Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Theatre: Cinderella and Peter Pan Pantomine

This Christmas season, we watched two musicals based on traditional fairy tales and classic children stories that were each given a modern, feminist spin with a message of gender equality. This has been an ongoing trend for new fairy tales (Brave, Frozen) and revivals of old ones.  To quote our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the reason is "because it's 2015".  The 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein television version of Cinderella has been updated so that Cinderella saves Prince Topher, by helping him find his purpose in life, as much as he saves her from her wretched existence.  In the annual Ross Petty pantomime Peter Pan in Wonderland which is a mashup of the Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland stories, Wendy gets Peter to agree that she should be allowed to be the heroine in their adventures occasionally.

While the commonly known version of the Cinderella story is the 1697 one by French author Charles Perrault, who introduced the elements of the fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, glass slippers and the midnight curfew, the tale originated centuries before and has been retold for centuries after.  Variations of the basic story of the persecuted heroine finding her savior can be found across cultures, with different names for the main character and slight variations in some of the plot points.  We saw an example of how universal the tale is when we visited the Bata Shoe Museum and perused their semi-permanent exhibit titled "All About Shoes: Footwear Through the Ages".   Part of this exhibit is devoted to versions of the Cinderella footwear from various times and cultures.  There was the French glass slipper, Dutch blue and white porcelain slippers, Korean straw sandals and gilded leather shoes from ancient Egypt.

The 2008 Broadway revision of Cinderella follows the main storyline of the French 1697 version, but updates it with a series of modern twists.  In this retelling, Cinderella is still beautiful and caring but also much more spunky and intelligent, while Prince Topher is still charming, but a bit naive and clueless as to the workings of the world and his place in it.  Topher is unduly influenced by an evil advisor who tricks him into approving oppressive laws against his people.

Cinderella first meets the prince when he is passing by her cottage and she kindly offers him a drink of water without realizing who he is. Their next two meetings are at the royal balls but when she flees after the second soiree, she intentionally leaves one of her shoes to help him locate her, as opposed to accidentally doing so in the traditional narrations.  And when he finally finds her and declares his love but is unsure what to do next, she prompts "Oh, well is marriage still on the table?".

The other major deviation from the traditional plot is regarding the depiction of Cinderella's step-family.  While there is still a wicked step-mother, only one of the stepsisters (Charlotte) is wicked, while the other one (Gabrielle) is meek but compassionate towards Cinderella.  Gabrielle is secretly in love with Jean-Michel, a revolutionary who advocates for the plight of the people.  Cinderella eventually counsels Prince Topher to listen to Jean-Michel and to address the injustices being heaped upon his subjects.  So Cinderella and Topher unite more as equals who each enrich the other's life and together, they will make their kingdom a better place for their people.

Although the story has been modernized for this musical, the tunes are still from the late fifties.  Most of the songs from the original Rodgers and Hammerstein production have been retained (including "My Own Little Corner", "It's Possible", "Ten Minutes Ago", "Stepsisters Lament" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?") and additional songs were added by raiding the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre and picking up obscure songs ("Me, Who Am I?", "There's Music In Me") whose lyrics could be fit into the story.  Accordingly, the music sounds dated and contains too many soprano solos for my taste.

The best attributes of this Broadway show are gorgeous dresses and the amazing on-stage metamorphosis of both Cinderella and the Fairy godmother from rags to splendor.  With a quick twirl and motions faster than the eye can see, their clothes seem to magically transform before us.  It took several slow-motion viewings of this performance from the 2013 Tony Awards before it became apparent what was happening.  Designer William Ivey Long won the Tony award winning for best costume design for this feat and the other luminous costumes worn by the entire cast.

Ross Petty's annual Christmas pantomime merges together the characters and stories from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland to create Peter Pan in Wonderland.  Popularized in England in the 19th Century, pantomime is a family-oriented form of musical comedy based on a well-known fairy tale or children's story, featuring singing, dancing, slapstick comedy, cross-gendered actors and audience participation.  The crowd is encouraged to cheer rousingly for the heroes and "Boo!!!" lustily each time the villain steps on stage, engaging in call and response interactions when the villain taunts "Oh no it isn't/he didn't/..." with replies of "Oh yes it is/he did/...".

