Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Morro and Jasp: Go Bake Yourself

I saw this show opening night at NextStage back in January, the day I got back from my Christmas holidays and three weeks of cooking and hanging out with my sisters and my brother. 

Nothing takes me back to my childhood with my sibs the way these two do.  Amy and Heather may not be the next Julia Child in the kitchen, but when it comes to clowning, their work is far from half-baked.  In fact, the show totally cooked! That night, I laughed and cried, which to me is the mark of a great clown show.

Their show "Morro and Jasp Do Puberty" five starred and sold out here, and across the country: deservedly so. I saw it  in Edmonton this summer  in a packed theatre, and was knocked out by their heartfelt and very funny examination of the joys and travails of female adolescence.

This time, the duo are playing with a warm-up clown act that changes nightly. A number of very talented performers are appearing on their bill,  including Chris "Hilarious" Gibbs. The first time I saw Chris onstage, my sides hurt for two days afterward from laughing.

Tickets are a low, low $15. The show continues until this Saturday, March 30th at Cahoots Theatre.  For further details check out their website at

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Made In Daggenham and The Painted Lady

This week:  music, a dance performance (of sorts), a film and a few musing on the labour market.

I made it to THE PAINTED LADY to see James Cohen's band featuring my friend Lloyd Peterson on vocals and guitar.  It's Canadian Music Week, the bar was packed with industry types and a young crowd out to party.  The band was cooking and the place was rocking.  I had a great time chatting with Lloyd and some other friends from Winnipeg who were in town for the festival and I was reminded of just how much fun it can be to get out there on a Saturday night and hear a good band.

The Painted Lady is a charming room, with chandeliers, fairy lights and walls covered with pictures of women performers, painters' muses and burlesque artists.  At a certain point during my friends' set, a woman got on the bar in a burlesque outfit and proceeded to remove a layer of clothing.  She had a garter on and it was stuffed with $5 bills. In 2012, in a democratic country where women have equal rights (in theory) and half the patrons in the bar were women, there was a half-naked woman dancing on a bar for money.

The university age daughter of a friend of mine was there as part of our group.  She's studying at Queen's  and is a few years younger than the burlesque performer.  She said to me, " What do you think?  Is she empowering herself or is this old school sexual exploitation and objectification of women? I can't look at her and not feel sad and a little dirty." Indeed. I looked at the walls covered with pictures of naked women and the girl writhing on the bar and thought," I like this room, I like these people and I'm having a good time but I can't believe we're still having this conversation twenty-five years after I was in university. Moreover, since this is a straight bar and 50% of the patrons are women, I can't believe, in the interest of equal rights,  we don't have some comely young man on that bar too, with someplace to stuff cash in his codpiece"  That in my limited experience only happens at bars for gay men and stagettes with male strippers. Sexual exploitation is far from equal in the straight community. Is that because there are fewer straight young men who need $50 that badly?

Then last night I finally saw MADE IN DAGGENHAM a feel-good picture set in the late '60 in the UK about the first group of women to go out on strike for equal pay for work of equal value. Equal pay became law in Britain in 1970 and now women all over the industrialized world have equal pay for work of equal value, the film proudly concludes.

Wait a minute:  in Canada  the postal workers' union finally won their equal pay for work of equal value case at the Supreme Court of Canada last November. That's right:  November 2011 was when the defining case for equal pay for work of equal value was finally won in this industrialized nation.

The switchboard operators at Bell had fought the same issue all the way to the Supreme Court and lost several decades earlier.  I know because my aunt was hoping the back pay she'd have received would have supplemented her meagre retirement. Meagre, because Nortel stock is now worthless and most of the employees took a stock split and had 50% of the stock that was to finance their retirement in a now-worthless company.  The  postal union had been fighting the matter of equal pay for work of equal value since - wait for it: 1976.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2008, women working full time, on average, earned 76% of what men earned.  If they were in a unionized work environment, this crept up to 93.7% which is closer to wage parity. If you're on the shop floor at Ford, or you're an ACTRA member, like I am, chances are that you and the guy sitting next to you in the lunch room are being paid a similar wage rate if you are in a similarly skilled trade.

I'll bet you there's no union for the girls or boys dancing on bars.  I mean, they could go to Actors' Equity, pay dues and qualify, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

What would it take to really empower women?  Equal pay for work of equal value and more unionized jobs.  Fewer women would be shaking their butts for a living if  other work was readily obtainable and paid better, but mostly  that's not the case. Is it better than it was 30 years ago?  Yes.  Is it equal?  No, hell no.

