What do residents of comfortable first-world countries do when confronted with a massive and tragic refugee crisis? If my Facebook feed is any indication, they use it as an opportunity for posturing. One strain of internet argumentation rants and raves about the irreparable damage that bringing in a relatively minuscule number of refugees will do to our country’s social fabric, because Canada has obviously never allowed any foreigners in before. As loathsome and racist as this line of reasoning is, there is something no less annoying about people who appear to only post about the world’s catastrophic events in order to make sure that everyone knows what good and caring people they are. Can we ever truly understand the unimaginable horrors of war and genocide? And how can we help?
Trish Cooper’s new play Social Studies, playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until December 5th, both dissects and celebrates our attempts to do good. Val (Susinn McFarlen) is the kind of hippy-dippy mom who thinks that everyone who has cancer learns a valuable lesson from it. She turns saying Grace into a lecture about Western privilege and adopts a South Sudanese Lost Boy named Deng (Richie Diggs). His arrival to her family home coincides with the return of Val’s oldest daughter Jackie (Erin Moon), who is recovering from the dissolution of her marriage and is crestfallen to find a stranger in her childhood bedroom. The family’s younger daughter Sarah (Lili Beaudoin) is much more enthusiastic about Deng’s presence, possibly because her interest in Deng veers from the sociological (her social studies project about the Lost Boys functions as the play’s framing device) to the romantic.
Social Studies has a long running time, and most of its conflict only really gets going after the intermission. Yet the time we spend with this makeshift Winnipeg family pays off, as it gives the script the space to create fully realized and three-dimensional characters. Val slowly reveals the spine behind the drum circles, and shows herself to be a much more attentive mother than her daughters give her credit for. Sarah finds her role as the family’s speaker of uncomfortable truths, culminating in a hilarious and uncomfortable comic set piece when she comes home drunk and discloses what all the family members have been saying behind each other’s backs.
Beaudoin’s comic timing is consistently excellent, and she has strong chemistry with Moon. The script gets great mileage from contrasting Jackie’s entitlement and materialism with her mom’s altruism, and Jackie vocalizes unjust suspicions about Deng and scrutinizes him for holes in his story. But Moon’s committed performance makes the possibly unsympathetic character of Jackie completely believable and even loveable. Equally excellent is Richie Diggs, who fully inhabits the character of Deng. His entire body language transforms from ebullient and grateful at the play’s start to agonized as he realizes that his community’s tragedies have followed him to Canada. This transformation is breathtaking to behold.
First world problems, as one of history’s greatest hashtags has it, lack dignity. And while moving to Winnipeg may sound appealing at first, it has never solved anyone’s problems. Social Studies is at heart a sweet and funny look at the importance of empathy, with a heartwarming finish that may leave your eyes a little damp (just blame it on the rain). While it in no way sugarcoats the difficulty of sponsoring refugees, it makes a stirring case for the importance of doing so. Go see it, and then post about it on Facebook so all your friends know to see it too.
Social Studies is playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until December 5. Tickets and showtimes here.
Is there a word for the crippling fear of musicals? Librettophobia, maybe? I did not realize I was afflicted by this rare condition until I was sitting through the opening number of Patrick Street Productions and Touchstone Theatre’s entertaining new adaptation of Terry Fallis’ satirical novel about Canadian politics, The Best Laid Plans, playing at The York Theatre until October 3rd. Watching groups of cheerful faces darting around in well-choreographed patterns, singing loud yet comprehensible lyrics about the importance of elections, my face started to flush and my heart tightened. I don’t know why the performers’ unabashed joy produced such fear deep inside me -maybe I thought the audience would have to join them? But after they stopped singing and the audience started wildly applauding (as they did after every song!) I calmed down and allowed myself to enjoy the spectacle, and I’m glad I did. The Best Laid Plans is way funnier than Of Mice and Men.
