Sunday, June 14, 2009

Spring Theatre Fever

Recently, I was talking with a friend about the Touchstone/Horseshoes & Hand Grenades/Felix Culpa co-production of Judith Thompson’s Iraq war play, Palace of the End. I realized a number of things during that conversation, not the least of which was how much good theatre I have seen in Vancouver this spring.

Palace of the End is good theatre. The stories are compelling, the topic is relevant, the staging is thoughtful, and the performances are strong. But perhaps most important, it’s good theatre because it does what no other art form can. Three characters based on real people tell their stories directly to us. The urgency of the topic seizes our attention. The conviction of their speeches demands our allegiance. The intimacy of the space prevents our escape. No other art could confront us so directly or engage us so completely. No other art is likely to make us that uncomfortable. And frankly, discomfort gets big points in my assessment of worthwhile theatre.

Antigone Undone also accomplished what no other art form can, though in a completely different way. A creation of the unceasingly inventive Leaky Heaven Circus, this Antigone bears little resemblance to those of Anouilh and Sophocles. You enter a small upper room at the Russian Hall (think: Legion) to find rows of swivel office chairs surrounded by a narrow platform stage. Painted black, the walls hold various props: a pitcher of water, a series of kitchen implements, a hand beater, an egg, a microwave. The techno-pop soundtrack is loud and catchy, inviting patrons to swivel-dance their chairs as they wait expectantly for the magic to unfold.

With lip-synching, cross-dressing, movement sequences, and film clips, the piece could be considered more performance art than play, despite being inspired by one of the Greek masters. But who cares? I was thoroughly entertained, always intrigued, and constantly delighted. And I now know what happens when you microwave a bar of Ivory soap.

Earlier in May I saw John and Beatrice by Carole Frechete, presented by Pi Theatre. A great success last year, this production marks the third remount for the company, a co-pro with Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre. Somehow, I had missed both other rounds and I was determined to see it this time. I’m glad I did. Vincent Gale was a revelation as John, inhabiting the character so completely that I wanted to get up on stage and introduce myself to see who would respond. Patricia Drake took over Karen Rae’s role as Beatrice and although I heard how wonderful Rae was, it’s hard to imagine a more endearing representation of the strange and seductive Beatrice. Add to the inspiring performances an intriguing script that never reveals where it’s headed and you have a most satisfying evening at the theatre.

Many other shows this spring were worth seeing. Tempus Theatre’s 36 Views was a handsome production of another stimulating script and Michael Kopsa’s performance as Wheeler was fabulous. A Theatre Conspiracy and Rumble co-pro, Blackbird by Scottish playwright David Harrower offers new perspectives and insights into sexual abuse in a piece that is both disturbing and moving. The Electric Company remount of Studies in Motion reminded me what I liked the first time. It pushes the boundaries of what can and should be done on stage, revealing spectacular movement sequences that will live in my mind forever. The brilliance of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing was beautifully brought to life in the Arts Club production, by a perfect cast with unusually perfect accents. It made me want to examine my relationships, embrace my husband, and read the play.

Many, many, more shows this spring revealed again what a fantastic theatre town Vancouver is and made me grateful to live here. Tomorrow night, Vancouver will celebrate live theatre at the annual Jessie Awards. Although awards ceremonies – like top ten lists – are a tricky business, I think it is important to hold these events and important to attend them. When excellence in the arts is recognized and celebrated, we all win.

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