Sunday, October 3, 2010

Stratford as I Like It

I'm currently in Ontario having a time out with the Eastern part of the chosen family.

Yesterday my dear friends Allan, Robert ,and I capped off Allan's birthday celebrations this week, with a trip to Stratford, a place we all love. We stayed at BRUNSWICK HOUSE, a B&B run by Gay Allison and her husband Geoff. Both of them are writers as well as story editors.Their charming old Victorian home is full of books, a short stagger from the town's main drag of bars, shops and restaurants, and one block from both the Avon and Studio theatres. Allan and I have stayed there many times before, but it was Robert's first visit to the house, and he loved it.

He was less enthusiastic about our theatre experience: Des McAnuff's production of AS YOU LIKE IT, currently playing at the Festival Stage.

When I was last in Stratford, three years ago, it was June,and John Huston and I saw three days of great theatre. It was Richard Monette's last season at the festival, and it was a good one. Monette directed a crowd-pleasing COMEDY OF ERRORS , but also a smart, sexually charged, and cheeky production.

Maybe it was the rain, or maybe it's the economy, or maybe it was the not entirely bloodless coup that preceded McAnuff's ascent to the artistic directorship of the country's largest theatre festival, but the place seemed tense this time. Certainly, the production of AS YOU LIKE IT felt a little too eager to please.

AS YOU LIKE IT is one of Shakespeare's great romantic comedies.  The story of family strife, mistaken identities and star-crossed lovers has been a crowd-pleaser for nearly 500 years.

Perhaps Mr. McAnuff is still finding his feet with classical texts, or perhaps he thought, given his successes on Broadway with hits like JERSEY BOYS, the audience wanted a musical from him.

However, AS YOU LIKE IT isn't a Broadway musical: it is Shakespeare.  What was chiefly wanted was a brilliant realization of the text. McAnuff focused on hitting the audience over the head with visual metaphor, and flashy musical production numbers, leaving the actors to largely fend for themselves with the actual play. This directorial strategy met with mixed success.

The Nazi inspired red and black of the Duke's court in Act One was a bit on the nose. The mostly fine company of actors more than conveyed the violence, greed, and menace of the court without needing such obvious sartorial trappings. It was as if McAnuff thought the audience was too dumb to get what the play is about.

He seemed capable with music, production numbers, fisticuffs, and staging broad comedy, but not with the heart of the play itself. This meant seasoned actors, especially Lucy Peacock, Ben Carlson, Randy Hughson, Tom Rooney and Brent Carver did fine work, because they were able to bring their experience to the table. The young lovers were good, especially Phoebe and her besotted sheppard.

It was the play's main engine, Rosalind,who suffered the most in McAnuff's choosing to privilege the production over the play. The lovely young Andrea Runge struggled undertaking one of Shakespeare's most challenging ingenue roles. Runge is a graceful actor ,and her gamine form made her physically well-suited to the role. However, her speaking voice lacks range. She didn't breathe well through the text. Her Rosalind had charm, but little depth. She seemed less like a girl dressed as a boy ,than a young musical theatre performer thrust into a role way over her head, with not much help from the director. She shone at the end, but for most of the performance seemed way out of her depth.

I saw Susan Coyne play Rosalind, about twelve years ago in Coronation Park. Coyne's acting shone with intelligence and passion from the time she graduated theatre school at NTS. Her Rosalind remains one of the greatest performances by an actress in a classical role I have ever seen, or likely will see in my life. Coyne crawled inside that text and illuminated the play from the inside. Coyne worked at Stratford as a young actress, as did Seanna McKenn, and Lucy Peacock. I expected someone of similar gifts at Stratford yesterday, and came away disappointed.

It's not Runge's fault she was in over her head. Blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of the director.

It was, in many ways, an enjoyable production. There was great ensemble work from the company in the large scenes, and a beautiful Arden created by Debra Hanson, and Stratford's talented design team. The live music mostly enhanced the production, and made for a truly joyous finale. In the end, it was Shakespeare light: pretty, and mostly unchallenging.

I had a nightcap with two young actors in one of the town's bars last night. They were excited to be part of McAnuff's company, particularly at the prospect of perhaps going to New York in one of the star director's hits.

