self-deprecatingly unable to express his love for the beautiful Roxanne, who in turn is in love with the handsome but witless, inarticulate Christian, a fellow cadet in Cyrano’s regiment.  Cyrano agrees to provide Christian with the words to woo Roxanne, through written letters and even secretly speaking to her from the shadows on Christian’s behalf.

Like in Julius Caesar, once again the conceit of anachronistically dressing period characters in modern clothing is used in this stripped down version of the play.  But what made this production interesting was the lack of a large prosthetic nose on McAvoy’s face, as well as no dueling swords despite an extended dueling scene.  Cyrano’s nose is left up to the imagination and Cyrano fights his duels using razor-sharp rap poetry in an epic rap battle that involves both verbal and physical thrusts and parries, but with microphones in hand as opposed to swords.  In fact, hip hop music and rapping are used throughout this play in an interesting new take on an old tale.

This screening of the National Theatre play was broadcast live across the U.K. via satellite which unfortunately resulted in the sound and visual occasionally cutting out, as well as microphone feedback and poor sound quality.  It was nearly impossible to hear what was being said when any of the characters spoke softly, which Cyrano does on multiple occasions.  This detracted from what was otherwise a good production.

Next up for us is the highly anticipated hit musical Hamilton based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, American politician, military commander, lawyer, banker, economist and founder of the U.S. Banking system.  To prepare for this experience, which will include listening to some very fast rap singing, I have assigned the following homework for myself:
  1. Read the Wikipedia entry for the plot/synopsis of the musical Hamilton
  2. Listen to the cast recording on Youtube ...
  3. ... while following along with the lyrics, since some of the rap sequences are sung so rapidly (and occasionally with a heavy French or British accent) that it is near impossible to discern what is being conveyed
  4. If there is time, review the Wikipedia entry on the biography of Alexander Hamilton

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Theatre Highlights and Lowlights in 2019

I continue to marvel at the vast amount and variety of theatre that we have available to us in Toronto. While we don't really have concentrated theatre districts in the city that match New York's Broadway and Off-Broadway or the West End in London, we can certainly claim a large number of independent theatres scattered throughout our city.  The options grow even more nurmeous if you include surrounding areas in Ontario including Stratford, Niagara on the Lake and little community theatres in small towns.  Each year we end up watching about 20-30 plays, anchored by our annual subscription to Mirvish Productions which includes 6-7 shows per season with an emphasis on musicals,( which I love!).  In the past, I've blogged about many of the shows shortly after we watched them.  I was remiss this year and so this will be one big blog with a few quick thoughts about some of the more memorable shows that we watched this year, for better and for worse...

One of our first shows of the year was called Foreign Tongue, a curated performance that was part of the annual Next Stage Fringe Festival, which provides a platform for emerging theatre artists to present their works.  Foreign Tongue is a whimsical romantic musical set in Toronto that deals with multiculturalism and acceptance.  Kathy Woodrough, a yuppie from Peterborough gets knocked on the head and wakes up speaking with a thick European accent (an affliction known as Foreign Language Syndrome).  Confused, disoriented and no longer able to pronounce her own last name, Kathy reinvents herself as "Ludmilla", joins an English as a Second Language (ESL) class where she bonds with the other immigrants and starts a romance with a man who is attracted to women with foreign accents.  For a semi-pro production, this show was quite strong in terms of clever songs and story-line and excellent acting and singing performances.  We look forward to this theatre festival each year since there are often some very entertaining and unexpected gems that you can watch for less than $20 per show.

