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.


At Least the Audience isn’t Fickle: Rigoletto with Vancouver Opera

Having told a polite rep at Vancouver Opera who is definitely not the hound from hell we shall call Lauraine that I’d see at least Rigoletto this season, I went. But I made sure to get cheap seats.

Photo op at the end of Rigoletto
Photo op at the end of Rigoletto

I was reading about Manon beforehand and of course confused Rigoletto with the five-act opera. (Hopefully, the nice people beside us didn’t hear me misleading B-cat…) It didn’t help that there was a looong pause in Act I, between the Duke’s party and Rigoletto’s (Gordon Hawkin) meeting with Sparafucile, for the set change.

The set does look more traditional and cumbersome than usual — it makes the stage look cramped but more interesting than a half-hearted modernisation, so I’m not complaining. Except about the tacky projection of red streaks on the walls as Rigoletto vows revenge.

Bruce Sledge as the Duke offers up the most beautiful sounds of the evening. Yes, “La donna e mobile” is first amusing and then devastating, but Sledge’s duet with Simone Osborne‘s Gilda, his brief lament at the opening of Act II, and his exchange with the couriers are wonderful, too.

Hi, nosebleeds!
Hi, nosebleeds!

No one shines in much of the first act, though Sledge warms up and Cameron McPhail’s Monterone is quite good when the orchestra isn’t playing over him. Osborne’s gesticulating doesn’t make her convincing as a cloistered young girl fearful of yet happy about first love, but she makes up for it in the painful scene before the stabbing. Oh, and she sings beautifully.

Similarly, Hawkins’s taunting has no bite and his “struggle” with the courtiers is the most awkward choreography ever. B-cat didn’t feel emotionally vested in the character the whole evening. Still, Hawkins’s shuffle in jester attire and shaky, half-controlled movements betraying worry for his daughter are a heartbreaking sight.

Rigoletto at Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Rigoletto at Queen Elizabeth Theatre

With the exception of Carolyn Sproule’s disturbing Maddalena, who looks more attracted to her brother than to the Duke — no sister would slide her hand up a brother’s inner thigh that way, ma’am — VO’s Rigoletto is a good piece of tragedy.

You’ve missed this one, but Vancouver Opera’s Dark Sisters begins Nov. 26, 2015.

Raku Teabowls and Some Bitterness

My three rakuyaki teabowls
My three rakuyaki teabowls

B-cat and I finished a four-week pottery class at the Shadbolt Centre. Most of our four classmates were retirees who had sold at least a few pieces of pottery; we were the only beginners.

The theme was Japanese-style teabowls, with raku firing as an option. Here’s the process:

  • Kneading white clay into air bubble-free logs
  • Slicing logs into 200-gram to 1-kilogram segments
  • Throwing clay into teabowls on pottery wheels
  • Carving feet & signatures into bottoms
  • Waiting for bisque firing
  • Glazing and decorating bowls
  • Raku firing bowls (or waiting for the electric kiln)

Popular as it is, rakuyaki doesn’t produce food-safe results, so B-cat and I sacrificed our smallest (i.e. least useful) and homeliest creations to it.

Raku teabowl
Copper highlights on my bowl

With the class starting at 10 am to 1 or 2 pm, B-cat and I were late to all but one. Maybe that was why the instructor, a retired teacher, disliked me. (Or was it because I half-joked it was “cheating” when he helped with my first bowls? Or the opposite — that he felt my first bowls were largely his handiwork?) I first noticed this in the second class and would forget and be reminded each following class.

Although his face lit up whenever he went to B-cat’s side to chat or answer a question, the instructor frowned and repeated, “What?” whenever I asked something*. B-cat and I both mumble, but I did my degree in English and he has a slight language-related disability, so our respective speaking doesn’t account for the difference.

*I’ve read a study that suggests white people, given voice samples and photos, have more difficulty understanding speech when they believe the speakers are non-white, even when the belief is wrong. It’s subconscious. I’ve never encountered this ’til now, but it makes sense here.

My rakuyaki bowls
My rakuyaki bowls

The instructor praised every piece B-cat made, including one that B-cat rushed and then half-jokingly destroyed, and complimented/encouraged our classmates in a normal way. He literally never said a single nice thing about my work.

