Thursday, February 25, 2010

Courageous Is

Maybe I got what I asked for. I wanted story and this week I saw a play that had two.

The first act of Michael Healey's Courageous, now receiving its world premiere at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre, is about Tom, a devout Catholic marriage commissioner who refuses to marry a gay couple because it goes against his faith, despite the fact that he himself is gay.

The second act takes up the story of a minor character in the first act, a white trash child-man named Todd who marries his equally juvenile and potty-mouthed girlfriend at the very beginning of the play. A straight couple that seems doomed for failure and oblivious to the meaning, privilege, and responsibility of marriage.

On the surface, the stories are related only in that six-degrees-of-separation kind of way. But thematically, they are kissing cousins and unraveling the relationship is half the fun of a very fun evening.

It's a play I wish I could see again. Partly to watch for the connections between the acts with the knowledge gleaned from having seen both, partly so I can write down more of the clever funny lines, and partly so that I can hear and ponder the intricacies of the arguments about faith and behaviour. And there are many.

In one particularly satisfying scene, Tom and Brian (the lawyer he refused to marry) are waiting for the adjudicator at the human rights tribunal that is hearing Brian's complaint. They suspect they have been left alone to see if they can work out their differences and they certainly try. Tom's passionate and intelligent articulation of his faith - how and why it matters - could spur a conversion. His willingness to turn the other cheek, and his understanding of the power and importance of forgiveness, give substance to his assertion that we have lots of opportunities every day to "behave like a Christian".

Todd's story is completely different. Married young, this skater-dude is now a jobless father whose approach to life can be summed up by the fact that he never does something until he has been asked four times, which is his way of determining if it's worth doing. When his wife Tammy nags him to get a job (four times, of course) he finally does and that's when things truly get complicated.

The acts have completely different protagonists and conflicts; they also use a different theatrical style. While Act I is straightforward realism, the events of Act II are framed - and frequently interrupted - by Todd's narration, a narration that not only tells the story but demands the audience pay attention to the lessons he is learning from his life. Act II begins with Todd commenting on the first act, ("That was harsh, eh?")and then capsulizing the typical approach to life in two questions: "What should I do?" and "Am I happy?" As he finally comes of age he discovers that the first question might be a lot more important than the second.

En route to self-discovery, Todd's life is affected and changed by Christians. His boss is a born-again recovering alcoholic and his Somali neighbor and co-worker "gets religion" under the boss's guidance. When those two apparently kidnap Todd and Tammy's daughter, we are afraid for her safety and their sanity. But the revelation that they have taken the baby to be baptized - and the equally surprising discovery that Tammy regards the action as a beautiful gift - shape Todd's life and the conclusion of the play.

I'm still working through the connections between the acts, still wondering why Michael Healey structured Courageous this way, still debating whether it was the right or best choice.

All I know for sure is that this is my favourite kind of play - one that makes you laugh and makes you think, one that makes you want to write down things the characters say and post them on your wall. Or at least think about them some more.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

PuShing My Buttons

I’ve been thinking a lot about contemporary theatre these days. No, that’s not an event, really. But In the last two weeks I have seen seven shows that are “new”, mostly as part of Vancouver’s much-lauded PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

I love PuSh. I love the opportunity to see shows from around the world, to, in a small way, put my finger on the pulse of the body of contemporary theatre. I love the impetus for local groups to create works that are innovative and unusual. I love the energy of walking into a show knowing that the promo blurb didn’t really prepare me for what’s about to happen, that it couldn’t because the performance will be indescribable. I love the way it makes me think about my art form and expand my ideas of what theatre is. I love the idea of this Festival and the respect and enthusiasm it generates in and about Vancouver artists.

But, true to my nature, I also hate PuSh. I hate the complete focus on works that are strange and experimental. I hate the celebration of what’s offensive in the name of art (exemplified by this year’s poster child, Jerk). I hate the lack of dialogue and relationship. I hate the almost total absence of story.

And that’s the crux of the matter for me. Where have all the stories gone? If PuSh is a true and accurate representation of contemporary world theatre, is story completely passé? None of the shows I saw at PuSh (nor, as near as I can tell, any of the shows I did not see) were primarily concerned with story, with the exception of The Edward Curtis Project. (Interestingly, the promotional paragraph in the PuSh program emphasizes Edward Curtis’s interdisciplinary and political nature and does not even hint at the centrality of a human story.)

There were elements of story, certainly. In Nevermore, the story is fairly clear and undeniably important. But it isn’t central. The spectacular images and evocative music created by the genius team of Jonathan Christenson and Brette Gerecke will live on in my mind for years. But Poe’s life provides inspiration and context for those elements rather than a traditional linear narrative.

With Kamp, we take the story of the holocaust in with us. And given the unrelenting horror of each day in the concentration camps, and the inescapable reality that the prisoners suffered, the show is justifiably and movingly not linear.

In The Passion of Joan of Arc, story exists in our minds (because most are familiar with the basics of her tale) and in the projected lines of dialogue from the original silent film. So there is a sort of story and certainly a linear progression towards Joan’s inevitable death. But spectacle, not story, rules.

Poetics: A Ballet Brut teases us with the potential of story, as it teases us with the potential of relationship. But none of the potential of this piece is fully realized and the lack of clear structure and meaning appears carefully calculated, a kind of up-your-nose self-consciousness that likely earned them their reputation as “the most buzzed about new troupe on the New York avant-garde scene.” The fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable piece involving the “secret dancers”, along with the delightfully out of place pink tutu-clad ballerina, come close to providing context and meaning, however undefined. But it is too little, too late, and too overshadowed by a series of numbers that dare us to say the emperor has no clothes.

The sensory overload of White Cabin was remarkable. Intriguing, engaging, and artistic, the creativity and chaos of the production land it at the top of my “shows I never want to stage manage” list. But it isn’t about story. There is a charming sequence in the middle in which the two male performers exchange a series of sumo-wrestler style belly bumps. The audience was completely enchanted, on the edge of their seats, chuckling appreciatively. I think the reason this sequence is so compelling is that it was one of the few times when we saw the “characters” interact, and as humans we are wired to long for relationship.

The whole experience of PuSh has placed me in a bit of a personal quandary. I love story. As an undergrad, I was a TA in the English Department and I remember telling people that “theatre has my body, but English has my heart”. My fundamental reason for doing theatre is because it enables us to literally bring stories to life.

But I also love spectacle. I love theatre that can’t be anything else, theatre that tells the story by immersing us in experiences and images that could never be captured in a book or on film. To sacrifice the technical artistry of light, set, costumes, and sound on the altar of “the well-made play” would be a great tragedy. But to tell a great tragedy – or a great comedy or drama – is a privilege that cannot be abandoned in pursuit of what’s “cool”.