Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Design Exchange - Hermès Festival des Métiers / This is Not A Toy

While I've have spent a lot of time at Toronto's primary museums and art galleries, only recently have I come to recognize the Design Exchange as a venue that regularly offers interesting exhibits, focusing on Canadian and International design.  I attended several very interesting shows in the past few months.

The high-end French designer boutique Hermès brought their traveling show called Festival des Métiers or Festival of Crafts to the Design Exchange this past October.  Artisans and craftsmen displayed their skills at making and repairing handbags, ties, gloves, watches and more.

The highlight of the exhibition was the silk screen printing demo that resulted in the creation of the beautiful and iconic Hermes scarves.  Starting with a white sheet of silk, dyes of the various colours found in the pattern were applied one by one.  There was a separate panel for each shade of colour found on a scarf, with stenciled cutouts of the parts of the pattern represented by that colour.  The appropriate dye was poured onto the panel and then a scraper (chosen from ones of varying thicknesses) was used to push the paint over the stencil, onto the silk.  It was fascinating to watch the pattern build up as each additional layer of colour was added.

ToBeUs is an Italy toy company known for making toy cars out of blocks of "16 x 7.5 x 7.5 cm Lebanese cedar wood".  The shape of the car is created by two consecutive cuts into the wood, one longitudinal and one transversal (diagonally intersecting the original cut).  ToBeUs invited over 100 designers from around the world to try their hand at creating one of these cars.

The results were astounding and in some of these cases, I cannot see how it is possible that they were accomplished with only two cuts!

Finally, the "This is Not A Toy" exhibit currently on display until May 19, 2014 is curated by rap star/song writer/producer Pharrell Williams.  These designer pieces, ranging from small miniatures to full-sized figures, can cost anywhere from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.  Williams and other collectors treat these objects not as toys but as works of art that comment on pop culture.

It is understandable how these figures can be mistaken for toys at first glance.  They are bright, colourful, whimsical, and many of them are modeled after traditional images of iconic toys.  But look closer and you can see a subversive twist to each of these items.  The Ronald McDonalds have their brains and innards exposed.  Charlie Brown and Bart Simpson are grinning a bit too lasciviously and Lucy has abnormally big boobs. A mouse-like figure brings to mind what Mickey Mouse would look like drag.  Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and the little blue smurfs each have their eyes or the hands covering their eyes "X"-ed out–a signature feature of artist Brian Donnelly, nicknamed KAWS.

There is a definite Japanese influence, even in pieces not designed by Japanese artists.  Many of them are based on Japanese anime, which are hand-drawn or computer generated animations and manga (Japanese comics).  I have found that there is often a somber and slightly creepy, sinister air to source material and this translates into the figures as well.

The series of characters by American artist Huck Gee pays tribute to Samurai lore with specific reference to movies like "The Seven Samurai".  His "Red Shogun" and "Red Geisha" figures can be found on eBay, with an asking price of almost $800 US.

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition was the floor-to-ceiling glass case full of 3-inch "Dunny" figures. Dunny is a curved bunny usually with rabbit ears, made by the company KidRobot, that comes with a blank face which can be  repainted and reinterpreted by different artists. It was fascinating to look closely at the hundreds of little figures, all on loan from a single collector and compare the diverse designs that the various artists came up with for their Dunny.

In sourcing the "not-toys" for this exhibit, Pharell Williams contributed items from his own collection and asked for loans from many of his collector friends.  He also co-designed a large piece called "The Simple Things" with toy designers Takashi Murakami and Jacob Arabo.  Made of multi-coloured fiberglass, the monstrous head with sharp fangs has its mouth open to display bejeweled miniatures of William's favourite items including ketchup, a can of Pepsi, a cupcake, a running shoe and a bag of chips. 

The delightful items in this exhibition may not be toys, but that did not stop me from wanting to play with all of them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Theatre: Metamorphosis

The play Metamorphosis, currently playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, is based on the 1912 absurdist, existentialist novella, written in German by writer Franz Kafka.

At the start of the story, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman who financially supports his parents and sister Grete, awakens one morning to find out that he has turned into a giant insect. The rest of the plot deals with how Gregor's family reacts to this strange turn of events, which they just seem to take at face value.  There is no discussion about how or why Gregor has turned into an insect or whether he will ever revert to human form.  Rather, the family is repulsed by Gregor's appearance and the unintelligible sounds he now makes.  They are also distressed that as an insect, he will no longer be able to earn an income, meaning that the rest of the family must now go find employment.  Eventually the family's treatment of Gregor causes him so much distress that he dies in order to spare them of his presence.  Without Gregor to worry about, the family moves to a new home and are hopeful for a better future.

