Thursday, April 21, 2016

Theatre: Reframed

Basing a live musical on a famous painting is not a new concept.  The most famous example of this is Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by the 1884 pointillism painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by George Seurat, depicting Parisians out for a weekend stroll.  Sondheim's musical allows these characters to come to life and interact with Seurat so that we can find out their back-stories.

The Acting Up Stage Company is a Canadian theatre group dedicated to performing contemporary musicals and developing and producing original, new musicals.  We have watched and thoroughly enjoyed many of their excellent productions in the past, including Wild Party, John and Jen, Craigslist: Do You Want What I Have Got, Parade, Ride the Cyclone, and Tick, Tick Boom. A second mandate for this group is to train, mentor, support and promote Canadian musical theatre writers via a teaching program called "NoteWorthy" which pairs up lyricists and composers to create mini 10-20 minute musicals as teaching exercises.  A popular assignment for the NoteWorthy group involves picking an image out of a book of paintings and using that image as the inspiration for the musical.

Extrapolating on this idea and taking it to the next level, the artistic director Mitchell Marcus negotiated a partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) whereby three teams of writers and composers would each create a 20-minute musical based on one of the paintings found in the Richard Barry Fudger Memorial Gallery, where the artworks are hung side by side from floor to ceiling in "Paris-salon" style.  Furthermore, the resultant shows would be performed right in the gallery, with the paintings of choice as a backdrop.  And so, the unique presentation called "Reframed" was brought to life.

The three paintings selected were "The Marchesa Casati" by Welsh painter Augustus John (1919), The Young Botanist by Canadian painter Paul Peel (1891), and He is Coming by Dutch painter Otto Willem Albertus Roelofs (late 19th Century).   The audience sat in several rows of folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle on the floor of the Fudger Gallery.  The same three actors, Eliza-Jane Scott, Tim Funnell and Kaylee Harwood, performed in all three musicals and it was interesting to watch each of them playing very different roles in quick succession.  The three musicals were performed with minimal sets, props or costumes and the actors spoke and sang their lines with scripts in their hands, so that it felt like we were watching a technical run-through rather than a full performance.  The musical accompaniment was provided by a three-piece orchestra consisting of a piano, cello and woodwinds.

Because the musicals were performed in a small space not meant for such activity (with poor sight-lines for all but those sitting in the front rows, poor acoustics and limited lighting options), the audience was provided with libretto of the three shows so that we could follow along with the dialogue and the singing.  Despite the fact that the actors had to glance at their scripts occasionally and missed a line or stage direction once in a while, they were obviously very talented and the informal presentation added to the charm of the intimate setting.

The first musical was called "La Casati" (Music/Lyrics by Bryce Kulak Book/Lyrics by Erin Shields).  It is based on Augustus John's provocative portrait of Marchesa Luisa Casati, the vain, flamboyant and extravagant Italian heiress who is portrayed with flaming red hair and large piercing eyes that defiantly stare straight ahead, as opposed to the typical demure portraits of women of that time.  At one point, Luisa owned the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which was subsequently bought by Peggy Guggenheim and is now home to the latter's famous art museum.   Known for her wild hairstyles, outrageous clothing and love of exotic pets, Luisa, who was also John's lover, frivolously spent all of her fortune and died penniless in London.

According to the stage directions of the libretto, the musical starts with the elderly La Casati "sitting on a throne in her crumbling Venetian Palace surrounded by two cheetahs, a gray hound, a parrot and a boa constrictor".  Obviously much of this was left to the imagination.  Augustus John arrives to beg her to stop her excessive spending and they reminisce about the old days when they first met.  John sings of her "eyes, drowning in pools of kohl" and as he describes her, the third actress enters playing the young Luisa and asks that he immortalizes her through portraiture.  John agrees but demands that she forego all her usual masks and costumes so that he can paint the real her–"I don't jewelry, I don't want paint ... you've got to let it show .. inside those eyes".  Eventually the scene fades back to the present where La Casati is left alone with her portraits, which she will have to sell to pay off her debts.

The second musical called "The Preposterous Posthumous Predicament of Paulie Peel" (Music/Lyrics by Kevin Wong, Book by Julie Tepperman) is inspired by the painting "The Young Botanist" by Canadian artist Paul Peel, who tragically died of a lung infection at age 31, just a year after he painted this whimsical portrait of an innocent young boy (possibly his son?) looking with fascination at a frog.  The musical imagines how the boy and his mother (named Paulie and Pauline for the musical) might be be coping with Paul's untimely death, and is the most poignant of the three short plays.  The scene opens with Paulie spotting and chasing a frog in the ravine behind his house, then quickly switches to Paul Peel's funeral where we learn through flashbacks that he and Paulie shared a love for Biology.  We find out that Paulie believes his father has been reincarnated as the frog that he captured and it is this belief that helps him come to terms with Paul's death and to bond and reconnect with his grieving mother.  Pauline sings a heart-wrenching song called "What Do I Do Now" and converses with the frog/Paul who, in between croaks of "Ribbit", advises Paulie and Pauline to listen to each other.  This short musical was so touching that there were audible sniffles and signs of weepiness throughout the audience–not bad for a 20 minute segment.