Its somewhat convoluted story is about Daniel Addison (a very game Nick Fontaine), the idealistic young speechwriter for the Opposition Leader. When the plays starts, Addison has a bright future in politics, with a high-status position and a relationship with political aide Rachel (Shannon Chan-Kent), who he met when they got their lanyards tangled. It all goes down when he discovers Rachel underneath his boss, the slimy campaign manager Dick Warrington (Zahf Paroo), and rest assured this production does not skimp on the Dick jokes. Trying to beat a disgusted retreat from Ottawa, Addison ends up stuck with the Liberal Party’s most undesirable task: finding someone to beat the popular Finance Minister in the (fictional) Conservative stronghold riding Cumberland-Prescott. All he needs to do is run a losing campaign and he will be free from politics. He finally lands on his landlord, the irascible Scottish professor Angus McLintock (the great Andrew Wheeler), who only agrees to run on the condition that Addison takes over his teaching position (his description of teaching English to engineers as the worst form of torture in existence hit home with at least one member of the audience); that no actual campaigning occur; and that there is no chance of him winning. Of course, Addison’s careful plan goes awry…
The musical’s cast is uniformly excellent, with Meaghan Chenosky as Daniel’s love interest Lindsay a standout vocalist. While the lyrics contain perhaps a few too many caucus puns and crowd-pleasing CBC jokes, many of the song concepts are funny and original. A number about the great Canadian novel, which inexplicably includes a bear and Lindsay’s affectionate slam poetry pisstake (“O Canada, did you know politeness was a paintbrush?”) were silly fun. I especially enjoyed the ode/parody of CanCon galas set to our nation’s greatest montage song, “Hallelujah.” When we are first introduced to the characters of Kris and Qris, gender-queers who insist on being referred to as “Zem,” I was worried they would be the basis for puerile transphobic jokes, but Zem (warmly played by Steffanie Davis and Hal Wesley Rogers) turn out to be the play’s conscience. McLintock’s solo number “The Other Side,” mourning the death of his wife, was genuinely moving, and the Conservative Minister’s hypocritical and sexually charged paean to family values was a hoot.
All that said, the adaptation from novel to musical left passages of clumsy exposition, as Addison explained where and when a scene was taking place. The character of Addison probably also worked better on the page, as his spineless passivity and flirtations with entitled “nice guy” misogyny keep him from being too sympathetic of a hero. The attempts to make comedy out of parliamentary procedures and omnibus bills lacked the energy of the election material. Beyond these issues, The Best Laid Plans takes a scattershot approach to political satire in a moment when the country needs a flamethrower. Its central insight is that the populace will fall in love with and then abandon politicians like Angus who are willing to speak difficult truths. That is of course correct, but it’s also a small idea to build a whole play around.
Even if the plot of The Best Laid Plans failed to entirely win my vote, anyone who wants to support well-made and hilarious Canadian musicals should go see it as soon as possible. Furthermore, if you want to meaningfully support Canadian arts for years to come, please please please vote out Stephen Harper on October 19th.
The Best Laid Plans runs until October 3. Tickets and showtimes here: https://thecultch.com/events/the-best-laid-plans-a-musical/
While sitting and waiting for The Wonderheads‘ new feat of wordless maskwork, The Middle of Everywhere, to start, the kindly gentleman sitting next to me asked me if I knew what the show would be about. Not expecting my unprofessional lack of research to be exposed quite that quickly, I stammered that I thought it was about “space and time and stuff?” After spending an enjoyable hour in the world of The Middle of Everywhere, I’m afraid I’m not any closer to answering my neighbour’s question.
Have you ever been stuck on public transit and imagined what would happen if some vague, unspecified disaster took place, and you were stuck with the people on your Seabus/Skytrain/bus stop for a long period of time? You would have to overcome obstacles and fight bad guys; deeply hidden aspects of your personality would come to light; and inevitably you would need to commit unspeakable acts of cannibalism to stay alive? I’ve never imagined that either. But a much cuter version of this nightmarish premise is the base of the plot of The Middle of Everywhere, in which two disparate characters meet at a bus stop and discover a strange radio dial-like device that sends them to nooks and crannies of the universe. The professor Winston (Emily Windler), wearing a sweater-vest to signify his fuddy-duddyness, finds Penny (Kate Braidwood), a young girl running away from home and described by the narrator as “whimsical.” Along the way they encounter an adorable, furry monster named Angus (Andrew Phoenix) who becomes part of their ragtag gang.
The Wonderheads’ ability to convey character through their giant painstakingly constructed masks is magical, and the level of choreography necessary to be able to interact, perform physical comedy, and even dance (in one entertaining sequence set at a disco) while wearing the heavy masks is pretty incredible. Equally creative is the use of music, sound, and lighting cues to create an imagined world in the audience’s minds–we can instantly locate the characters as they flash between a dozen different settings, despite using few props and a nearly bare stage. The use of the spotlight is best in a literally dark scene which veers between horror, comedy, and Punch and Judy, as Penny and Winston search for the monster that is never where they are trying to look.
