Sunday, July 10, 2011

The 2011 Summer Stage Review (Part I)

That's right. There's a third feature this year in The Summer Stage Review. Basically, it's turned into a summer of much theatre viewing, so I figured I'd toss this into the mix to keep Sonya happy.

I'm no review writer, so I'll just drop a few thoughts and comments about the live shows I see between July 1 and Labour Day, and there will be a few. Already, I've several shows to comment upon and we're only a week in. Here we go.

9 to 5: The Musical at the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts (Dancap)

They've taken the movie from the 80s and developed it into a musical with music by Dolly Parton and featuring Ms. Parton in a video-recorded narrative role to bookend the show.

In a nutshell, three women working under an absolute chauvenist end up working together to take revenge upon him for his abuses and to take charge of the company where they work. Is this high art? No. Does it pretend to be high art? No. Is it good fun? Absolutely!

Two things stood out for me.

One: Dolly Parton truly is a skilled songwriter.

Two: Diana Degarmo, runner up in season somethingorother of Americal Idol does a decent impersonation of Dolly.

The Admirable Chrichton at the Shaw Festival Theatre

I wasn’t familiar with this play of J.M. Barrie’s so I was intrigued to see it.

The play plays with the notion of classes and their “natural order”. Crichton, a butler to end all butlers, is mortified by his master’s monthly tea parties in which servants mingle with the aristocracy to prove that they are all equal. Each in its place is his preference. When the family, along with Chrichton and one other servant, are marooned on a desert aisle, the natural order shifts dramatically, as the servants are the only ones equipped for survival. Upon a return to England some years later, the question becomes whether things can be as they once were.

The show is still in previews and suffered, at times, from some pacing issues as energy and momentum waxed and waned a bit. Lighting was also a bit erratic, particularly during the second and third acts. Overall, though, it was an enjoyable performance. Of particular note was the use of a narrative structure which, I’m quite certain, was developed specifically for this production. Anthropomorphized animal narrators contribute to the storytelling using (I’m quite certain), stage directions – the wit and detail of stage directions is something for which Barrie is known – and documented comments he had made about the performance. Unlike Stratford’s narrator-based structure for Peter Pan last year, which for me conflicted with the intent of the original and continually caused me to withdraw from the play’s action, this use of narration brought new energy and helped to keep momentum going, and further acted to highlight the play’s core in social commentary.

In short, while not a spectacular production, at this point approaching opening in a few days, it was solid and pleasant.

And then there was ...
The Grapes of Wrath at the Avon Theatre (Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

I went into this show feeling really pumped up, eager to learn the story – I’ve read several of Steinbeck’s novels, but not this one – and open to being moved, touched, and wrecked by the performance.

The lights dim.

The haunting sound of a saw being played with a bow fills the theatre.

The lights come up behind the scrim revealing a trio of musicians, whose melancholy melody accompanies the arrival of Tom, home on parole from prison.

And that was the moment in which I was most emotionally engaged in the performance.

That probably seems terribly sarcastic, but it’s true. Those first moments held so much promise, but the promise went unfulfilled. My greatest disappointment amidst many disappointments was the lack of connection I felt with the characters. I felt nothing and I was very much a viewer throughout, watching the action from an emotional distance and basically waiting for it to end. The characters, on the whole, seemed painted with very broad strokes, creating a “folksy” tone that kept them at an arm’s length. It was too comedic for The Grapes of Wrath, not comedic enough for an episode of the Hillbillies.

Believe me, that’s the short version of my critique.

Jesus Christ Superstar at the Avon Theatre (Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

I was told to expect good things from this production and was not disappointed.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a show which, as a vehicle, I like but don’t necessarily love. I’ve seen good productions, I’ve seen weak productions. This was certainly the strongest I’ve ever seen.

From the overture, staged to establish the tensions between Jews and Romans, to the final scenes, in which Jesus’ body suspended before a stark white cross is backdropped by scrolling text from the Gospels, I was quite gripped. Choreography was inventive, but not intrusive. Vocals from the entire cast were strong (though Paul Nolan as Jesus seemed to be a bit strained at times), and the set was versatile yet deceptively simple.

Most importantly, however, was the clarity of the story. Judas’ struggles with conflicting emotions about Jesus and his celebrity come to the forefront. He betrays his friend because he cannot fathom, or even envision, the scope of Jesus’ mission. The ending, often controversial for its lack of a resurrection, allows for interpretation without seeming contrived or like a safe “out”.

Incidentally, a friend of mine is in his first season at the Festival, and plays Simon Zealots in this production. Needless to say, he’s thrilled to have his Stratford premier in a show getting the sort of “buzz” that JCS is getting. He also does a darned good job.

Richard III at the Tom Patterson Theatre (Stratford Theatre Festival)

I often enjoy going to see plays by Shakespeare with which I'm unfamiliar, as it allows me to judge the production based on its storytelling, not any prior knowledge I have to "fill in the blanks". Going into Richard III, I was doubly intrigued to see whether I believed their casting of a woman -- Seana McKenna -- in the title role would transcend "stunt casting".

I was utterly impressed with the production as a whole and complete sold on her right to play the part.

