Mamma Mia! is LOUD (with good bits)

In Mamma Mia! the groom and his friends perform a can-can while wearing swimming flippers.

The swim-flipper can-can these dudes do is one of the highlights of Mamma Mia! (Photo by Davi Cooper)

This production of Mamma Mia! is selling the show so hard you’d think it was the last used car on the lot.

Mamma Mia! is a ridiculous—but extremely amiable—jukebox musical. Catherine Johnson, who wrote the book, has strung a bunch of hit songs by ABBA into an unlikely story. A young woman named Sophie lives on a Greek island with her mom, an ex-pat American named Donna, who runs a taverna. Sophie’s getting married and she wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but she doesn’t know who her dad is, so she invites to her wedding the three most likely suspects: Harry, Bill, and Sam, who all had sex with Donna at about the time of Sophie’s conception. Sophie figures she’ll know her dad when she sees him. She doesn’t.

The ABBA songs never quite fit the storyline, but, if the musical is treated with a light hand—as a lark—nobody really cares. It’s just fun—like a bunch of kids putting on a show in their backyard, but with a large budget. Under Valerie Easton’s direction, however, the first act of this Arts Club production comes out punching. It’s loud. A lot of the acting is broad. And Easton and her players lard scenes with so much comic business that they groan under the weight. [Read more…]

Wet—is pretty much all wet

A female soldier sits at a kitchen table with an automatic weapon behind her.

In Wet, Genevieve Fleming plays a Canadian soldier who comes home from Afghanistan messed up.

This play is vulgar.

I’m going to start off with a major spoiler and I’m going to keep dropping spoilers because there’s no way to say what I want to say about Wet without doing so.

In Wet, playwright David James Brock tells the story of Burns, a Canadian soldier who serves in Afghanistan, suffers a traumatic incident, and comes home good and fucked up. Back in Chilliwack, Burns can’t speak, move on her own, or feed herself, but her husband Sweetie does his best to trigger her memory of language and to wring some financial support out of the feds. Burns’s injury may be more psychological than physical.

I’ve heard about numerous cases in which Veterans Affairs has been accused of failing to adequately care for injured and traumatized troops. A lot of this criticism has focused on accusations that VA doesn’t adequately address soldier’s mental-health issues. So Brock’s subject area is rich and worth exploring.

But the playwright treats this material as it he’s constructing a ride at the PNE, creating one hyperventilating, sensationalistic moment after another. There’s a fair bit of erotic Skyping in Wet, including a virtual conjugal visit when Burns is still overseas. Fair enough. But when Sweetie tries to rape his disabled wife, the moment is pure, souped-up melodrama. And it vapourizes any sympathy you might have had for Sweetie to that point. [Read more…]

Tolkien: less than mythic

Tolkien explores the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Ian Farthing plays C.S. Lewis in Ron Reed’s new script, Tolkien.

Tolkien feels like academic Christian fanfiction. If that’s your thing, by all means go for it—all three acts and almost three hours of it.

In his new script, playwright Ron Reed explores the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (the Narnia fantasies).

Tolkien starts off promisingly. When they meet, both men are lonely. Lewis is a new faculty member at Oxford, where Tolkien is teaching linguistics, and Tolkien is still grieving the loss of his comrades in WWI several years earlier. As Reid frames it, Tolkien is known on the campus as an eccentric and a bore but, when Tolkien recites a portion of Beowulfto Lewis in the original Icelandic, Lewis is smitten. The men discover in one another a common passion for heroic myths and for the numinous beauty with which those tales tremble. The shared excitement and vulnerability of the two men are touching.

But Reed seems to have fallen in love with his research so, rather than going deeply into one aspect of their relationship, his play ranges widely—while maintaining a kind of journalistic neutrality—and never fully satisfies. [Read more…]

Bears is magical—until it’s not

Sheldon Elter stands in front of dancers in Matthew Mackenzie's Bears.

The performances and design elements in Bears work well, but the script repeats itself. (Photo by Alexis McKeown)

There’s only so far you can go on style and good intentions. Bears looks fantastic and its political heart is in the right place. But the script is badly built, so it gets boring.

Sheldon Elter, who plays Floyd, narrates his character’s journey in the third person. When Floyd becomes the prime suspect in a workplace accident in Alberta’s oil patch, he flees through the woods to the BC coast following the route of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline. Floyd has always felt an affinity with bears and, as a travels west, he becomes suspiciously hairy and his haunches get more muscular. [Read more…]

The Cherry Orchard: the perfect theatrical meditation for Spring

Corina Akeson is playing Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard.

Corina Akeson is a serious—and seriously underused—talent, as she proves once again playing Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard.

Spring aches. So does this delicate production of The Cherry Orchard.

Spring is about beauty—cherry blossoms, for instance. It’s also about ephemerality: those blossoms don’t last and neither do our lives, loves, or ways of being.