The third musical titled He Is Coming, the same as the painting, (Music/Lyrics by Britta Johnson, Book by Sara Farb) was the least effective, probably because the least amount of background information was known about the painting or the painter.  Accordingly, there was not the same point of reference as with the other two and the plot was based mostly on the title of the painting as opposed to the subject matter.  In the musical, Irene, a 92-year-old artist is waiting to be evicted from her apartment.  While she waits, she reminisces and her past portraits of friends and family come to life and talk to her.  There is Charlotte, a glamorous young movie star, 50-year-old Marvin who thinks his portrait makes him look mean, Janet, who was painted nude, and finally Irene's husband Bill who she dances with.

All three plays felt a bit like light opera, in the vein as Stephen Sondheim's latter work "Passions" or Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love" and each had a sombre, wistful air.  The actors ran around the room and weaved in and out of the audience throughout each of the musicals.  This was a really unique, enjoyable experience in a cool setting and the three actors did a really good job with these original works. Yet, I think the concept of basing a mini musical on a painting would work just as well if not better on an actual stage where we could see and hear properly.  I would love it if Acting Up Stage tried this again, and maybe tackled some more recent art movements like Pop Art (Andy Warhol, Roy Litchenstein, etc.) and maybe some happier subject matters.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Theatre: Chiamerica

It may seem strange that an event as horrific, shocking and impactful as the Tiananmen Square Massacre should be more well-known around the world than it is within Mainland China where the incident occurred, but this is exactly the case.  Such is the power of censorship and propaganda control within China that many of the younger generation have never heard of the massacre and do not believe that it actually happened.  My husband Rich experienced this first-hand when he casually asked a younger co-worker who had recently emigrated from China what she thought about what happened in Tiananmen Square.  She was perplexed and had no idea what he was talking about!

These are the details that are commonly understood to be true within the Western world: Triggered by the death of deposed Communist Party General Secretary and liberal-reform advocate Hu Yaobang in April 1989, a student-led protest gained support with the general population across China, swelling to 1 million people at its peak.  Although Tiananmen Square has become the symbolic "ground zero" of the protest, additional pockets of uprising  sprang up on other  streets of Beijing and even in surrounding towns and villages.The protesters demanded freedom of speech, freedom of the press, government accountability, and workers' rights.  The situation came to a head in Tiananmen Square on June 3-5, 1989 when the hard-line government ordered the People's Liberation Army to suppress the crowds through military force including the use of assault rifles and tanks.

Although the Chinese Government claimed that there were little to no casualties actually in Tiananmen Square, varying reports assert that between hundreds to thousands of unarmed citizens were killed there during the massacre.  These casualty estimates may be strongly disputed by the Government, but what is undeniable is the existence of bullet holes that pierced the People's Statue that stands prominently in Tiananmen Square, and which still can be seen today.  We saw them up-close when we visited Beijing in 2009, and also were quite aware of the plain-clothed undercover police that patrolled the area.

On June 5, 1989, after the protests had been quashed and the crowds dispersed, a line of tanks slowly rolled out of Tiananmen Square.  An unidentified man holding plastic bags in each hand boldly strolled out in front of the lead tank, blocking its path and bringing the entire procession to a halt.  Showing unexpected restraint, the lead tank tried to drive around the man, rather than mowing him down.  But the man, who came to be known as the "Tank Man", shifted left and right to continue to block the vehicles.  At one point, he even climbed on top of the lead tank and spoke to the driver through the hatch, before resuming his position in front of the tanks.  Finally a group of people pulled Tank Man away.  Whether these people were friends trying to hide him or authorities wanting to arrest him is undetermined.  To this day, his identity and fate is unknown, but the legacy of his brave act of peaceful civil disobedience has been forever immortalized via iconic photographs and news videos that were seen around the world.

Inspired by the famous image, British playwright Lucy Kirkwood wrote the play "Chiamerica" that prophesizes about what might have happened to Tank Man.  The term "Chimerica", a portmanteau amalgamating China and America, was coined by British historian Niall Ferguson, referring to the co-dependent relationship between the two super powers.