However, Stratford's primary role is NOT to serve as a farm team for Broadway producers. Stratford is one of the English-speaking world's great classical repertory theatre festivals.

McAnuff needs to focus not on New York, or on people who would rather be there,but on the task at hand: developing and maintaining Canada's pre-eminent repertory theatre company. McAnuff's primary focus must be doing great classical plays not just with style but with depth, insight and intelligence. We,the festival audience, deserve no less and we don't haul out to Stratford to see stuff we can see on King Street in Toronto.

I look forward to next season.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

after the party's over, it's time to go down gambling

The touring Fringe crew has moved on down the road to Saskatoon and Edmonton, the tents are packed up, the shows are over, and dinner at the King's Head tonight will doubtless be more quiet than it was last month, during the Winnipeg Fringe.

This was a bittersweet festival for me. Sweet, because I was in a hit show, and got to feel the love from audiences, sweet, because people love comedy in a way they seldom love drama, sweet, because the marketing strategy we devised for the show worked REALLY well, sweet, because our numbers moved up every day, culminating in a sold-out closing night.

I saw some old friends, and went to a few good parties, and saw a lot of great shows. I got to be "in nose" for the first time in my career. I was onstage with the friend who got me into the business of Fringe touring in the first place: Alison Field. My fellow cast members all shone in their unique ways, and mostly, we had fun.

The weather was warm. Laura Anne Harris who billeted with me, five starred in the Free Press, and on CBC, and sold out her run, and I got to share in her joy in a critical and financial hit for a play about Judy Holliday and the McCarthy hearings. I can't tell you how that heartened me, because it means there's a Fringe audience with an appetite not only for comedy, but for serious drama. Muriel Hogue won the Harry Rintoul Award! Yah! Barb Popel and Brian Carroll were back in town, seeing 50 shows, and reminding me what a great, engaged audience this Fringe draws.

And there's the bitter part of the thing: money. At the end of the day, being in a five star show with four other people paid (barely) for about a month of my life. Because there are so many people in our cast, and because a number of my fellow actors are the parents of young children, touring our hit show is a near impossibility. We may do Edmonton - next year. We could get picked up by a regional theatre in a year's time: but until then, a girl's gotta eat.

At the end of this Fringe, after our critical and box office hit, I realized I could no longer afford my apartment. Everything I own, that won't fix into two suitcases, is going in storage this month, and I join the ranks of the itinerant.

I'm not alone in this in my profession. A number of performers I know on the Fringe circuit have no fixed address. Touring cost $5-700 per festival up front, in fees paid to the festival for the theatre, tech support, and a listing in the catalogue. Those fees get paid between October and December, mostly. Add in a director, any design elements, posters, fliers, photos, press kits, a website, costumes, rehearsal space, travel from town to town (some people come here from New Zealand or Los Angeles) and figure a minimum of three months on the road, but more likely four or five where you need to eat, and sleep (thank you billets!). I figure my COSTS to tour for the previous 2 seasons amounted to $ 5 - 6k per tour. 100% of ticket revenue is turned over to performers but at an average price of $8 a ticket you need to put a lot of bums in seats to get to 6K.

Given I'm not going to be in my apartment for at least three months next year, and given that some incredibly generous friends are willing to let me house-sit and crash out this winter, I decided, in the interests of actually being able to afford to mount a show next summer, I would give up having an apartment this winter.

I resumed performing in a serious way three years ago, after a long hiatus. It's going pretty well. I have an agent, I've been in two films this past summer, I'm on my way to a union card, and each play I've done on the circuit has fared better critically than the last. In spite of that, my income is half what it was three years ago. Yes, I do other things for money besides acting, but even with that factored in, expense reduction was a necessity, and rent is a huge expense. When my irreplaceable room mate returned to France to pursue HIS career as an artist (and a really cute French girl) I knew I was going to have to let my beautiful home on the river go.

Now I love touring on the Fringe circuit, and it is my personal and professional goal to write and perform in that most elusive of creatures: a critical and box office hit. If I'm lucky, and I work really hard, and I make good choices, maybe my gamble will pay off, and I'll get that hit show next year. If I'm really lucky, I'll get one of the grants I'm going to apply for this month, and I'll have some cash to hedge my next touring bet.

