Archives for July 2023

All Good Things Must Begin

sculpture: "Year 7: Cedar Window"

Cody Chancellor’s sculpture “Year 7: Cedar Window” is part of The Only Animal’s project “Thousand Year Theatre”.

In last week’s edition of my e-letter, FRESH SHEET, I invited readers to share knowledge about their favourite environmentally themed plays and theatrical resources. Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty came through big time.

She turned me on to Climate Change Theatre Action. Launched in 2015 by playwrights Chantal Bilodeau and Elaine Avila among others, this international initiative commissions 50 playwrights every second year to write short scripts — five minutes is the goal — about the climate crisis. These scripts are then available to folks to present, royalty-free, during the time period of a virtual festival. This year’s festival runs from September 17 to December 23. Its theme is “All Good Things Must Begin”.

Climate Change Theatre Action has also produced three anthologies of work drawn from previous festivals.

Kathleen also reminded me of Sunny Drake’s international podcast series of short plays, Climate Change and Other Small Talk. She particularly recommends Drake’s Absolutely Nothing of Any Meaning, Carmen Aguirre’s Rolling Hills, Green Pastures, and especially Ram Ganesh Kanatham’s Nothing Happens, in which a nuclear submarine in the Indian Ocean receives bizarre new orders and two sonar operators face existential threats.

On a roll, Kathleen also sent this link to Vancouver playwright Jordan Hall’s audio piece The Split, a proposed pilot episode for a science fiction podcast.

The Split is produced by The Only Animal, which is also associated with the Artist Brigade, “a leaderless national movement” dedicated to bringing “imagination, vision and the heart of artists into the telling of the climate story in order to mobilize a society paralyzed by climate anxiety and grief.” These are the folks behind the green-heart placards that made such an impact at Greta Thunberg’s Vancouver rally.

The Only Animal imagines another of its initiatives, The Thousand Year Theatre, enduring for a millennium. Here’s a video about a couple of the projects embedded in that undertaking. This set of offerings is situated in the proposed expanded area of Mt. Elphinstone Provincial Park.

Kathleen’s mention of Jordan Hall reminded me of Hall’s Kayak, an earlier climate-related script. The play’s environmentally conservative central character, Annie, sits in a kayak for the entire performance, lost, dehydrated and sunburnt, remembering and hallucinating scenes with her beloved son and his (to her) annoyingly activist girlfriend. Here’s my review from 2013. This play deserves more productions.

Many thanks to Kathleen for her informed response!

Matilda the Musical: an excellent production of one of my favourites

publicity photo for Matilda the Muscal at TUTS, 2023

Sing out, young star!
(Photo of Siggi Kaldestad on Brian Ball’s set by Emily Cooper)

During the intermission at Matilda the Musical, my partner and I took a little stroll down towards the orchestra pit. And we noticed something: a bunch of the kids in the audience were already writing their reviews of the show — with their bodies. I saw a very little girl turn a somersault, then beam with delight — and surprise. A slightly older girl was turning cartwheels for her astonished relatives, who were saying things like, “I had no idea you could do that!” And another kid was frog-hopping through the crowd just because. That’s what inspiration looks like. These kids were running on the high of seeing young ‘uns like themselves on the stage, dancing acrobatically, performing their socks off, and loving it.

And, of course, respect for kids is what Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, which is how the piece is formally known, is all about.

In the story, nine-year-old Matilda’s parents are relentlessly mean to her because she’s a girl and because she reads.Matilda’s dad, Mr. Wormwood, insists on calling her a boy. And her peroxided mom complains, “It’s not normal for a girl to be all thinking.” Fortunately, Matilda finds allies in the local librarian Miss Phelps, and in a teacher at her new school, Miss Honey. But there’s also a new villain, the school’s headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, a former hammer thrower who refers to children as maggots.

Yes, there’s horror in this. But it’s the delicious kind. The girl sitting with her dad in front of us — about nine years old and clearly a Matilda connoisseur — was relishing every minute of it. And with good reason. The evil characters are so broad that they’re fun. When Miss Honey tries to stop Miss Trunchbull from pulling a little guy’s ears, for instance, Trunchbull replies, “I have discovered, Miss Honey, that the ears of small boys don’t come off. They stretch.” And, onstage, they do stretch — like Silly Putty. Kids love grossness and cartoon monsters. And, like adults, they need to master fear. Besides, we all have faith in Matilda.

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The Prom: a tearjerking good time

publicity photo for The Prom

Brianna Clark and Anna Pontin (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Anna Pontin could well become a star. Let’s establish that right off the top. The second thing to say is that, if I were rating this piece on a teardrop scale, it would score a solid five. This production of The Prom ain’t perfect, but it is undeniably moving.

The Prom tells the story of four out-of-luck Broadway performers. The biggest stars, Dee Dee and Barry, are accused — in print — of being narcissists, which they are, so they all decide to make themselves look good by lending their “celebrity” endorsements to a worthy cause. Scrolling through Twitter for “some small injustice we can drive to”, they find Emma Nolan, a high-schooler from Edgewater, Indiana, who has been refused access to her prom because she wants to bring her girlfriend as her date.

Slyly, The Prom takes the piss out of its own good intentions, so it rarely comes across as condescending: arriving in Edgewater waving placards, the four do-gooders declare, “We are liberal Democrats from Broadway!”, as if the Hoosiers will be instantly awestruck into submission.

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Henry V: an awful rewrite

publicity photo for Henry V at Bard on the Beach

It looks good, it just doesn’t feel good. That’s Kate Besworth on Amir Ofek’s set. (Photo by Tim Matheson)

Director Lois Anderson hasn’t just adapted Shakespeare’s Henry V for Bard on the Beach, she has attempted to rewrite it — and the results are a mess.

In Henry V, the reckless young Prince Hal of Henry IV, turns into a warrior whose troops slaughter the French at the Battle of Agincourt. The original play has disparate threads. Viewing it from one angle, we see the emergence of a military hero. Played from this direction, Henry V can be patriotic, even warmongering. But the play is also very clearly a critique of war. Its title character can be seen as Machiavellian and ruthless.

That is the richness of Henry V, which Anderson flattens into a simplistic anti-war statement. I’m an anti-war guy, but the words Anderson puts into Chorus’s mouth are painfully sophomoric. “War never ends,” Chorus solemnly informs us in newly minted text. “That’s how war begins,” Chorus adds after Henry’s advisors convince him he has a rightful claim to territory held by the French. And, if we’re curious about the machinations, we’re told to “Follow the money.”

“Toxic masculinity” is also on Anderson’s hit list: that’s what Anderson’s Chorus accuses the French prince, the Dauphin, of. I can’t remember if that’s before or after we see him shadowboxing pugnaciously. “Boys will be boys,” Chorus sighs.

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