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


CRYING IN PUBLIC (Fringe review)

publicity image for Crying in PublicFor about the first third of Crying in Public, which is a uniquely humble, autobiographical stand-up routine, I was so into it. Writer/performer Gina Harms’s stage persona is a self-effacing, small-town nerd girl. Harms confesses that, growing up, she wasn’t really clear that a lot of movies are fiction. She would watch Transformers, she confesses, and think, “Oh, I guess that’s what living in a city’s like.” And she reads from her (actual) teenage diary, in which one of her goals is to “have random sex with a guy who never calls me again.” Then Harms launches into the heart of her story, which is about traveling to Thailand and falling hard for an Australian guy named Nick with whom she hooks up. But Harms lets us know from the get-go that falling for Nick and moving to Australia to be with him were both very bad ideas. By giving away the ending, Harms deflates her story’s narrative tension before she’s even set it up, so the bottom starts to fall out of Crying in Public. Even with that misstep, the show might have sustained itself better if her comedic insights were sharper, but the storytelling devolves into “And then this happened.” With some restructuring, Crying in Public could be stronger, which would be great because Harms’s persona, her angle of approach, is very engaging.

At Ballet BC. Remaining performances on September 10 (1:30 pm), 11 (5:15 pm), 14 (9:45 pm), and 16 (8:30 pm). Tickets



publicity photo for Jack Goes To TherapyMaybe I’m jaded or maybe, at this point in my long gay life, I just don’t personally need Jack Goes to Therapy. That’s no knock on the material itself of course. And to be clear: I admire the skill that’s on display. In this solo comedy, writer/performer Zac Williams plays Jack, a kindergarten teacher whose boyfriend left him for another guy just before Jack was about to propose to him. When we meet Jack, it’s three months after the dumping: he’s still longing for his ex and throwing himself into a compulsive quest for new romance. As his story unfolds, he ends up in a therapist’s office wondering how to escape his spiral. Some of the comedy arises from the absurdity of Jack’s compulsion. When he goes for an STI check-up and the taped voice of a nurse says, “I don’t think you have any reason to be concerned,” Jack replies, “Why? Do you think they’ll break up?” And, at the performance I attended, a lot of the laughs coming from the audience were responses to the frank acknowledgement of the realities of some men’s approach to gay sex: the promiscuity, the dick pics. Within all the colours of identity, lots of us love frank sex talk, of course, and, I may be wrong, but my sense was that, the laughter of some of the younger homos in the audience was enhanced by the joy of longed-for representation. That’s all great, but I’ve been out for 54 years and Jack Goes to Therapy didn’t serve any of these purposes for me, so I found a lot of the show’s thematic content familiar and kind of boring. That’s probably why I personally had more fun with the voices of Jack’s kindergarten students: “Jason put a crayon down his pants and he’s not wearing any underwear!” I got frustrated with Jack’s closetedness: although he’s a twenty-nine-year-old urban homo, when we meet him, he’s not out to his coworkers or his roommate’s sublet. That does set up the best pay-off in the script, however: when Jack finally embraces his vulnerability, he receives the gift of the vulnerability of others — and it’s moving. Throughout, Williams — impressively — keeps things bubbling at the pace of a brisk brook. Jack didn’t hook me, but most of the audience gave it a standing ovation.

At Ballet BC. Remaining performances on September 10 (9:15 pm), 11 (8:45 pm), 14 (6:45 pm), 16 (5:00 pm), and 17 (2:45 pm). Tickets

THE JUDGE’S DAUGHTER (Fringe review)

In The Judge’s Daughter, playwright Mairy Beam delivers an unapologetic message in favour of climate activism. Politically, I’m with her, as were most people in the audience at the performance I attended. There are great advantages to this brand of agitation and propaganda — and there’s a danger. In Beam’s script, Erin, who’s 30, is caught between her love for her mom, Kelly, who’s a conservative judge in BC’s Supreme Court, and her boyfriend, Amir, who supports climate activism. Kelly is one of the judges hearing Trans Mountain Pipeline cases, and their family gathering in Whistler hits a crisis when they hear that Janice Thompson, a frail Indigenous elder, whom Kelly sentenced to an unusually long stay in jail, has died while in custody. The danger I mentioned is stereotyping folks on the other side of the playwright’s argument — and Kelly is the obvious villain of this piece: she’s not just unsympathetic to political protest, she’s also a meddling mom. And the climax of the play is, frankly, a kind of kangaroo court, in which the audience is invited to judge Kelly for her actions. STILL, the play is smart enough to give Kelly some reasonable arguments, so there’s enough thematic tension to keep things interesting. And the characters’ relationships have sufficient nuance to keep that level bubbling. Overall, my response to this piece was invigoration. It’s great that The Judge’s Daughter is taking the climate emergency as seriously as it needs to be taken. It’s great that it champions climate action, including civil disobedience, as strongly as it does. And it’s great to experience all of the script’s energizing rage in an assembly of passionate, (mostly) frustrated people who recognize the mess we’re in and want to do something about it.