I know I'm incredibly lucky already. I have friends who will just give me a place to live, while I write my next play. Not everyone is so fortunate. And I know this is a precarious way to make a living, but that's what I do. Theatre is not my hobby, in my spare time.

I also know that the in-town hit, as great as it was, did not satisfy me the way touring does.

When my friends left town last week, I knew that next year, I had to join them again on the road. To be able to have the experience of taking a new play across the country, to see over 100 shows in 5-7 cities, to spend months living with other people who are willing to make their art their life's work: and to know, if the show goes REALLY well I can take it to New York or Australia, that's worth taking a gamble for.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Yes Virginia, there is A star system in Canada, but only on the Fringe Circuit

The Fringe show I'm in this year, BREAST FRIENDS opened on Thursday night in Winnipeg, which is the main reason I haven't been blogging much lately,

I love the Fringe. I produced the first play I ever wrote FAMILY JEWELS on the Fringe and Alison Field was kind enough to agree to act in it. This year I have the great joy of appearing onstage with her. She was the person who introduced me to Fringe festivals and planted the mad idea in my head that I could make a living on the Fringe circuit as she and Alex Dallas did as SENSIBLE FOOTWEAR for many years.

The Fringe is markedly different from the counter culture theatre event it began as more than 20 years ago. Fringe festivals, at least the large ones which in Canada are Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton attract 100s of performing companies from all over the world and audiences in the tens of thousands. There's lots of corporate sponsors and a fairground atmosphere complete with some great street performers.

I've been associated with the FRINGE as a writer, performer and producer for over a decade now and I've toured a good chunk of the circuit in the past three years. The expansion of the big three brings more money to the table for the festival producers which enables them to provide better infrastructure and offer a audiences a broader selection of offerings. The expansion of the number of companies appearing at the festivals is a mixed blessing.

Die hard Fringers I know can see 50 plays in a week out of 150 or so shows on offer. That is still only one third of the shows in the festival. What this means is people tend to focus on sure bets. Sure bets are folks with good reviews and reviews in the Fringe run on a star system: 1-5.

If you get a 4 or 5 star review in Winnipeg, you are pretty much guaranteed a half decent week on the strength of that press if you use it to promote your show. If you get 3 star review and your word of mouth is decent ( what folks say to each other in line-ups) and you flier hard, you will still do OK. Any less than 3 stars and you're done.

I received the best review I've ever received in some respects today: 5 stars. Our company also had a great preview article in SANDBOX magazine and was a top ten pick by a daily paper and a weekly paper here. In short, the media gods have treated me and my show fairly well this week. We are working our butts off off-stage and on and it's paying off.

Other friends of mine are working just as hard but haven't been as fortunate. A young Ottawa actor I know got a 4 star and 1 star review for the same show on the same day. I saw him perform this play in Ottawa last year. It is not a one star play or a one star production.. The GG winning Daniel McIvor wrote it, for one thing. And here's the thing: my friend and his producer will go broke here this week because of that review which wasn't really a review at all, it was a rant about how crap the script is. There was no talk in the review about the acting or the staging. Sadly for him the only thing that will matter to most people is that dreaded rating.

Here's what I propose: we abolish this ridiculous, arbitrary ratings system. Let's have critics WRITE and audiences THINK about what they've read and then choose freely as artists who enter the festival are chosen freely on the luck of the draw. I guarantee you: if you chopped up your program, put it in a hat, drew out the number of shows you were able to see this week and went, I'd bet you'd have a fine week without ever reading a review.

In case you're wondering, some of my favourite shows in town this week and some reasons to see them are listed below in no particular order:

PITCH BLONDE: because Laura Anne Harris can write and act and the Judy Holliday story she's telling is poignant and politically timely.

SHORTS: Erik de Waal uses his lush voice and his incredible story-telling chops to transport us to South Africa through a series of beautiful stories. He stole my heart and left it in a fever tree.

SOUND AND FURY: because Richard and his talented and and charming cohorts synthesize HEART OF DARKNESS with DR WHO throw in hoary gags, double-entendres, bad drag and a lot of other inspired silliness in a smart and speedy trip back to the future.

GRIMMER THAN GRIMMER THAN GRIMM: fairy tales - not for kids. A wickedly dark and funny show from a cast of talented energetic performers.

