Sunday, April 6, 2014

50 SHADES...The Musical Parody and COCK: Date Night Theatre

Sometimes you want to be intellectually challenged by art.  You want to have your world view shaken up.  You want the show you go to see to challenge and provoke you, to ask hard questions, to demand  something of you, to make you think.

Other times, you've had a long tough week at work, or home, or both and you just want to go grab a drink, your besties or your significant other and head into a theatre to forget your troubles and have fun.

50 the latter sort of theatrical experience.

You don't have to be one of the 50 million people who bought the book to enjoy this musical parody.

For those of you who have been on a voyage to Mars for the past two years, "50 Shades... " is a trilogy of erotic fiction following the romantic adventures of Anastasia Steele, a virginal English lit undergraduate and hardware store clerk who falls under the spell of Christian Grey, a handsome billionaire with dark secrets.

There were a lot of women there Friday night who appeared to be having "girls' night out".  Many female patrons had worn their black boots and bits of leather in homage to the BSDM theme of the books and some did bring their own handcuffs, as suggested in the publicity.  I saw a pink fuzzy pair pinned to the front of one young lady's sweater like a brooch. Men were definitely in a minority shareholder position. My friend and I estimated the audience was 70% women and 30% men.

In this version of the story, a women's book club (Shelia O'Conner, Tiffany Dissette and Kim David who also plays the ditzy roomie Katherine with great aplomb) decides on "50 Shades..." as their book of the month, having ruled out, "Cooking Soup for One"(too depressing) and "The Diary of Anne Frank" (the ending was too sad).  We come with them, so to speak, on their voyage of not-so-literary adventures.

"50 Shades..." is a grown-ups' version of of a Christmas pantomime, complete with sight-gag casting, singing and dancing and a loose and loud audience that felt free to shout suggestions ( "NO! take the hot guy!") at critical moments during the performance.

Instead of the ugly step-sisters or the evil queen being played by some middle-aged man in bad drag, we have a Christian Grey (the hilarious Jack Boice) who looks more like Santa's red-haired kid brother than a love god. The delightful Boice would not be out of place at Bears' Night at the Black Eagle. It was a bit like expecting George Clooney and getting Ron Jeremy instead.

Happily for the patrons, his back-up dancers ( BJ Gruber, who is also a very hot Elliot Grey and Datus Puryear)  more than had the good-looking man angle covered. The lovely Caroline Reade embodies Anastasia's "Inner Goddess" with some sultry tango dancing.

The entire cast is a talented bunch of singers, dancers and comedians with a great group dynamic and a lot of energy and charm. There was a certain amount of very cheeky engagement with the audience, especially by the show-stealing Boice in his big number "I Don't Make Love, I F...." and by O'Conner, the recently single housewife in the book club who tries to pick up a man in the front row.

There's a clever and well-performed Gilbert and Sullivan parody song detailing Christian's sexual interests.  The whole script makes great sport of the absolute absurdity of the books:  "I love you and I want to beat the crap out of you". "I'm totally controlled and I feel so free!" At one point, our heroine (Eileen Patterson who is a sweet-voiced ingenue) flees Mr. Spanky-Pants by bailing out of his helicopter. I thought that was a great decision, but as is always the case in these things, love trumps sense and conquers all.

With a bare-bones set, a fine back-up band and a lot of hoary sexual jokes, this over-the-top silly and mildly subversive show is a feather-light entertainment.  I hated the book ( I couldn't get through more than one) but this musical parody of a bad romance makes an enjoyable night out.

Then Saturday night, I went to see COCK at the new Theatre Centre.  It's a fabulous space and I hope they never move again.  They have taken in a few established independent theatre companies to share their new home and develop work. Studio 180  is one of those companies and this is their inaugural production in the new theatre.

COCK is a tight, tense and riveting story about a romantic triangle by Olivier award-winning British playwright Mike Bartlett.

John (well-played by Andrew Kushner) has spent seven years in a problematic live-in relationship with M (an excellent Jeff Miller), a somewhat older and intense man.  John meets the forthright and attractive W (a nicely nuanced Jessica Greenberg) and they begin an affair.  John has never slept with a woman before.  Complications ensue. At on point, M's dad (a terrific Ian D. Clark) turns up to ask John two very good questions: "who are you?" and "what do you want?"

If I say much more, I'll spoil it. The script had the audience laughing and wincing in recognition.

I've dated guys like John once or twice.  This play isn't so much about accepting a range of sexual preferences as it is about a nasty power game played by a passive-aggressive man with everyone around him.

A very wise friend of mine once said to me, "Any relationship is a decision and a commitment."

If you're at the "so, what are we doing here?" phase of your relationship, this could be a tense night out. If you both know who you are and what you want, it's a very good night of theatre. Certainly it is one of the best scripts I've seen on stage this year.

Finally, there was an absolute twitter-storm in the theatrical community in Toronto this week over "Conte D'Amour", the three hour durational performance art/theatre hybrid that was part of World Stage at Harbourfront this week. J. Kelly Nestruck, the Globe and Mail's main theatre critic, publicly declared he booed at the end of the performance.  Lynne Slotkin, a well-regarded and excellent theatre blogger applauded his decision. After that, all hell broke loose.

I decided not to see or review the show.

Nestruck made one comment which I did want to weigh in on.  He said the production was morally bankrupt.  That remark was far more interesting to me than whether or not he booed at the end of the show.

Oscar Wilde famously said of literature that, "Books are neither moral nor immoral.  They are simply well or badly written, that is all."  Is this also true of theatre?

I agree with Wilde for the most part.

When I see work I dislike, it often feels lazy and unfinished.  I feel insulted and ripped off because I paid money to and/or spent time with someone who hadn't cleaned up their thinking and their laziness showed up on stage. When a film or a play is really long, it often (but not always) is an indication of unfinished thinking.

Now, I was raised by old-school Catholics who taught me laziness is a sin and therefore immoral. Is this the kind of immorality under scrutiny here?  Or is this about something else? Talk amongst yourselves.

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