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…]

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney … is a long title

publicity shot for an A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney

Paul Herbert, Chelsea MacDonald, and Brian Parkinson (Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

There are several layers of experimentation going on here. Some of them work. A couple work splendidly.

Playwright Lucas Hnath really does present A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney as a public reading. Four actors file onstage, carrying their screenplays in black binders, and sit at a long table. “I’m Walt Disney,” one of them says. “This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me.”

Talk about a thesis statement: A Public Reading is an examination of megalomania. [Read more…]

Amphitruo: Wait for it …

publicity photo: Amphitruo, United Players

Ah, comic strangulation! (Photo of Claire deBruyn and Camryn Chew by Nancy Caldwell)

For a long time, there is virtually nothing entertaining in this production of the comedy Amphitruo by the ancient Roman writer Plautus (254-184 BC). Then, in a kind of miracle, it gets very funny — and more or less stays that way. [Read more…]

The Here and This and Now: Is that all there is?

promo photo for The Here and This and Now (United Players production)

Pharmaceutical sales reps gettin’ crazy (Photo of Evangela Kepinski, Jessica Wong, Ishan Sandhu, and Matt Loop by Doug Williams)

Skip to the epilogue: the last five minutes of this production are by far the best.

There are two earlier sections. Each unit is distinct.

In Part 1, we witness a training session in which a sales manager named Niall coaches three pharmaceutical reps on how to make a sales pitch for a questionable liver-spot treatment. Theatrically, there are a passel of problems here. Number 1: the pitch is ridiculously long and its manipulativeness is so transparent that nobody in their right mind would fall for it. Number 2: The pitch is repeated, with slight variations, four times. Everybody onstage gets a crack at it. Time threatens to go backwards. Number 3: The criticism of big pharma in particular and sales in general is simplistic.

Two of the sales reps also have a philosophical discussion of sorts in Part 1. Robbie, who’s been with the company for a while, keeps saying that, in life, nothing changes, things never get any better: “I just don’t think anything makes much of a difference.” Gemma, who’s new and who’s falling for Robbie, offers counterarguments: She invites Robbie to imagine the impact of having a baby, for instance. Then Robbie repeats himself and the two of them go in circles.

Fortunately, both Ishan Sandhu (Robbie) and Jessica Wong (Gemma) deliver appealing performances. Sandhu’s Robbie is playful and responsive. Wong’s performance as Gemma is grounded and honest — persuasively straightforward. She also has a velvety voice. [Read more…]

Silent Sky: a good night under the stars

publicity photo for Silent Sky

Henrietta (Jenna Hill) and Peter (Karthik Kadam) pretend to talk about the cosmos. (Photo by Doug Williams)

 

Writing this review of United Players’ production of Silent Sky isn’t as challenging as, say, astrophysics, but it’s still tricky, okay?

I enjoyed the show a lot. Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s script about the turn-of-the-twentieth-century career of pioneering astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt is witty and moving.

Leavitt’s task as a “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory was to record information from photographic plates about the brightness of stars. As a clerk — and, crucially, as a woman — she wasn’t allowed to look through the telescope. But, working from her observations of the brightness and pulsations of certain stars, Leavitt became the first to understand how to measure the distance to faraway galaxies. It was a watershed achievement. [Read more…]

She Sells Sea Shells: I ain’t buyin’ ’em. (But they’re pretty.)

publicity photo for She Sells Sea Shells

Krista Skwarok and Isaac Li in She Sells Sea Shells (Photo cropped from an original by Nancy Caldwell)

Watching She Sells Sea Shells is like watching somebody you like dating the wrong guy: admirable artists have worked very hard and very skilfully on this production, but Helen Eastman’s script isn’t worthy of their talents and attention.

I’m going to chew on the script for a bit before I get into the interpretive successes. [Read more…]

The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye): intelligent and moving

publicity photo for The Red Priest

(Photo of Steve James and Tracy Jennisson by Nancy Caldwell)

The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye) is a smart script and, in this United Players production, it’s being performed by smart actors.

Playwright Mieko Ouchi’s text is about a fictional relationship between Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi and the wife of one of France’s most powerful noblemen. The script identifies this character only as Woman. Her husband has bet the King of France that Vivaldi can teach her how to play the violin in six weeks — at the end of which time, she will perform for the French court. [Read more…]

A Hundred Words for Snow: but where’s the subtlety?

Hundred Words for Snow, United Players, Vancouver theatre

Hana Joi does her best with clumsy material in A Hundred Words for Snow. (Photo by Doug Williams)

This is the first time I’ve attended a live performance since the beginning of the plague, so I’m going to start off by talking about that.

Going in, I was mildly freaked out; I’m 68 and I’m taking immunosuppressant drugs. Because I’m vulnerable, I wore a mask and a face shield. But I ditched the shield after about eight minutes because it made me feel like I was in another room. Besides, I was aware that United Players, the producing company, was taking good care of me. [Read more…]

Jerusalem: England’s green chaotic land

United Players is presenting Jerusalem by Jem Butterworth at the Jericho Arts Centre.

Rooster (Adam Henderson) and Professor (Jack Rigg) get their bacchanal on. (Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

In 2011 in a forest glade somewhere in Wiltshire, England, lives Johnny “Rooster” Byron in a trailer surrounded by trash. A middle-aged waster, he hosts alcohol- and drug-laced parties for the local teenagers. There’s a new housing estate nearby and the town council wants him evicted. But Rooster is part of a mystical English lineage. He is a Green Man, a nature god, the embodiment of rejuvenating vitality and chaos. “I’ve seen oak trees cry,” he says. “I’ve heard beeches sing hymns.” Two of the girls in his pack are named Tanya and Pea, evoking Titania and Peasblossom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Frustrated with the hypocritical townsfolk who want him gone, Rooster rails, “What the hell do you think an English forest is for?”

Jez Butterworth’s script is hilariously freewheeling and sometimes thrilling. And director Kathleen Duborg’s mostly amateur production for United Players is astonishingly well realized. [Read more…]

Chimerica: how many hours do you have to spare?

United Players is presenting Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica at the Jericho Arts Centre.

Playing a young revolutionary couple, Olivia Poon and Angus Yam provide some of the most human moments in Chimerica. (Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

I thought it was never going to end. Then, after two hours, the lights finally came up—but it was only intermission. We had another hour and a half to go.

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica is about the current murky codependence between China and the States. To explore it, she has invented a character named Joe Schofield, a New Yorker whom she credits with taking the famous photograph of the lone protester standing in front of tanks in Tienanmen Square in 1989. Joe was 18. Now it’s 23 years later and Joe is searching for the guy he calls Tank Man. He says he’s doing it because he wants to celebrate Tank Man’s heroism in an age of equivocation, but he also needs to revive his flagging career—and perhaps his sense of moral purpose.

Flying to Beijing, Joe meets Tessa Kendrick, a British market researcher. She’s afraid of flying. He holds her hand. But she’s also tough so, you know: sparks.

Joe’s friend Zhang Lin, who lives in Beijing, is a former Tienanmen protester and current uneasy pragmatist. He pays lip service to accommodating the damage caused by China’s economic “miracle”—including the lethal smog that the Communist Party passes off as weather— but his wife, who was killed in the massacre, keeps appearing in his fridge like a fragment of the conscience he’s put on ice.

Joe’s search for Tank Man ensnares everybody in a convoluted, sometimes bloody detective story that weaves its way through New York’s boroughs—slowly. [Read more…]

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!