DIE ROTEN PUNTE: KUNSTE ROCK: all the elements of a great show come together here: great performers, smart writing, great pacing, good staging and great lighting and costumes. Oh yeah - and they ROCK! I literally laughed - and cried today.

GIBBERISH: the very funny Mr. Gibbs does a largely stand-up show this time but his clown and acrobatic talents are woven in with his wonderfully clever observational humour to give us a great hour with a master at the top of his form.

THREE TIMES LUCKY: a down and dirty, sex-positive, moving, challenging and thought provoking comedy from Paul Hutcheson an utterly captivating performer. Leave Grandma at home and take your gay best friend. You will have fun.

SPIRAL DIVE III: because Ken Brown and his crew of bright young things from Edmonton can make a riveting aerial battle on a scaffold with a couple of flashlights, because people this age are currently at war and dying every day for the honour of our country and Theatre Public reminds us of the reasons for and the real cost of war. Epic theatre.

JEM ROLLS: ONE MAN RIOT: because Jem makes London come alive in the King's Head pub and because a week after the G20 in Toronto theatre doesn't get more topical than this. Timely and thought provoking.

FALLING PEOPLE: as poetic a piece of theatre as you are going to see by a lyrical performer. Lovely.

PUMPKIN PIE SHOW: COMMENCEMENT: you won't see a better performance in a better play this year anywhere, period.

I also loved SHELTER at the PLAYHOUSE STUDIO about a broke poet and a waitress who meet and fall in love and MORRO AND JASP: GIRLS GONE WILD the only show in the festival in a park. It was charming and very funny.

I'll share more Fringe favourites as the week unfolds.

Some shows I plan to see: Burlesque Unzipped, The Excursionists, Scar Tissue, Happily Ever After, Cabaret Terrarium,Recycled, Guitar Man, Man 1, Bank Zero,Tired Cliches, MISS HICCUP, Un ADULTerated ME, Psycho Bitch, Freud and His Ego,Grang Guiginol of the Prairies, Cactus, Gunpowder and FILTH with Frank Zotter who is a really fine actor. I tried without success to get in to see COUNTRIES SHAPED LIKE STARS tonight and hope to try again later this week. There's also Commedia at the U of W which really appeals.

Please feel free to share your favourites with me, especially smaller shows or companies new to Winnipeg.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

When Good Plays Go Bad

OK, call this one "belling the cat".

Saturday afternoon I attended the above-mentioned lecture at the Carol Shields Festival of New Works at PTE.

Robb Paterson (MTC), Ardith Boxall (MTP) and a panel of actors, playwrights, dramaturges and directors were all in attendance.
Bill Kerr, the dramaturge from the U of M started off by saying there would be no discussion of specific productions. Indeed.

Monique Marker said, we all love each other too much to say what needs to be said sometimes. But how loving are we being if we keep spending limited resources giving big productions to scripts that aren't ready, leading to mixed press and grumpy audiences?

Every theatre in town knows darn well that in the past two seasons we the paying customers, have been subjected to a whole lot of script material that was clearly not production ready: BOYS IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, NORTH MAIN GOTHIC, SHAKESPEARE'S DOG and TRANSIT OF VENUS, the opera all spring to mind. Every last one of those shows had the potential to be exponentially better than they were had the scripts had major revisions before receiving expensive public productions. If only half the PR or the set budget had been spent on rewrites.

In all of the above, swell production values and a game cast couldn't paper over the fact that the book just plain wasn't ready.
Basic structural problems like protagonists without consistent objectives ( TRANSIT, NM GOTHIC ) and meandering unfocussed plotlines ( BOYS, GOTHIC) can't be fixed by a great lighting design, great singing or fine acting. Moreover they all ran at or over 2 hours, an almost sure sign the writer needed to refine their thinking and clean up the story. Sorry, but it's a rare play that really needs to be longer than 90 minutes.

I've been there myself. I took a show on the road to 4 cities last summer that had considerable merit but that needed three more weeks of rewrites before it opened.

The year before I'd been lucky enough to be touring with my director. We rehearsed every day in the first two cities and made cuts to the play also a new script. It still needed more but it did get better on the road. Last year, I wasn't touring with my director. I went to colleagues I respected and had them tell me what I needed to do to fix the show. It did get better but it was never as good as it would have been with three more weeks of work upfront.