We expected great things from our first Mirvish show of 2019, the comedy "The Play That Goes Wrong" which enjoyed a lengthy and successful run in London and received rave reviews.  We were additionally encouraged since during our vacation in London the previous year, we saw another play called "The Comedy About A Bank Robbery" by the same acting troupe and absolutely loved it.  That comedy was hilarious but also witty with a great farcical plot delivered with impeccable timing by the accomplished performers.  Unfortunately "The Play That Goes Wrong" did not measure up in any respect.  As the title implies, the show deals with a group of actors putting on an extremely low budget play where everything that can go wrong, does so.  But rather than clever farce, the plot was banal and the humour involved the lowest form of slapstick that failed to be funny after the same pratfalls and crumbling set sequences were repeated endlessly.  A good comedy starts slowly and gradually adds to the insanity until all hell breaks loose at the climax.  This play went full throttle right from the start, then could not sustain the pace since there was nowhere else for it to progress to.

 ** Photos by David Cooper
By comparison, Ladykillers, which we watched at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in June had much more interesting characters, dialogue and a clever plot based on the classic 1955 crime comedy starring Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers.  A group of hapless bank robbers who are preparing for a heist, rent a room from a seemingly sweet little old lady, Mrs.Wilberforce, while pretending to be classical musicians.  Problems ensue when their intrepid landlady gleans the truth of the situation and the robbers agonize over how to deal with her.  I particularly liked the staging and set of the production, which showed a cross section of Mrs Wilberforce's two-storied home so that we could see the activities of the criminals in their second-floor room at the same time as the puttering of the old lady downstairs, as well as watch their reactions each time she comes up the stairs towards them.  The set then spins around to show to exterior of the house, where more shenanigans take place.  While the timing of the physical comedy was not perfect, this was still an extremely entertaining show to watch. We saw this at the beginning of its run, so perhaps the timing would have been better later in the season.

While on a short vacation to Pelee Island, we stopped overnight at Port Stanley to watch Lunenburg by Canadian playwright Norm Foster.  Recently widowed Iris has arrived in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to inspect the cottage that she inherited from her late husband following his sudden accidental death.  With her friend Natalie along for moral support, Iris meets next-door neighbour Charlie and slowly learns that she did not know her husband as well as she thought she did.  The entire story plays out on the porch of the cottage as the various characters interact in this touching yet humorous three-hander.  We have watched many other plays by Norm Foster and this one is by far his best and most poignant.

Lately, Mirvish Productions has done a great job of bringing the most recently acclaimed shows from Broadway or the West End.  The final shows in the 2018/2019 season included Dear Evan Hanson which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2017 and Waitress which was nominated for the award in 2016. Evan Hanson is an awkward, lonely teenager with a crush on his classmate Zoe.  After the school bully Connor ( Zoe's brother) commits suicide, Evan pretends that he was best friends with  Connor in order to maintain a relationship with Zoe and the dead boy's family.  To support the charade, Evan creates fake email correspondence between himself and Connor.

The musical Waitress, with music and lyrics written by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, is based on the 2007 film of the same name starring Keri Russell.  Jenna is the titular waitress who wants to leave her unhappy marriage when she finds out that she is pregnant after a drunken encounter with her abusive husband.  Jenna finds solace in the pies that she bakes at the diner that she works for.  As a clever tie-in to the musical, small jars of fruit pie were sold before the start of Waitress.  Both Dear Evan Hanson and Waitress were good shows but I wasn't sure either was worth all the hype.  I found the songs to be rather bland and not very memorable with the exception of the big number from each show"You Will Be Found" and "She Used to Be Mine" respectively.

I enjoyed the lesser known musicals The Last Ship and Jukebox Hero better, perhaps because I went in with lower expectations than I had for the more highly touted shows. Last Ship is an original musical with music and lyrics written by Sting, whose own childhood experiences in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend, England inspired the story.  It deals with a community of generational shipbuilders who learn that the shipyard which provides the main source of the town's employment will soon be shut down. After some fruitless protests, in a final act of defiance the workers decide that they will build one last ship to sail down the River Tyne.  The songs range from haunting and melancholy to spirited and inspiring and it was an extra thrill to have Sting himself play one of the lead roles.