Retail remains the largest employer of women and is the worst paying and the most unstable employment with the worst benefits.  If you really wanted to change the lives of working women, we'd need, as a society, to support the unionization of retail. We'd also need to aggressively encourage young women so stop thinking of themselves in terms of their marketability sexually and more in terms of their marketability in well-waged labour: construction trades, engineering, social sciences and yes, nursing and teaching school.

That's a likely to happen as me waking up a foot taller and ten years younger tomorrow morning.

I can't tell you how immeasurably it saddens me that I rarely see women on the Fringe circuit doing material that's not about sex, dating or child-rearing.  This year Laura-Anne Harris did a show about Judy Holliday and the McCarthy trials and 5 starred and sold out and I can't tell you how happy that made me.  Religion, politics, art, history, music, dance, and psychology may all factor in, but dating and domestic material dominate the discourse in the main, when the speakers onstage are women.

All the women actress I know over 35 complain about the paucity of good roles available. More male playwrights are produced, more men run theatres in this country and more men appear onstage, and yes, I can back that up statistically.

When I wrote WONDERBAR! I was trying to use the metaphor of the "relationship" show to talk about how capitalism encourages women to tie their hopes and financial futures to a man, instead of fighting like hell to get paid like men get paid.  The day that finally happens across the boards women will finally have real power.  It's tough to vote with your feet and leave a bad relationship if you can't afford to feed yourself or pay the rent if you walk.

Women shake their cans at THE PAINTED LADY for the same reason women went on strike in Daggenham.  It has nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with capitalism . Women will never have equal rights or an equal position in society until we have financial parity.  The burlesque performers I know are lucky to make a $100 a night.  You bet the commodifying of sexuality, gay or straight is exploitation:  the good, old-fashioned capitalist way.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Respect for the Dead

I am not reviewing anything today.  Instead of going to the theatre or the cinema I attended two funerals.  Two separate sets of friends lost their mothers this week. In spite of the truly beautiful weather it was a sad, solemn and sobering week.

At my age, this is fairly normal.  I have many friends dealing with elder care or dying parents: some are dealing with teen-aged children and elder care simultaneously.

My own father passed away three years ago.  I think of him everyday and often wish I could speak to him. Thankfully my mom is fine and we speak every week.

My father is interred in St. Charles Cemetery.  His father, his mother, his grandmother and many of his relations are there. It is next to the Catholic church where he served as an altar boy and across from the convent where both he and his mother went to school.  The land the church is built on was donated to the church by my family.

My father was very stylish and elegant, as were the two women who died this week.   None of those people of another generation would have dreamed of attending a funeral in other than a suit or in the case of the ladies, perhaps a conservative day dress and a cardigan.

This probably makes me quite old-fashioned but I was shocked to see men without jackets and women in tight pants tucked into boots  and cocktail attire complete with stilettos, textured hose and bare cleavage at a funeral. If it had only been the twenty year-old crowd dressed this way, I would have understood, but it was people my age who ought to know better.  People, this is not a bar on Friday night.

My father always noticed what people wore.  I felt his burial was the last time I would dress for him and I chose my black day dress with great care.  One of the ladies whose funeral I attended this week was one of the most elegant women I have ever known. I wore a suit out of respect for her.  I know if it had been the other way around, she'd have done the same for me.

The last thing we do for the dead is attend their funeral.  It is not the place to show how hot you still are.   I know standards of formality are more relaxed than they were, but out of respect for the dead, I'd like to propose men and women my age cover up and dress like grown ups not  kids at a club at least when attending a wedding, a funeral or a job interview. Moreover, they might teach their children to do likewise.  If  I sound like a grumpy old lady, I'll take the rap.  Most of the people I know with any standards of dress are dying like flies and someone needs to hold up the side.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Who's your Daddy? NATIVE EARTH redoes O'Neill as a race card

Friends or colleagues do a show:  you go to see it, and the show doesn't work.  Is the diplomatic thing to say nothing? Certainly the politic thing is to say nothing.  Is it helpful to try and give a reasoned analysis of what worked, or didn't work, and why?  Are they going to hate you for it? Or, does stuff  only get better if the audience and the artists really discuss the work?

I started this blog, in part, because I thought we needed a more open dialogue about work onstage, and working in the theatre. I write about film for the joy, as my niece would say. I don't expect everybody to agree with me.  I welcome debate and dialogue.

