18 June 2011

In praise of Sarah Vowell

Vowell has a masters in art history. She started her career as a rock critic, became a public radio commentator, then turned to writing populist history books written from a highly personal point of view. She's quirky with a singular sense of humour. Always great if you can learn and have fun at the same time. The Wordy Shipmates is about the puritans in America. What struck me despite the puritan's genuine Bible literacy and sometimes literacy full stop, is how batshit crazy they were, just like many right-wing Americans today. There's a real continuum there. 

Unfamiliar Fishes is about western contact with Hawaii starting with Cook and all the way to the eventual annexation in 1898. In all her books, Vowell writes about visiting historical sites and talking to curators and guides and uses this as a technique to weave the past with the present and her reactions to what she sees. The personal technique is in lieu of academically rigour but it does give a good idea of how history survives in every day life.

Assassination Vacation is the oldest of the three books and my favourite. Vowell travels around the US looking for historical sites linked to the assassinations of three American presidents, Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Like me, she keeps going back to the Lincoln Memorial, "the closest thing I have to a church". Three American presidents killed within thirty six years gives you an idea of how volatile the country has always been. She also rehabilitates Garfield, a forgotten president who escaped political corruption and might have made been a great president had he served for more the a few months. Garfield was a bookworm who would much have preferred staying in his library for the rest of his life. 

10 June 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar review

(Members of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photography by David Hou)

Jesus Christ Superstar

Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Des McAnuff

Avon Theatre
until October 29

(No spoilers below but still a warning: I don't talk about the shows in any detail because I believe in virginity when approaching art. Hopefully, by telling you what I like, you can figure out how to position yourself vis-a-vis my impressions and take it from there. Sorry for the vague modifiers and feel free to read this apology as a mask for lack of erudition. Either way, I still think this is for your own good.)

As a non-fan of musical theatre, I don't possess the necessary scope of knowledge nor the experience of a seasoned musicals spectator to write a review with the necessary critical acumen. This situation does not invalidate this endeavour I think since my point with this review is to tell you should believe all those extravagantly glowing and awe-struck critical reactions to the 2011 Stratford production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Critics have been promiscuous in dispensing superlatives for this show, so much so that readers might resist believing the hype. I'm here to set you straight, you with your hard earned cynicism and doubtfulness. I hope that my input as someone who doesn't like musical theatre and who likes Andrew Lloyd Webber even less might prove a useful gauge.

I would not have gone to see Jesus Christ Superstar had I not being obligated out of friendship. I was dreading it. I think I saw a few seconds of the film version on television once. I had to switch it off so irritating I found it. As we were making our way into the Avon Theatre to see Des McAnuff's version of the show, my companion who knows my feelings about musicals and Webber whispered to me, "close your eyes and think of England". 

As an audience member who had to be won, the energy on stage was probably the first thing that pulled me in. Not one hint of a grocery or to-do list ever entered flashed passed my ADHD brain. I can be deliberately reluctant (and so can you, hipster that you are) especially when my image as an artsy chic who is sooo cutting edge aesthetically is under threat. Redde Caesari quae sunt Caesaris: when faced with a convergence of such talent in conception and execution, to refuse to surrender and open up to the experience would have proved to be a form of self-injury.

The show only got better as it went along. Everyone, every aspect of the show is outstanding — costumes, sets, lighting, choreography, music, everything. Let's just say that the show is better than the sum of its parts; if you think about it, that is quite rare in live performance.

I do hope Josh Young isn't reading the reviews. He is wondrous and shouldn't be spoiled by excess of critical adulation. The part of Judas puts him at an advantage as it is by far the meatier part of the play. It allows for a range and depth rarely seen in the far too often thinly-drawn characters typical of the genre. You expect Judas to do a good job but Young connects with the audience from beginning to end. He's as stellar as an actor can be without ripping the carpet from under the rest of the show. Brilliant actor and singer. 

Pilate is potentially complex but with so little time on stage, I doubt many actors who have played the part in the past have been able to telegraph as much as Brent Carver  does in the role. Carver renders Pilate's turmoil with immediacy and quiet directness, a subtle feat in what is a crude artistic context (the musical theatre context, that is). He conveys sense of interiority to the audience while "rock" music is blasting. I could not help but be moved by his tears streaming down his face as he condemned Jesus.

I was entertained and compelled and that would have been more than enough but the show only got better. 

Jonathan Winsby does a great job in the lead role considering he was the understudy. Winsby is replacing Paul Nolan who is experiencing health problems. I saw Jonathan give a courageous performance in what was only his third performance. Some members of the public have expressed their disappointment at not seeing Nolan on stage, or so I've read. As a musical theatre neophyte, I have no idea what it is I am missing but Jonathan Winsby was especially good in the second half where he displayed Christ-like charisma and pain and feeling. 

