Archives for June 2022

Harlem Duet: intriguing, but (for me) muffled music

publicity photo for Harlem Duet

Marci T. House and Donald Sales (Photo by Tim Matheson)

Something is out of focus here. Maybe it’s me.

Djanet Sears’s 1997 script Harlem Duet riffs on Othello — and it takes on a lot.

The action of Sears’s play unfolds in three time periods. In the core narrative, we’re in Harlem in 1997. In the event that triggers the play, the central character, Billie, who’s a grad student in psychology, gets dumped by Othello, her partner of nine years. He’s a prof at Columbia. Billie and Othello are both Black and Othello is leaving Billie because he’s fallen for a white colleague named Mona. Billie sees Othello as both a romantic traitor and, significantly, a race traitor. Othello’s betrayal strikes at the most fundamental levels of her identity. “Is her skin softer?”, she asks.

The brief scenes that exist in other time periods leave the impression that this pattern of abandonment is enduring, at least centuries old. In 1860, an enslaved woman dreams of escaping to Canada with her man, but he feels held back by his devotion to their white mistress: he thinks she needs him. In 1928, during the Harlem Renaissance, a Black vaudevillian leaves his partner when he, too, falls in love with a white woman.

The play presents this male fecklessness as a form of aspirational whiteness. The actor longs to perform the great roles from the European canon, including Othello. And Billie’s sister-in-law Amah refers to an old story about a Black man who wanted to become white, so he tried the “magic” of having sex with a white woman: “In one single, shining moment,” she says, “he became her, her and her whiteness.” [Read more…]

Marjorie Prime is pretty prime

publicity photo for Marjorie Prime

Gai Brown (foreground) and Bronwen Smith in Marjorie Prime (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Playwright Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime provides a rewarding and unique theatrical experience. How often do I get to say that?

In the first scene, we meet Marjorie and her husband Walter. She’s 85. He might be 30. She has significant memory loss. If he hears something new, he says, “I’ll remember that fact” and, if he’s stumped by a question, he responds with, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.” Yes, in these moments, Walter sounds a lot like Siri or Alexa. That’s because he’s a hologram of Marjorie’s long-dead husband, a constellation of pixels that Marjorie’s daughter Tess and her husband Jon have acquired to help keep Marjorie engaged — but engaged with what, exactly?

Marjorie Prime asks questions about the role of memory in identity and relationships. How do we adjust our memories to serve our preferred narratives? What do we leave out? What’s best to leave out? How much of a shared reality do we need to maintain a loving bond? When is it fair and when is it cruel to insist on “facts”? [Read more…]

Don’t Pass Over this acting

publicity photo for Pass Over

Chris Francisque (L) and Kwasi Thomas (Photo by Emily Cooper)

In Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, an urban street corner is also a slave plantation and Egypt — because Moses and Kitch, the two Black friends who are hanging out there, can’t leave.

Nwandu is taking inspiration from both the Bible’s Book of Exodus and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Inspired by their childhood Sunday school teacher, Kitch believes Moses will lead him to the Promised Land. But, when a white police officer they call Ossifer shows up, he makes the terms of their entrapment explicit: “One step off this block and I’ll shoot you dead.” Still, like Beckett’s tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, Moses and Kitch struggle to keep their hopes alive: unsure of how to change their state but dedicated to doing so, they play games to pass the time. In a favourite, Top Ten Promised Land, they list the pleasures they’ll experience when they’re truly free. Kitch dreams of caviar — until Moses tells him it’s fish eggs.

The are so many similarities to Godot. That play’s lone tree becomes a streetlamp. The turnip Vladimir offers to Estragon turns into an old pizza crust. The friends debate the complications of a double suicide. And they have visitors — who reveal the fundamental divergence between Godot and Pass Over: Godot’s existentialism is philosophical; Pass Over’s is about Black survival in the face of systemic racism.

As Ossifer makes clear, police violence is a relentless threat to Black bodies. When Moses and Kitch pause to remember all the friends and loved ones who have been shot by cops, listing them takes a while — and the list illustrates the poetic specificity that infuses Nwandu’s script. There’s Ed with the dreadlocks, “not light-skinned Ed”, “dat tall dude got dat elbow rash”, and Mike with “dat messed-up knee.” [Read more…]

Kinky Boots: Say yes to the heels!

publicity photo for Kinky Boots

Jeffrey Follis, Joshua Lalisan, Stewart Adam McKensy, Ryan Maschke, and Andrew J. Hampton
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Star power, baby! Stewart Adam McKensy, who plays Lola, the drag queen at the centre of the Arts Club’s mounting of Kinky Boots, has so much of it he’s like a constellation. And McKensy isn’t alone: there are many, many bright lights in director Barbara Tomasic’s tight, celebratory production. [Read more…]

