Lampedusa: More realistic hope might be more robust

promo photo for Lampedusa

Melissa Oei and Robert Garry Haacke in Lampedusa.
(Credit: Javier R. Sotres Photography)

This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but I think Lampedusa is naïve. That said, it’s about important things and it’s getting a handsome production from Pi Theatre.

In his script, playwright Anders Lustgarten weaves together two narratively unrelated monologues. In Leeds, Denise collects debts for a payday loan company. At first, she defends her predatory employer, telling us that the interest rates are there in black-and-white for anybody to read. The implication is that anyone who signs up is an idiot and deserves what they get. But she starts to change her tune when what’s left of England’s welfare state threatens to cut off her disabled mom’s stipend.

Layering on more stress, Denise, who is mixed-race, is often on the receiving end of racial slurs.

The play’s other narrator, Stefano, is a fisherman who lives on the Italian island of Lampedusa, near Africa. For thousands of refugees, it’s the first European landfall, but many don’t make it. Stefano tells us that “The Med is dead” — the Mediterranean can no longer support him as a fisherman, so he has taken a job retrieving refugees — almost always corpses — from the water. He says the drowned bodies he handles feel “like oiled, lumpy rubbish bags sliding through your fingers”.

It seems clear that the play is fundamentally about capitalism, which celebrates individual striving — and selfishness, to the point of cruelty. The disadvantaged and different are dismissed as weak, stupid — and unwelcome. They are less than human. They’re not us. And they cause all the problems. [Read more…]

Himmat: compassionate storytelling — that could go deeper

publicity photo for Himmat

Gavan Cheema and Munish Sharma in Himmat (Photo: Wendy D Photography)

There are significant successes in Gavan Cheema’s Himmat — and there’s room for improvement as this young playwright moves forward. So, yeah, this review is going to be celebratory — and a little teachy. You’ve been warned.

The script’s greatest gift is compassion. The central relationship is between a young woman named Ajit and her dad, Banth, who’s a recovering alcoholic. Banth damaged his family, especially Ajit’s older siblings, but Cheema presents Banth as a whole person, not a demon, and the central subjects that emerge are love and redemption.

As The Georgia Straight’s interview with Cheema reveals, Himmat is a fictionalized autobiography. Like Banth, Cheema’s dad emigrated from the Punjab to the Lower Mainland and worked hard — in lumber mills, as a roofer, and as a truck driver. And, like Banth, he started telling the story of his life to his young adult daughter when he was in the hospital being treated for cancer.

Cheema contextualizes Banth’s addiction as a response to the chronic physical pain that can be the toll of a life of labour, and as a reaction to the stresses of immigration. Banth worked with broken fingers. When he broke his leg, his coworkers left him in the back of a van for the rest of the day and his boss discouraged him from making a claim. When racists verbally assaulted Banth and his new wife Bachani, he cut his hair — a big deal for this Sikh — and then couldn’t sleep.

Cheema balances all of this with marvellously quirky details, which often emerge in the play’s many flashbacks. Banth has an abiding affection for Alvin and the Chipmunks, for instance, because, watching those cartoons, he and his new wife Bachani got their first lessons in English. There’s a running gag about Banth’s obsession with Costco. From his hospital bed, he tells Bachani to buy some batteries there. When she protests that their house is already full of Costco batteries, he insists: “If they’re on sale, just get some.” Especially in his relationship with Ajit, Banth reveals himself as a jovial, loving guy — roughhousing with her and cajoling her to work beside him to repair his truck. [Read more…]

Hir: rhymes with “here”, as in “here and now”

Pi Theatre is producing Taylor Mac's Hir at The Annex.

And you thought your family was dysfunctional. (Deb Williams, Victor Dolhai, and Andrew Wheeler in Hir. Photo by Tim Matheson)

Taylor Mac’s Hir celebrates diversity while simultaneously exposing the underside of identity politics.

And it’s a comedy, although its humour is dark—like blood-encrusted dark.

A US Marine named Isaac comes home after three years of overseas duty. He’s been working in mortuary services, picking up the body parts of personnel who have been blown to bits. And he returns to a family that’s been blown apart by the gender wars, or, as many would phrase it—as I would phrase it—the struggle for gender liberation.

Isaac’s father Arnold has suffered a major stroke. Arnold was a racist, sexist asshole, the domestic embodiment of the evils of the patriarchy. But his stroke has erased his power and Isaac’s mom Paige has taken over. Paige clothes Arnold in a woman’s nightgown and slathers his face in make-up, making him look like a literal clown. Paige also feeds Arnold hormone-laced smoothies, explaining that “The estrogen keeps him docile.” Isaac is so stunned by his dad’s transformation that it triggers his PTSD and he pukes in the sink.

He also pukes in the sink when he finds out that his little sister is now his trans little brother, Max. [Read more…]

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua: a haven in troubling times

Pearle Harbour sings a song in Chautauqua, with her accompanist, Mr. Gantry.

Pearle Harbour prepares to take flight in Chautauqua.

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauquais like a revival meeting for liberals—and a lot of us could use reviving these days.

Chautauquas were a kind of tent meeting popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that offered a combination of entertainment and inspirational lectures—sort of like Tony Robbins, but with a band.

In her chautauqua, Toronto drag queen Pearle Harbour invites us into a little cotton tent that seats 40. Her hairstyle and trimly tailored jacket refer to the period around WWII but, in her tent, Pearle offers refuge from current sources of anxiety. She fleetingly refers to ice caps melting. She knows what it’s like when “the only light in your life is the screen in your pocket.”

And she offers solace in the form of communion. The venue and the size of the gathering are already intimate. Pearle asks us all to breathe with her and, near the top of her show, she personally greets every member of the audience. As a theatregoer, I’ve never spent so much time gazing directly into a performer’s eyes. [Read more…]

The Events will keep you riveted

Pi Theatre is presenting The Events as part of the PuSh Festival

Douglas Ennenberg and Luisa Jojic pour themselves into The Events.

I suspect that, on some level, many liberal Westerners are experiencing a more or less perpetual state of grief and dread. Donald Trump is in the White House. Institutions including the press and democracy itself are being eroded. On the political right wing and on the left—where we once looked for allies—tribalism is in vogue.

What’s a liberal to do? In a way, that’s the central question in playwright David Greig’s The Events. [Read more…]

Peter Dickinson’s Long Division is trapped in its head

Pi Theatre is presenting Peter Dickinson's Long Division at the Gateway.

Lauchlin Johnson’s set for Long Division is a beauty.

There should be laws—similar to child labour laws—that prevent the overworking of metaphors.

Playwright Peter Dickinson buries the heart of his play, Long Division, beneath a series of monologues that declare and develop the metaphor of mathematics so academically that almost all of the extended speeches feel more like lectures than stories. [Read more…]

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