Even though I don't usually like jukebox musicals, I went to see JukeBox Hero, based on the songs of the 70s rock band Foreigner since I love so many of the songs by this group.  As expected with the jukebox musical genre, the plot is a bit clunky in order to force-fit Foreigner's hit songs into it.  At least it did not fall upon the hackneyed trope of the "dystopian world" as Bat Out of Hell and We Will Rock You did.  Ryan and Mace are two brothers who are part of a band playing in dive bars along with Mace's girlfriend Linda. In the beginning, the lyrics of a few songs actually seemed to advance the story until it all fell apart and songs started to be sung just for the heck of it. After a heated argument between Mace and Linda (Head Games, Say You Will, Say You Won't), Mace catches Ryan and Linda in an impromptu kiss (Feels Like the First Time) and the band breaks up (Break It Up).  Mace joins the army (At War With the World) and Ryan heading off to musical stardom as a solo act. The closing of the steel mill (doesn't this sound like The Last ship!?!) lures Ryan back to give a charity performance for the beleaguered town, giving the brothers a chance to reconcile.  Despite a convoluted plot, it was great fun hearing all my favourite songs, played with high energy and serious guitar licks.  All it took was the strumming of "one guitar" from the titular Jukebox Hero to get the crowd rocking.

One of the most intellectually stimulating and exciting shows that we watched in 2019 was the political thriller Oslo, offered as an "Off-Mirvish" production (emulating Off-Broadway).  The play hypothesizes what was discussed during secret negotiations held in and facilitated by Norway that led to the historic 1993 Oslo Accords, an attempt at a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine.  The simple use of tension-filled dialogue conveyed the high stakes of the talks, both personally for the negotiators and politically for their respective nations.  There were no guns, overt violence or even a soaring emotion-inducing score to ramp up the pressure and yet you were at the edge of your seat throughout the entire show.  This was a fascinating play that presented what was a brief glimmer of hope for these war-torn enemies, before it all fell apart by the actions of radical factions that could not condone compromise.  The main part of the play ended triumphantly with the signing of the treaty by Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House.  Unfortunately the denouement lined up all the characters on stage where each described what happened to them next including the assassination of Rabin by an Israeli settler.

The 2019/2020 Mirvish season started with two musicals that I did not enjoy very much.  The Band's Visit won the Tony award for best musical in 2018 while The Girl From North Country was a highly acclaimed show from London's West End that made a brief stop Off-Broadway before coming to Toronto.  The Band's Visit is based on the 2007 movie of the same name, which deals with an Egyptian police band who travel to Israel to play a concert, only to accidentally end up in the wrong town.  Stuck until morning in the tiny remote village of Beit Hatikva, the band members bond with the villagers, bringing a little excitement to their monotonous existences.  The movie is slow, quiet and melancholic in tone with not much action or even dialogue.  Unfortunately, even with the addition of songs and a few dances, the musical comes across in the same way.  While the music was culturally interesting and appropriate for the plot, there was not enough to keep my interest for the entire show.  The one song that I really liked from this musical repeated the words "Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif".  Although I recognized the name of actor Omar Sharif, I did not realize that Umm Kulthum was a famous Egyptian singer and actress active from the 1920s to 1970s.

I did not expect to like The Girl From North Country and I was right.  The show is a jukebox musical based on the songs of Bob Dylan (which I don't know that well and don't really like to begin with).  But unlike other musicals of this genre, Girl From North Country takes pride in choosing songs that don't advance the plot at all, but rather "sets the mood" for what is happening on stage.  This goes against everything that I enjoy about a good musical and it did not work for me.  This was a sombre, overly long, morose play set in a rundown guesthouse in Minnesota during the Great Depression.  The people who interact with one another all have their problems, and then suddenly break into a Dylan song for no apparent reason.  The only character whose song reflects his situation is Joe, the black boxer on the run from the law who sings "Hurricane", which Dylan wrote about wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin Carter.  This was the only song in the show that I could relate to and yet the playwright ruefully suggested that it was "a bit on the nose".  Obviously we do not share the same opinion as to what makes a true musical.

