Archives for September 2016

The innocence of Helen and Edgar

Helen and Edgar, Edgar Oliver, The Cultch, The Moth

In “Helen and Edgar”, raconteur Edgar Oliver is as still as a lugubrious scarecrow.

Its seams are showing.

Helen & Edgar, which is raconteur Edgar Oliver’s account of the gothic Southern childhood he spent with his sister and their mentally ill mother, starts off spectacularly well. For one thing, there’s Oliver’s voice, which is simultaneously cavernous and fey: he sounds like Basil Rathbone’s gay uncle. His descriptions are gorgeous: within the fatherless family’s tumbledown, ivy-burdened house, there’s a cockroach-infested kitchen, in which the table is “like a barge run aground in a swamp.” Oliver finds humour in his mother’s eccentricities: “Eventually, the gypsy witch cards convinced Mother to go on a banana-split diet.” And Oliver’s prose often rises to the level of poetry: evoking a child’s odd sense of time, he says of his sister Helen, who was one and a half years older, “She was part of that eternity into which I was born.”

Physically, the storyteller is as still as a lugubrious, barely animated scarecrow: when he uses the middle fingers of both hands to tuck his thinning hair behind his ears, the effect is of a grand gesture.

For a while, this combination of personal eccentricity and linguistic fecundity is enough. But, in Act 1, the narrative structure is weak and things go slack. Too often, rather than accumulation, we get repetition, variations on the theme of Mother’s nuttiness: she was paranoid, obsessive, depressive, anxious, and sometimes hysterical. All of this information is important but because nothing really changes in Edgar’s life—both he and Helen remain passively in Mother’s thrall and she mostly repeats her cycles—the story stalls.

Helen & Edgar started life as a series of short monologues for the storytelling project The Moth and, in Act 1, the play fails to transcend its origins: vignettes line up like boxcars, but the train isn’t going anywhere. The one exception is a passage in which two apparently disparate episodes come together around a resonant image of watermelons. For most of the first act, however, I was bored. And the cadence in Oliver’s musical voice is so unchanging that it started to lull me to sleep.

Then, at the end of the first act, Edgar and his sister learn French, a language their mother doesn’t speak, and the possibility of solidarity—and change—emerges. The playwright has made us wait too long for it, but, when it comes, this narrative progression is welcome, and Act 2 is full of rewards. I won’t give away any of the plot’s payoffs, but they are considerable—and moving.

Throughout, projections of paintings, drawings, and sketches created by Mother—her name was Louise Gibson Oliver—provide textural variety and relief. I would have enjoyed more time with these images, which sometimes feel like lesser cousins to the works of Vincent van Gogh; their presentation feels rushed, but they are a joy to look at. And, as Oliver says, “There is an innocence to Mother’s work that is truly a form of revelation.” Helen and Edgar isn’t perfect, but the same could be said of this creation.

HELEN & EDGAR By Edgar Oliver. Directed by Catherine Burns. Produced by George Dawes Green. Presented by The Cultch at the York Theatre on Thursday, September 29. Continues until October 8.

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“A Good Way Out” is a good start


Evelyn Chew plays biker chick to Carl Kennedy's gang guy in "A Good Way Out"

Evelyn Chew plays biker chick to Carl Kennedy’s gang guy in “A Good Way Out”

Emerging playwright Cara Norrish has done a find job of crafting some of the basics in A Good Way Out, but there’s not enough there yet. It’s like she’s got the frame up, but there’s no cladding.

In A Good Way Out, Joey is ensnared in gang life. Although kingpin Larry talks a good line about the gang “family”, he exploits Joey, who works as a motorcycle mechanic in a gang-controlled shop: Larry refuses to pay Joey for work done, then threatens to evict him for not coming up with the rent.

Norrish establishes some potentially interesting relationships. Joey’s girlfriend Carla, a stripper turned healthcare worker, challenges Larry, for instance, even though she’s half his size in this production. And Joey butts heads with his sister Lynette after she honestly answers questions about his kids, questions posed by the folks from Child Protection Services.

