Monday, October 4, 2010

Electrifying theatre

Electric Company is the darling of the Vancouver theatre scene. Always creative, frequently innovative, the company has become the poster child for Vancouver’s reputation as a hotbed of “new” theatre. A lot of that attention is well-deserved and as I watched their latest offering Tear the Curtain!, I found myself wishing I had the power to extend their fame across the country and around the world. Work like this could do a lot for Canadian culture. Anyone who cares about the arts in this country should see this show. Anyone struggling to make art would be honoured to be splashed by the ocean of its genius.

The show is a fascinating blend of film and theatre – one of Electric Company’s hallmarks. In a previous production, director Kim Collier used film to re-envision and re-energize Sartre’s existentialist classic No Exit. That show has received productions in several Canadian cities and will soon play San Fransisco’s A Contemporary Theatre. It’s intriguing and inventive and its success is well-deserved. But in my estimation, it has nothing on Tear the Curtain!.

Whereas No Exit uses live-to-film interludes to show us close ups of what is happening in hotel hell, Tear the Curtain! uses actual movie footage, created by the company to be integrated into the live performance. The film footage is fascinating and fully-realized, helped in large part by Peter Allen’s fabulous score. It has all the ambience of the 1920s setting enlivened by incredibly present performances. When I was watching No Exit, I was less interested in the actors on film than in person. But in Tear the Curtain!, the enormous faces of Dawn Petten’s endearing Mavis and Jonathon Young’s enigmatic Alex drew me into their world and made me eager to see the actual actors’ live performance even while I was captivated by them on film.

That’s the most incredible accomplishment of this piece. While some of the dialogue debates the relative superiority of film or theatre (a fitting topic in a show which explores the possible history of the Stanley Theatre’s life as a presenter of both) the production uses each medium to enrich and strengthen the other. The film sequences offer detail and tone that enhances our appreciation for the live, and the live scenes contribute immediacy and vibrancy that invigorates our sense that anything can happen. Furthermore, Tear the Curtain! marries form and content. One of my biggest pet peeves in the contemporary theatre (likely whined about in this blog) is the frequent triumph of style over substance. I have long contended that, in order to be succesful, spectacle must serve story. It does so here, brilliantly.

This interplay is so successful largely because the production is a technical marvel. The integration of film and live theatre is so seamless it seems almost impossible. Each time a door opens on film and someone walks out of it on stage we are again amazed at the artistry. At times when the film images are projected onto the rough walls of the set, the disorienting effect is the perfect paradigm for the mystery of the characters and the complexity of the story.

Part of my delight with the production is its provocative questioning and abundant paradoxes. I have always been intrigued by plays that wrestle with the line between reality and fiction, between truth and madness. This show keeps you on your toes in a way that defies easy answers and short summaries. But although the twists and turns can be disorienting they are never distressing. The journey is such an adventure that we are happy to simply hold on to our seats and keep our eyes wide open, hoping to have the time to evaluate once it’s done.

The show is not just technologically adept. It is thought-provoking, funny, and full of heart. At its core, Tear the Curtain! is an exploration of the central value of the arts in our search to make sense of our world and to find the ending we long for. When Jonathon Young steps forward to deliver a monologue which one could say broke the eighth wall (the fourth dissolved ages before), the transparency of his soul is a gift.

I don’t know who deserves credit for this triumph, exactly. A production like this clearly requires many collaborators pooling their brilliance. Director Kim Collier, along with co-creators Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr must take the lion’s share. But there is plenty of praise to go around. David Roberts' production design, Brian Johnson's photography direction, Miguel Nunes' sound design, Alex Craig's editing, and Michael Sider's "video wrangling" have all contributed immeasurably. Nancy Bryant's costume design works on stage and on screen to bring these characters lovingly to life. And the actors? Dawn Petten makes us fall in love with her from the first frame, charmingly inhabiting that girl Friday staple of the era without ever seeming stale or derivative. Laura Mennell’s on screen presence is delicious, making it easy to see her as a film star and a kingmaker. James Fagan Tait’s trademark raspy voice is perfect for the elusive and eerie Stanley Lee, and Tom McBeath and Gerard Plunkett are typically terrific in a cast without a weak link. Stage manager Jan Hodgson and her assistant Jennifer Swan also deserve kudos as keeping this machine running smoothly must be their somewhat daunting responsibility.