I thought I would feel the same antipathy about Piaf/Dietrich, a biographical play detailing the tumultuous friendship between two powerhouse performers--Edith Piaf (nicknamed Sparrow) and Marlene Dietrich (The Angel).  Yet I ended up being won over by the amazing acting and singing performances of the two main stars.  Jayne Lewis portrays the German ice queen while Canadian legend Louise Pitre took on the role of the manic, emotionally-overwrought French singer.  Pitre in particular shone in her role as Piaf and sang all of her songs in French including the signature tunes La Vie En Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.  Throughout the show, Piaf and Dietrich alternated in giving performances on a cabaret-styled stage with the respective singer's name lit up in giant lights.  To accentuate the feel of a floor show, the people in the first few rows of the orchestra section were seated at lamp-lit tables (with drinks!) while a few members of the audience were seated at elevated tables on either side of the stage.  While it would momentarily be a thrill to be situated so close to the actors, I'm not sure that I would like this since for the most part, you are looking at the back of their heads.

We like watching the occasional show at the Lower Ossington Theatre since its repertoire often includes smaller, more obscure musicals including ones that I have not seen elsewhere.  This season we watched 9 to 5 The Musical, the 2008 musical based on the 1980 comedic film starring Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda.  Violet, Loralee and new hire Judy are three harassed office workers who turn the tables on their sexist, lecherous boss in what has turned out to be a harbinger of the "Me Too" movement. For a relatively small theatre company, most shows offered at Lower Ossington are surprisingly high in quality and this one was no exception.  9 to 5 the Musical featured excellent production values including strong performances by the three leads, snappy choreography (especially in the opening number that featured the titular song 9 to 5) and great costumes and wigs which made the three leads look almost identical to their movie counterparts when viewed from the back.

In 2019, we discovered the Crow's Theatre in the East end of Toronto which has two performance spacesthe larger Guloien Theatre and the smaller, more intimate Scotia Community Studio.  There we watched two of the most unique and challenging plays of the seasonThe Flick and Ghost Quartet.  Each show demanded your attention in a different way and stretched your preconceived notions of what to expect from a play.

It is totally disorientating when you first enter the Guloien Theatre to watch The Flick since there is stadium seating located on both sides of the floor.  For a moment, it is not clear which side is part of the stage and which are the seats for the audience. The Flick is set inside the last non-digital movie theatre where underpaid movie ushers (Sam and Avery) and the movie projectionist (Rose) subsist in their dead-end, monotonous jobs which match their equally boring lives.  To emphasize this monotony, the 3.5 hour long show spends many many minutes showing Sam and Avery slowly, methodically and SILENTLY sweeping up popcorn from the aisles.  Somehow rather than being sleep-inducing, this robotic repetition was fascinating to watch.  In between scenes where the three characters interact with one other and we learn more about their lives and dreams, the stage fades to black.  The next scene starts up as if a new movie is being screened, as from the darkness we see the beam of light from the projection room and hear the opening credit music (e.g. the lion roar from an MGM movie).  It is set up so that the audience becomes the defacto location of the movie screen and often the characters sit in their stadium seats looking out at us.  Also, when the lights come back on, you see that the stage is once again strewn with popcorn.  We find out at the end of the play that there is a machine set up at the back to spit out popcorn.  The movie analogy continues with the "program" which, instead of a booklet,  is in the format of a paper movie listing calendar like the ones found at Hot Docs.  As well, the advertisement for the play in the windows of Crow's Theatre look like movie posters.  You need to go into this play with the understanding and acceptance of what the playwright is going for, but once you do, this is a superb experience that immerses you into the drab lives of the characters.  Luckily you get to go back to your own (and hopefully) much better lives at the end of this.

