Marjorie Prime is, in fact, pretty prime

publicity photo for Marjorie Prime

Gai Brown (foreground) and Bronwen Smith in Marjorie Prime (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Playwright Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime provides a rewarding and unique theatrical experience. How often do I get to say that?

In the first scene, we meet Marjorie and her husband Walter. She’s 85. He might be 30. She has significant memory loss. If he hears something new, he says, “I’ll remember that fact” and, if he’s stumped by a question, he responds with, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.” Yes, in these moments, Walter sounds a lot like Siri or Alexa. That’s because he’s a hologram of Marjorie’s long-dead husband, a constellation of pixels that Marjorie’s daughter Tess and her husband Jon have acquired to help keep Marjorie engaged — but engaged with what, exactly?

Marjorie Prime asks questions about the role of memory in identity and relationships. How do we adjust our memories to serve our preferred narratives? What do we leave out? What’s best to leave out? How much of a shared reality do we need to maintain a loving bond? When is it fair and when is it cruel to insist on “facts”?

Tess wants to help Marjorie: she’s kind when her mom has a urinary accident. But she also wants revenge on a mother who, when Tess was a child, seems to have wandered, to some extent, in narcissism. As Walter tells Marjorie: “You don’t always know how to show that you love people.” And, speaking about her mom, Tess explains to Jon, “We didn’t tell one another things. Secret things.” So Tess repeatedly reminds Marjorie that the real Walter is dead.

A crucial family story is repressed — and that has consequences.

Illusions take their toll.

Director Shelby Bushell’s production unfolds at a meditative pace, which suits the iterative, poetic nature of the text. Stories, including one about the family’s little poodle Toni, who went to the beach and got a coatful of sand, repeat, with variations in meaning. The central trope of the illusory Walter also repeats with variations that turn into an examination of mortality. Considering her mom’s fragile corporality and expanding on the themes of experience and memory, Tess says, “By the end, you can’t even have a new moment.”

But, I assure you, none of this is depressing — because the script is so smart and elegantly structured and because this production honours it with subtly naturalistic performances (acting is uncanny in its own way, of course ) and pleasing design.

On rare occasions, Gai Brown indicates reactions rather than simply having them, but she delivers a fundamentally solid, responsive performance. And she makes a rewarding distinction between the two sides of Marjorie. (When you see the production, you’ll understand what I mean.) One is more much more open than the other. The same is also true — in spades — for Bronwen Smith’s work as Tess: without forcing either baseline, she is tetchy in one mode and amiably curious in another.  Playing Walter Prime, as the hologram is known, Carlen Escarraga is appropriately innocent — and waxen. In the middle of this, Tariq Leslie’s Jon is the straight man, and Leslie does a fine job of carrying that emotional weight.

Claire Carolan’s set is a sculptural, skylighted space, beautifully rendered using sheets of blond plywood.

Leslie, who is also the artistic director of Ensemble Theatre, has selected scripts for the company’s two-play summer season — Marjorie Prime and Pass Over — that are both innovative, substantial, poetic works. He deserves our thanks.

MARJORIE PRIME by Jordan Harrison. Directed by Shelby Bushell. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. On Thursday, June 23 at the Waterfront Theatre. Running in rep until July 1. Tickets


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Don’t Pass Over this acting

publicity photo for Pass Over

Chris Francisque (L) and Kwasi Thomas (Photo by Emily Cooper)

In Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, an urban street corner is also a slave plantation and Egypt — because Moses and Kitch, the two Black friends who are hanging out there, can’t leave.

Nwandu is taking inspiration from both the Bible’s Book of Exodus and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Inspired by their childhood Sunday school teacher, Kitch believes Moses will lead him to the Promised Land. But, when a white police officer they call Ossifer shows up, he makes the terms of their entrapment explicit: “One step off this block and I’ll shoot you dead.” Still, like Beckett’s tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, Moses and Kitch struggle to keep their hopes alive: unsure of how to change their state but dedicated to doing so, they play games to pass the time. In a favourite, Top Ten Promised Land, they list the pleasures they’ll experience when they’re truly free. Kitch dreams of caviar — until Moses tells him it’s fish eggs.

The are so many similarities to Godot. That play’s lone tree becomes a streetlamp. The turnip Vladimir offers to Estragon turns into an old pizza crust. The friends debate the complications of a double suicide. And they have visitors — who reveal the fundamental divergence between Godot and Pass Over: Godot’s existentialism is philosophical; Pass Over’s is about Black survival in the face of systemic racism.