It’s no wonder that playwright Anton Chekhov sets the opening scene of The Cherry Orchard in the early spring. The glamorous, aristocratic Ranevskaya is returning to her family’s estate in the country. She and her brother Gaev can’t afford to pay the mortgage and may lose the ancestral property. Lopakhin, a successful businessman whose father was a serf, suggests a way out: the family should cut down the estate’s wondrous but only fitfully productive cherry orchard and lease the land so that members of Russia’s growing middle class can build summer cottages on it. Ranevskaya’s response will lead to her downfall: “Summer cottages. Summer people. Forgive me, but it’s all so tawdry.” [Read more…]

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The Money Shot: Save your cash

Four actors pretend to fight behind a velvet rope. Publicity still for The Money Shot.

In The Money Shot, playwright Neil LaBute mocks obvious Hollywood targets

I started checking my watch about a half hour in. And time slowed down after that.

Supposedly, Neil LaBute’s The Money Shot is a comedy.

Set on the Hollywood terrace of an Oscar-winning lesbian actor, LaBute’s script features three movieland airheads and one bitter intellectual, who is, presumably, LaBute’s stand-in.

Karen, the homeowner, is starring in a movie opposite Steve. Karen’s career has flagged since she came out and Steve is an aging action star. Their edgy European director has suggested that they try something boundary-pushing during the sex scene they’ll be shooting the next day and, because Karen and Steve are both desperate to reestablish their careers, they are considering it.

It takes forever for LaBute to name what Karen and Steve are debating, which is a tedious tease: he has named his play The Money Shot for fuck’s sake. [Read more…]

THIS: a funny, touching—and uneasy—mix of comedy and drama

Jane (Loretta Walsh) seeks comfort from Alan (Benjamin Ratner) in THIS.

Actors Loretta Walsh and Benjamin Ratner negotiate tricky emotional and stylistic terrain in THIS. (Photo by Brandon Tang)

I laughed. I cried. I was confused.

In her 2009 script, This, playwright Melissa James Gibson introduces us to five witty New Yorkers—well, four New Yorkers and a Frenchman—who are desperately trying to negotiate the disappointments and responsibilities of early middle age. They’ve made it this far but nobody—except for the smug Frenchman—is pleased with the results.

Gibson employs some excellent conventions. In the opening scene, Tom and Marrell are throwing their first dinner party since the birth of their son. Tom suggests a game. Their friend, Jane will leave the room, the others will make up a story and, on her return, Jane will try to guess what the story is by asking yes or no questions. Except the rules aren’t what they seem to be and the game turns into a kind of Rorschach test: Jane unwittingly unearths a narrative about a widow who is involved in romantic triangle with a married couple. Jane was widowed a year earlier. Things get awkward. Jane leaves. [Read more…]

The History of the World (Based on Banalities): theatrically hot, emotionally cool

In The History of the World (Based on Banalities), actor Titus De Voogdt aims a rifle over his shoulder.

The History of the World (Based on Banalities) does an excellent job of taking aim. Sometimes, it hits its mark.

The History of the World (Based on Banalities) is a monologue for a boy about his failed connection with his mother. And that’s ironic because Phil’s Mom Martine, a physicist, was fascinated by the Higgs boson particle, which physics tells us connects everything—and all of us.

In the everyday world, Martine wasn’t so good at connecting. When Phil was still very young, she abandoned him in their home in Belgium and followed her career to the CERN facility in Switzerland. When she returned, years later, she had Alzheimer’s. As we watch The History of the World, Phil is caring for Martine, who is in the back room. All we see is her blanketed feet at the end of a hospital bed.

Texturally, this show is fantastic. Titus De Voogdt, who co-wrote the text with director Johan De Smet, plays Phil with pre-adolescent vitality, scampering around the dirty-kitchen set like a monkey, clambering up the cupboards, leaping onto the table. He’s so frank and scruffy that you can almost smell his socks. [Read more…]

The Explanation: so untethered it’s like kissing in a hot-air balloon

Kevin MacDonald and Evan Frayne play a straight-male couple, one of whom cross-dresses.

In The Explanation, Kevin MacDonald and Evan Frayne play a straight-male couple, one of whom cross-dresses.(Photo by Tim Matheson)

“Feeling the air up my skirt…That was one of the greatest sensations.” So says John, a cross-dressing straight guy in The Explanation. Watching The Explanation, I got a bit of wind up my skirt, too. By loosening the restrictions on gender expression, The Explanation made me feel free—even exhilarated.

In James Fagan Tait’s script, John, who’s a mental-health worker, is surprised when he stumbles across his taste for wearing women’s clothing. But, before long, he’s popping on a wig, slipping into a Value Village miniskirt, and hanging out in the literary DVDs section of the Vancouver Public Library.

One day, a shy guy named Dick, who also identifies as straight, takes a leap and decides to chat to John, whom he perceives as an attractive woman. As soon as John speaks, Dick knows he’s a man, but they go for coffee anyway. And that’s the mystery: these guys are straight, one of them is wearing a mini-skirt, and they go for coffee anyway. What’s up? [Read more…]