The role of the Arts Club Theatre and its artistic managing director Bill Millerd (who has an amusing cameo in a film sequence party) cannot be understated. Taking on a project like this, with its enormous scope and demanding technical needs, is not a job for the faint of heart. I can only imagine how Kim and Jon attempted to explain their vision; it had to be a leap of faith that empowered Millerd to produce this show.

We can only hope that other artistic directors will grab some of his courage and invite Electric Company to remount Tear the Curtain! so that it gains the profile it so richly deserves.

Back at it

This blog has lain fallow for many months not because I haven’t been seeing theatre but because seeing a lot of theatre and writing about a lot of theatre, when one has a 70 hour/week job and a young family, is frequently more than I can handle. But I can’t quite face giving up, so this fall - this time of beginning again - marks a new start for Irresistible Theatre.

It’s perhaps fitting that the first entry of my return to blogging celebrates my return to Fringing. I have not attended the Vancouver International Fringe Festival in many years. Living in the suburbs, combined with the intensity of September in the university calendar (particularly when I’m directing) make the Fringe schedule a challenge. But this year, I’m making it happen.

I’ve seen three shows so far, all one person offerings but otherwise very different.

Dirt by Robert Schneider, is a critically acclaimed offering from New York which receives its 100th performance during the VIFF. Christopher Domig plays Sad, an Iraqi immigrant in an unnamed city, who makes his living selling single roses, offering small tokens of romance to men and women on the streets. The roses are a fitting metaphor for Sad’s efforts to make his way – beautiful, fragile, having travelled such great distance that they have lost their defining scent.

Domig’s performance won him the best actor award at the New York fringe and the production claims accolades in Berlin, London, and Edinburgh as well. Although I can appreciate the performer’s talent, I can’t summon the same sympathies for the show. The script is so rambling and circular that it is almost completely lacking in story – the indefinable “what happens next” element that keeps us engaged. Given the show’s advance press and my natural sympathies for the subject, I expected to be riveted. Instead, I was bored.

I’m nervous admitting this. Given Dirt's many admirers, clearly it’s my problem. But I’m going out on a limb here because there might be someone else who felt as I did and who is afraid to speak up. I’m not fond of sacred cows in the theatre; too often I wonder if I’m the only one who noticed that the emperor has no clothes. This might be one of those times. But I can’t be sure since so many reputable others have seen something I did not. Is the show universally adored or are dissenters merely silent? (The woman in front of me who spent most of the performance on her IPhone doesn’t count as she didn’t try nearly as hard as I did to find a way in.)

The second show I saw was Stretch Dog by Vancouver actor/playwright Rob Olguin. Olguin has expanded his MFA solo project show into a one act revelation of fear and loathing, a rant about the trials of making a living as an actor, a lament about the incredible tensions theatre provides for a husband and new father. The writing is clever and filled with humour, weaving three independent stories together into a map of this man’s halting journey. The stories are both delightfully original and painfully familiar, signposts of self-discovery as recognizable as the faceless agent holding the actor’s future in his hands. The piece showcases Olguin’s physical and emotional flexibility, with particularly satisfying moments of complete vulnerability.

Confessions of a Paperboy is a reasonably well-known Canadian script, presented at this year’s Fringe by Vancouver newcomer Giovanni Mocibob. As ten-year-old paperboy, Christopher Columbus, Mocibob exudes energy and innocence not often found in someone midway through his third decade. The script and the performer are charming, drawing us into life in Calgary in the 70s, before big news companies replaced paperboys on bicycles with papermen in station wagons. Playing a range of customers as well as Christopher’s family, Mocibob chooses subtle changes of voice and manner to effectively communicate their pain and yearning. The set is more fully realized than many at the Fringe, testament to its transplant from an earlier mounting in Rosebud, Alberta, and it’s white picket fencing is mostly successful. Director Paul F. Muir has skillfully adapted the show to Pacific Theatre’s two-sided space.

I intended to post this two weeks ago but life interfered. It also got in the way of my hopes to see more at this year’s Fringe Festival but I am confident that next year I’ll head back.