Gregor's plight is the fantastical physical manifestation of Kafka's own feelings of isolation, and inadequacy.  Kafka led an unhappy life, with a strict, abusive father who disapproved of his physical frailty and his passion for writing and the arts.  Instead, Kafka was forced into a hated insurance company job which he was too weak-willed to quit.  He felt like an outsider and a burden in his own home, his work, and even his country, as a Czech Jew living within the German dominated Austrian-Hungarian Empire.  Metamorphosis has many autobiographical themes, as Kafka poured his personal feelings of alienation and marginalization into this story.

 The play, a British/Icelandic collaboration from London, does a magnificent job of interpreting and staging this very strange story.  The fascinating set reveals the two floors of the Samsas' home, with the living and dining room on the bottom, and Gregor's bedroom on top.  To simulate Gregor's insect ability to walk on walls and the ceiling, his room and its contents have been rotated by 90 degrees.  The inverted perspective may also reflect Gregor's feelings of disorientation after his transformation.

The amazingly athletic Icelandic actor who plays Gregor spends the entire duration of the 90 minute play either crouched like a grasshopper, or hanging (sometimes upside down) from the "walls" or "ceiling".  His role is so demanding and so complicated to learn that he has no understudy to replace him if he gets hurt or sick. At one point, he bounces like a bug, on a small trampoline installed in the divider between the two floors of the set.  Eventually, he actually crashes through and falls down onto the main floor.

Gregor's death scene is beautifully melancholy, as he acrobatically hangs from and slides off a long red ribbon formed from the window curtains, which I took to represent his blood.  Others have interpreted this sequence as a representation of the "Descent of Christ" as Gregor sacrifices himself to spare his family from further grief.

The power of Kafka's story is that its themes are still so relevant today, transcending time, nationality and culture. In a panel discussion about the play, we heard about three different audience members who personally identified with Gregor–A wheelchair-bound girl, who could communicate only through eye-blinks, indicated that she understood what it felt like to be isolated and perceived as a burden.  Another woman compared the treatment of Gregor to that of her heroin-addicted brother.  A Chinese girl related Gregor's sacrifice to the ones made by Chinese revolutionaries during the Revolution.

The playwright accentuates the autobiographical nature of the story by giving Gregor's originally unnamed father the same name as Kafka's father Hermann.  He also moved the time frame of the play from early 1900s to the 1930s, to build upon the subconsciously political overtones in Kafka's story.  Grete's change in wardrobe throughout the play mirrors her changing attitudes towards Gregor.  Her initial love and sympathy is reflected by her pink, girlish sweater.  Later, when she is begrudgingly forced to work and take care of Gregor, her feelings of annoyance and then revulsion are shown in her stark, brown jacket and skirt. The military-like uniforms that both Grete and Hermann wear after taking jobs, along with her use of the words "Vermin", and references of the importance of work, seem to foreshadow the horrors of Nazi Fascism that is on the horizon.

I was blown away by the staging and presentation of this strange story.  While Metamorphosis could not be described as a feel-good play, watching it was intellectually challenging and stimulating.  This was a truly unique and memorable experience.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Theatre: Twenty Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The musical Twenty Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was nominated for a Tony Award back in 2005, played at the Al Green Theatre back in September.  The cast consists of six young spellers, two judges and a "comfort councilor", each with his own quirks, idiosyncrasies and personal issues.  The judges give humorous introductions as each contestant comes to the front to take his or her turn.

The spellers include Olive who is neglected by her parents and waits in vain for her father to show up for the tournament, Leaf who only made it into the contest by default, Logainne who has two gay dads that want her to win at any cost, Marcy the stereotypical overachieving Asian who is tired of being expected to excel at everything, Chip who is distracted by an attractive girl in the audience, and William Barfée who has a severe peanut allergy and spells out the words with his "magic foot".

The other spellers each have their methods of pre-visualizing the words, including Logainne who writes on her arm with her finger, and Olive who whispers into her hand.  Leaf goes into a weird trance and somehow comes up with the correct spelling.  Each speller is allowed to ask for a definition of their word, and for it to be used in a sentence.  This gives the judges opportunity to deliver some jokes related either to the word or to the contestant.

Adding excitement and unpredictability to each show is the inclusion of four audience members as extra spellers.  It is scripted and pre-planned as to how many rounds the audience spellers should last.  This is achieved by giving them an easy first word such as "cow" (much to the chagrin of the regular spellers from the cast), and then a difficult word to eliminate them.  Every once in a while, an unexpectedly proficient audience member correctly spells their second word, in which case the judges try to give him progressively more difficult words until he finally gets one wrong.  The jokes used to introduce the audience members as well as their word definitions and sentence usage are often ad-libbed based on the characteristics or wardrobe of the people chosen.