As Ossifer makes clear, police violence is a relentless threat to Black bodies. When Moses and Kitch pause to remember all the friends and loved ones who have been shot by cops, listing them takes a while — and the list illustrates the poetic specificity that infuses Nwandu’s script. There’s Ed with the dreadlocks, “not light-skinned Ed”, “dat tall dude got dat elbow rash”, and Mike with “dat messed-up knee.” [Read more…]

Kinky Boots: Say yes to the heels!

publicity photo for Kinky Boots

Jeffrey Follis, Joshua Lalisan, Stewart Adam McKensy, Ryan Maschke, and Andrew J. Hampton
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Star power, baby! Stewart Adam McKensy, who plays Lola, the drag queen at the centre of the Arts Club’s mounting of Kinky Boots, has so much of it he’s like a constellation. And McKensy isn’t alone: there are many, many bright lights in director Barbara Tomasic’s tight, celebratory production. [Read more…]

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Don’t encourage them

publicity photo for A Midsummer Night's Dream

Heidi Damayo, Emily Dallas, Christopher Allen, and Olivia Hutt
Photo by Tim Matheson

Bard on the Beach in general and director Scott Bellis in particular have a bad habit of obscuring Shakespearean texts by slathering on coarse physical comedy. In Bellis’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s a lot of very enthusiastic slathering. Yes, this strategy keeps the audience laughing, but much of the play’s beauty and wit — and almost its entire emotional impact — are lost: once again, Bard on the Beach is misrepresenting Shakespeare’s potential to Vancouver audiences — and that’s a significant disservice. [Read more…]

New Societies: fresh theatre

publicity photo for New Societies

Building a utopia: choices and consequences.

As I’m writing this, Re:Current Theatre’s New Societies is finishing up the last matinée of its run at Vancouver’s rEvolver Festival. The good news is that it’s going to be touring in Ontario this summer.

I knew when I booked this show that its short Vancouver run was going to be over by the time I could write about it, but I wanted to see New Societies because it came highly recommended as an innovative good time. It delivered.

New Societies is a theatrical game. When you enter the space, which feels like a casino, you get slotted into one of eight teams. Each team, which consists of up to five people, is guided through the experience by a croupier, a cast member who doles out cards, tokens, and sometimes-cryptic information. Together, your team sets about trying to construct a utopia on a new planet, with each team taking charge of a geographic area. I was from the East. [Read more…]

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…]

Yellow Fever: oddly conceived, well performed

publicity photo: Yellow Fever

Agnes Tong and Hiro Kanagawa get INTO it in Yellow Fever. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

There’s some very nice work in the Firehall Art Centre’s production of Yellow Fever, but, under Donna Spencer’s direction, the production always feels slightly out of focus.

Rick Shiomi’s film-noir style script is about Sam Shikaze, a classically hardboiled detective who works on and around Powell Street. It’s 1973 and the recently crowned Cherry Blossom Queen seems to have been kidnapped. Sam’s on the case and a pesky young newspaper reporter named Nancy Wing is tailing him looking for a scoop. At least Sam treats Nancy like she’s pesky — but then the romantic sparks start to fly.

First question: Why is director Spencer presenting this theatrical script as a radio play complete with visible foley (sound effects) artists? In her program notes, the director attempts an answer. Spencer says that she initially envisioned the piece when theatres were in lockdown; she thought she’d do it online as a staged radio play. Okay. Maybe in Zoom squares … But, when she realized she could mount it in a theatre, she writes, “we decided to go forward with the radio play concept still in mind.” Okay, but why? The circumstances have changed. “Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting in a comfy chair,” Spencer suggests. But I don’t go to the theatre to spend the evening with my eyes closed! And Spencer doesn’t really want us to keep our eyes closed, either: the evening she presents has a lot going on visually. Her foundational choice looks fuzzy headed to me. [Read more…]

The Mountaintop: thrilling peaks (and some valleys)

publicity still for The Mountaintop

Kwesi Ameyaw and Shayna Jones (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

For me, the doorway to this production didn’t open until about halfway through. At that point, it became transcendent — intermittently. By the end, I was moved.

In Katori Hall’s 2009 script, she imagines Martin Luther King Jr. in his motel room on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. The moment a maid named Camae arrives bearing the coffee King has ordered, you know she is no ordinary worker: there’s a flash of lightning, a crash of thunder, and the lights in the room flicker. Sure, there’s a storm outside, but we’re in the theatre and cues like this are not accidental. [Read more…]

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…]

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