Various indignities are heaped upon poor Winston – he puts his back out while dancing, is shot at, and gets pooped on by an invisible bird, but of course he learns to confront his fears in the ACDC-soundtracked crowd-rocking denouement. Winston and Penny travel to many strange places on their adventure. Even if The Middle of Everywhere doesn’t really go anywhere, it’s fun, sweet, and it just might make you see the stage in a new light.
The Middle of Everywhere hit the stage at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival, which runs until Sept 20. For a full listing of upcoming Fringe events, visit the festival website.
The 2011 Canadian Federal Election Leaders Debate was by no means scintillating television. Jack Layton sprayed zingers, Michael Ignatieff made strained attempts at showing off his erudition, and Stephen Harper, for some reason I couldn’t figure out, adopted the manner of a particularly patient kindergarten teacher, speaking very slowly and avoiding any words that were liable to trouble an undecided Canadian voter, such as “climate change,” “Coast Guard closures,” or “oil spill.” He sopped up the other leaders’ barbs with a wide and creepy smile. I remember thinking it was impossible he had so little to say about, well, anything. You shouldn’t be able to win a debate while revealing nothing of your character, personality, or even basic opinions, right? Harper went on to win his first majority Government, of course. And everything in Canada has been fantastic ever since.
The uproarious recent comedy Proud, written by Michael Healey and playing at Strathcona’s Firehall Arts Centre until April 25, reimagines the Prime Minister who (as a particularly inspired piece of invective has it) seems like “a bag of mashed potatoes in a suit.” Set in an even more dystopic Canada than the one we currently inhabit, the Conservatives extend their landslide to Quebec, winning ridings with placeholder candidates who entered the race thinking they had no chance of winning. The play opens with the Prime Minister of Canada (Andrew Wheeler) directly addressing the audience while congratulating all his rookie MPs and lecturing them about discipline, just so the audience could discover for themselves what it feels like to be condescended to by Harper in person. After the opening monologue, the PM sits with his aide (Craig Erickson, amusing in twinkling sycophancy) and plans out Parliament seating arrangements—namely, how to get Conservative MPs who had wronged him in the past out of his line of eyesight. Into this den of propriety walks Jisabella Lyth (Emmelia Gordon), a newly minted young Quebec MP, wondering whether anyone could lend her a condom so that she can get it on with Evan Solomon (not a cameo performance, sadly). In the character of Lyth, Proud locates the perfect foil for our Prime Minister: a normal human woman.
Lyth becomes the PM’s ally, sometimes adversary, and sharp debating partner. She is a single mother and bar manager with no personal or emotional connection to politics. As she takes part in the PM’s scheme to distract the public from his true goals by tabling a no-hope anti-abortion bill (she is pro-choice and mentions how misleading the term “pro-life” is), she realizes that politics can be great fun if you are willing to abandon any real conviction. Healey’s script is wise and cynical about how people form their beliefs, positing that citizens just want to rant about what they oppose and find parties that hate the same things they do. The dialogue is consistently hilarious (characters tell each other to “pretend sex is like the United Nations: meaningless”), knowing, and chock full of quality CanCon jokes. I loved Lyth’s natural way with profanity, telling the Prime Minister “I’m gonna be fucked for names for a while,” though the script may over-rely on Stephen Harper dropping F-bombs.
Proud couldn’t work without fully committed lead performances, and both are fantastic. Emmelia Gordon is a force of fucking nature (I think that’s what her character would say), getting maximum laughs from each line reading. She has excellent timing with the difficult dialogue and her glee in achieving power is infectious. Andrew Wheeler’s Harper impression is uncanny, but the much more challenging task he accomplishes is to humanize the Prime Minister. He moves past the officious automaton of the opening scenes and reveals a man whose biggest problem is that he can’t let the public see his large vision for Canada. He is caring, pragmatic, and (horribly, horribly) sexy. I will never see Stephen Harper’s cardigan in the same way after having seen it ripped off in passion, no matter how much I may want to.
The play’s tone shifts between battle of ideas and sex farce, sometimes unsuccessfully, and I found the ending, which gestures at the next generation of Canadian politicians, to be incoherent. The script’s highlight is a bravura monologue in which the PM lists all the many things he only pretends to care about (Israel, the long gun registry, arts funding), naming and slaying every sacred cow of Canadian outrage from either side of the House of Commons. The PM only pursues these side issues so that he can give Canada “an appropriately-sized government,” an ideally mundane dream. Proud‘s conspiracy theory is that the people who are in power are secretly plotting to make the country much better, that when you get to know the man behind the curtain, he’s actually really swell.