The judges include former spelling bee champion Rona Peretti who still basks in the glory of her former win, and Vice Principal Douglas Panch who has unrequited feelings for Rona and hints at some previous "incident" from which he claims to be in a better place now.  Mitch Mahoney is an ex-convict performing community service as the "comfort councilor" of the Spelling Bee.  His role involves handing an eliminated speller a consolation juice box as the others sing the "Goodbye" song.

While there are many funny moments in this musical, it is the touching stories of the young contestants, who share their anxieties, hopes and dreams, that give the show its heart.  And you learn how to spell a bunch of complicated words that you've never heard of before.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Theatre: Way Back to Thursday

Way Back to Thursday is a two-hander musical, chronicling the relationship between a boy and his grandmother over a period of about 15-20 years.  As an 8-year-old child living with his single mother, Cameron looks forward to the Thursday visits to his grandmother's house.  Together they watch movies, including golden oldies featuring Rock Hudson, while grandma regales Cameron with made-up tales of her past as a movie star.  As the years past, the two grow apart as Cameron tries to distance himself from his grandmother to hide the secret of his sexuality.  Moving across the country to Vancouver, Cameron ignores his grandmother's calls and pleas to come visit until it is too late and she becomes too overcome by dementia to recognize or respond to him.

The two actors alternate songs and point of views throughout the 90 minute show.  Each magically age on stage before your eyes, through the use of quick change in wardrobe, hairstyles, voice and posture.  Despite being a tall, lean, adult, Rob Kempson, also the creator of the play, does a great job of making you believe he is an eight year old boy.  Astrid Van Wieren, as Grandma, starts as a vibrant, sassy senior who dances around the stage.  But as she ages, she develops a limp, her body stoops, and when dementia sets in, the results are devastatingly realistic.  Both actors delivered strong and touching acting and singing performances.

The song cycle approach and the use of the different parts of the stage to represent the initial emotional closeness and later, the distance of the pair, is reminiscent of the Jason Robert Brown musical "The Last Five Years".  Grandma and Cameron start off their Thursday play-dates to the right of the stage with their chairs side by side.  When Cameron relocates to Vancouver, he physically moves his chair to the far left of the stage.  A small set of steps in the centre of the stage further accentuates the gulf between them.  As an interesting aside, the music for "Way Back to Thursday" was composed by Scott Christian, who also wrote "The Misfortune", which we saw at winter Fringe a few weeks ago.

What is the most tragic about this story is all the wasted time and energy Cameron spent hiding a secret that Grandma implies in song that she already knew or at least suspected.  There are parallels drawn to her own secret, that she was never really a movie star, but made that up to entertain her grandson.  This part seemed a bit weak and forced to me.  Watching this musical makes you want to rush out, spend time with your loved ones, and tell them you love them ... before it's too late.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Theatre: London Road

London Road is a unique and innovative "verbatim-style" musical that feels like a cross between watching an opera and a documentary movie.  In 2006, the playwrights taped a series of interviews with the townspeople of Ipswich, U.K. (about 2 hours north-east of London) during the time that they were living through the real-life criminal investigation of a serial killer who had murdered five prostitutes so far.  The lyrics and spoken dialogue of the "musical" are comprised of the words contained in the interviews, taken verbatim including all hesitations, nervous tics,  coughs or giggles, and pausitory terms such as "umm..", "er..", "you know", or "like".  Great lengths are taken to capture the English accents and manner of speech of the actual people being portrayed.

The story is told entirely from the point of view of the townspeople, especially the residents of the neighbourhood called "London Road" where the murders were concentrated.  They sing of their fears in songs such as "Everyone is Very Very Nervous" and "It Could Be Him".  The latter song is sung both from the perspective of the women who are inspecting every male suspiciously, and from the local males who feel like they are being judged as they go about their own business.  The residents complain about how their lives have been turned upside down by the events, both by police activity during the investigation and by the invasive members of the media trying to get the inside scoop.

 However the neighbours also find themselves bonding and forming a stronger sense of community, as they are drawn together to create a Neighbourhood Watch group and then continue to gather for social events such as Christmas parties and gardening contests.

Although the killer is caught, tried and convicted in the course of the play, he is never shown and neither are any of the victims.  In addition to their main roles as London Road residents, each cast member also portrays a variety of smaller roles including shop proprietors, politicians, policemen, members of the press, teenagers, and even other prostitutes who sing about how the murders of their coworkers have affected them.

The show seems like an opera in that it uses repetition in the phrases for emphasis, and the music and songs sound more operatic than the typical musical.  The repetition was actually advantageous for me, since I have difficulty discerning accents, so hearing the same lyrics multiple times gave me more than one opportunity to catch the words.

