Saturday, March 30, 2013

AS I LAY DYING at Theatre Passe Muraille

Theatre Smith-Gilmour is one of Toronto's most treasured independent companies.  The company is well-known for unique adaptations of literature, grounded in a very French school of physical theatre and clown.  Rooting a piece that has its genesis in a text in the very body-focused language of physical theatre, clown and buffoon seems an unlikely marriage, but for the most part, Smith-Gilmour makes it work, and work very well.  They have many awards to prove it.

The company's current offering is an adaptation of William Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING.  The Southern Gothic novel is chock-a-block with tragic and comic figures, strong compelling visuals and dramatic plot points.   I can certainly see why the company was drawn to the story.

Make no mistake: this is drama writ large.  Dying matriarch, floods, river crossings, fires, incest - and I'm just hitting a few of the page-turners.

Smith-Gilmour's production brings all of Faulkner's out-sized characters and epic drama fully to life. The pathos, tragedy and comedic moments are all wonderfully realized.

Dean Smith-Gilmour makes a suffocating monster of a victim-narcissist father fun to watch even as you want to hit him.  The scene where he uses guilt to manipulate his daughter out of ten dollars she desperately needs to hang onto, a "loan"you know he'll never repay is both funny and seat-squirmingly infuriating.  As the town doctor points out, he's the kind of man who would show up without a shovel to bury his own wife and then borrow one.

The rest of the cast was uniformly good.  All the Bundren kids stole my heart tonight. Daniel Robert's is a marvel as the young son. Nina Gilmour as the tragic Dewey Dell, Benjamin Muir as the damaged, angry Jewel, Julian De Zotti as driven-mad Darl and Dan Watson as the long-suffering and stoic Cash were uniformly terrific.  They all took on multiple roles tonight with great aplomb and fine character work.  They are a talented bunch.

With a great lighting design and sound score and a few simple costumes changes, the uniformly talented cast drew the audience into the story in all of its complexity.  Physically, the creation of character, scene and mood was impeccable.  Great, clear physical action made a burning barn, a raging river, a host of characters and an untamable horse palpable tonight.  Physically, this is a really exciting and dynamic show to watch.

Faulkner's heightened language is exquisite but complex and very challenging.   When the language is this beautiful, I want the words to count for as much as the physical action.  I want the play with the language to be as nuanced as the beautiful physical work.

The company's work with the text was uneven and their use of accents was inconsistent.

Some of the actors try to have a Southern accent and some don't. This was frustrating to listen to.  Given that Michelle Smith has never lost her strong French accent, I thought the entire cast should have just decided to forego the accents and focus on the other aspects of the text.

The actors could also have titrated their volume more, especially in the first act.  There are scenes where dialogue occurs over a loud soundscape but there were also monologues spoken in an otherwise silent theatre, where actors shouted through most of the entire speech.

The physical action of the production works beautifully.  Vocally it needed to be more specific and more pulled back. Dan Watson's last two speeches on the back of the wagon tonight were powerful and poignant in their nuance.  I would have liked to see more of that clean restraint, more pauses to let the ideas and word pictures breathe and less shouting so that the vocal work was as good as the physical work onstage.

I was very happy to have seen such a muscular production of a challenging text.  It is a fine production, well worth seeing.  I hope the company will revisit  it in the future with more attention to the words they have brought so powerfully to life in actions.

It's on at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto until March 31st.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Sexism: It's not just from men.

We are at one of my least favourite days of the year:  International Women's Day.

Let me explain.  About 20 years ago, I went out with a bunch of friends to The Rivoli Cafe in Toronto, a favourite old haunt of mine to an event to celebrate International Women's Day.

The Rivoli has three spaces:  a restaurant, a bar on the side and a famous backroom that is a club/performance space with a stage.

I went out with a group of men and women, gay and straight, coupled and single.  We grabbed a table in the bar, planning to see the show and attend the party in the backroom.  We were told by the organizers of the event (not, I hasten to add, the lovely people who run the Rivoli) that the backroom was for women only, so we, the women, would have a safe space.

I went back to my table of friends and explained that we couldn't take any guys into the back.  The men were all terribly good sports about it.  I went into the back with one of my girlfriends to check things out.  There was music and dancing and a lot of really, really, drunk women. One woman came up behind me and full-on grabbed my breasts.

I wheeled around, hands up, to see a woman, only a bit larger than me, drooling drunk. When I confronted her, she said, ( I'm not making this up) "Oh, you look so beautiful and I just wanted to talk to you."  I said, "If you were a guy, I'd have decked you, and by the way, that's no way to start a conversation with anybody."  She started to cry.  I left, and went back to my table of friends. I was there as a feminist, and a woman, and I'd just been sexually assaulted by a feminist and woman. I haven't been to an International Women's Day event since.

I went to a gender segregated school, and I was fine with that.  I like gender segregated bathrooms.  I host girls' night a few times a year.  I get that the vibe is different when the room is mixed company.

Excluding men from an International Women's Day celebration feels, well, sexist.

Yes, I get that gay women and gay men have clubs that exclude patrons who are not of the same sex to avoid trouble-makers and harassment.  Many gay bars however, are open to members of all sexes and persuasions.  I have had great fun dancing and chatting in gay bars all over the country. Certainly I never had any trouble like the kind I had that night.

An event  billed as an event for people who support women's rights should include men.  Otherwise, it discriminates on the basis of gender.  Women fought hard to break down the boys' clubs. I don't feel comfortable locking men out of a room they want to help me be in.

Drunk members of either sex groping me without permission don't make me feel safe.
I've worked for women who thought it was OK to pay me less than a man, I've heard women make comments about other women's bodies that were viciously sexist.  Women put huge pressure on other women around dress, weight and grooming. There are a lot of women on the editorial boards of those magazines pushing plastic surgery, hair dye and diets.

Then there are all those great high-status equal opportunity exploiters of female labour: Margaret Thatcher, Leona Helmsley and Imelda Marcos, to name a few.  Let's not forget Asma al Assad who seems quite content to shop in London, and stay silent of the subject of the distress of the people in her country, Syria, while women, men and children are murdered and forced to flee as refugees.

You don't have to be a man to exploit or abuse a woman, or indeed other people. You just have to feel entitled to do it.

I don't want an International Women's Day.  I  will not attend any "women's only" events tonight.

I want an equal number of  men and women in Parliament and the Legislature. I want a National Daycare Policy and I want equal pay for work of equal value, which the Supreme Court of Canada just ruled lawful - wait for it - in 2011. I don't want anyone of either sex to feel free to make free with my person without my permission, or degrade or exploit me in any way.  I would  like to see more women take to task other women who trash women, pay them less, judge them solely on their appearance or contribute to their one-down economic position in society by providing them with unstable, insecure, employment.

My International Women's Day includes men who support the above-mentioned values. Not including men in the fight to win our equal rights feels, well, sexist.