At the Revue Stage. Remaining performances on September 10 (:945 pm), 12 (6:45 pm), 14 (7:15 pm)*, 15 (8:30 pm), 16 (1:45 pm), and 17 (8:00 pm). Tickets

*Because an earlier performance was cancelled due to a cast member’s illness, this performance on Thursday, September 14 has been added. 


In Joanna Rannelli’s autobiographical solo show, she shares her deepest, darkest secrets, but a lot of them aren’t that deep or dark, so Private Parts gets off to a slow start. And, because she shares so many secrets, the weightier material, which does show up eventually, is undermined, because she hasn’t left enough room to develop it. Rannelli’s stories are low on metaphor, including theatrical metaphor. (There’s no overarching convention to contain them.) Still, she is a charming performer and I have no doubt that her life challenges will speak to many people. Largely because of her presence, I was reasonably engaged by this show, but I feel it would be stronger if it were more focused and theatrical.

At Ballet BC. Remaining performances on September 9 (4:15 pm), 10 (4:30 pm), 12 (8:50 pm), 14 (5:00 pm), and 16 (6:45 pm). Tickets

THE CHAIR ON THE DOOR (Fringe review)

Yeah, baby! This is how you do it. Travis Abels’s autobiographical solo show is about growing up in a doomsday cult. His church had particularly stringent prohibitions about sex but, when Travis was 12 — I’m going to refer to the theatrical character as Travis in this review — he started getting feelings “like a bottle of Sprite being shaken up inside” him. His dad was a preacher in the church and could deliver the brimstone, but Abels does a great job of showing his father as fully human: his dad laughed at crows; his dad and mom would shout “Emergency!” to one another whenever they needed a snuggle. Great details like this help to build great stories. And The Chair on the Door is a story that belongs in the theatre. In a central metaphor, Travis stuffs his sexual feelings into his bedroom closet. A monster grows ever bigger in there — and it demands to be fed. Abels has created an excellent soundscape, so we hear the slathering beast, creaking doors, and even an ironic narrator. The script is bursting with resonant imagery. Even when Travis is 22 and has been living a sexually adventuresome life in LA, he goes home to Indiana to find that his dad’s hug is a relief, “like homeostasis.” On meeting a romantic interest: “I hear this wild laugh. It sounds like a drunk saxophone.” And a kiss is “like early summer.” Abels is a freely physical, funny, openhearted performer. Go see this one.

At The Nest. Remaining performances on September 9 (9:30 pm), 10 (2:15 pm), 13 (9:15 pm), 15 (5:00 pm), and 16 (4:45 pm). Tickets

All Good Things Must Begin

sculpture: "Year 7: Cedar Window"

Cody Chancellor’s sculpture “Year 7: Cedar Window” is part of The Only Animal’s project “Thousand Year Theatre”.

In last week’s edition of my e-letter, FRESH SHEET, I invited readers to share knowledge about their favourite environmentally themed plays and theatrical resources. Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty came through big time.

She turned me on to Climate Change Theatre Action. Launched in 2015 by playwrights Chantal Bilodeau and Elaine Avila among others, this international initiative commissions 50 playwrights every second year to write short scripts — five minutes is the goal — about the climate crisis. These scripts are then available to folks to present, royalty-free, during the time period of a virtual festival. This year’s festival runs from September 17 to December 23. Its theme is “All Good Things Must Begin”.

Climate Change Theatre Action has also produced three anthologies of work drawn from previous festivals.

Kathleen also reminded me of Sunny Drake’s international podcast series of short plays, Climate Change and Other Small Talk. She particularly recommends Drake’s Absolutely Nothing of Any Meaning, Carmen Aguirre’s Rolling Hills, Green Pastures, and especially Ram Ganesh Kanatham’s Nothing Happens, in which a nuclear submarine in the Indian Ocean receives bizarre new orders and two sonar operators face existential threats.

On a roll, Kathleen also sent this link to Vancouver playwright Jordan Hall’s audio piece The Split, a proposed pilot episode for a science fiction podcast.

The Split is produced by The Only Animal, which is also associated with the Artist Brigade, “a leaderless national movement” dedicated to bringing “imagination, vision and the heart of artists into the telling of the climate story in order to mobilize a society paralyzed by climate anxiety and grief.” These are the folks behind the green-heart placards that made such an impact at Greta Thunberg’s Vancouver rally.

The Only Animal imagines another of its initiatives, The Thousand Year Theatre, enduring for a millennium. Here’s a video about a couple of the projects embedded in that undertaking. This set of offerings is situated in the proposed expanded area of Mt. Elphinstone Provincial Park.

Kathleen’s mention of Jordan Hall reminded me of Hall’s Kayak, an earlier climate-related script. The play’s environmentally conservative central character, Annie, sits in a kayak for the entire performance, lost, dehydrated and sunburnt, remembering and hallucinating scenes with her beloved son and his (to her) annoyingly activist girlfriend. Here’s my review from 2013. This play deserves more productions.

Many thanks to Kathleen for her informed response!

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