London Road is very similar in tone to the only real opera that we've ever seen, which is the English language modern piece called Nixon in China.  While we really did not care for Nixon in China and hated all the mindless repetition, we actually liked and appreciated it in London Road.  I tried to think about why this was, and came to the following conclusions:

The story in London Road is much more compelling, with better songs and melodies.  Although the lyrics are repetitive, they actually advance the plot.  It also has some funny moments to lighten the mood, including one hilarious sequence where a reporter is trying to film a news article about the killer without using the word "semen" on network television.  His cameraman unhelpfully offers "Love Juice" amongst other suggestions.  In addition to being conceptually different and therefore exciting, we just found London Road to be much more entertaining than Nixon in China.  We're still not sure that we like actual opera, but we did like this show.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Next Stage Theatre Festival - Killer Business and A Misfortune

These days it is in vogue to declare that "X" is the new "Y", as in "Orange is the new Black".  The Toronto Fringe Festival has jumped on the band wagon with their mini winter Fringe festival called the Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), whose motto is "January is the new July".  Although this festival has been held for the last 7 years, this is the first time we've been aware of it and we ended up seeing two excellent shows, "Killer Business The Musical" and "A Misfortune"–both musicals but each of a very different vein.

Unlike the summer Fringe Festival which selects its shows by lottery, the NSTF uses a jury of industry experts to pick what it considers are the 10 best shows.  These shows can be comedies, dramas, musicals or dance and maybe be new or revised works.  The main criteria is that all applicants must have participated previously in a Canadian Fringe Festival.  Because they are selected by jury, the collection of shows at the NSTF should have of higher quality than the summer Fringe, whose offerings can be hit or miss.  If the two musicals which we saw are any indication, this is definitely the case.

Killer Business is a comedic "show within a show" musical that is very much like the 2006 Broadway show "Curtains" which starred David Hyde Pierce.  As in that musical, a cast member is murdered in a theatre and the remaining cast and crew are questioned as prime suspects by a stereotypical gumshoe, decked in hat and trench coat.  In a clever twist, the two tall, seemingly clichéd dumb blond chorus girls, turn out to be ultra-smart forensic science and criminology students who become the detective's assistants in the investigation.  There is great tongue-in-cheek fun made out of the detective's name, including a hilarious song called "It's All About the Dick". 

The murder victim is Stella, the beautiful, talented but bitchy leading lady.  The colourful suspects include Tony, her producer who is in debt with the mob over the financing of the show, Steve, her leading man who wants to "come out of the closet", Guy the wardrobe manager who is outwardly gay, Flo, the aging understudy who dreams of being the star again, Cleo, the second understudy and stage manager, who is in love with Tony, and finally Jason, an enigmatic handyman who spouts pithy sayings.

We watch all of Stella's movements and interactions before she collapses and dies during a performance of her show "Lucky in Love".  Then in one of the most inspired songs of the show called "That's What I Saw", each cast and crew member recalls some suspicious activity performed by one of the others.  During each recollection, the previous seemingly innocent interaction with Stella is reenacted, but this time with a much more sinister feel, as perceived by the witness.  It was impressive how many times Stella recreated her "death scene", falling each time in the exact same position.

Although the performances and singing qualities were a bit uneven throughout the cast, in general they were very good and the songs and staging were stellar.  The show is fast-paced and hilarious.  Hopefully it will play again some time, since I would love to watch it a second time.

In contrast, A Misfortune is a small, intimate piece, bordering on light opera.  It is based on the short story of the same name, written in 1886 by Russian writer Anton Chekhov.  The story explores themes of fidelity, desire and indecision as married Sofya tries to decide whether to run off with her enamorous suitor Ivan, with whom she has spent a flirtatious summer, or stay with her staid, passionless husband Andrey and their child.  In the musical, these relationships are contrasted with the volatile, lusty marriage of Masha and Pavel, when the five friends gather for a social evening.

The acting and singing of the entire cast was superb in this musical, and the clever, intricate lyrics were reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim.  In particular, there are similarities to Sondheim's "A Little Night Music", which has been named as a major influence by the composers.  I became even more impressed by the skillful writing of the musical's book and songs, after finding out that my favourite characters of Pavel and Masha were not even part of the original Chekhov short story.  The musical also flushes out the ambiguous Chekhov ending, bringing Sofya's inner conflict to a decisive conclusion.

One of the highlights was a song where the various characters toast each other's company.  Pavel and Masha's toasts to each other were amazing to watch, as they quickly move through a range of emotions, all in song.  The toasts start with feigned politeness before dissolving to vicious cattiness, as each accuses the other of infidelity, which then leads to arousal as they are turned on by the other's passion.  Their in-your-face attraction and desire for each other serves as a great counterpoint to the quiet, urgent love that the brooding Ivan exudes, and the repressed emotions of Sofya, who tries desperately to deny her feelings and stay within the acceptable social mores of a faithful married woman.

We were so impressed by the quality of these two Fringe shows, which could both easily make it in mainstream theatres.  Can't wait for next year.