The action begins when Captain Hook tricks Wendy into traversing to Wonderland where he wants to steal the fairy dust in her locket to open a Pandora's Box-like trunk owned by the Queen of Hearts.  Peter Pan and Tinkerbum (Tinkerbell was busy) follow along to Wonderland to try and save Wendy.  The flightless Tinkerbum is played in traditional grotesque drag by Stratford Theatre cast member Dan Chameroy. Once in Wonderland, the Peter Pan and Tinkerbum are aided by Alice, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, who call themselves the "Guardians of Wonderland".  Before they can save Wendy and stop Hook and his sidekick Smee, they first have to deal with the Queen of Hearts and her posse of playing cards, as well as Hook's goofy minions.

While the main plot, characters, colourful costumes and sets are geared toward the kids, many of the songs and most of the jokes are aimed at entertaining the adults in the audience.  Currently popular songs are featured including Taylor Swift's Bad Blood, Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk, Meghan Trainor's Dear Future Husband and Rachel Platten's Fight Song.  Many of the jokes, including some real groaners, reference local topics and current events such as Jose Bautista's bat flip, Donald Trump's hair, and Stephen Harper's downfall (Hook was his life coach before becoming a pirate).  When Wendy falls down the rabbit hole, images flash by including the falling silhouette from Mad Men.  Pan is compared to Justin Bieber in terms of never growing up.

This year's production is extra special since it is the last time that Petty will act in the annual show.  After 20 years of playing the main villain in the pantomimes, Ross Petty has decided to step back and focus on producing the events.  Doing both has become exhausting for the 69-year-old actor and he feels it is much more important for him to concentrate on keeping the shows financially viable.  He does this by courting corporate sponsors and unabashedly referring to them in the show, either via product placement, or even video-based commercial interludes where the show stops and the ads are played.  This year's sponsors include Hilton Hotel, Sick Kids Hospital, and Toronto Star who is heavily promoting its new online Star Touch application.  Each of the ads include one or more characters from the pantomime.  The Billy Bishop Airport's sponsorship led to its new underground tunnel being featured in a major plot development for the show.  Main sponsor CIBC received both a video commercial about Tinkerbum finally getting to "fly" by using the CIBC Adventura credit card, as well as recognition for providing the gifts for the three lucky little children who were invited on stage to be part of the show.

Peter Pan in Wonderland was not as funny and the plot was not as cohesive and entertaining as the pantomime that we saw two years ago, based on The Little Mermaid.  But Peter Pan in Wonderland and Cinderella were still both fun events to attend during the Holiday season, and the children in the audiences certainly enjoyed themselves.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Art: Andy Warhol Exhibitions

Earlier this year, multiple venues participated in a Douglas Coupland exhibition that was titled "Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything", a title meant to highlight the ubiquitousness of his works.  This seems to also apply to American pop artist Andy Warhol, since there are currently dueling Warhol exhibits in progress–Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Andy Warhol: Revisited at the Revolver Gallery on Bloor St. West at Bay St.

As expected, the main focus of the exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox is on film, movie stars and the concept of celebrity as it relates to Andy Warhol. The walls are lined with photographs of celebrities that Warhol either purchased for his personal collection or shot himself.  Included is the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe that Warhol used in the creation for his "Marilyn" screen prints.  Also on display is his collection of old movie posters, as well as movie posters for some of his own films.

Andy Warhol directed a series of weird, experimental films including hours of footage depicting his lover John Giorno sleeping (Sleep, 1964), Edie Sedgwick hanging out in the kitchen (Kitchen, 1965), and a stream of his famous friends visiting him in his New York film studio "The Factory" and sitting on his iconic  couch.  (Couch, 1964).  Scattered throughout the exhibition space are video screens hanging from the ceiling that run excerpts of selected films on a continuous loop.  The most quirky film is probably "Taylor Mead's Ass"–a 76 minute movie that focuses mainly on the actor's bare butt.   As the story goes, a critic complained that watching Mead's movies (including titles such as "The Queen of Sheba Meets Atom Man" and "Tarzan and Jane Regained .. Sort of") felt like hours of watching Taylor Mead's ass.  Warhol caught wind of this comment and complied by making the movie.

An entire room in the exhibition is dedicated to the recreation of Warhol's East 47th Street Factory film studio, which he had entirely decorated in silver including silver-toned furniture, and walls painted silver or wrapped with aluminum foil.  The colour scheme was inspired by the decor in the apartment of Warhol's friend Billy Name, and the studio came to be known as the "Silver Factory".  The one exception was a red velour couch with white cushions, where many movies were shot and parties were held.  While the actual couch was tossed when the studio closed, a reproduction has been created for this show.