I figure taking it out before it was ready cost me 6K in lost box office revenue. Worse yet, even though I now know what I need to do to fix that script, it'll be 5 years before I can show it again anywhere. It'll always bother me to think I could have done better, had I taken more time off the top to rewrite.

This year, I've given myself 2 months to rewrite, rework and rehearse the new show I'm in. Why ? Because new work takes time to be ready. Right now, we have weekly rewrite meetings.

All of those theatres could have backburnered producing those shows when they saw it wasn't going to be ready in rehearsal and scrambled to stick something else in at the last minute. But they lose a lot of money doing this and they break a promise to subscribers by not giving them the season as advertised. Most theatres are so loath to do this they prefer to present a script that's not really ready rather than cancel a production.

The problem with sending new plays out as productions when they are only really at a draft stage is the audience walks out feeling more ripped off than they would have had they been shown something different but ready. It deadens their appetite for new work and makes it harder for new writers to get productions.

Rick Chafe did bravely say 50 people a night walked out of MTC during SHAKESPEARE'S DOG two winters ago, but 600 people stayed. The problem for MTC is those walk-outs add up to about a thousand people over the run. If those thousand people are subscribers and they choose not to renew the following year because they are fed up with seeing expensively mounted, unready scripts, MTC may well pull from doing more challenging new plays and do more murder mysteries, warhorses and musicals to lure them back.

I didn't dislike SHAKESPEARE'S DOG, but a largely unsympathetic protagonist, an unpalatably glib conclusion and a 2 1/2 hour running time were probably more than some audience members could take for $50. I expected a seasoned playwright and an experienced production team would have known to cut 15-20 minutes out of the last act. The moral grayness of Shakespeare's decision to abandon his wife and babies to pursue his career was whitewashed right over. And yes, I'm sure as they said, it was better by the time it got to Ottawa, but why was Winnipeg used as the out-of-town try-out?

Robb made an excellent point that 3 1/2 weeks is a too short rehearsal period for new work and many of the rougher edges could be taken off many new plays with a longer rehearsal period. But the structural and run time problems with SHAKESPEARE"S DOG were problems that needed to be figured out around a table not in front of 700 paying customers a night. MTC could and should have done their audience and the writer a favour, spent less on the set and more on the rehearsal period.

When people shell out good money at one of the bigger places in town ( MTC, Manitoba Opera) they have every reason to expect a finished play to go with the finished set and fancy costumes.

PTE on the other hand did a great production of ALL RESTAURANT FIRES ARE ARSON. Much of the really good new work I've seen here in past few years both local and from out of town ( LIAR, WHERE THE BLOOD MIXES) has been on that stage.

PTE doesn't have a lot more dough than its colleagues down the street but it does maintain a writers' room, a place where plays in development get worked informally in a peer group as well as sponsoring the writers' festival which showcases new plays. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of that room when it goes on stage. I'm willing to bet it's going to look a lot more ready than some of the new offerings elsewhere in the past few years.

I love writers' rooms. I was part of one for 10 years. Our group developed a Chalmers award-winning play (STUCK) and two film scripts that received HAROLD GREENBERG FUNDING for further development. Trust me there was a lot of re-writing done on those scripts fueled by notes from other writers.

If theatres in town want to do new work, they would do well to consider pooling resources, talking to MAP and the funding bodies and setting up a writers' room for the writers whose work they have under consideration. Meeting twice a month, the writers could share work in progress and give each other notes.

That way writers would have more feedback to do rewrites before their plays go into workshop or into production. All it would take is a room and a bit of organization. That's a whole lot cheaper than trying to win back a thousand subscribers lost by charging them full fare for a script that was only half ready. It's also a lot cheaper for the writer to fix the play before it opens than to try and repair his or her reputation and bruised ego when their work has been publicly presented in an unfinished state. Trust me, I know.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Truth and Powerful Storytelling at PTE

My sis Lisa and I attended a sold-out performance of WHERE THE BLOOD MIXES last night. The audience gave the company a well-deserved standing ovation. Tonight is the show's last performance in Winnipeg before the Governor General's Award winning play moves on to the National Art Centre Studio and The Factory Theatre in Toronto. I can't recommend this production highly enough.