It’s very comforting to think that our rulers only want what’s best for us, but (in my opinion and experience) it’s not true. So if you only leave your house once this year, for God and country’s sake, please use that trip to vote in 2015’s Federal Election (in October, unless chicanery occurs). But if you do happen to venture out more than once, go see Proud. You’ll have a fun time.
Proud will be playing at the Firehall Arts Centre April 7 – 25, 2015.
Info and tickets found here.
My Rabbi begins with its two main characters, the young rabbi Jacob (Joel Bernbaum) and the recently turned devout Muslim Arya (Kayvon Kelly), each praying on their own. The solemn dignity of the prayers filled the Firehall Arts Centre with a sense of awe, but as the two men moved closer together, the chants blended into a single, mildly painful cacophony. The play, which was also written by Kelly and Bernbaum, presents religious dogmas as dangerous ideologies that stop us from seeing the basic humanity of other tribes, though the script does try to depict the appeal of spiritual quests. My Rabbi is a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of culture, family, and most of all friendship, but at the same time is scabrously funny. In other words, I’ve never seen a play before that contains both the holy Jewish prayer of the Shema, and musings on how to calculate the exact calorie count of semen.
The main action of My Rabbi takes place in an anonymous Canadian bar, and flashes back and forth between the two men as close school-age friends, and as slightly older, less intimate, and more pious acquaintances years later. Kelly and Bernbaum’s timing and chemistry gives the early scenes a riotous energy—both characters are irreverent horndogs, bugging each other about who got laid, how it happened, and whether dry humping counts as sex. Their respective cultural heritages are merely grounds for mockery, directed both at each other and themselves. They exuberantly greet each other with “Mazel Tov, bitch!” and “Burka burka Mohammed jihad,” and they crack (hilarious!) jokes about taboo topics like money, terrorism, and the tensions of Jewish-Muslim relations.
This same tension tears the older Jacob and Arya apart, as Rabbi Jacob deals with attacks on his Toronto synagogue and Arya deals with the fallout of his conversion to Islam. Jacob’s discovery of religion is not as well-dramatized as Arya’s, which includes a lovely lyrical passage about his Hajj to Mecca. The religious versions of these men can no longer communicate through their old jokes, and the invisible wall between them is painful to watch. I wasn’t totally convinced by the play’s overly dramatic ending—the mundane and universal story of friends drifting apart worked quite well on its own. And it would be nice, just once, to see a show about Muslim characters that doesn’t end in violence. That said, the characters’ ability to overcome their ignorance is inspiring and cathartic.
Bernbaum and Kelly play a variety of characters successfully, including each other’s skeptical fathers and a Canadian interrogation agent. Bernbaum has a gangly stage presence and a deadpan wit, while Kelly is a magnetic performer, who can spout off about seemingly anything—I particularly enjoyed his rant about why he’d rather be called Persian than Iranian (“Iranian” is associated with airline attacks, but “‘Persian’ reminds people of nice things, like kitty cats and rugs!”). It might be a betrayal of my Jewish brethren to admit that the Muslim had the funniest lines. But no matter your background or religious beliefs, My Rabbi is a moving and provocative experience.
Peter n’ Chris shows are not easy to describe to the uninitiated. Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson turn minimalist stage sets into magic school buses filled with epic adventure and riotously silly comedy, using only energetic physical comedy, quick-witted banter, and the power of the human mind. I left their most recent Fringe Festival Show, Peter N’ Chris Explore Their Bodies, feeling like I had just witnessed a transcendent journey, while at the same time laughing my ever-loving ass off. Amazing that it was just two dudes in raggedy housecoats, right? Audiences seem to agree, and the duo piles up Canadian Comedy Awards and Best of Fringe picks like I pile up empty takeout containers.
With their penchant for exploring the outer limits of the creative possibilities of sketch comedy, it’s no wonder Carlone is resurrecting Vancouver’s Sketch Comedy Festival, at Granville Island from Jan. 23-25. The festival gathers together sketch performers from all over Canada and the USA, and also features local luminaries like the hilarious character comedian Andrew Barber, and the improv stars The Sunday Service. It also offers workshops by Chris Wilson, as well as by Mark and Kyle of the Comedy Network show Picnicface. Perhaps best of all, Peter and Chris will debut their new show Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral, which promises Western homages, high noon showdowns, and something called “mouth explosions.” Sadmag sat down with the comedians at The Cascade and, while Chris pilfered Peter’s fries, discussed sharing a bed, growing as performers, and of course babes.