I don't understand the politics of how such decisions are made but I understand performed in the premiere even though his voice was strained. I wish Winsby had performed. Now the "real" critics won't review his performance and that is a great shame.

Felicitations as well to Chillina Kennedy, that public and media darling on account of successful musical performances in previous Stratford seasons. Her voice and acting as disarmingly natural, she was a wonderful surprise to me.

When I got home after the show, I downloaded the motion picture soundtrack from iTunes. Now, I would like the record to reflect that I have not suddenly turned into a musical theatre nut. I simply wanted to confirm my suspicion that this Jesus Christ Superstar is a more insightful interpretation than the movie version. It is, by leaps and bounds. Kudos to Rick Fox, musical director. 

The musical theatre genre is a mystery to me for many reasons and I was always particularly intrigued by the relationship between a musical director, choreographer and director. I'm not sure what it is that McAnuff does when he directs a musical although one can logically deduct that part of his job consists in fusing different forms of expression together. He demonstrates his mastery throughout but the King Herod's Song number is an especially noteworthy example. I genuinely bow to Bruce Dow's Herod and ALL other aspects of this number — seriously, don't read about this scene in reviews, it will spoil your fun. In the end though, it is McAnuff who deserves idolisation for making this idiosyncratic scene work in the context as a sombre second half. To stage the scene as he does is a courageous move. Striking the wrong tone might have destroyed the rest of the show. The number brought down the house.

Jesus Christ Superstar has yet to make me want to see more musicals. To me, it is a genre saps meaning from story. I like to be entertained and I like to just have a  good time but, for me, that is contingent on substance. McAnuff's Jesus Christ Superstar isn't Chekov but it is extraordinary in itself. Even though I speak from a self-declared position of ignorance, I think the critical input around this show affords me the liberty to proclaim this Jesus Christ Superstar the best that musical theatre can be.