The main plot of the play follows fictional photojournalist Joe Schofield as he captures the photo of Tank Man in 1989.  On a return business trip to Beijing 20 years later, he gets a tip from his old friend and contact Zhang Lin that Tank Man might be alive and living in New York City.  Trying to recapture some of the former glory from his most triumphant achievement, Joe single-mindedly pursues clues and leads in his search for Tank Man, crossing ethical and moral boundaries and hurting innocent people along the way.

Chimerica has a fascinating premise that is unfortunately bogged down by too many themes and story-lines, too many scene changes and too many characters, with a cast of 12 actors, some playing multiple roles.  The first act itself is 1.5 hours long and the entire play runs 3 hours and 10 minutes including intermission.  In addition to the mystery of who and where is Tank Man, there are many other sub-plots to follow and keep track of.

Zhang Lin is haunted by memories of his fiancee Liuli who was killed during the Tiananmen Square Massacre and blogs about his trauma.  In a beautiful piece of staging, flashbacks depict the relationship of the young and innocent lovers Zhang Lin and Liuli, dressed in white in the foreground, while old Zhang Lin types on his computer in the background.  In Lin's visions of Liuli after she is killed, she is dressed in bright red to symbolize blood and death.  His feelings of resentment towards the Chinese Government are further stoked by the smog-pollution related death of his 59-year-old landlady.  Zhang Lin's rebellious actions lead to his arrest and torture and impact his poor put-upon brother Zhang Wei who is deemed guilty by association.

Joe carries on an affair with British market researcher Tess, who specializes in teaching North American companies how to market to China, but loses her when his Tank Man obsession takes priority over their relationship.  Playwright Kirkwood uses Tess' character to sheds light on the dichotomy between East and West, highlighting their differences in terms of social, political, economical and cultural characteristics and the importance of recognizing and respecting Chinese culture when trying to market to them.  It also explores the rise of the East as a growing economic power and the impact on Western economies.

The frequent and quick scene changes in Chiamerica jump both in locale (between various spots in New York vs scenes in Beijing) and time (from the present in 2012 to flashbacks of 1989).  The innovative set and staging help to keep the audience oriented as to where and when the scene occurs.  The set consists of a floor-to-ceiling rotating wall that spins around to reveal the different scenes, usually with the set of New York locations on one side of the wall and those of Beijing on the other.  Occasionally, when Joe and Zhang Lin are speaking to each other on their phones, both sides of the wall are visible at the same time.  Each time the wall spins around, a video projection of the location and date helps keep the audience keep track of where and when the next scene takes place.  Video is also used to project news reels and other images on the wall, and is used very effectively to portray text from Zhang Lin's protest blogs that he types on his computer.  The final reveal that re-enacts the actions of Tank Man, merging live action with photographic imagery, is also superbly done.  One of the most satisfying and poignant plot points occurs at the end of the play, when it is revealed what Tank Man carried in his plastic bags.

Almost as interesting as the play itself was the Question and Answer period or Talkback session that occurred in the Lobby afterwards, which was attended by five of the supporting cast members (none of the leads took part).  We learned that a lengthy speech given by Tess was added to provide a more balanced portrayal of East versus West.  For most of the play, Chimerica does not pull any punches when commenting on China's dismal track record with regards to human rights, censorship, torture, disregard for the environment, greed and corruption.  In the added monologue, Tess argues that China is not that different than the United States who are guilty of many of the same sins.

We also learned that most of the Asian actors did not speak Mandarin, despite it being prominently featured in the play.  Instead they had a Mandarin coach who helped them learn the words phonetically.  Several of the Chinese actors speak Cantonese, which has very different pronunciation than Mandarin, while one actress is Filipino and the lead actor who played Zhang Lin is Korean.

An uncomfortably awkward but enlightening question came from a theatre student who, based on her accent, must have just recently arrived from China.  She was extremely emotional and outraged at what she perceived as Western propaganda that smeared the good reputation of her homeland and demanded repeatedly to be given proof of violence and torture that was portrayed.  This seemed like yet another example of how effective China's propaganda machine is, when an entire generation of Chinese youth have no knowledge of China's history of human rights violations, past or present.  It is one thing to read about this phenomenon, but quite another to witness it first-hand.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Theatre: If/Then

From Robert Frost's iconic poem "The Road Not Taken", to movies like "Sliding Doors" and "Run Lola Run", and now the musical "If/Then", the concept of a critical decision or chance event impacting the course of one's life has been thoroughly explored.  If/Then is written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the pair behind the 2009 Tony award winning musical Next to Normal.

