Fun Times with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (at UBC)

My programme and copy of the novel
My programme and copy of the novel

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not a comedy — let’s just get that out of the way. UBC Theatre & Film’s production of the heavy Anne Bronte novel about truth, morality, and a woman’s place is extremely light-hearted. So light-hearted that some audience members are laughing during the dramatic, even tragic, scenes.

Adapted by Jacqueline Firkins and directed by Sarah Rodgers, this production at least surpasses Hollywood efforts by not dumbing the material down to a period romance. Though gone is Arthur’s actual, not just threatened, corruption of his son. Gone, too, are the pushiness and coarse temper that turned me off Gilbert Markham (and Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff); Francis Winter‘s Markham is charming as hell and the perfect country gentleman for a Victorian romance, if this were to be one.

Truer to the source material is Meegin Pye‘s Helen Graham, who has both the bearing of a martyr and the vulnerable air of a woman hesitant to accept a suitor. Her “winter rose” speech at the end made my eyes moisten and sent tears coursing down B-cat’s face.

With the exception of Mariam Barry’s Mrs. Markham, who sometimes speaks as if she knew she were in an English period piece but knew not what she was saying, the acting is excellent. And I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t like any of the characters in the novel.¬†Elizabeth Willow brings the shrill, petty Eliza Millward to life. I especially like Parmiss Sehat‘s portrayal of both weak, sympathetic Jane Wilson and cruel, lively Anabella. (She could do without the wig and we’d still easily tell the two women apart.) Matt Kennedy makes Helen’s brother a far more fleshed-out and likeable character than the original, too.

The stage
The stage

The scene changes look — aptly — like Victorian silhouette portraits against the simple, beautiful backdrop, beneath which a sloped platform neatly divides the indoors and the outside world. The set, like the lovely costumes, are Firkins’s design.

Tenant is an incredibly beautiful, well-acted play that’s probably more fun than it should be. It will be on until Oct .17.

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.