But the play’s trajectory is entirely predictable and the characters have little depth; everything they say is on the nose. When Carla challenges Larry, for example, he spits out a tidy speech about the terrors he suffered as a child. Apparently aware of how obvious this is, the playwright has Carla joke about being Larry’s psychiatrist.

Still, there are a couple of darkly funny exchanges. When Joey challenges Sean for visiting Lynette, he says, “Are you trying to get my kids taken away?” Sean replies, “She’s got a hot tub.”

And, under Anthony F. Ingram’s direction, the performances in this production are strong. It’s a particular pleasure to watch Carl Kennedy (Joey) playing scenes with Corina Akeson (Lynette); both are such honest, responsive actors. And, in his scenes with Carla (the very able Evelyn Chew), Kennedy turns on the sexy like he’s turning on a tap. One oddity: although Joey and Lynette are brother and sister, Joey speaks with an American accent while Lynette’s speech is standard-issue Canadian.

A consummate pro, Andrew Wheeler wrings every drop of potential menace out of Larry.

Pacific Theatre, which is producing A Good Way Out, is a Christian company, so presenting this script, which includes a fair bit of profane language as well as overt—sometimes degrading—sexuality is a bold move. And good for PT for developing new plays.

I also applaud the compassion that’s at the base of this project. In its present form, the play is so direct that it looks naïve; real life is less predictable, and real people more complicated. As Norrish grows as a playwright, it might be important for her to loosen her control and to allow her characters and situations to lead her into a more complicated story and more surprising revelations.

A GOOD WAY OUT By Cara Norrish. Directed by Anthony F. Ingram. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Friday, September 23. Continues until October 15.

Georgia Straight Critics’ Choice Award: Vancouver Fringe (2016)

We did it. Last night, Kathleen Oliver and I gave out the Georgia Straight Critics’ Choice Award at the wrap-up celebration of the Vancouver Fringe Festival.

We had a great list of nominees: The After After Party, The Ballad of Frank Allen, Charlatan!, Falling Awake, and The Orbweaver.

Because it’s our award and we can do whatever we want with it—which is liberating, believe me—we awarded two productions, The After After Party and The Orbweaver. These shows knocked us out in very different ways: the sustained lunacy of The After After Party, and the deep magic of The Orbweaver.

Big congratulations—and thanks—to all of the nominees.

And, great news! You can catch two of our nominated shows, Charlatan! and The After After Party at the Public Market Pick of the Fringe, which runs September 21 to 25 at Performance Works:

The Orbweaver casts its spell at the Vancouver Fringe (2016)

The Orbweaver is so good that having seen it makes me feel better about being alive. Seriously. It’s fantastic.

Written and directed by Paula Zelaya Cervantes, The Orbweaver tells the magical realist story of Elena and Quiron, starting when they’re kids. Quiron has the unfortunate job of being Death’s chauffeur. He meets Elena when Death comes for her father. Although their relationship is understandably bumpy at first, they fall in love—but soon realize that they can only see one another when somebody dies. So they start murdering people in the village.

All of this is told with enormous humour and poetry. Much of the humour arises from juxtaposition—including bumping fairytale realities up against modern sensibilities. When Quiron finds Elena locked in a freezing cellar by her cruel stepmother, he asks, in modern phrasing—and with modern discomfort—”Were you, like, crying?”

The staging, which includes shadow puppetry, feels like folk art. The main characters’ pauper costumes are gorgeously detailed. Playing Elena and Quiron, Ana González Bello and Evan Regueira, win laughs with their subtlety—and they are, not incidentally, gorgeous. As Death, Marcos Radish remains hooded, but he moves like a dancer and he finds his own humour.

Near the end of the play, there is a a little hymn to theatre that made me weep.

The Orbweaver is one of the very, very best at this year’s Fringe.

There’s one more performance this Sunday at 7:00.

One more chance to go to the underworld: The Nether (Vancouver Fringe 2016)

The Nether at the Vancouver Fringe is darkly intriguing and absolutely worth seeing.
There’s one performance left: Saturday, September 17, at 6:00 at the Firehall. Make it a sell-out, Vancouver.