Ghost Quartet, which we watched in the smaller Scotia Community Studio, had its own unique staging and was cerebral, weird and disorienting in its own way.  We walked into a darkened, smoke-filled room and had to squint to see that there was stadium seating on both ends with a set in the middle consisting of a piano, drum set and various weird musical instruments.  Four performers appeared and proceeded to tell us an elaborate, eerie ghost story through spoken dialogue and haunting tunes.  But we were warned near the start that this was a "circular story" that jumped back and forth between time and space as each performer played multiple roles, switching on a dime with no warning.  This made it difficult to follow the plot, but after a while, you stopped caring and just gave in to enjoying the beautiful songs and spooky atmosphere.  It would have helped to read a synopsis like the one found on Wikipedia ahead of time.  I would have learned that this was a tale of two sisters who loved the same man, an astronomer in a treehouse (?!? just go with it...).  Wanting revenge, the spurned sister is sent on a quest by an evil bear to gather four items, leading to four intervening fairy tales that reference characters from Arabian Nights and Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher.  Not understanding most of this as I was watching the show, I still appreciated it but left the theatre wondering "What just happened?".

One of the stand-out shows that we watched in 2019 was not actually live theatre, but the filming of a live National Theatre production of The Lehman Trilogy, which we watched on a movie screen at Cineplex Theatres.  Three superb actors play multiple roles in telling the history of the global financial services and investment banking firm Lehman Brothers Holding Company before it went bankrupt during the financial crises of 2008.  Dressed in long black trench coats, they portrayed the original Jewish brothers Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman who emigrated to America from Germany between 1840-50 and started a small business which eventually grew into the international empire.  Along the way, they invented the business concept of the "middle man".  Remaining on stage for the entire show and dressed in the same wardrobe, in addition to the three brothers, these amazing actors also portrayed their girlfriends, wives, children and grandchildren as well as other minor roles.

The set and staging was quite unusual as the action took place within a spinning glass cube on which the actors used markers to write dates and statistics to mark the passage of time and the growth of the company.  There was very minimal furniture on the set other than a boardroom table, a few chairs and a some cardboard boxes which were stacked in different configurations to form platforms, walls, towers, inventory and more.  The boxes take on a final poignancy when they become the containers carried out by workers who lost their jobs after the bankruptcy.

Including the three musicals that we watched on Broadway when we visited Manhattan in December, we saw many great shows in 2019 and already have several lined up for 2020. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

TIFF 2019 - Day 7-9

Bad Education is based on an actual school embezzlement scandal that broke in the mid 2000s. For years, School Superintendent Frank Tassone and his assistant Pam Gluckin had been defrauding the Roslyn High School in Long Island New York. By over-billing for school expenses and pocketing the difference, billing large personal expenses under ambiguous categories, and billing to fake companies (one owned by Tassone’s romantic partner), the pair bilked the school system for over $10 million dollars. As their scam starts to unravel, after throwing Gluckin under the bus to save himself, Tassone tries to deflect from his own culpability using charm, self-righteous justifications and finally intimidation. Tassone’s personal life also comes to light as it is revealed that as opposed to being the long-grieving widow with a (fake) photo of his young bride sitting on his desk, he is a closeted gay man with a long-term partner in New York and a younger exotic dancer lover on the side. The movie also questions the accountability of the school board trustees, who was more interested in protecting their soaring property values associated with being near a prestigious school, and that of the parents who are solely concerned with getting their kids into desired colleges.

It was interesting watching an aging Hugh Jackman start to take anti-hero or villainous roles, after a long career of mostly playing the good guy. I felt the same way about romantic comedy staple Hugh Grant who recently played the lead in A Very English Scandal. While they both flash their trademark charismatic smiles in these roles, there is a hardness in their eyes that belies the outward persona each tries to portray.

The Perfect Candidate is a movie from Saudi Arabia that deals with Maryam, a female doctor at a local clinic accessed by a mud path, who advocates for a  paved road instead. After inadvertently signing up to run for election on a local council, she realizes that winning the position might give her the power to implement changes to help her community including the construction of the road for the clinic. Fully committing to the campaign, Maryam faces opposition from both men and women in her village, who don’t approve of women taking leadership roles.  It was disturbing to see the limitations faced by women in this part of the world, including the need to cover their heads or faces in public, and the requirement for a male guardian to give permission for them to travel abroad.  But Maryam's spunk and determination in pushing forward her campaign, and the minor victories that she wins in changing a few minds about her candidacy, give a glimmer of hope for the future.