Chris Wilson: That waitress is a smoky babe. She provides the smoke.
Sad Mag: So what qualities do you look for in a babe?
CW: Brunettes mostly. Smoky brunettes. Or just attractive women.
SM: Peter, you’re trying to gesture something…What do you look for in a babe?
Peter Carlone: That’s what I was trying to do, secretly gesture under the table. Great question! I have been told that my type is mousy small town angels.
CW: You can stop at mousy and just strike angels.
PC: You can stop eating my fries. Just a small town girl. Hardworking. Real innocent. Achilles heel for me.
CW : And if a girl is at all goofy…I fall in love with them.
PC: If a girl’s more powerful than me I am on board! I will follow them around.
CW : Same here with the power thing. A powerful goofiness.
SM: So how did you guys meet?
CW: I was attracted to Peter’s powerful goofiness. His smoky qualities.
PC: The real answer, not the really silly answer that Chris gave, is that we met at UVic. We were doing the theatre school there in the same classes and we started to fool around a bunch.
CW: Not physically…creatively.
PC : A little bit physically.
CW: Comedy is physical, but not sexual.
PC: And from there we did coffeehouse nights, which are basically glorified adult talent shows, and hosted awards nights and events and just did little bits here and there.
SM: Did you start performing the Peter n’ Chris show at Fringe Festivals?
CW: The first year we took it to Vancouver and Victoria. And our first show in Vic, I remember us almost selling it out the first shot. It went really well because we went to school there and we had all that support. And then we got to Vancouver, when we hadn’t moved there yet.
PC: In the basement of a church.
CW: We were at Pacific Theatre. We opened to seven people: our acting teacher, two friends, a reviewer, and two random old people.
PC: And one of them was the venue manager, who had to be there. And the two old people did not like it.
CW: No, they did not. They fell asleep.
PC: By the end, we had a pretty nice house, and we learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, namely the critics. A lot of times people say “I never trust the reviews.” I agree you should never read them during your show, but after the show, take a read. That helped me
CW: What hurt the most about the reviews for the first show is that I agreed with everything they were negatively pointing out! I still think about some reviews we’ve had. One was the first sentence of a piece in Monday Magazine in Victoria that said “It starts off painfully. Dreadfully. Slowly.” And she just did three sentences like that.
PC: And it was a three-star review!
CW: And then it went on to say “but then it gets better.” So I was like “We fucked up the beginning. Ok.”
PC: You don’t want to be in the show that gets better.
CW: Another one that goes through my head all the time is that I was handing out flyers at a festival, and a lady said, “Oh, I already saw it” I told her she should see it again. And she said, “Once was enough.” In just the harshest tones.
SM: Do you spend a lot of time together when you’re traveling to different Fringe Fests around the Country?
PC: I would say too much.
CW: But it’s a great time
PC: Every different sleeping arrangement you can think of, we’ve done. Like sleeping in a basement, sleeping on an overturned couch, sleeping in a car.
CW: Same bed.
PC: Same sleeping bag.
CW : Me being in his bachelor apartment. Which is right now.
SM: How are you able to avoid driving each other crazy?
CW: I think in that first year we got on each other’s nerves more than we have since.
PC: We were both going through something we both had never been through before, putting ourselves out there for the first time. So everything that went wrong was either my fault or Chris’s fault. I remember saying to Chris that whole first year, “I am never doing this again for sure. That was my first and last fringe, definitely.”
And then by the end it just doesn’t feel so bad. And then the next year it was also really stressful, but then it just gets easier. Once you’ve learned how to climb that one mountain you can climb that mountain again. And I think the same thing happens with Chris and I spending a lot of time together. It’s the same thing as romantic relationships, too. You just get better at spending time with that person. And then you’re also at a place where you are free to tell them if you are annoyed. You can just say, “Go away! I don’t want to talk to you!”
CW: We just became very open with each other in terms of talking out problems. Whereas in that first year, we had the sense that if you’re gonna be in a duo with somebody, you can’t have problems! Every night that first year, we said, “So what do you want to do tonight?” We still hang out all the time, not just for business.
SM: You just hang out for fun.