In Jennifer Haley’s complex script, which is set in the near future, a pedophile who calls himself Papa has created The Hideaway, a virtual reality realm in which he and others can indulge their predilections without causing harm. But a vigilante “cop” who feels the online reality is too compelling—and too porous—is intent on shutting him down.

David Bloom as Papa and Lissa Neptuno as the cop lead a consistently strong cast. Chris Lam, who is emerging as a very interesting artist, directs.

My Fringe faves are currently: The After After Party, The Ballad of Frank Allen, Charlatan!, Falling Awake, and The Nether.

I will also be seeing I Forgot to Fly Today, The Orbweaver, Space Hippo, and Burn Job because I hear they’re all really good.

Happy final Fringe weekend, everybody!

“Falling Awake” is one of the best shows at the Vancouver Fringe (2016)

I’ve written all of the reviews that I get to write for the Georgia Straight, but I saw a show last night that I wish I’d seen earlier and I want you to know about it. Falling Awake is excellent.

In this clown show, a woman’s partner is killed by lightning, but he keeps visiting her. The content is deliciously associative and the performers are terrifically skilled.

Nayana Fielkov is a traditional clown: her character speaks gibberish as well as a smattering of English, she has huge emotions, she does magic tricks and, because she is such a pure spirit, she is immensely charming.

Matthew (Poki) McCorkle is more of a movement artist. He does a lot of fixed-point work, in which objects appear to take on lives of their own. In one sequence, for instance, his umbrella keeps floating up, apparently of its own accord. When it threatened to float him off his feet, the moment was so beautiful that I groaned with pleasure.

Together, Fielkov and McCorkle are RAGMOP theatre and they are based in Vancouver, although they have been traveling across Europe and across the Canadian Fringe circuit, collecting prizes as they go.

Falling Awake has four more shows, which I’ll list below. Do yourself a big favour. You know what to do.

Falling Awake is at The Cultch on September 13 (7:45 p.m.), 15 (5:00 p.m.), 17 (5:45 p.m.), and 18 (1:45 p.m.)

Vancouver Fringe tips of the day: Ese Atawao, Marrow (2016)

In One Good Marriage, Ese Atawo (curled up here next to co-star Dan Willows) delivers a gorgeously subtle performance

In One Good Marriage, Ese Atawo (curled up here next to co-star Dan Willows) delivers a gorgeously subtle performance.

There’s a very particular excitement that comes when you discover new talent.

In Sean Reycraft’s script One Good Marriage, we meet a young couple whose recent marriage was swiftly followed by tragedy. The play is about grief and community.

Playing Steph, the wife, Ese Atawo delivers a thrillingly subtle, moving, funny performance. Relatively recently, Atawo moved to Vancouver from Toronto. Here’s hoping that local companies give her lots of work so that we can keep her here.

I also found a playwright who’s new to me.

In Marrow, Veronique West introduces us to two sisters. Morgan is an academic with an original take on witches. Her sister Maura has been in treatment for bulimia.

With these characters, West dives into an intelligent and complex investigation of female power and personhood.

Marrow is well performed by Alexandra Lainfiesta and Baraka Rahmani.

So much fresh talent. Makes me happy.

Invite yourself to The After After Party at the Vancouver Fringe

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Vancouver Fringe picks going into the first weekend (2016)

The leader of the pack is The Ballad of Frank Allen, a hilarious buddy comedy about a guy who is accidentally miniaturized and takes up residence in another man’s beard. This show’s take on masculine intimacy is so original and audacious that I laughed like a 14-year-old.

I also recommend magician Travis Bernhardt’s Charlatan! Year to year, Bernhardt always changes up his act. This time out, he is reading minds—very impressively. It’s interesting: he essentially says, “This is a fake door”, and we walk right through it. See the show and you’ll see what I mean.

My pal Kathleen Oliver, who also reviews for the Straight, just read me her review of TJ Dawe’s Burn Job. Based on KO’s enthusiastic report, I’ll definitely be seeing Burn Job. Dawe is a master storyteller. In this one, he talks about growing up.

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