Using a style similar to the movie “The Big Short”, Laundromat attempts to explain the financial shenanigans exposed in 2016 by the Panama Papers, a massive anonymous leak of financial documents that revealed the widespread use of tax havens and off-shore shell companies as means for tax avoidance, as well as illegal activities such as money laundering, bribery, insurance fraud and more. Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman play the duo roles of the narrators of the film, as well as Mossack and Fonseco, the head lawyers of the firm whose documents were leaked. Breaking the fourth wall as narrators, they speak directly to the camera (and the audience) explaining the concepts of money, credit, taxes and the difference between tax evasion versus tax avoidance. They also introduce a series of fictional examples of what the Panama papers unveiled, including a framing story involving Meryl Streep playing a grieving widow who tries to get a just settlement for a boating accident that killed her husband, only to find out that the insurers for this did not actually exist. For me the movie did not do a good job of explaining the complex situations disclosed by the Panama papers and the use of Streep’s story felt gimmicky. I would have been more interested in a depiction of how 350 reporters from 80 countries secretly spent over a year to investigate the validity of the leak.

How to Build a Girl is a British coming-of-age story with a twist about Johanna, an awkward, imaginative 16-year-old aspiring writer from a blue-collared working class family who carries on conversations with the images pinned to her bedroom wall, including Karl Marx, the Bronte sisters, Sylvia Platt, Cleopatra and Maria from the Sound of Music. After landing a writing gig as a rock music critic, Johanna develops a funky new look and adopts the persona of “Dolly Wilde” as her pen-name. Realizing that she would be more successful in her reviews if they were viciously snarky as opposed to gushingly fan-girly, Johanna morphs from a shy, good-natured teetotaling virgin into a hedonistic sexualized party girl who skewers musical acts with her scathing write-ups.

Beanie Feldstein (who also stars in Booksmart) is great in this role, with an infectious smile that beams ear to ear and some great repartee that she delivers with sass and attitude. Even when she is acting bitchy and alienates her friends and family, she still exudes a vulnerability that makes you continue to pull for her character in her journey of self-discovery. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield tells the story of Charles Dickens’ 1850 masterpiece novel, using framing scenes at the beginning and end of the film which depict the grown-up Copperfield reading from his successfully published memoirs. With a few minor changes to the novel’s plot, the luxuriously shot movie depicts most of the quirky characters while capturing the time period, costumes and setting as described in the book. The one major exception is the prevalence of colour-blind casting. The titular character is played by Dev Patel of Hindu descent while David’s mother is white. Similarly, the lawyer Mr Wickfield is played by Chinese actor Benedict Wong while his daughter Agnes is played by black actress Rosalind Eleazar. The most interesting example casts the black actress Nikki Amuka-Bird as the wealthy and extremely snobbish aristocratic mother of David’s classmate James Steerforth, who is played by a white actor. At least there was continuity within a character, as a small Indian boy was cast as the feisty younger version of Patel's Copperfield.

Clifton Hill is a Canadian modern-day gothic thriller about a troubled young woman named Abby who is a pathological liar, possibly triggered by a traumatic event from her childhood growing up in Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls. While out with her family as a little girl, she spotted an injured boy with a bandage over his eye and watched in the shadows as he was captured and thrown into the trunk of his assailants’ car. Unable to get anyone to believe her about the incident when it happened, old memories are dredged up when she returns to her hometown to handle the sale of the family motel after the death of her mother. Abby becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the “one-eyed boy”, to the chagrin of her younger sister Laura, their family lawyer, and the police who believe she is lying for attention. Set in the quiet off-season for the area and filmed mostly at night, Clifton Hill comes across as gloomy, seedy and a bit sinister. Director David Cronenberg has a small role as a conspiracy theorist in this moody mystery that concludes with a surprise ending that will spur a lengthy discussion as to its meaning.