CW: Just hanging out for fun. Like we used to when we were real tight friends. Hmm, I said that in a weird way.
PC: We are not friends. We are strictly business partners. I am definitely demoting him to business partner after eating all my fries.
SM: Chris, you moved to Toronto a year ago. How are the comedy scenes different in Toronto and Vancouver, in your experience?
CW: There are more shows in Toronto, that’s for sure. That doesn’t mean they’re all well attended, but the ones that are popular are very popular. If you wanted to get up and do a show every single night you could, but I don’t have a lot of interest in doing that. I’ve been seeking out a lot of standup in character shows. There’s more sketch comedy, there’s more of everything, but there are very few improv groups continually doing improv. In Toronto you do shows as an individual.
SM: Are there any comedic styles or acts that you don’t agree on? Things that one of you finds funny and the other doesn’t?
PC: Maybe? I like stuffy British things and absurdity.
CW: And I like those all as well. Peter sends me stuff online all the time and everything he sends me, I have a laugh at. He likes animation a lot, and I like all the same animated shows.
SM: Chris, how will you approach your physicality in sketch comedy workshop?
CW: I think we’re just going to approach it the way Peter and I do I’ll just get everybody to take a common story that we all know, like Aesop’s Fables or The Tortoise and The Hare and tell the story physically and have fun with it. And also playing with cinema. Everything we do is staged cinematically, we always think about it in terms of what the camera is doing. The audience is the camera.
PC: In the same way that a magician’s whole idea is what they have the audience focus on, the comedian’s way is “How do I make the audience focus on something?” Sometimes it comes down to literally telling them, “This is what you’re looking at.”
CW: Everybody knows movies, we all watch them, so if you do it on stage and hint at what you’re going for…
It was a live theatre venue from 1913 until the late 70s, and was more recently known as the Raja, a Bollywood movie house. I remember it best as the music venue the New York Theatre, where at the tender age of 14, I saw local punk legends d.b.s. and somehow lost one of my shoes in the mosh pit. After a frantic hunt for the sneaker, my stomach sank as I saw the shoe get chucked at the band. It was a long and barefoot five-block walk home. The new renovation looks fantastic—the wood is glossy and the sightlines clear. But the punk rock spirit of the New York theatre imbues this telling of Jack and the Beanstalk, which uses the pantomime form of slapstick humour, parody songs, and drag performance to create barbed satire of Vancouver’s dreams and anxieties. And kids will love it, too! The show places Jack, played by an effervescent Maiko Yamamoto, and his poor single mother, play by a Steven Tyler-ish Allan Zinyk, in a Vancouver special, with so little food that they eat dust-bunny sashimi. Jack sells their only possession, a morose cow, at a farmer’s market for some special Vancouver magic beans that grow into a beanstalk under a hydroponic lamp. The stalk takes Jack up to the Giant’s giant condo in the sky, from which he attempts to steal a backyard chicken that lays golden eggs. Comedian and author Charles Demers’ script pokes fun at everything from Vancouver’s insecurity about real estate—the sleazy condo tycoon that sells Jack the magic beans claims they are special Vancouver beans that, magically, will never decrease in value—to residents’ self-imposed dietary restrictions—at one tense point Jack takes advantage of the Giant’s aversion to gluten to escape.
Veda Hille composed some original songs and wrote Vancouver-themed parodies of some classics, my favourite being the dreamy condo-envy ballad “Somewhere Just West of Cambie,” to the tune of Somewhere over the Rainbow, of course. And the Giant’s harp, played by a transcendentally silly Dawn Petten, just about runs off with the show with manic Celtic warbles of cheesy songs (the only music the Giant likes). Pantos are traditionally meant to entertain children as well as adults, and the smattering of kids in the audience looked like they were having a great time. The narrator Raugi Yu, a gifted clown, begins by inviting children to interact with the show, explaining that they need to loudly contradict the performers if they lie. Every exchange between the children and the performers was a hit, and I wish the show had provided more opportunities for the children to participate. Any fears that the modern youth of East Vancouver were too sophisticated or skeptical to enjoy panto entertainment were assuaged by the sight of children trying as hard as they could to help Jack blow the beanstalk down. Less charming was the grown-up in the audience who kept somberly intoning “It’s a bad deal,” when Jack traded the cow for beans. Perhaps not everyone in the audience needs a voice? Throughout the constant hilarity, the Panto never lets the audience forget our city’s sobering inequalities. Many classic fairy tales were underpinned by the economic realities of their time period—the high infant mortality rate of 16th century Bavaria may explain the gruesome end of so many children in Grimm stories.