If/Then follows the two possible paths of recently divorced Elizabeth who moves back to New York to start over after a disastrous 10-year marriage.  She meets two friends in the park who have different plans for how she can spend her day. This one decision of who to go with will impact the rest of her life.

Free-spirited, lesbian kindergarten teacher Kate wants her to stay in the park to look for love and thinks she should go by the name "Liz".  On this path, Liz does not answer her cell phone when it rings and misses out on an offer of her dream job, but instead meets and marries military man Josh and has two children with him. 

Community organizer and activist Lucas, an old friend from college who knew Elizabeth as "Beth", wants her to go with him to attend a protest rally and start making professional connections.  On this path, Lucas encourages Liz to answer her phone, which launches her career as deputy urban planner for the city.  By leaving the park, Beth misses out on meeting Josh.

Like the movie "Sliding Doors", If/Then uses the dramatic conceit of interweaving scenes that switch back and forth between the life led by Liz versus the one led by Beth.  The opening song "What If" perfectly sets up the two possible paths–"Two different roads, and how each one bends ... You lose all the choices you don't get to make ... You wonder about all the turns you don't take".
The main differentiation between Liz and Beth is that Liz wears glasses while Beth does not.  Although it sometimes feels like we are watching Clark Kent transform into Superman and back again as we watch Elizabeth remove and put on her glasses between scenes, the clear visual cue allows us to easily tell which "character" is currently in play.

Initially to set up each character's path, entire songs are allocated to either to the Liz story-line ("It's a Sign:, "You Never Know") or the Beth story-line ("Map of New York", "Ain't No Man Manhattan").  But once the characters, their motivations and social or business interactions are firmly established, they would occasionally switch between the two plots even in the middle of a song.  This actually first happens at the end of "Ain't No Man Manhattan" when Beth turns into Liz and all the peripheral characters suddenly become part of Liz's domain.  In the poignant yet humorous and salaciously named song "What the F**k?", Liz starts singing about whether or not she should take the next step and sleep with Josh, but part way through the song, the scene changes and it becomes about Beth lamenting about her impulsive decision in sleeping with best friend Lucas.  But by the end of the lengthy scene, we have reverted back to Liz and it is Josh that is under the covers in bed with her–Thank goodness Liz sleeps with her glasses on! ;)  Similarly, the plot-laden song "Surprise" includes scenes from a surprise 39th birthday party for both Liz and Beth.

The staging for If/Then includes an overhead walkway which is raised and lowered above the stage as required.  This was not an issue when the action actually happened on the walkway, like in the Surprise party scene. But on more than one occasion, the walkway was left in a half-lowered position and yet the action happened at the back of the stage behind the catwalk.  Those of us who were sitting in the upper balcony had our views of the actors obstructed by the walkway, which did not seem to add anything to the set by being lowered.  This just felt like bad staging that did not take the patrons in the "cheap seats" into consideration.

 The role of Elizabeth was created for Idina Menzel who was then replaced by Jackie Burns for the National Tour.  Burns looks quite a bit like Menzel, at least from a distance and she definitely had the same booming voice.  In fact, all the cast had very strong voices, so much so that the microphones to amplify them were turned up a bit too loud, making it difficult to hear the words for some of the songs.

Because If/Then received mixed reviews on Broadway, I had fairly low expectations prior to watching the show, but was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it much more than anticipated. Although I did find many of the songs to be fairly generic, there were a few memorable (if not hummable) stand-outs, which is all any musical can hope for.   My favourite songs include "It's a Sign", "What the F**k", and the brilliant song "I Hate You" where Liz changes emotions with every line–"I hate you, I love you, Don't Leave Me".

Friday, April 08, 2016

Theatre: Jitters

* Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Jitters is the latest Soulpepper remounting of the 3-act comedy written in 1977 by late Canadian playwright David French.  It is inspired by his own nervous experiences early on in his career when his plays were performed at the Tarragon Theatre.  Using the "play within a play" structure, Jitters follows a theatre group as it deals with an escalating slew of issues during the rehearsals and preview performances of a small Canadian production of the fictional play "The Care and Treatment of Roses".

The director George attempts to keep some semblance of decorum while soothing and finessing his temperamental cast which includes: Jessica, an aging diva on the downswing of her career and looking for a much needed hit, Patrick, a mature actor too afraid to explore opportunities outside of the Canadian theatre scene where he is known and respected, Phil, a finickity, insecure elderly actor who cannot remember his lines, and Tom, an up-and-coming young actor.  Also in the mix is the nervous, morose playwright Robert who is highly protective of keeping the written integrity of his second play intact, and Nick, the overly-controlling stage manager who is only heard as a voice in the first act.  Rounding out the cast are two female assistants, Peggy and Susi who don't seem to add too much to the plot, other than being the object of desire from various male characters.   The character of Tom also was not as well developed as the main protagonists in this play and could have been assigned a few more funny plot points.

 * Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The first act of Jitters starts with an onstage dress rehearsal of "The Care and Treatment of Roses".  We are forewarned of the troubles to follow when the play begins in darkness, the lights come on for a few seconds to reveal an empty set, and then the lights go off again and the audience sits nervously in the dark again for a few more seconds.  When the lights finally come on again the second time, the cast is now on stage in midst of rehearsing a scene.  It is immediately clear from the decor of the furnishings and wall paper, as well as the wardrobe of both the actors and the characters they portray (including bell-bottom pants, bright colours, wide collars and wild patterns), that Jitters is rooted firmly in the 70s.  It felt like we were watching an episode of the TV sitcom "That 70s Show".

The interactions between Jessica and Patrick quickly establishes the animosity between them, which acts as an ongoing source of conflict throughout the play.  Sensibilities might have been different back in the 70s, but when it is revealed that in order to annoy Jessica, Patrick has been phoning her at 3am, then phoning her neighbour after she took her phone off the hook, and finally sending a pizza delivery, it felt more like stalking than pranking and I found it more creepy than funny.

The main humour from this first act stems from Phil's incessant complaints about his character's wardrobe (pants too tight, shoes squeak, toupee looks like a dead rat), as well as his inability to remember his lines or cues, which in theatre terms is called "to dry".  His lapses and the other cast members' futile attempts to cover up through ad-libbing become more and more hilarious each time they run through the same scene.  There is also the repeated gag of director George trying to encourage his actors by asking playwright Robert to compliment them, which Robert awkwardly avoids doing by taking slow sips of his coffee.

The second act literally rotates the set to reveal the actors' shared dressing room  that is reminiscent of the one at the Tarragon Theatre.  It is less than an hour before the start of one of the preview shows, where the troupe hope that the famous theatre critic Feldmen will be in the audience to review their performances.  Panic sets in as curtain time approaches but both Phil and Tom are missing. A flustered Phil finally arrives sporting a black eye and a tale of woe but there is still the issue of the missing Tom.  Robert is coerced into replacing Tom and much of the humour of the second act stems from his reluctance to do so.  More and more disasters pile up until the second act closes in a state of mayhem.

The third act reveals the cast back on the original set on the day after the preview performance.  They are reading a review from a critic from the Toronto Star, which had positive comments for everyone except Jessica.  After amping up the comedy and frantic action in the first two acts, the third act felt rather flat, a bit anti-climatic and not very funny by comparison.  In fact, overall, Jitters was not as funny as I thought it would be and definitely not as funny as a very similar British play that was performed around the same time–Noises Off by Michael Frayn, which we watched at Stratford in 2004.  The structures of the two plays are remarkably similar with each one's first act representing a dress rehearsal of a play and second act depicting backstage antics before or during the play. 

Noises Off fully embraced the concept of farce, with the typical opening and closing of doors, mistaken identities, scantily clad ingenues, romantic couplings and full-on slapstick that required pinpoint timing and induced non-stop roars of laughter.  While Jitters has a few elements of slapstick and some very funny moments, it is not structured as a farce. Instead, it is a delightful play that insightfully portrays what it is like to put on a show in a small Canadian theatre.  As such, its humour only inspired tepid chuckles throughout the play.  One of the funniest interactions in Noises Off involved the frantic interactions backstage during a performance, with the rest of the cast trying to keep their alcoholic cast mate from consuming a bottle of liquor.  Jitters also has an alcoholic plot point but it was almost played more for pathos than for laughs.  It was interesting to hear during the Q&A session after the show that Jitters was almost picked up for a run on Broadway, but it was upstaged by Noises Off, which was selected instead.

I always like when the staging of a play incorporates the entire theatre and Jitters does this well, taking full advantage of the layout of the Baillie Theatre.  In the opening act, the director George emerges on the balcony level (where we were sitting), calling down directions to his actors.  This seems to be the stereotypical setup repeated in most "show within a show" plays and movies, including All That Jazz and A Chorus Line.  Throughout the three acts, the actors enter and exit the scenes, sometimes walking right off the stage and down the aisles.  In one scene where Susi is prompting Phil's lines, she sits right in the audience.  The use of the entire theatre is especially effective for this type of play, since it further blurs the lines between the play Jitter and the inner play "The Care and Treatment of Roses" and allows the audience to feel like we are part of the action.