Last Sunday, I went to see FREE AS INJUNS,   Native Earth Performing Arts' production of Tara Beagan's new script.  Freely adapting Eugene O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, Beagan and her crew use O'Neill's play as a jumping off point to talk about land, ownership, property and race.

In theory, if you put a talented, award winning, young writer (Beagan) and a talented, award-winning director (Madoc-Jones) together, and you do a play about race and sex, you should get a great show.

I can see why Beagan was drawn to this material.   The plot (which O'Neill lifted from PHEDRE, the great French tragedy by Racine, and Sarah Bernhardt's signature role) is sexually charged and seditious.  A domineering father with three sons (and three dead wives, making him a sort of Bluebeard) brings home a nubile wife, young enough to be his daughter.  She falls in love with the youngest son, they begin an affair, and plot to take over the family farm, wresting it from the two other brothers and the old man. The son, in this version of the story, does this to avenge his dead Aboriginal mother, whose land the white father ostensibly stole.

It's a premise that churns out sex, conflict and danger. It's "the mirror held up to Nature",  both sides of Nature: as a life-giving force that grows good and nurtures (the mommy) and, as a brutal and pitiless weapon of wanton destruction (the daddy). There's an creative set, some interesting directorial choices and a game cast.  It should have worked, but it doesn't.

This is in large measure due to a script that has two fundamental problems.

Problem #1:  who is the protagonist?

Problem #2:  what happens at the beginning, what happens in the middle, and what happens in the end? In short, what is the clear line of action taken, or not taken, by the protagonist to achieve, or not achieve his or her objective?

These are the two most basic things you have to accomplish in telling any story.  I drill this into my writing students, and I make them rewrite until they get it straight.  Any time a script doesn't work, it's usually because one of those two basic things falls apart.

O'Neill is all about Daddies.  Freud would have had a field day with with him. Phedre is all about Mommy.  Beagan wants to make this all about the kids, and what they inherit, or don't inherit from their parents.

So in this version, the protagonist is Even Cabot, the youngest son.  In theory, it's not a bad choice.  He's the one torn between avenging his mother, and being held in the terrifying thrall of his father. James Cade is a good, well-trained actor.  It's not his fault we lose his character two-thirds of the way through the story.  That fault lies squarely with the writer. 

If Even is going to be the lynch pin of the action, then he has to drive the story all the way through. He needs to be the engine of the action start to finish.  He isn't and this is problem #1 and #2 with this show.

As it is, there's no clear protagonist so no clear through-line of action in the play.

The script also has other problems.

There's the whole race/time period thing.  What century are we in?  In the 21st century, I have no problem believing a guy has had three different non-white wives. I'm from a generation where some men with power trade in wives like cars: a new one every 5 years.  In this play, which seems to take place in the late 19th or early 20th century, I'm just not buying the whole three kids, three different races of baby mommas thing. I get it: we're talking about white male oppression.  I'm a half-breed myself.

Here's the thing, assuming this is a period piece:  in the late 19th and early 20th century women couldn't own or inherit property. We weren't people until the Persons Act. Women went from their father's house to their husband's.  Land went from fathers to sons, eldest sons, usually. As to an Aboriginal woman's right to live on Aboriginal land, if she married a white man:  Bill C-54 was a fairly recent piece of legislation.  Aboriginal men were quite happy to embrace that particular aspect of white patriarchy. Was the whole country 1st Nations Land at one time?  You betcha. That is not the argument being made here, or if it is, it is not being made very clearly.

I understand the mixed race sons as a metaphor, an idea:  it just doesn't work as drama in this play as it is presently constructed.  This is either a historical drama: in which case it needs to demonstrate some basic knowledge of history, of the law as it pertained to women, and property rights, or it is contemporary. If it's a fairy tale, it would need to be a whole lot less foul mouthed and prosaic.

I have no idea why the two brothers, when handed a bag of money, didn't just run off.  It made no sense, and their continued presence did nothing to further the plot or advance the story.  The two brothers aren't germane to moving the action of the play forward.

There's a lot of repetition of the same line for dramatic effect, but in most cases, it didn't work and just dragged down the pace of the show. 

Then there's the problems of casting and direction.  In a three way, there has to be credible sexual chemistry in both couples in the love triangle, not just one of the relationships. I buy the young lovers here, but the play is directed to make this a  marriage with no sexual charge, and it can't be. 

