Wittenberg: You might want to consider another school

Publicity photo for Wittenberg

Matthew Bissett and Misha Kobiliansky are both terrific in Wittenberg.
(Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

Director Adam Henderson and his team are giving Wittenberg a precise, committed, and creative production. But, despite its intellectual ambitions, the play itself is boring.

Writer David Davalos has set his script at Hamlet’s university, Wittenberg, in Germany, and it’s 1517, so Hamlet is currently enrolled. One of the prince’s profs is the fictional central character from Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy Dr. Faustus — although, when we meet Dr. John Faustus in Wittenberg, he hasn’t sold his soul to the devil yet. Dr. Faustus’s best friend and intellectual sparring partner is Martin Luther, the real-life historical figure who was a key player in the Protestant Reformation.

The body of the play consists of debates between Faustus and Luther, with Faustus championing agnosticism and Luther taking the side of faith.

Davalos’s sympathies are obviously with the swaggering, wise-cracking, sexually hungry Faustus. There’s a huge tell. When Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, it was a historically pivotal act of religious rebellion: in his theses, Luther decried the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences, which allowed the faithful to buy absolution for their sins. In doing so, he challenged the authority of the pope, which got him excommunicated. But Davalos goes so far in setting Luther up as a religious conservative — in contrast to the more freewheeling Faustus, that, in Davalos’s telling, it’s Faustus who makes public Luther’s challenge to the church. By denying Luther’s courage, Davalos rigs the debate in Faustus’s favour — and this is just the most egregious example of how he does that.

The arguments between Faustus and Luther also become brutally repetitive.

The famously indecisive Hamlet is in the middle of all of this, torn between his teachers’ approaches and psychologically dislocated by the intellectual upheavals of the time. When Hamlet hears about Copernicus’s proof that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, the idea literally sets him staggering. [Read more…]

Courage Now: We need this production

publicity photo for Courage Now

Ryota Kaneko and Manami Hara in Courage Now (Photo by Cakewalk)

I was afraid that Courage Now might be ploddingly literal, but it’s a moving piece of art.

There is no doubt that more people need to know the real-life story of Chiune Sugihara, who was Japan’s vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania near the beginning of World War II. In 1940, Lithuanian Jews, as well as Jews fleeing German-occupied western Poland, were increasingly desperate to get out of Lithuania — and Europe. But to do so, they needed travel visas, which were virtually impossible to get. Seeing the situation for what it was, Sugihara defied repeated direct orders from Japan and started issuing travel documents on July 16, often working 20 hours a day. By August 3, when he was called back to Berlin, he had issued enough documents to allow between 4,500 and 6,000 people to travel across Russia and then to Japan. Many of those refugees arrived in Vancouver. It’s estimated that 100,000 people are alive today because of his efforts.

In doing this, Sugihara risked his life and the lives of his family. When he returned to Japan, he was fired from the diplomatic service and disgraced. In 1985, a year before his death, Israel honoured him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

None of these facts can be considered spoilers: they’re all in the program. And I don’t think knowing them in advance should make much difference; I knew all of this going in and I was still deeply moved by watching how it unfolds in this telling. [Read more…]

East Van Panto: The Little Mermaid – underwater heaven

 

Publicity photo for East Van Panto: The Little Mermaid

Amanda Sum and Ghazal Azarbad get smoochy — with Adam Weaver in the background.(Photo by Emily Cooper)\

It’s spectacular, a stupidly good time — and I mean that in the most enthusiastic way possible.

For this year’s East Van Panto, playwright Sonja Bennett has turned the 1989 Disney animation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid inside out, so it really doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the movie, although you’ll catch a few more references if you have.

In Bennett’s telling, Ariel is a human girl who falls in love with a mermaid named Eeer-k and makes a questionable deal with Ursula the octopus/sea witch so that she can pursue her would-be girlfriend into the ocean: if Ariel can’t get Eeer-k to kiss her before sundown, she’ll be turned to stone.

The performances are all casually, hilariously flawless. Amanda Sum brings deadpan innocence — and a tendency to break into interpretive dance — to Ariel. This commitment to (weird) simplicity is pure clowning. Dawn Petten frickin’ killed me as Ursula. Callous, dismissive, sexy, absurd: who else could have come up with that combo? And Petten is so confident; she’s having so much fun! Andrew Wheeler is touchingly basset-like as Ariel’s dad, Triton. And Mark Chavez is flying wild as Ariel’s crab friend Sebastian, hurling himself at the material, and apparently making stuff up on the fly, cracking up his fellow performers — and himself. Ghazal Azarbad as Eeer-k: well, basically, I want to be Ghazal Azarbad when I grow up. This time out, she’s brightly sexy with her blue lips, blue hair, and wide eyes. And the woman can sing! Like she’s torchy. Who knew?

[Read more…]

The Sound of Music: It’s all about the kids

publicity photo for The Sound of Music

This bunch: go see ’em. (Photo: Moonrider Productions)

Brace yourselves: this is going to be a rave.

I was so moved during the first act of the Arts Club’s production of The Sound of Music that I was in serious danger of making embarrassing sounds. And I wasn’t alone in suppressing sobs.

Damien Atkins’s performance as Captain von Trapp is nothing short of a revelation.

You probably know the story by now: It’s 1938 in a small Austrian town and a young postulant (nun in training) named Maria is dispatched to act as nanny to the widowed Captain von Trapp’s seven children. Through a combination of her vivacity and rebelliousness, Maria melts the captain’s icy exterior and teaches the children to sing. The household’s happiness is, however, threatened by the Anschluss, the Nazi takeover of Austria.