Glass display cases contain Warhol memorabilia including old family photos, letters, movie props, costumes and more.  The cases are propped up by silver filing cabinets, referencing the numerous filing cabinets that were found in the Factory.  A docent-guided tour of the exhibition revealed some interesting facts about Andy Warhol, who was initially named Andrew Warhola before dropping the "a" as an adult.  He was the youngest of three children, born into a poor Czechoslovakian family who immigrated to Pittsburgh, USA.  When he was young, his mother would try to stretch out a meal by making soup out of ketchup and hot water–perhaps an experience that eventually led to his famous tomato soup can art?

The eccentric Warhol hung out at the Factory with equally strange friends and acquaintances.  Performance artist Dorothy Podber asked if she could "shoot" the five Marilyn paintings that he had just completed.  Thinking she meant to take photographs of them, Warhol acquiesced but instead, she took out a gun and shot holes through each Marilyn's forehead.  These paintings are now known as the "Shot Marilyns".  Warhol himself was shot and seriously injured in 1968 by a disgruntled female associate, feminist writer Valerie Solanis.

As you exit the show, you can choose to partake in the "Three Minute Screen Test", a ritual that Warhol frequently put his fledgling film stars through in order to ascertain their charisma on camera.  Simulating that experience, patrons are invited to sit silently for three minutes while a video camera films them.  The results are screened at the front of the exhibition and are also available for download. It is interesting to see what different people do with their three minutes. Some mug for the camera, some stare blankly, while others fidget nervously.

In the Canadian Film Reference Library on the 4th floor of the Bell Lightbox, a related free exhibit called "In Love With the Stars" is simultaneously on display.  This show features the private collections of a few avid fans that shared Andy Warhol's fascination with movie stars and celebrity.  On display is a subset of over 1000 scrapbooks collected by Edith Nadajewski over the span of 70 years from the 1920s through 1990s.  Each scrapbook includes pasted images of celebrities cut out from newspapers and magazines.  She would dedicate one or more two-page spreads on each actor, actress or movie.  A short documentary film introduces Jack Pashkovsky, a Russian, Jewish immigrant who started out sweeping floors at Twentieth Century Studios and eventually worked his way to becoming known as "The Man Who Shot Hollywood".  On display are examples of Pashkovsky's photos which captured the biggest stars of the times posing naturally for him.  He is even credited with taking the last known photo of Amelia Earhart before she disappeared.  Finally, there is a retrospective of photos taken at Toronto International Film Festival red carpets throughout the years. 

While a limited number of familiar art works related to movie stars were included in the TIFF Andy Warhol exhibit, it was not until we visited the Revolver Gallery's Andy Warhol: Revisited show that we came across a more comprehensive assemblage of Warhol's works, covering more eclectic topics that we had not seen before.  Three figures of Andy Warhol grace the window of the gallery, dressed in iconic black mock shirt and pants with their faces painted in primary colours.  Also on display are the sculptural incarnations of Warhol's obsession with commercialism and mass production–plywood boxes painted and silk-screened with common brands on them including Brillo Soap Pads, Heinz Ketchup, Kellogs Cornflakes and more.

Once inside, we see further examples of Warhol's famous sets of silk screen prints. While there are a few common-place ones of Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao and Elvis, most of the other subject matters are totally new to us.  For the first time, we peruse renderings of Queen Elizabeth, Vladimir Lenin, gangster John Gotti, a series of Western themed ones including General Custard and Annie Oakley, a series of commissioned "vanity" portraits of high-powered executives, and more.  In addition to the portraits, there are also sets of images of cows, shoes, trucks, camouflage patterns, and commercial products such as a Chanel perfume bottle.

Two large silver couches are placed in the middle of the gallery, which presumably refer to the "Silver Factory", even though the actual couch in that studio was red and white, as we learned in the TIFF exhibit.  A very detailed documentary on Andy Warhol is screened on two TV sets mounted on top of walls that are covered with small snapshots of the artist.  After watching the movie for over 20 minutes, we finally asked how long the documentary ran for, and found out it was 4 hours!  Even more interesting than the film are the photographs on the wall, which on closer examination depict Warhol dressed up a variety of wigs and makeup to portray different male and female personas.