The story of Richard III and his bloody quest for power was simply and effectively staged on the thrust of the Tom Patterson theatre, with minimal set and strong lighting design, and Seana McKenna played the role without a hint of self-consciousness about the cross-gender casting. She became Richard and brought a wry humour to the part which made us think, "You're horrible, I hate you ... but I can't wait to see what you do next." She was well-supported by a strong cast and, most importantly, the story was clear and engaging.


Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #2

Just a short entry to bring things up-to-date here, I finished reading Juxtapoz No. 125. This issue of the arts and culture magazine focuses primarily on artists whose work would likely fall under the category of "outsider art" -- tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy, American graffiti artists, among others -- and the Bread and Puppet theatre troup. I find it remarkable how interesting I can find articles and interviews with people whose work is so far from my experience or usual interests.

The 2011 Summer Screen Review (Part I)

It's time to play catch-up.

On the weekend, I sat down to watch The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, having finished the book a few weeks ago. Those Swedes know how to make a movie, don't they? (Of course, I'm basing this opinion primarily on this film and Let the Right One In. Ha!) The filmmakers did a nice job of streamlining the story as necessary without missing the essence of the story, and Noomi Rapace is downright riveting in the title role. The film is sometimes uncomfortable, but never needlessly so. I'll watch the two Swedish sequels once I've read their respective books.

Then to utterly change gears, I watched Bad Teacher which, while having some amusing moments, is essentially bad. Even more problematic than the crass, juvenile humour (which was expected) is the nearly non-existent arc of the film. About ten minutes in, the action plateaus, and it's confirmed that we're essentially in for a one-trick pony show that will last the next 80 minutes or so. I'm not criticizing it as a teacher (though anyone in education will scoff at the supposed "way things work", but again this is to be expected), but just as a film that should have been better. I have to agree entirely with the following quotation from Rotten Tomatoes: "In spite of a promising concept and a charmingly brazen performance from Cameron Diaz, Bad Teacher is never as funny as it should be."

Friday, July 01, 2011

Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #1

So, apparently this weblog really only comes to life in the summer. I wonder why that would be. Hmmm...

In any case, it's the first of July and time for the Summer Reading Spectacular to begin! And begin it has! Today I threw caution to the proverbial wind, neglected the domestic drudgery which beckoned, and had a rather productive reading day, finishing off a few in-progress reads and reading one other volume start-to-finish.

First off, I wrapped up Novel by George Singleton. In the interests of full-disclosure, I should point out that I started this novel months ago, but it ended up shelved for quite some time before I came back to it. Why? Well, it's a bit of an absurd comic novel that's ... how to put this ... not so funny. It promises to be a hoot, with its fancy dust-jacket-flap-teaser, but it just didn't really pan out for it. George Singleton is widely known for his comic short stories, and maybe it just works better in smaller packages. The book has its moments, but as a whole it just didn't engage the way I'd hoped. I won't even get into the details of why, as it would end up being a hodge-podge of seemingly random points, much like the book itself. I'm not saying it's irredeemably awful, but I'll not be finding a place for it to reside permanently on my valuable shelf-space. (Sorry, George! It wasn't my figurative cup of tea.)

Moving along, I wrapped up Elephant Magazine: Issue 4. You may recall, if you were reading last summer that I discovered and love this magazine about art and "visual culture". This issue spends quite a bit of time discussing graphic design and designers. It also features an article about Supermundane and his work, which led to a series of art lessons in my class, who loved his work. (Check out his website here!) Crazy fun!

I also finished Jeanne DuPrau's The Diamond of Darkhold, the fourth book in the Books of Ember series. I'd started it a few days ago, having been loaned it by a former student of mine, and whipped through it quickly. It's a breezy, quickly paced read intended, of course, for young readers. While it does, in many ways, tread similar ground to the original Ember book, that was somewhat refreshing after the third book in the series, which, in attempting a prequel to the previous, rather fell flat and seemed misplaced within the sequence. There's not much new brought to the series by this book, and in fact the central plot point of the book seems a bit forced, but it's fine for what it is. The final few pages, however, are a bit much. I'll leave it at that in order to avoid typing the phrase "spoiler alert". (Incidentally, the word "Darkhold" only occurs once, perhaps twice, in the book itself, and of very marginal importance even then, leading me to believe that DuPrau snuck it in just to give the book a snappy title.)

Finally, I read Pocket Book One* of Jeff Smith's RASL. Not child-friendly fare as his previous (and multiple award-winning) Bonewas, this is a time-and-space jumping Sci-Fi graphic novel. Though Smith's drawing style isn't quite as well-suited to this type of story -- the distinctly cartoon nature of his human figures worked quite brilliantly opposite the Bone cousins, but doesn't quite match the grittier concept here -- the writing is somehow both briskly paced and patient simultaneously. Towards the end of the volume, a significant number of panels gives over to exposition in the form of background information about Nikola Tesla, but by then, we've been given enough story and action to forgive the lecture. The latter third also gives us the most striking visual of Book One: a mysterious and eerie little drooling girl with a cocked head.

And that's the start to the summer. Not bad for Day One.

*This "Pocket Book" would require a pocket able to accommodate its 8.9 by 6.4 by 0.6 inch size. (Thank you, Wikipedia, for not making me find a ruler or measuring tape.)