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Don’t encourage them

publicity photo for A Midsummer Night's Dream

Heidi Damayo, Emily Dallas, Christopher Allen, and Olivia Hutt
Photo by Tim Matheson

Bard on the Beach in general and director Scott Bellis in particular have a bad habit of obscuring Shakespearean texts by slathering on coarse physical comedy. In Bellis’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s a lot of very enthusiastic slathering. Yes, this strategy keeps the audience laughing, but much of the play’s beauty and wit — and almost its entire emotional impact — are lost: once again, Bard on the Beach is misrepresenting Shakespeare’s potential to Vancouver audiences — and that’s a significant disservice. [Read more…]

Morag, You’re a Long Time Deid — much like this script


publicity photo for Morag, You're a Long Time Deid

(Photo of Claire Love Wilson by Pedro Augusto Meza)

I’m rarely this bored in the theatre.

During Act 1 of Morag, You’re a Long Time Deid, I reassured myself by mentally repeating, “You have free will. You can leave at intermission.” My companion didn’t want to leave. Act 2 was a bit better.

My big problem with Morag, You’re a Long Time Deid is that it wants to be poetic, allusive, and deep, but it’s shallow and obvious. [Read more…]

New Societies: fresh theatre

publicity photo for New Societies

Building a utopia: choices and consequences.

As I’m writing this, Re:Current Theatre’s New Societies is finishing up the last matinée of its run at Vancouver’s rEvolver Festival. The good news is that it’s going to be touring in Ontario this summer.

I knew when I booked this show that its short Vancouver run was going to be over by the time I could write about it, but I wanted to see New Societies because it came highly recommended as an innovative good time. It delivered.

New Societies is a theatrical game. When you enter the space, which feels like a casino, you get slotted into one of eight teams. Each team, which consists of up to five people, is guided through the experience by a croupier, a cast member who doles out cards, tokens, and sometimes-cryptic information. Together, your team sets about trying to construct a utopia on a new planet, with each team taking charge of a geographic area. I was from the East. [Read more…]

Vietgone: Wait for it

Production photo for Vietgone

Photo of Christopher Lam and Alison Chang by Nancy Caldwell

Stylistically, Vietgone is a huge mountain to climb. This production only gets part way up. But it’s an interesting evening —  and provocative in productive ways.

Off the top, an actor impersonating the play’s author Qui Nguyen tells us that this script is definitely not about his parents. The main characters, Quang and Tong, are “a completely made-up man” and “a completely not-real woman” he says — and, if anybody in the audience rats him out to his real mom and dad, they’re assholes.

More reliably, the playwright tells us that, even though Vietgone is about Quang and Tong escaping from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975, “This is not a story about war. This is a story about falling in love.” It’s also about the massive project of reinventing oneself as a refugee.

Tong is a fantastically original character. The way she puts it, she’s unlike every other Vietnamese woman. She’s assertively sexual — and determinedly unsentimental. When she and Quang meet at a refugee centre in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas and have sex for the first time — on her initiative — Quang refers to the act as making love. Tong laughs and corrects him: “What we just did had nothing to do with love.”

But she’s not a bag, even though she thinks she is. Tong defends herself, but she’s also honest and caring. And she’s living her life on her own terms. Throughout, actor Alison Chang is frank, funny, and persuasive in the role. [Read more…]

Yellow Fever: oddly conceived, well performed

publicity photo: Yellow Fever

Agnes Tong and Hiro Kanagawa get INTO it in Yellow Fever. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

There’s some very nice work in the Firehall Art Centre’s production of Yellow Fever, but, under Donna Spencer’s direction, the production always feels slightly out of focus.

Rick Shiomi’s film-noir style script is about Sam Shikaze, a classically hardboiled detective who works on and around Powell Street. It’s 1973 and the recently crowned Cherry Blossom Queen seems to have been kidnapped. Sam’s on the case and a pesky young newspaper reporter named Nancy Wing is tailing him looking for a scoop. At least Sam treats Nancy like she’s pesky — but then the romantic sparks start to fly.

First question: Why is director Spencer presenting this theatrical script as a radio play complete with visible foley (sound effects) artists? In her program notes, the director attempts an answer. Spencer says that she initially envisioned the piece when theatres were in lockdown; she thought she’d do it online as a staged radio play. Okay. Maybe in Zoom squares … But, when she realized she could mount it in a theatre, she writes, “we decided to go forward with the radio play concept still in mind.” Okay, but why? The circumstances have changed. “Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting in a comfy chair,” Spencer suggests. But I don’t go to the theatre to spend the evening with my eyes closed! And Spencer doesn’t really want us to keep our eyes closed, either: the evening she presents has a lot going on visually. Her foundational choice looks fuzzy headed to me. [Read more…]

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