Taken together, the two Andy Warhol exhibitions at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Revolver Gallery present an extensive picture of the man, his life, his works and his artistic influences and motivations.  But given how prolific and creative Warhol was, it somehow feels like we have only scratched the surface.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gardiner Museum: Kent Monkman and 12 Trees of Christmas 2015

We went to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics to view an exhibit by First Nations artist Kent Monkman, who is known for his modern artwork and multi-media installations that usually provide commentary on the narratives and perspectives of the Indigenous People.  We had seen examples of his works at various other museums including the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and McMichael Art Gallery.  I was curious to find out how this current show would relate to ceramics, since this is not a typical medium for Monkman.  An interesting piece was on display in a glass case prior to entering the main exhibition space.  It was Monkman's homage to Pablo Picasso's 1942 Bull's Head sculpture, which was created by attaching a leather bicycle seat to a set of handlebars to produce a bull-like image.  Monkman recreated this look in porcelain-styled ceramics, but added his own Native touches by depicting a scene of an Indian on horseback lassoing a cowboy, while a buffalo seems to look on in the background.

The main installation, entitled "The Rise and Fall of Civilization", takes up the entire third floor special exhibition space.  It depicts the period of time in the late 19th Century when over-hunting of the bison by American settlers and military almost led to its extinction.  The main focus of the exhibit consists of a rock formation where a bison is in midst of jumping/falling off the cliff, while Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a reoccurring figure in Kent Monkman's works that acts as his drag queen alter-ego, gestures toward and draws attention to the plunging beast.  The setting represents a "buffalo jump", which Native Indians would use as a mass hunting method, by driving herds of bison over a cliff, causing their legs to shatter.  At the base of the cliff, other hunters would be waiting with spears and bows and arrows in order to finish off the animals.

At the base of the rock formation in the exhibit, semi-transparent wire sculptures depict more bison, while a mound of shattered pottery (including smashed up versions of the ceramic bull's head that we saw outside) represent the build-up of bison bones that accumulate at the base of a buffalo jump.  Painted images of various types of bison on all the surrounding walls add to the overall effect of the installation.  With long black hair and dressed flamboyantly in bright red, this rendition of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (note the cheeky spelling of the last word!) makes it easy to see that the concept was originally inspired by Cher.  In other sculptures or paintings, Miss Chief has been known be depicted wearing 7-inch platform heels or a raccoon jock strap.  Monkman uses the image of  Miss Chief Eagle Testickle to subvert the Hollywood Indian stereotype, in order to portray "a really empowered persona ... with a lot of sexual power."

While the Kent Monkman exhibit was interesting to see, it was not substantial enough on its own to warrant a trip to the Gardiner Museum.  Luckily, also on display was the annual Christmas exhibit called "The Twelve Trees of Christmas", which are scattered throughout the three floors of the museum.  In previous years, the trees were quite traditional in terms of materials and decorations.  By contrast, this year the theme "The Joy of Creativity" led to the most fascinating and creative representations of a "Christmas Tree" that are so much fun to see.  Three of my favourite trees are found right in the first floor lobby of the museum.  Made of wire, mesh and resin, the "Aquarian Water Bearer" by Sophie DeFrancesca depicts a female form pouring water out of a jug, where the flowing liquid forms the shape of a sparkling Christmas tree. Titled "Flaneur Forever", Jennifer Carter's progressively smaller stacked umbrellas, created from silk fabric by Herm├Ęs, makes for a whimsical and colourful tree.  "The Joy of Gathering" by Jane Waterous uses neon lighting to create the star and the arms of the tree, while what looks like smushed up candy wrappers formed in the shape of little people are used for decorations.  Walking around to the other side of this display, the word Joy is spelt out in globs of paint that also look like little people when you walk close enough to see them.

The tree which I found most fascinating (and slightly creepy) is actually an animated video called "Reception" by Jenn E. Norton, depicting a series of outstretched arms and hands, formed in the shape of a Christmas tree.  As the tree rotates, the palms of the hands flex and turn to produce the open palmed gesture of receiving, followed by the palm-down gesture of giving.  One tree that I almost dismissed as too traditional and boring is the "Ukrainian Christmas Spider" tree, created by the Ukranian Museum of Canada, Ontario branch.  From afar, it looks like a standard tree with typical ornaments, but up close, you can see that the ornaments are actually hand-crafted spiders and webs in hues of gold and silver.  Reading the associated plaque, I learn that this design reflects a classic Ukranian tale about spiders who decorate a poor family's tree with silky spun webs of intricate patterns that shimmer in silver and gold colours when the sun shines upon them.  Finally, on the third floor, I liked Justin Broadbent's "Lit/Til" which is made up of two painted plywood lightning bolts, joined together to form the shape of a Christmas tree in its "negative space".  Looking through the tree, the people sitting in the restaurant on the other side appear to be the "ornaments".   Broadbent described how the lightning bolts symbolized his brainstorming for ideas that resulted in his tree.