Beautifully written, powerfully acted, well directed and featuring an effective understated set design and a fabulous live onstage score provided by Jason Burnstick, this is one of the best shows I've seen this season.

Kevin Loring spent four years honing his script about a trio of First Nations friends living with the aftermath of a childhood spent in residential school. It shows. Not one false note is hit in 90 riveting minutes of theatre.

A great cast of four: Ben Cardinal and Margo Kane as the alcoholic Mooch and his long suffering enabler girlfriend June, the great Billy Merasty who made the difficult, angry Floyd sympathetic and Kim Harvey as Floyd's daughter Christine are all terrific.

Perhaps Loring's greatest achievement is his truthful mix of humour with the pain and anger of these people. It made me laugh and cry - often at the same time. These guys were sure fun to go fishing with.

When Christine comes home to reconnect with her birth father, the ghost of a shared tragedy rises to the surface of June Mooch and Floyd's collective memory and threatens to drown them all. In the end, hope glimmers for the people like spring salmon in the river: the hope of a better future for their children.

It was especially poignant seeing the show in Winnipeg, where the Truth and Reconciliation Committee for residential school survivors opens its offices on April 8th. Justice Murray Sinclair blessed the audience on opening night. I'm sad my Metis dad didn't live to see this play with us last night. I sure heard his voice on that fishing dock yesterday.

Let's hope this chance for everyone to share their stories will finally heal this history and set us free from its awful legacy.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mother Courage at MTC

With a coterie of fellow theatre lovers, I went to see what for me was one of the most anticipated events of the winter theatre season here: MTC's co-production with the NAC of Bertold Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE.

It was my first chance to see the English language theatre company artistic director Peter Hinton created at the NAC.

Hinton is a director with a fine visual sensibility and the team he assembled for sound, set, lighting and costumes were all first rate. The use of the black uprights was absolutely inspired. However his production of this play about the folly of war and the costs of doing business that unfolded under a red sky felt curiously - bloodless. It's a dog of war with few teeth.

The comedy in the script was played for all it was worth, and largely to good effect, by the seasoned cast. Tanja Jacobs is excellent at depicting the world-weary cynicism of Mother Courage, her short-sighted greed, and her motherly wisdom, but the bottom notes of the depth of character's pain and suffering seemed to elude her tonight.

Similarly the Cook, played with a kind of louche pickled pathos by Geordie Johnston is a womanizer, but the sharp knife of his contempt is flashed ever so briefly in SOLOMON'S SONG. He's an asshole, but a nice asshole who knows that, thanks to his mom, he has a nice home to go to in the end no matter who dumps him.

Richard Donat as Chaplain gets some great lines and he makes the best of being cast in the loser role in a romantic triangle.

Jani Lauzon plays the flashy Yvette the hooker/countess flat-out, making the most of the comedic elements of the character, and showing off her vocal chops.

Still, when I came home, I put on Marianne Faithful singing that rep. Her whiskey gravel voice hits every note in Brecht and Weill's compositions: humour, irony, pathos, rage, desire, longing. It was a breadth and depth of feeling that largely went missing for me, tonight.

I think the blame for this has to be placed on the shoulders of the director. It was as if he thought the only way to sell an audience on a three hour Brecht play was to treat the thing as if it were some sort of musical comedy, that comes to a bad ending quite by accident.

Instead of building on the play's increasingly tragic losses, almost all the big action that happens to the main characters, takes place off stage. Both of Mother Courage's sons, the brave soldier and the honest payroll clerk are dispatched with so we hear, not see, what happens to them. Katrina, her mute daughter is deflowered by  a bunch of drunken rapists, with barely a notice.

The death of Mother Courage's last child, for the one real act of selfless heroism in the entire play gets cut off, almost instantly by a blackout, and the rolling around of set pieces in the dark. The audience was left to cough under a cloud of gunpowder for the denouement:  the delivery of Katrina's lifeless body to her mother. Is there no way in the 21st century to make a big noise on stage, without filling an interior space with stench and smoke? How fair is it to the actors to have to perform under this pall?