Surviving in Vancouver can often feel like a fairy tale, in both its occasional magic and its impossibility. Go see the East Van Panto, and you will have enough local jokes to tell your friends for the entire holiday season. And you might just leave with a new perspective of the neighbourhood surrounding the York Theatre too.
N.O.N.C.E. (Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise) has no right to be as enjoyable as it is. A one-man, spoken-word piece about life as a poet-in-residence at Grendon Prison, Britain’s only “therapeutic prison,” N.O.N.C.E. interweaves slam poetry and pieces of the narrator’s failing engagement with a darkly hilarious account of prisoners learning to express themselves through verse.
Steve Larkin is a powerful performer, storyteller, and mimic. The material has the potential to be lurid, but Larkin generally avoids the temptation of shock value, with the exception of a couple of uproariously filthy stories. Instead, Larkin is empathetic towards the lives and poems of the men in the poetry group he creates. He finds a way to relate to them, even those that are imprisoned for sex offenses, who he notes, are the only people more despised than poets. Looking for new material, Larkin is candid about the reasoning behind the group’s creation. Though he initially is seeking out new content, the prisoners start to take on a life of their own through Larkin’s portrayals – something he never expected. In the group, each man is given the name of one of his favourite artists – Michaelangelo shares his poetry with 50 Cent and Bertolt Brecht – adding a comical element to this work.
The conflicts and triumphs of the poetry group are entrancing, whether Larkin is fumbling over giving feedback on incomprehensible writing or responding to a poem named “Crying and Wanking Over You.” When his colleague complains the poetry is dark, twisted, and hateful, Larkin replies that his job is to help the inmate create this type of verse.
As Larkin’s relationship collapses, the prison group becomes a refuge, and he admits he’d rather talk to some of the inmates about the breakup than to any therapist. It is a surprising and moving moment of human nature.
Less successful are Larkin’s musings about the connection between pornography use, sex offences, and misogyny, which shy away from presenting a firm point of view and instead present a variety of overheard opinions and anecdotes. The narrative also leaves the prison setting just at the point when a resolution seems close. Instead, he fills this moment with material about doing Fringe Festivals across Canada, diluting a possible denouement. At one point, Larkin shares a slam piece he performed at a feminist fundraiser called “She Said,” a ferocious account of a couple’s fight that rips patriarchy a new one. The poem was spellbinding, but I wish the entire piece was as focused. Still, N.O.N.C.E provides its audience with a chance to experience an intimidating world and leaves them inspired, and smiling.
For more information on N.O.N.C.E., including ticked information and show times, visit the show’s specific website. More details about the Vancouver Fringe Festival, which runs until September 15, can be found online.
Theatre Conspiracy‘s Extraction uses an innovative mix of real stories and audience participation to get under the surface of the workings of the international oil industry, focusing particularly on its effects on Beijing and Fort McMurray. Extraction‘s three storytellers are not professional theatre performers – Jimmy Mitchell, a Canadian journalist and diplomat who spent the majority of his career in China and Taiwan, grinned as he told the audience that once he finished a degree in theatre, he knew he was done with acting forever. Jason Wilson is a member of the Dene and Gitxsan nations who worked as an oil worker and a safety inspector on the Fort McMurray tarsands. He won the crowd over by welcoming “the chiefs, the honoured guests, and the rest of ya.” And Sunny Sun is a Chinese academic from Beijing who recently immigrated to Vancouver. All three have an appealing stage presence that more than makes up for a lack of polish. Extraction feels more like a conversation with friendly raconteurs than a political diatribe.
This casual feel is belied by the play’s digs at government and corporate hypocrisy and dissembling. Wilson’s tales of oil company neglect of worker safety and a hear-no-evil attitude towards whistleblowers intertwine with Mitchell and Sun’s anecdotes about the Chinese government’s reinterpretation of everyday life in Beijing. Sun and Mitchell switch between Chinese and English throughout the play, and the three performers focus on the ambiguities of language and translation, telling funny stories of the misunderstandings language barriers cause.
These gaps take on a more sinister tinge when the script compares the Canadian government’s insistence on calling the extraction fields oilsands rather than tarsands to the government of China blithely referring to Beijing’s deadly smog as “fog.” The discursive nature of Extraction‘s format means that some of the performer’s stories don’t cohere with the play’s larger themes. Yet the audience leaves with a sense of really having gotten to know the three lives at Extraction‘s centre.