Abominable is an adorable animated co-production between Dreamworks (who created the Shrek and How to Train a Dragon series) and China’s Pearl Studio that is set in Shanghai and features a trio of Chinese youths as the main protagonists.  We are introduced to teenager Yi who is mourning the death of her father and seeks solitude in a rooftop refuge, where she discovers that a baby Yeti (abominable snowman) is also hiding.  With the help of her cousins Peng and Jin, Yi attempts to return the Yeti, who she names “Everest” back to his home in the Himalayas, while evading the ruthless group that is trying to recapture him.  The long trek from Shanghai to Mount Everest is aided by the magical powers of the Yeti and along the way, Yi learns to come to terms with the loss of her father.  The animation is beautifully drawn, depicting remote parts of China including lush countryside and mystical mountaintops while the haunting music that Yi plays on her father’s violin is distinctly Chinese.  It was interesting to compare the look, feel and sound of this American-Chinese co-production which differed from the Japanese animated movies that have their own separate style.

Burnt Orange Heresy is a dark suspense thriller about secrets, lies and fraud in the art world, exploring what determines or drives the value of art.  We are first introduced to the morally questionable art critic James Figueras, as he gives a lecture on the importance of a good backstory to the deemed value of a piece.  Figueras meets the beautiful but mysterious Bernice and brings her along when he is invited to the Italian villa of an unscrupulous art collector/dealer Joseph Cassidy, played with a flair and a  touch of menace by Mick Jagger.  Cassidy blackmails Figueras into obtaining a painting from the acclaimed but reclusive painter Jerome Debney, at any cost and by any means.  Despite the gorgeous setting in Lake Como, Italy, there is a sense of foreboding that lingers through much of the movie, as it courses towards its unsettling conclusion.

On our last day at the festival, we unexpectedly were offered free tickets to the Gala public screening of The Sky is Pink at Roy Thompson Hall.  Based on a true story, the movie follows the 25-year marriage of an Indian couple who give birth to a baby girl with a severe immune disorder and their struggles to keep her alive and living life to the fullest, up until her eventual death at age 18.  I was intrigued that despite the seemingly somber premise, the movie was described as uplifting and even funny at times.  This was accomplished by having the tale be narrated in flashback scenes by the cheerful, irreverent voice of the deceased daughter Aisha, who nicknames her mother “Moose”, her father “Panda” and her big brother “Giraffe”.  The movie shows that despite the hardships faced by the family, they persevered with love, understanding and even humour.  Once it became clear that Aisha was terminal, Moose (played with fierce but loving determination by actress Priyanka Chopra) made it her mission to ensure Aisha experienced all that life could offer, including owning a dog, going snorkeling, and having a boyfriend.  A central theme of the movie is to “live life on your own terms”, which was emphasized in an early scene when young Giraffe cried to his mother that his teacher chastised him for painting the sky pink instead of blue.   Moose firmly replied “You must never let anyone else tell you how you should see the colour of the sky”.  This turned out to be a very touching movie that celebrated life as opposed to dwelling on death.  It was nice to see the director and stars of the movie, but I still don’t understand why there is rarely a post movie Q&A at Roy Thompson Hall.  Just like the last time we watched a Gala presentation there, all we got was a wave from the balcony as we filed out of the theatre.

I thought the quality of movies was especially good this year and we saw many stellar films made by countries from around the world.  Many of them shared the common theme of class distinction or class wars between the wealthy and the poor.  These included Parasite, Three Summers, Lina from Lima, Heroic Losers, Greed, David Copperfield, and Laundromat.  A common motif was the use of rain to set the mood in a film.  For the first few days of movie-watching, it seemed like every movie included a heavy rainstorm.