Jerry Franken is a fine actor but he is totally physically wrong for this, and the wrong age.  In their sex scenes, he and Prudat just look embarrassed.  In order to believe you have three grown men in the thrall of their father, he has to be a powerful and terrifying patriarchal figure:  nature personified as a dark force.  He's killed three wives with work or child-bearing.  He's a brute and he has to dominate the stage when he's on it.  He is the rapacious white 'civilizer" personified. Franken does his best in  a role to which he is woefully unsuited.

Finally there's the lovely young actress at the centre of this mess, PJ Prudat.  She is completely untrained:  not seated in her voice, doesn't build a credible emotional character arch, and badly miscast.  She plays the young love stuff fine, but both husband and lover need to be held in her sexual thrall. She needs to be equally seductive with both of them.  Moreover, she needs to be older for the whole Oedipal thing to really work.  A woman with sexual and emotional power needed to anchor this show, and this young lady is just playing a pretty girl with the hots for the wrong boy. Her come-on to Cade reads like a girl in a nightclub, not  like a woman seducing a boy. We needed a 35ish actress, a 50 something year old dad, and a 20-25 year old son.

Not one person I spoke to was sure what happened at the end of the play.  The director made some nice stage pictures, but did nothing to clarify the story, or escalate conflict, or lead us to a satisfying, or even a clear denouement.  Leaving the actress half naked for as long as she did was just weird: distracting, and, unnecessary.

There are a lot of good ideas in this draft, and I think Beagan has a better version of this play in her. It needs a page one rewrite that clarifies story, picks one protagonist, sticks with that choice, and escalates conflict to a bloody conclusion. Right now, it ends up feels like a badly conceived (all puns intended) kitchen sink melodrama. 

Finally, I want to say this:  it is pretty hard to take over the helm of a major theatre and mount two plays you've written in the same year, which is what Beagan has attempted to do this year.  I suspect Beagan needed more time to focus on writing a script of this scope than she got.  Hopefully her duties at the helm on Native Earth will be less onerous, and her next outing as a writer will get more of her time and talent.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

And now, ladies and gentlemen, an Oscar-winning fairy tale for grown-ups...

The run-away freight-train  at  last Sunday's Oscar ceremony was a silent, black and white film starring a bunch of French people no one on this side of the pond has ever heard of.  THE ARTIST took best actor, best picture and best director.

The Oscars are irresistible to me.  They are an issue of April Vanity Fair and September Vogue rolled into one.   When the incredibly dashing Jean Dujardin, oozing Gallic charm and twinkle out of every pore leaped onto the stage and thanked both his partner (a woman) and his wife, I thought:  " how bad can 90 minutes in a dark room on a rainy afternoon possibly be,  if spent in the company of this man?"  Besides, he beat both George Clooney (!) and Brad Pitt (!) and that is quite something.

Jean Dujardin ( channelling Douglas Fairbanks) plays Georges Valentin, a dashing, vain, handsome silent film star who has coasted by on charm and a great repertoire of hamminess until 1929 wipes out both his investments and his career with the advent of talking pictures.

It is the great gift of Dujardin's performance that he makes a selfish asshole a likable and sympathetic guy. It's no mean feat.

I'm not going to spoil the plot here, but the director is 45 and the film is a vehicle for his (at least 10 years younger) wife.  The lovely and talented Berenice Bejo plays an ingenue who becomes a star and saves the dissolute Georges Valentin from himself, his pride, his wounded ego, his solipsism and the bottle.  In short, it is another story about a man having a mid-life crisis being rescued by a younger, richer, prettier and more successful woman. As they say in French: "reve on colour", which means "dream in Technicolour".  This is "Pretty Woman" for middle-aged men and at the height of a recession when way more women than men are working, I'm sure this story resonated for a lot of people.

As the appropriately named Peppy Miller, Bejo reminded me in face and manner of a young Lesley Caron.  She's delightful, but saving arrogant drunks from their own foibles is a mug's game as anyone who has ever tried it can tell you.

The film is a loving homage to old movies and I can see why the Academy fell head over heels for  it. Under all that lovely marzipan, especially the end musical number is a story that for this viewer is an old and poisonous fairy tale.  You can't save anyone who doesn't want to be saved. I enjoyed it, as long as I didn't think too hard about the story.

THE ARTIST speaks one great truth:  if you want unquestioning loyalty, no matter how badly you behave to those who care for you or how far your fortunes fall, get a dog.