The democratic approach to storytelling is reinforced by a charmingly lo-fi audience poll using text message, about questions ranging from whether the audience members used a car to get to the theatre to who should have the right to decide the proper terms for the tarsands. The backdrop screen shows Mandarin and English subtitles in beautiful scripts, as well as photos and clever animations. The stage’s ingenious hidden drawers demonstrate exactly how much tarsand was used in the making of Extraction, though the calculation did not take into account a very professionally handled mid-show fire alarm. Despite the deafening bell, the polite Canadian audience did not start leaving their seats until Mitchell assured us that the alarm was not part of the script. On our way out one theatregoer joked that it must have been Stephen Harper shutting down dissent.
Ironically, Theatre Conspiracy received the funding to research and produce Extraction by winning the Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award, an endowment created by a Canadian mining company. The Rio Tinto executive spoke after the play to announce this year’s endowment recipient, and appeared suitably abashed by the play he had unleashed on the world. Making company flacks feel uncomfortable is just one good reason to see this insightful exploration into the industry that just might end up defining our country’s future.
Extraction runs until March 9th at the Cultch. Tickets at thecultch.com or call 604.251.1363
Ride the Cyclone begins with the Amazing Karnack, a carnival fair “precognition machine,” which specializes in predicting the exact time of people’s deaths, introducing a bass-playing rat named Virgil who will cause both of their deaths by chewing through a live-wire.
Then, shit starts to get weird. Ride the Cyclone is a superb piece of musical theatre, the kind of play that makes you want to drag friends to repeat viewings. It tells of six members of a teenage choir from the small town of Uranium, Saskatchewan who die on a rollercoaster named the Cyclone. They spend the afterlife arguing with Karnack and each other about how to be resurrected, pondering whether their shortened lives had any value or meaning, and best of all each taking a turn singing hilarious, beautiful, and deeply bizarre songs exposing the rich inner lives their town and peers had no patience for. Unlike so many films and plays that condescend to non-urbanites and congratulate themselves for unpeeling the perfect facades of idyllic rural or suburban life, Cyclone depicts what beauty and madness inhabits the imagination of every human being.
This generous production gives every character the chance to shine, and the show has many highlights. Elliot Loran plays Ricky, a mute disabled nerd who is a rock star on the planet Zolar, whose fantasies of being a swinging intergalactic bachelor accompanied by a harem of alien catwomen are somehow both filthy and adorable. The character of Ukrainian gangsta rapper Misha (Jameson Parker) segues from a fantastic and heavily autotuned hip-hop parody (with the genre-summing refrain “my life is awesome/ this beat is awesome/ robots are awesome”) to a moving ode to his online girlfriend that he will never meet. Kelly Hudson’s Constance delivers a lovely soliloquy about life’s intense and rarely described moments that isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever seen attempted in theatre or cinema. And Kholby Wardell is a powerhouse in a cheap black wig, whose Genet-quoting Noel Gruber laments that being gay in a small town is like having a laptop in the Stone Age – “you have it, but there’s nowhere to plug it in.” His cabaret number “Fucked up Girl” transforms him into a dissolute Parisian prostitute who lives the life of drama and romance that Noel never could. In the preview performance I watched, Wardell’s physical and erotic performance just about brought the house down.
This version of Ride the Cyclone has some differences from the show that played in Vancouver in 2011, including a framing device wherein the characters compete to be the one that Karnack returns to the land of the living. Playwright Jacob Richmond gets great comic mileage from the competition’s enigmatic and ever-shifting rules, and the device gives the story clear narrative drive that was lacking in the earlier version. But it also feels slightly arbitrary and unconnected to Cyclone‘s central theme. Rielle Braid’s Type A brown-noser Ocean Rosenberg is thrust into the role of protagonist, but the removal of a song delving into her mixed family background prevent her from being as likable as she needs to be. Overall, Cyclone’s excellent singing, choreography, and biting social commentary are awe-inspiring. Victoria’s theatre company Atomic Vaudeville specializes in making magic happen on a small budget, and I’ve never seen one of their productions without being amazed by the complexity of their accomplishments.
One friend I saw Cyclone with said “I loved this show, and I fucking hate musicals.” Another friend said she wanted to try to act the whole thing out in her room the next day, or at least buy the soundtrack. Go Ride the Cyclone, once or five times.