Before you think I’m a needy, narcissistic Millennial, let me point out that my mother never praised me either (haha) and my father was strict but fair. I’m a newbie — I expect to be bad at pottery! I don’t need unwarranted praise or constant attention, and I don’t need everyone to like or be interested in me.

But when an instructor refuses to say anything encouraging or even respond when I compliment his work or compliment someone else’s work to his face, it’s a bit much.

After bisque firing & glazing, before raku firing

After the third and fourth classes, I mentioned this to B-cat, who said, “No way! Mine are the worst. You make beautiful bowls! He loves yours!” He’s kind and optimistic like that.

After the last class, B-cat said, out of nowhere, “You were right.”

“What do you mean?”

“I tested him today. You were right. What’s wrong with him?”

That day, we raku fired our bowls and used them in a tea ceremony hosted by the owner of O5 Teabar. This Vancouver tea shop is where the instructor of our Japanese tea ceremony class at Nikkei Centre buys her maccha. During the firing, B-cat pointedly complimented one of my teabowls to the instructor.

The instructor said, “Hn.”

Later, during a lull in the tea ceremony, I was studying the crackled glaze of my bowl (it looked like sugar) when the classmate beside me complimented it while turning to our instructor on her other side.

The instructor said, “Eh.”

B-cat washing the charcoal off a hot raku bowl
B-cat in a borrowed sweater, washing charcoal off a hot raku bowl

The traditional Japanese art of rakuyaki (楽焼) involves hand-forming clayware which are fired into burnt-looking pieces and cooled. In the art of tea, prized bowls are “rustic” and round, with simple ornamentation. Fancy bowls and ones which flare out from base to rim are more Chinese in origin/influence.

In Western-style raku, teabowls are more elaborately decorated and colourful. The bowls are taken red hot out of the kiln and placed in sawdust, newspaper, etc. for burning before being quickly cooled. Only small, exposed areas become black.

B-cat removing a bowl with tongs
B-cat removing a bowl with tongs

We were the first to use Shadbolt’s new raku kiln, which looked like an oil drum with a top that moved by pulley. I wasn’t allowed near it because my stupid knees were exposed (unaware of the fire hazard, I thought a long-sleeved cardigan, long socks, and closed-toe shoes would’ve been enough… They certainly were for the weather!).

While the others slaved over the fire, I helped make newspaper rings and take pictures. Once the bowls glowed like molten glass, “we” picked them up with tongs, tucked them into the paper nests, and turned trashcans over them. After a once-over with a torch, the bowls went under the hose.

B-cat taking a bowl out of the flames
B-cat taking a bowl out of the flames

Rakuyaki teabowls are porous and fragile because of the clay types, firing temperatures, and crazing (tiny cracks). Although Shadbolt’s glazes are lead-free, I wouldn’t drink from these bowls again.

It was an interesting experience, though. The other faculty members at Shadbolt joined us for rakuyaki and tea, and they were experienced and helpful. If only one of them had taught our class instead.

Foot of the bowl
Foot of the bowl

It was neat how different the bowls were.

One bowl from each student & staff member (B-cat’s is 2nd from left, mine is 4th)

After the tea ceremony — more an extensive tea tasting — we filled out evaluation forms. Because the instructor was present in the small room the entire time, and because my problem was with the way he treated me as a student rather than the way he taught, I left positive feedback.

B-cat did the same, but he had actual complaints about the teaching: he felt the instructor didn’t know more about teabowls than anyone else with Google search, he felt put off by the “teabowl styles” handout the instructor printed from a random website, and he didn’t like how, when asked technical questions, the instructor always said, “Just do what feels nice. There are no rules.”

Decent advice for a master or monk, sure, but not for someone starting from scratch.

The green topcoat was green on another bowl but blue on this bowl because I applied it as an undercoat
The green topcoat was green on another bowl but blue on this one, where I used it as an undercoat

I enjoyed the class with B-cat. We made 29 teabowls together instead of buying generic Chinese-manufactured ones, and my friends were already asking where they could enroll. I grew up by Deer Lake, literally one row of houses from Shadbolt, and always loved taking art classes there.

The rest of our bowls will be ready by Sunday.

