The Empire of the Son: setting

Publicity photo for Empire of the Son

The thrill has gone.

When I first saw Tetsuro Shigematsu’s solo show Empire of the Son, when Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre produced its premiere seven years ago, I was so moved that, two weeks after seeing it, I still couldn’t talk about it without crying. But this Pacific Theatre production largely left me cold.

Figuring out the crucial factors in my differing experiences is tricky. [Read more…]

Fairview: disorienting — and reorienting

(Photo of Yasmin D’Oshun by Mark Halliday)

What can I tell you about Fairview? Since Jackie Sibblies Drury’s script is about the distorting power of the white gaze and the nightmarish inescapability of white opinion —  and since I’m a white guy — I’m going to opt for not telling you much.

The play’s central characters are all members of the Frasier family. They’re Black. When we meet them, they’re preparing for Grandma Frasier’s birthday dinner and they seem to be in a kind of sitcom reality — harried mom, gormless dad, plucky teenage daughter, smart-talking aunt — but there are glitches in the matrix: the stereo acts up.

And, when culinary disaster strikes, Drury starts rolling out a series of strategies, modes of storytelling that get increasingly surreal, complex, and challenging. These layers are often funny and always immersive. Theatre bends reality and Drury finds astonishingly original ways to do the bending. Theatre is also personal. Race is personal. And Drury takes full advantage of this viscerality, too.

In my experience, Fairview is almost uniquely disorienting — and reorienting. And I’m moved by its generosity.

That’s pretty much it from me. Much of the power of Drury’s storytelling is generated by its surprises; I encourage you to discover them for yourselves. This production is sure to be one of the shows of the season, if not the show of the season.

It’s well performed and beautifully designed. Go see it.

FAIRVIEW By Jackie Sibblies Drury. Co-directed by Kwaku Okyere and Mindy Parfitt. On Friday, September 29. A Search Party production in partnership with b current Performing Arts in The Cultch’s Historic Theatre until October 8. Tickets

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The Last Wife: Dopey portrait of a smart woman

publicity photo: The Last Wife

(Photo of Courtney Shields and Matthew Bissett by Nancy Caldwell)

The script is so bad. There are some okay elements in this production, but … have I mentioned how bad the script is?

In The Last Wife, playwright Kate Hennig imagines the relationship between Henry VIII and his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, the only spouse who outlived him. Hennig keeps the major documented historical facts in place — more or less — but gives the characters contemporary speech.

Despite being married to a king who’d had two previous wives executed, Catherine accomplished an astonishing amount. She was influential in Henry’s passing of the Third Succession Act, which, years later, allowed his daughter Bess to become Elizabeth I. And, from July to September in 1544, when Henry was off fighting in France, he appointed Catherine regent. She ran the country. Keeping things fresh, Henry issued a warrant for her arrest in 1546, but quickly withdrew it.

Catherine had her wits about her. Unlike the script. [Read more…]

Little Shop of Horrors: what went wrong (according to me)

publicity photo for Little Shop of Horrors

The plant, Audrey II, with Seymour (the charming Tenaj Williams)
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

This is my fifth draft of this review.

Previous drafts have started with “Free the bimbo!” and “This production could accurately be renamed Little Shop of Crippling Good Intentions.”

Overall, I don’t think the production succeeds.

But I’m out of snappy ledes, so let’s get right to the analysis — as soon as we’ve covered the synopsis.

In Howard Ashman’s book for Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour Krelborn, a timid assistant in Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop on Skid Row, discovers an weird little plant during a solar eclipse. Seymour is smitten with Audrey, Mr. Mushnik’s other employee, but she is in the sway of Orin Scrivello, her emotionally and physically abusive boyfriend.

Yes, this is a musical in which domestic violence is a major dynamic — and sometimes it’s played for laughs.

