Sunday, February 15, 2015

AGO: Art Spiegelman Co-Mix: A Retrospective

My first exposure to the work of Art Spiegelman coincided with my introduction to the graphic novel.  This was fitting since Art's Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece Maus revolutionized the graphic novel industry and brought it into the mainstream.  Maus chronicles the experiences of Spiegelman's parents Vladek and Anja, who were imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camps during the Holocaust.  The Jewish population are depicted as mice (Maus means mouse in German), the Nazis as predatory cats, the French as frogs, the Americans as dogs and the Polish as pigs.  I found that the use of the animated art form and animal allegories desensitized the topic enough to make such a heartbreaking and traumatic tale bearable to digest.

Maus is definitely the highlight of the Art Gallery of Ontario's exhibition "Art Spiegelman Co-Mix: A Retrospective", with a huge section displaying sketches, studies and rare pages from the original manuscripts.  But, as the title denotes, this show is about much more than just Maus.  The show includes samples of Spiegelman's works throughout his career, ranging from his early days designing trading cards, to his roles as cartoonist or editor of various comic strips and magazines in the alternative underground comix movement, to contributing artist for the New Yorker magazine, and illustrator for various books. A play on words on the traditional term "comics", "comix" started as an alternative comic book movement in the 60s.  It typically has darker, adult or social-political themes and images, where the "x" in comix stands for "x-rated".

Examples of Spiegelman's cartoonist works in Underground Comix movement included early comic strips like "Mister Infinity" and "The Viper Vicar of Vice, Villainy and Vickedness". Also on display were sample editions of the two main comics anthologies for which he was editor and contributor–Arcade and Raw.  There were also works by or in collaboration with his wife Fran├žoise Mouly.
Years before working on his opus Maus, Art Spiegelman first used his drawings as an outlet to excise his personal demons.  His series called "Prisoner on the Hell Planet - A Case History" depicted his memories and feelings about the events leading up to and the aftermath of his mother's suicide when he was 20.

Early on in his career, Spiegelman worked on some lighter fare that displayed his wicked sense of humour.  Just out of college in the late 1960s, he became creative consultant for the company Topps, designing a series of trading cards spoofing well-known brands with punny product names and satirical slogans.  Called "Wacky Packages", it included "Rice-A-Phoni"–fake rice that "lasts forever and can be used over and over again", "Gyppy Pop Popcorn"–"No flavour; Pops right in the package and all over the house", "NEVEREADY Batteries"–"Keeps you in the dark", and "BotchTape"–"Stickiest stuff in town".

A few decades later, cashing in on the hype over the Cabbage Patch Doll, Spiegelman created a new set of trading cards called Garbage Pail Kids.  Invoking and then subverting the cute puffy faces of the Cabbage Patch Dolls, his renditions included "Run Down Rhoda", "Frigid Bridget", "Sy Clops" (pun intended), "Leaky Lindsay" and "Phony Lisa" (the Mona Lisa being probably one of the most iconically spoofed images out there).

From 1992 through 2001, Spiegelman's artwork graced the covers of the New Yorker magazine, often embedding subtle social commentary in his satirical drawings.  His most poignant and well-known cover is probably the black on black rendering of the Twin Towers that he offered as a reaction after 9-11.  His wife Fran├žoise Mouly, who was the art editor at the time, was quoted as saying "The only appropriate solution seemed to be to publish no cover image at all—an all-black cover. Then Art suggested adding the outlines of the two towers, black on black ... a perfect image, which conveyed something about the unbearable loss of life, the sudden absence in our skyline, the abrupt tear in the fabric of reality.”
One of my favourite sections of the AGO exhibition revealed Art Spiegelman's influences as an artist.  To explain the debt he owed to Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, Spiegelman created comic "essays", inserting his own iconic mouse into classic Peanuts situations such as typing atop of Snoopy's dog house or waiting at Lucy's analysis booth.  In these essays, Spiegelman notes that "Peanuts was about nothing before Jerry Seinfeld was even born", that Schulz was "more of a philosopher than a journalist", and  "If art that's beloved could bring immortality, the artist like his alter ego would never kick the bucket" (or football, as the case may be).

In the mid 1990s, Spiegelman wrote and illustrated a children's book called "Open Me - I'm a Dog" that encourages its young readers to "pet" it.  He also provided stunning woodcut-like illustrations for a reprint of the classic 1920s narrative poem "Wild Party" by Joseph Moncure March.   This was especially exciting for me to see since I was quite familiar with the 1999 musical "Wild Party" by Andrew Lippa, whose first song was titled and started with the lyrics "Queenie was a Blond ...".  These words were taken verbatim from the beginning of the poem.  We will be watching the musical Wild Party at CanStage in a few weeks.  To prepare for this, I bought a copy of the Art Spiegelman illustrated book and read the text of entire poem.  Spiegelman's drawings really brought the characters of the poem to life.