07 June 2011

Theatre and missionary sex

Random theatre photo: Tantalos, a theatre company in Iran rehearsing Medea
My first Shakespeare performance was in my native French at Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montréal. I didn’t know a word of English until my late teens and had only experienced Shakespeare in French thus far. Le Théâtre du Nouveau Mondeis one of the best renowned and prestigious theatre in Québec. I saw Le songe d’une nuit d’été directed by Robert Lepage. The production was erotically charged, if not explicit, erotic enough that I was glad I sat next to classmates and not my parents. We’d gone as a group of classmates to get a school group fare but Midsummer was not assigned that year so we hadn’t read it. When we talked to our teacher about it the next day, he said that a highly sexualised interpretation of Midsummer was right there in the text and that Lepage didn’t take much liberties at all.
Lepage’s production was a feast of colours and movement. It was frenetic and self-assured, the actors were bouncing off poles and scaffolds in a manner I would describe as well-adjusted and joyous crystal meth addicts. I remember Puck (played by a woman) often screaming her lines out to great effect. The overall effect was rather like having been brutalised emotionally and yet my memory isn’t doing this production justice after all these years because it was punctuated with beautiful moments of quietness and tenderness. Again, Lepage gave us a completely justifiable interpretation of the text with its Dionysian tendencies. I’d never seen anything like this in my life and I wanted it again and more every day. We went for coffee after the show and alternated between talking over each other and long silences whilst we were replaying bits in our heads and tried to make sense of what we’d seen.
I’m telling you this because of online discussions I’ve participated in over the weekend after the announcement that Des McAnuff will be leaving his post as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival at the end of the 2013 season and the announcement of the 2012 season line up. There was some disgruntlement over a so-called “Shakespeare” festival would only be offering three Shakespeare plays next year and the production of crowd pleasers like You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. If some Canadians cheer a right-wing fembots on cable TV for spewing vitriol over the public financing of a contemporary dancer, (Google Margie Gillis and Sun TV News) others wonder whether tax payers should foot the bill for Canadian productions of Broadway blockbusters. My take on it is that if Charlie Brown pays for Sophocles (also part of the 2012 season), I’ll take it.
McAnuff seems to have been a popular AD and many are sad to see him go. I’m not in the know enough to participate in discussions judging his AD-ship but every Stratford production I’ve seen under McAnuff’s tenure has been of high quality. In one discussion, we did muse about who would make a good replacement and I argued for an iconoclast.
In reading what follows, please don’t think I have a bad opinion of Ontario theatre versus Québec theatre. I lived in London for several years and saw the likes of Jacobi, Stevenson, Fiennes, Ejiofor and Russell Beale in pedestrian productions that had the imagination and experimental qualities of missionary sex. I have seen wonderfully inventive theatre in Toronto but, and there is a but, I have seen it mostly in tiny theatres, productions the mass public doesn’t easily have access to. I can assert this because even me, as someone who occasionally works in theatre, often almost miss such amazing productions, so ephemeral and small scale they are. 
What I am comparing are the big, prestigious non-for-profit Québec versus Ontario theatres who at least dabble in repertoire and new productions and get millions of dollars in funding year after year. My knowledge is not comprehensive but from my point of view one province is far more willing to challenge its audience than the other. Is this a cultural thing? Are Ontario audiences far more conservative? I truly could not tell you but when I saw the Lepage (sorry, him again) production ofProject Andersen at CanStage last year, the theatre was so packed, one could hardly breathe. One thing we’re aware of as audience members even if we’re not paying attention to others is the level of attention being directed to the show in front of us. Not one cough, I tell you. I’ve never seen such a captive audience since I moved to Ontario almost ten years ago. Too bad the word “rapture” has taken such unfortunate connotations these days as it would have proved a fitting term.
Talking to other commenters online, the issue of audience development came up as it always does. In terms of content, do we reach for the audience with crowd-pleasing productions or do we ask the audience to rise the material? I refuse this idea that the internet and Xbox have drawn bums off theatre seats. People between the ages of twenty and fifty (an age group woefully underrepresented in theatre audiences) do drop one to two hundred dollars on a meal at a trendy restaurant rather than go to the theatre. That’s, I do know.
Thinking more generally about why many people don’t go to the theatre it struck me that maybe some people stay home because they are more challenged there. Television has come a long way and the risks and experiments taken by shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, Breaking Bad, and so on make many contemporary theatre productions seem positively provincial. I’m not taking about mature language, violence and sex but about complex, substantive, layered content which forces me to think and sparks many long conversations in aforementioned eateries discussing David Chase, David Milch, David Simon and Matthew Weiner (respectively creators of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and Mad Men). Look for Bill Moyers’ interview of David Simon or the five hour interview of Matthew Weiner by the American Television Archive on youtube. These are thinking men with a highly developed sense of aesthetics. My point is this though: if television takes more risk than theatre then there is something very wrong and perhaps we cannot chastise an audience for not turning up.
Theatre has advantages over other media: intimacy and immediacy. When done well, it’s an art form that distinguishes itself from the pack in its visceral impact. I don’t expect every single play I see to achieve this but I certainly think it should try. Or not. Maybe I just need to learn my place, maybe I belong in tiny theatres at the end of dark alleys. I don’t mind going there but it’s a tad strange that someone like me who lives a very middle-class lifestyle and who is getting rather long in the tooth feels the need to turn to countercultural outlets of theatre. That’s not the case with other art forms. HBO and Ian McEwan are mainstream, they are not the “dark alleys” of their medium. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who feels this way, it is possible that theatre are not filled, or not filled with people who are going to be alive in twenty years from now because theatre does not go far enough. We may need to rethink this idea that one can never underestimate the taste of the population.
I have recently moved from Toronto to Stratford and I’m having a great time going to the festival this year. No production has turned me inside out yet, but every show I’ve seen has been good. Repertory demands great acting talent and, to be honest, that level of quality is rarely found in my “alleys”. An actor needs time, support, and mentors to achieve great performances. This takes money and Stratford is obviously a great place for actors to hone their skills. I am truly grateful I will get to see every Stratford show this year. There is nothing like the best lines ever penned down in humankind being spoken by the best actors in the world. When I first saw Simon Russell Beale playing Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi, I felt completely overtaken by him. Let’s be blunt about it, missionary sex with a great partner can be hugely satisfying.
Despite all this, I must admit, I’m still puzzled over why the big Ontario productions I’ve seen in the last ten years stand so far away from the precipice. I’m not talking about stunts like actors urinating on stage, shock for shock value. I’m not a prude and I understand how certain extremes have a dialectical purpose in art but I’m far more conservative than that. We all have our thresholds and as an artist I do force myself to see what I know will make me feel uncomfortable at times but I’m not sure this is a demand on the audience that can/should be applied widely. So, I’m a bit conservative but “Truth is beauty, beauty, truth…” is my motto and this means that when I see a Shakespeare play on stage I want to see something I’ve never seen before. The text affords theatremakers unlimited possibilities. On the other hand, I do know a few SSF people personally and I get the feeling they do feel the festival has its edgy tendencies. It’s all subjective. 
The matter of the audience, in my humble opinion, is a broader social question; it’s the commitment to educate children to be subversive aesthetically because that is the only way to nourish and advance culture. I’ll extend Woody Allen’s comparison of selachimorphas and love and state that culture is like a shark. If it stops moving, it dies. If there is one thing we can all agree on I think it’s the notion that we, our contemporaries, do all kinds of things not to be numbed. Video games, extreme sports, and all kinds of behaviours online and off. I want to add theatre to be on this list, a theatre that not only excites but takes us to the precipice because the precipice is where art happens. It’s where a life is examined and therefore understood and truly lived. It is where we feel in a world that numbs us.