If you’re going to get this musical right, you have to understand that it is, basically, about the kids. It’s about Maria’s appreciation of their individual natures and their shared desperation for love. And it’s about Maria’s release of that love in the captain. His patriotism, his loyalty to Austria and resistance to fascism, is, in a way, a further expression of the same fierce, compassionate decency. [Read more…]

Seventeen to seventy in seventy minutes

publicity photo for Seventeen

(Photo of Stephen Aberle and Suzanne Ristic by Javier Sotres)

As is so often the case, the acting is better than the writing.

Seventeen is about a group of friends (mostly), who have gathered in a playground to celebrate their last day of high school by getting hammered. As determined by Seventeen’s playwright Matthew Whittet, the teenagers in this show are all played by senior actors.

The potential pitfalls of this set-up are, of course, stereotyping and overacting. On opening night of Western Gold Theatre’s production, which was directed by Michael Fera, the first scene made me fear the worst: there was a lot of boisterous enthusiasm.

But, for the most part, the fault isn’t with the performers. The set-up, with its repeated shouts of “Beer!” begs for this kind of delivery.

I’m going to talk a bit more about problems with the script, then I’ll get into the strengths of the production. [Read more…]

Mom’s the Word: Talkin’ Turkey is not a turkey

publicity photo for Mom's the Word: Talkin' Turkey

I didn’t enjoy the number, but Barbara Clayden’s costumes are pretty great in this riff on The Nutcracker.
That’s Deborah Williams, Alison Kelly, Barbara Pollard, Robin Nichol, and Jill Daum.
They are on Pam Johnson’s set.
(Photo: Moonrider Productions)

I cried. I was bored. I laughed. Mom’s the Word: Talkin’ Turkey, the latest in the Mom’s the Word series, is inconsistent but, when it lands, you feel it.

The Mom’s the Word shows date way back to 1993, when a group of theatre professionals, who were all raising young kids, got together to create a performance about motherhood for the Women in View festival. Hilarious and moving, the first Mom’s the Word became an international hit, and five of the six original creators have kept pumping out sequels since then. This one is about the challenges of the Christmas holidays — and the specific stresses of sharing them with your adult kids, aging parents, and in one instance, a dead spouse.

All of the stories are personal to the women who perform them, and they’re presented in a revue format that includes heartfelt sharing, outrageous anecdotes, and occasional songs.

I’m a fan of the heartfelt sharing and the lashings of wit. In a prime example, Alison Kelly remembers a Christmas when she hung a thousand origami cranes over the crib of her tiny, premature son, who was in the neonatal intensive care unit, willing him to survive. Then Deb Williams cuts in with, “He lived. He’s 34. You’ve got to find a better story.” [Read more…]

Yaga: Tell me a (better) story

Colleen Wheeler, Aidan Correia, and Genevieve Fleming
(Photo by Pedro Augusto Meza)

Despite the sometimes superlative strengths of this production, the evening doesn’t satisfy — at least it didn’t satisfy me. That’s because, although there’s a lot of plot in Kat Sandler’s twisty script, there isn’t  an engaging story. [Read more…]

The Café: Make your reservations now

publicity photo for The Café

If you see this guy, Ben Elliott, who performs in the short play Father’s Day, grab a seat nearby.

I love it when a show makes me work and The Café had me hoppin’. The evening also offers a tasty tasting menu of emerging and established local talent.

In The Café, which was conceived by Fay Nass, seven short plays are performed at tables scattered around Kafka’s, which is a real-world café on Great Northern Way. The scripts unfold simultaneously, but each is repeated three times, so your job as an audience member is to catch as many of the offerings as you can — especially the ones you’re particularly eager to see. Don’t worry, there’s no audience participation, but you are encouraged to sidle right up to the performers, to sit and stand beside them.

And you’re going to want to do that because it’s magical. How often do you get to sit just a couple of feet away from somebody as they completely — deliberately, skilfully — transform themselves into a different human being? Every time an actor does that, it’s like they’re opening a portal to a parallel universe. And, unless you’re an actor yourself, you rarely get to see it this close up.   [Read more…]

Bad Parent: Yeah, kinda

publicity photo for Bad Parent by Ins Choi

Josette Jorge and Raugi Yu deliver super charming performances.
(Photo by Dahlia Katz)

I’m going to suspend judgment on this one. Okay, no, I’m not, I have opinions. But I will acknowledge the context of my response.

First opinion: an hour is long time to watch a couple bickering, especially if you don’t like them very much. [Read more…]

Redbone Coonhound: diminishing returns

publicity photo for Redbone Coonhound

Now THAT’S how you design costumes.
Emerjade Simms and Kwesi Ameyaw in costumes by CS Fergusson-Vaux.
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

This is unusual: a relatively positive review has come back to haunt me — well, to tap me on the shoulder.

When the Arts Club mounted Redbone Coonhound as part of its audio play series, I kind of liked it. Back in February, I said about the play, “It isn’t always subtle or precisely focused, but it’s got force!” Having seen the piece fully staged, I’m less enthusiastic.

The script, which was written by married couple Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton, runs on two tracks. On one, a Vancouver couple named Mike and Marissa encounter a pair of joggers and their dog, a redbone coonhound they’ve had shipped up from Louisiana. Mike, who’s Black, is offended by the apparent racism of the breed name. Marissa is white. Her initial response to Mike’s agitation: “It’s just some old-timey name.” In this relatively naturalistic storyline, the coonhound encounter seeps into and informs a gathering of Mike and Marissa’s friends.

The play’s second track consists of a series of “fever dreams”, broadly satirical fantasies about historical and future framings of race — and, to a far lesser degree, misogyny. [Read more…]

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