It was fun racing up and down the stairs of the three floors to view all 12 trees.  This additional exhibit on top of the Kent Monkman installation made it an excellent trip to the Gardiner Museum.  And using the Sunlife Financial Museum and Arts Pass from the Toronto Public Library provided us with free admission.  Thank you Sunlife for this excellent perk!

There is actually at 13th tree outside of the museum.  Called "The Beacon of Joy",  designed by the curator of the Joy of Creativity show, architect Dee Dee Eustace.  It consists of a 40-foot tall white spruce tree sourced from biodegradable, Ontario-grown wood and surrounded by a circular metal enclosure which is decorated with lights and ceramic ornaments that look like luggage tags with personalized Christmas wishes written on them.  The ornaments can be purchased from the museum front-desk with proceeds going towards providing free clay workshops to needy children and youth.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Theatre: Addams Family Musical

Each year, I look forward to the musical performed by the graduating class of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts.  Not only do these super talented triple-threat students excel at acting, singing and dancing, but they often select a relatively fresh, new musical that I have not seen before.  This year was no exception as we watched The Addams Family, based on the campy 1960s TV show.  I was first exposed to this musical when its opening number ("When You're An Addams") was performed at the 2010 Tony Awards, and subsequently bought the soundtrack, so I was thrilled to finally be able to watch a live performance of the show.

Most of the major characters from the TV show are accounted for including the parents Gomez and Morticia, their children Wednesday and Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Grandma and the zombie-like butler Lurch.  A hand even pops out from behind a curtain to represent the disembodied "Thing".  The only TV regular not represented is the hairy "Cousin Itt".  The main storyline of the musical revolves around eighteen-year-old daughter Wednesday falling in love with a "normal" boy named Lucas.  She invites Lucas and his parents Mal and Alice to dinner so that the two sets of parents can meet and hopefully approve of the besotted couple's engagement.  One of the best songs in the score aptly summarizes the main source of tension in the story, as both Wednesday and Lucas hope for a pleasant, uneventful dinner and implore their parents for "One Normal Night".

Subtle aspects of the Broadway production's plot of The Addams Family were changed once the show started its U.S. tour.  The latter version is the one that is usually performed today.  In the Broadway version,  Gomez and Morticia sing the song "Where Did We Go Wrong", as they are united in their disapproval of Wednesday's involvement with the "normal boy" who is causing their daughter to act uncharacteristically "perky, bubbly and optimistic".  The touring version changed this, making Gomez a reluctant conspirator with Wednesday in hiding the truth about her relationship with Lucas from Morticia.  This new wrinkle provides greater opportunity for dramatic conflict as well has humour.  Gomez now sings the hilarious song "Trapped" as he laments having to choose between being loyal to his daughter or his wife, while Morticia sings that there are no "Secrets" between her and her spouse–a fact that she soon learns is not true.

The Randolph Academy production of The Addams Family was excellent as usual.  Wearing stellar costumes, wigs and makeup, the family members channeled the original TV characters, while the costumes of the chorus of ghoulish dead (or undead) ancestors were innovative and unique (except for the one who looked like she was dressed in an outfit recycled from the musical Cats).  While the entire cast was good, stand-out performances were given by the two actors playing Gomez and Morticia.  They both had excellent singing voices and superb comedic timing in delivering the jokes and perfectly mimicking the silly movements, gestures and intonations of their iconic roles.  By contrast, the voice of the actress who played Wednesday was not quite as strong, and at times, it felt like she was shrieking as opposed to belting out her lines.

Performed at the Annex Theatre, much planning and choreography must have been required to allow such a large cast to roam around the relatively small space.  The actors moved in and out of the aisles and occasionally danced so close to the audience that it felt like they would fall into our laps.  The set included two stairwells that allowed the actors to use the second-floor catwalk as an extension of the stage, and a giant wall clock that opened up to reveal a window which Uncle Fester occasionally popped his head out from.

I'm looking forward to the next offerings by the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, including their annual submission to the Fringe Festival, and the year-end show by the next graduating class.