An Accent for All Seasons

A Man of All Seasons set
A Man of All Seasons set

Friday was the opening night of United Players‘ production of A Man for All Seasons, the first of the season. B-cat and I easily found street parking and even front row seats, which made up for the long motorcycle ride to Jericho Arts Centre.

[spoiler/storytime]

A Man for All Seasons is a play about the power struggles and fall of Sir Thomas More in the reign of King Henry VIII. Holding godliness as the core of his being, Sir Thomas refuses — first with words, later silence — to support the monarch in acquiring a divorce, establishing a Church of England to do so, and then pronouncing Anne Boleyn queen. With his refusal, More clashes with a number of important men and, to a lesser extent, the women in his household.

[s/s]

The play is directed by William B. Davis, who plays Cancer Man on The X-Files, a fact which comes up twice in the programme and once before the performance. Personally I’m not into celebrities, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he’s Canadian.

Moving on.

Graham Bullen‘s More is believable as a learned man, loyal subject, and loving father, with all the charm of Sam Neill(‘s roles) and none of the sinister undertones. Towards the end, as his reasoning for remaining steadfast wears down to no more than his religious beliefs, it becomes hard not to feel a little irritated, to wish he would demonstrate a little more of this intelligence everyone including himself attributes to him.

But my issue is with the script, not the acting. All but one member of the cast deliver their lines in a perfectly natural, fluid way. Davis notes in the programme:

If we were to do this play as the English spoke in 1530 it would be unintelligible to a modern audience. I have elected to encourage the actors to speak with their own voices, be they English, South African or Canadian.

It sounds like most of them are going for English accents, whether the default stereotypical “posh” drawl of period pieces or Sarah Arnold’s (as Alice More) vaguely Cockney tongue. Their voices, clear and harmonious, never more like reciting than speaking, come together well.

The programme
The programme

The only exception is Angela Shaw’s Margaret More. Really, I love that she is a strong, educated woman. I in no way want women (or LGBT people, or ethnic minorities, or any persecuted group) to be quiet and take up less space. But loud and proud doesn’t really make sense for a young woman in Tudor England, and with a Canadian accent and loose bangs (?!) on top of it all, Shaw is a walking anachronism.

Still, I love her interaction with her father in All Seasons. I love James Gill’s Cromwell in spite… no, because of the twinge of plotting court eunuch he gives the character (thinkĀ Glenn Shadix in Demolition Man and Beetlejuice). And I love Keith Martin Gordey’s Duke of Norfolk with his gentle eyes and determined gait. When the background music, sweet yet frail, picked up during Norfolk’s scenes with More, egads if tears weren’t dripping off my wobbling chin.

I was ready to dislike Douglas Abel (More’s servant, a ferryman, Cardinal Wolsey, Narrator, etc.); I hate when the audience is expected to enjoy having a Fool-type character, usually an older man of course, hideously winking and grinning at them through the fourth wall. Abel proves to be unobtrusive, however, as he takes on not only multiple roles (with two distinguishable accents, tops) but rapid scene changes as well. More skillful at transitioning between roles is Chris Walters as both King Henry VIII and the morally weak, upwardly mobile Richard Rich. Who could help finding excuses for poor Rich, selfish as he is… as we all are?

The play is compact, intelligent (unlike the couple in the second row who laughed out loud at Shaw’s “You’re very gay”), and gripping without having to be a cheap modern remake. B-cat ranks Orphans higher, but I say this is the best play I’ve seen this year.

See A Man for All Seasons for the history. See it for the bromance. ‘Til Sept. 27.

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Oh, and the day before, I went to see MonkJunkie open for The Perms at Studio Records, a new venue downtown. More on that in a later post.

Artsy Farts: The Bacchae 2.1 at UBC

This week, I caught The Bacchae 2.1 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

If you cringed at the thought of a play put on by arts students… you already have a good idea of what it’s like! (I’m half kidding, but hear me out.)

Directed by MFA student Dennis Gupa and adapted by American playwright Charles L. Mee from Euripides‘s work (circa 405 B.C.), The Bacchae (adding “2.1” to a name seems awfully late ’90s/Web 2.0 to me, so it will be henceforth omitted) is a sexy Greek tragedy centred on gender identity, self and sexual expression, and the conflicts that arise both among and within individuals as these go against logic and social mores.IMG_20131205_005603

[SPOILER ALERT]

The story in its bare bones (haha) is this: Pentheus, King of Thebes, wants to capture/punish/rehabilitate the largely female followers of Dionysus — Bacchus to the Romans — the god of wine, theatre, and (apparently) religious ecstasy. He arrests Dionysus, but is tricked by the latter into disguising himself as a woman to spy on those who have taken to free living in the mountains. His disguise fails, and he is brutally murdered by one of the women… who happens to be his mother.

[/SPOILER ALERT]

In this retelling, Pentheus and his soldiers all happen to have (barely) repressed gender identity issues. Penthesus reeeally enjoys the crossdressing part, and each of them harbours violent sexual fantasies about other men and their own mothers. The women, on the other hand, suppress nothing. They prowl around in revealing garments, fondle one another, and speak openly of their bodies and desires.

To start, the acting is good, and I don’t mean for a student production. I’m no expert, but I’ve always disliked the smarmy overacting you see at Bard on the Beach, where everyone reads lines melodiously! dramatically! without paying any attention to whether the tone fits the content. They speak as if they have no idea what they’re saying. This is not an issue with The Bacchae. The acting is natural, and the delivery of lines is, for the most part, impeccable.*

*Except for the actress who pronounces “barrenness” as “baroness”. But, moving on…

The fawn, the bound girl with the Catholic halo, the furry wearing a giant dildo, Pentheus in his cocktail dress… At least half the costumes look expertly constructed, and work well for the play. The sheer tunic with feeble floral yarn bombing, Dionysus’s second outfit (the gown), and the plain dress with fake blood splattered over the nipples and genitals, in comparison, look shabby and amateur. Perhaps the wardrobe department didn’t distribute their time or budget evenly?

Imagine this with much less fabric and much more phallus. Or just Google
Imagine this with much less fabric and much more phallus. Or just Google “sexy deer furry”.

The set looks fine. The sound is fine. The only thing that is truly not fine is the patchwork-y script. Here’s the structure of the play:

-A cool dance around Dionysus!
-Speeches, semantics, sophistry (and gay/transgender hate)
-The big crossdressing scene
-Vagina Monologues
-5-second death scene

The segments do not join smoothly, and they vary drastically in quality. The choppiness might be intentional, as someone hypothesizes in the programme, but it merely highlights the contrast between what works and what does not. I did not enjoy being distracted by the less effective parts of the performance. B-cat’s criticism is more succinct: “Being weird for the sake of being weird is crap”.

Despite the script, The Bacchae is still interesting and well-acted, and looks damn good. It will be on at the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC until Feb. 7, 2015.

Here’s the Facebook event page.