Jacob's director left her to perform her big final scene as several people in the audience struggled to breathe. Patrons and performers were both deprived, one final time, of a chance to connect emotionally with the tragedy of the play for the sake of an effect.

There were some great moments in the production: the procession of pianos for the great military leader's funeral, four women singing in beautiful harmony about a poplar at the gate, viewed from the warmth of their home, lit only by the reading lamp on the piano with Mother Courage's peripatetic wagon stationed just beyond the light. The scene between Jacobs and young hothead who wants to kill his boss was brilliance. It was these nuanced moments that made you see all the production could have been, in terms of poignancy and affect, and sadly, is not.

Waneta Storms as Mother Courage's mute daughter Katrina, steals the show by giving a performance full of heart without one false or strained note. If only all the gunpowder, and piano music had held more moments equal to her silence, this might have been a more satisfying, and less shallow-feeling production. Certainly war, of which Brecht speaks so powerfully, has lost none of its power to wreak havoc on our lives.

Friday, February 5, 2010

itin/erant lit: Women Can't Write: AKA Friday, Less Than Fun Facts

itin/erant lit: Women Can't Write: AKA Friday, Less Than Fun Facts

This link courtesy of Derek McGrath offers an interesting (and depressing) theory on why women are under-represented as writers on stage and in television.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Top Girls First Rate!

OK, first off, an apology. I have seen so much less of Churchill Fest than I 'd planned to, it's ridiculous.

Apart from the fine BLUE KETTLE which closed last weekend, this is the only other show I've made it to.
Judging from the standard of the two productions I did manage to see, that's a pity because both were both very good.

TOP GIRLS is currently playing at the Tom Hendry Theatre ( the theatre formerly known as MTC Warehouse) You still have a chance to see it this weekend and it is outstanding.

Ann Hodges does a fabulous job of directing her fine cast in multiple roles. The pacing and the transitions with one exception were very adeptly handled.

This is a difficult play about the intersection of the personal and the political in women's lives. In the wrong hands, it could easily have become a rant or worse yet, a soap opera. Here, each performance is marvel of nuance and restraint, illuminating the individual character's struggles to navigate a world where a Top Girl still holds a one-down position.

Sharon Bajer, Philippa Domville, Jacqueline Loewen, Tracy Penner, Daria Puttaert, Marina Stephensen Kerr and Jennifer Villaverde all deserve kudos for their fine ensemble and character work.

The set, projections and costume designs by Denyse Karn were elegant and effective. The contrast between the modernist dining room appointments and the period costumes on the actors in the first act worked particularly well. This was the best use of that space I'd seen in a while.

My only complaint was with the decision to dispense with the interval at the end of Act One and break the play in the middle of the second act instead. Yes, it's a long play. However the audience needed a pause at the end of the first act to sit with what they'd just see and heard. Breaking up the play two-thirds of the way through the second act felt awkward and arbitrary and created uneccessary confusion. It was the only cumbersome choice in an otherwise great production.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Up In The Air

Middle-aged people in extra-marital affairs must be the zeitgeist in Hollywood this season.

Jason Reitman's latest picture UP IN THE AIR is a mirror held up to a moral vacuum in 21st century American society and as such it's unsettling and more than a little depressing.

There's a lot of Oscar buzz around this film and I must say I infinitely preferred it to the cloying and self-consciously clever JUNO. This is a great cinematic adaptation of a novel, unabashedly posing hard questions and offering no easy answers. The film is anchored by a trio of extraordinarily fine performances.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who has made a life making the best of a bad job: firing people on behalf of bosses who lack the balls to do their own dirty work. He swirls through concrete airports and beige hotel rooms, leaving voided lives in his wake as he racks up frequent flier miles. The distance he's covered in his travels is the only value he holds sacred. He keeps his human connections to a minimum: movement maintains distance.

He's framed by two women: a corporate newbie (played with wonderfully intensity by Anna Kendrick) who wants to ground everybody and fire people online and his lover, fellow frequent flier Alex Gordon ( a cooly elegant Vera Farmiga ) a woman whose life is as compartmentalized as the backpack Ryan talks about in his corporate seminars.

It's a rare American film that manages to be this thought-provoking and nuanced. I lay awake for a long time last night thinking about those people's lives. Completely worth seeing.