How could domestic violence be funny? [Read more…]


publicity photo for Generic MaleSome of the dance works well in Generic Male. Much of the other material doesn’t. The two-hander starts off weakly. There’s some audience involvement, only some of which makes sense, followed a bit later by an extended scripted section in which the two performers, Darren Stevenson and Ashley Jones, argue about the placement of chairs. Generic Male explores men’s place in the patriarchy, and this section is about territoriality and conversational dominance, but its approach is obvious and it goes on too long. This show didn’t engage me until several minutes in, when Stevenson launched into a dance that expresses his reaction (or his character’s reaction) to his son’s decision to join the army and go into special ops. Often employing mime, the choreography includes a lovely transition between images of an innocent boy throwing a baseball and an emotionally intense soldier throwing a grenade. This piece ends melodramatically with the soldier’s death — although I understand this as an expression of fear, I still find it melodramatic — but Stevenson’s grace and athleticism are impressive throughout. And the death is followed by the most rewarding choreography of the evening: the two men embrace then, still hugging, spin in circles, lifting one another’s feet off the floor. A bit in which Jones challenges Stevenson to get naked feels superfluous. The text of an awkward father/son conversation about sexual consent feels rotely illustrative rather than exploratory; the ahleticism of the partnering is more rewarding. For me, Generic Male is hit-and-miss, but I enjoyed the sensuality and lyricism of the hits.

At the Waterfront Theatre. Remaining performances on September 14 (6:45 pm), 16 (6:00 pm), and 17 (3:00 pm). Tickets


publicity photo for Let's Talk About Your DeathI was hoping for an audacious and insightful show about death. What I got was a glib and offensive show about death. In Let’s Talk About Your Death, writer/performer David Johnston plays two characters: Barry, who is the floor manager at the taping of a TV show about mortality, and Dr. Elliot Morris, the exuberant host. We’re in the near future, and a machine has been invented that can scan your hand and tell you with absolute certainty how you will expire. Everybody in the audience gets a little card that reveals how they’ll kick it, and Morris interviews a couple of folks about how they feel about the manner of their demise. From the get-go, the texture of this piece is annoying: Barry keeps trying to hype the audience into hysteria, and Dr. Morris’s over-the-top energy is grating because that’s all there is to it, there’s no fresh spin or original parody. The performance I attended completely hit the skids with the first interview. Morris questioned an audience member I’ll call W and found out that her mother had died 30 years ago of pneumonia. She died alone. Morris/Johnston made no perceivable attempt to compassionately embrace W’s vulnerability. Instead, he kept trying to crack jokes. There’s a section near the end that’s about suicide, but it has no narrative context, no story around it, so the supposed insight that emerges — basically “Embrace the moment” — has zero resonance. As my partner said on the way out, “There’s no truth to it.”

At the Arts Umbrella. Remaining performances on September 11 (7:00 pm), 13 (7:15 pm), 16 (10:50 pm), and 17 (4:15 pm). Tickets

LARRY (Fringe review)

publicity photo for Larry, Vancouver Fringe 2023A lucky mistake: I booked tickets to Larry, Candice Roberts’s solo clown show, thinking, for no good reason, that it was going to be a different Larry than I’d seen her do four years ago, even though it has the same title. Okay, okay, I’m a dope. It’s the same show, but I’m glad I get to tell you about it again because, of the thousands of productions I’ve seen, this one is an all-time fave. Roberts’s clown character Larry is a hoser dude who’s doing his best to get more woke because a potential date turned him down for being insufficiently sensitive, artistic, and empathetic. Roberts’s work is both loosely spontaneous and incredibly well-honed. She induces hysteria by piling on absurdities. Larry describes his would-be date as “prettier than sunlight … on a waterfall … full of kittens.” It doesn’t stop there. And a fantastic bit in which Larry describes being drunk using every slang word ever invented for the condition (pooched, soused) plus some insane originals (Hasselhoffed) had a guy behind me wheeze-laughing, gone, out of control. And … and … when Larry digs deep into the supposed gender binary — I won’t tell you how any of this happens — it’s so moving and substantial that it brought tears to my eyes. Long live Larry! If you want to get tickets to this one, book ‘em right now because they’re going to disappear.

At Studio 16. Remaining performances on September 10 (1:00 pm), 13 (7:15 pm), 14 (10:10 pm), and 16 (8:00 pm). Tickets


Goblin: Macbeth — The press photos are as good as it gets

press photo for Goblin:Macbeth

All of these things are just like the others.
(Photo by Tim Matheson)

Presales for Goblin:Macbeth were so strong that Bard on the Beach extended the show’s run before it opened. But Goblin:Macbeth is a waste of time. [Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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