The AGO exhibit did an excellent job of showing the range and diversity of Art Spiegelman's body of work.  I went in only knowing about Maus, but came out with such a better understanding and admiration of Spielgelman's complete oeuvre.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Theatre: The Heart of Robin Hood

The Heart of Robin Hood is a rollickingly entertaining production based on the traditional Robin Hood lore, but with some clever twists.  It features everything from adventure, romance, comedy, well-choreographed fights, acrobatics, aerial gymnastics using ropes and pulleys, swashbuckling sword battles and lively music provided by the on-stage bluegrass indie band Parsonsfield, who are incorporated as peripheral characters in the show.

Instead of the well-known tale of the altruistic Sherwood Forest outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, playwright David Farr reverts back to the original 15th Century ballad-poem where Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men rob the wealthy and keep the spoils for themselves.  In this play, Robin Hood starts out as a common ruffian and thief who only cares about self gain and forbids his men from interacting with women.  Of course, this all changes by the end of the show, when the heart of Robin Hood is captured by the love of his life.  The trio of "Merry Men" provide comic relief and seem like they stepped straight out of the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou".  Traditionally the character named "Little" John is ironically played by a large man.  In this version, Little John is actually befittingly miniscule in stature, in another clever deviation.

Maid Marion gets a modern-day empowered feminist spin, which seems to be the new standard for fairytale heroines these days (think of Disney princess Merida in Brave, Rapunzel in Tangled or M.K. in Epic).  In The Heart of Robin Hood, Marion, the eldest daughter of the Duke of York, is a good-hearted, feisty and courageous noblewoman who can hold her own in a sword fight.  Rather than submit to an arranged marriage to Prince John for political purposes, Marion runs away to Sherwood Forest with her manservant Pierre and tries to join Robin Hood's gang.  When he rebuffs her, she disguises herself as Martin and together with Pierre (now Peter), forms a rival gang who actually do rob from the rich to help the poor.  To further drive home the point of the role-reversal, it is Martin who wears the traditional green costume that has been portrayed in countless retellings of Robin Hood including the one where he is a cartoon fox.

Prince John is still the throne-usurping, evil protagonist of this story and stays pretty much true to form.  I guess there is only so much you can do with this archetype of the villain.  A character added for comic relief and to act as a foil for Marion is her vain, man-hungry sister Alice, who cannot marry until her elder sister does.  We drew distinct parallels between the relationship of Marion and Alice to the dynamics of Kate and her sister in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

The fight scenes, with Prince John's henchmen taking on Robin and the Merry Men, are boisterous and well choreographed, and often involve the added comedy of Little John jumping on the back of his much larger adversary.  But the best duel is the sword battle between Robin and "Martin", which involves the action-movie trope that has Robin arching his back as Martin's sword passes across his face–accentuated by spot-lighting and mood music as the parry is completed in slow-motion.

The set design for Sherwood Forest is stunning and includes a steep, 12 meter high slope on which the athletic actors scamper up and slide down.  Trap doors descend from the slope in various configurations, forming platforms that represented the manor home of the Duke of York, Marion and Alice, as well as the cross of the chapel where Marion goes to pray.  On multiple occasions, various characters including Marion would perform somersaults or back flips to descend from or ascend onto these platforms.  At the front of the stage is a small pond of actual water that various characters jump into, or emerge from, dripping wet.  It makes one wonder, how did the actors access the pond from underneath the stage?

We are used to shows that break the proverbial 4th wall, which actually happens when Alice speaks directly to the audience towards the end of the show.  The Heart of Robin Hood has incorporated a 5th and 6th "wall" with the cast taking to the air with aerial moves including climbing, swing and dangling upside down from ropes, as well as dropping below the stage through a trap door.  It is not surprising that this show is so acrobatic, considering its director Gisli Orn Gardarsson is the former gymnast who also directed Metamorphosis, featuring the man who turns into a fly and spends most of his time dangling from a wall or ceiling.

The Americana band Parsonsfield wrote and sang all the songs performed throughout the show, with the musical styles ranging from bluegrass to folk with influences from rock and roll.  They played an assortment of instruments including the mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar, saw, bass, pump organ, percussion, and more.  The 5-man group were treated as honorary "Merry Men", often dancing on stage and even sliding down the slope with their instruments in hand.  At one point, Robin Hood and his men proclaimed that they would all willingly march into danger to save Martin ... even the band, to which the band looked at each other nervously.  In two interesting scenes, instruments were used to represent animals, both audibly and visually.  In the first scenario, two band members playing trombones provided the illusion of a pair of jittery horses pulling a carriage through Sherwood Forest.  The trombones were played while raised into the air as the "horses" reared and "whinnied".  Later on, the squeals of a cello were used to simulate a wild boar, which was eventually killed and roasted on a spit.

The Heart of Robin Hood was so much fun that we plan see it again.  The first time, we watched it from our Mirvish subscription seats in the upper balcony of the Royal Alexandra Theatre.  Although it was a bit further back, it was actually a good vantage point for our first viewing, since we could see the entire stage including the trap door and pond that were at ground level, as well as the choreographed action and aerial work. The play is doing so well that it has been extended for another month before heading off to Broadway.  In a great marketing movie, Mirvish has offered subscribers the chance to watch the show again and buy tickets to any section of the theatre for only $49.  Our next seats will be in the centre orchestra level, 5 rows from the stage.  This time, we will be close enough to see the expressions on the actors faces, providing us with a different viewing experience.