For the curious, here are B-cat's rakuyaki bowls
For the curious, here are B-cat’s rakuyaki bowls

And don’t worry about me, I felt a little better every time the instructor said ra-KOO for raku (pronounced laku) and kay-OH-lin for kaolin (pronounced COW-lin) clay. You can’t imagine my glee when I discovered that the stamp he used to sign his pieces, the one he got in Japan but didn’t bother to learn to read, says “u” (う, pronounced like an incomplete “ooh”).

It makes a short, meaningless sound, just like him!


The Healthy-Sized Lady Sings

If you haven’t heard, Vancouver Opera is giving up on regular productions and switching to a “festival” format in 2017. This seems to be a cheerful way of saying it will put on fewer productions, at venues smaller than Queen Elizabeth Theatre, over a week or two each year and spend the rest of its time dabbling in smaller projects that aren’t putting on operas.

So the issue might not be customer service-related, but I did guess at VO’s financial troubles as it loosened restrictions for youth discounts — which, incidentally, I’ve never used — put on more and more operas that are new (read: unknown) or not even operas (Sweeney Todd etc.), and asked me to resubscribe, after ignoring me the previous season.

Grudges aside, this is sad news for local arts, sadder than when Ballet BC overcame bankruptcy only to abandon everything classical in its repertoire… unless you count The Nutcracker, which features borrowed dancers from Royal Winnipeg Ballet or Alberta Ballet.

It’s not Thursday, but this is worth a (worthless) TBT:

Opera 2005
Digital camera technology of the early 2000s, yo

The above was taken before my first live opera, VO’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, circa 2005. It was a great experience.

On the way out, though, some elderly women loudly criticised my choice of footwear. (Come on, those were some awesome suede boots!) Maybe there’s something to be said for bringing in a younger audience after all.


*Before you complain, I know VO isn’t dead. But its heyday might have passed into history like the willowy limbs of my 20-year-old self (see above).

Spotlight (or Lack Thereof) on Vancouver: McDonald Park Dark Sky Preserve

Just over a week ago, on New Year’s Eve’s Eve, my significant other started looking up (no pun intended) local haunts for stargazers. B-cat is a budding physicist/mathematician who is somewhat interested in astronomy; I had dropped out of the New Year planning effort.

“How about here?” B-cat pointed at the map, at the ocean. “It’s a dock that extends out to sea, with nothing around it.”

I saw myself being elbowed off the dock by amateur astronomers and sinking slowly into a watery grave as they counted down.

“Or we could go to Burnaby Mountain. They say it’s nice up there.”

I recalled the mosquitoes attacking my face as I lay by the Burnaby Mountain Park parking lot, the year of the Perseids meteor shower, with 60 other human logs.

The brainstorm session went nowhere. The next day, B-cat and I awoke at dinnertime.

“We only have four hours to get anywhere for countdown!” I wailed.

“GPS says McDonald Park is only an hour away — let’s go there. We have plenty of time to prepare,” said B.

B-cat is no cheetah. We did not set out until slightly under an hour before midnight, armed with three half-eaten bags of snacks we’d already been working on and a towel. One never travels without a towel.

Park sign, photo taken by me

With B-cat’s driving, we reached the park with 15 minutes to spare. What we first saw was that the entrance was squeezed between the two fields of two creepy farms. What we then saw were the locked gates of the park.

“Park open during daylight hours only,” a sign said. A dark sky preserve… closed when it’s dark?

McDonald Park is, to summarise, an hour from Vancouver proper by highway. Located in Abbotsford (approx. 10 minutes out of the city), it is snuggled against the Sumas Mountains and maintained by the government — with the efforts of the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society — as an area free of city light pollution. This is of course so you could better observe the night sky. The park is only open during daytime and FVAS events.

And then B walked around the gate while I ducked underneath, and we were in.

Under a huge, dinner roll-shaped moon, we hurried down the path/road into the park. B-cat suggested spreading our “blanket” (in this order) under the drooping trees in the dark, at the empty campsite in the dark, by the abandoned playground swings in the dark, and further on into the darkness… in the dark.

B doesn’t watch that many horror movies.

As I tried to explain horror movie logic to him, an owl hooted in the distance, the sound echoing through the mountains. A single metallic creak came from out of the darkness, somewhere by the campsite. And then… silence. I grabbed B and fled.

We set up our picnic in the middle of the road, from which we could see attackers from any direction. B took out his phone; it had an analog clock, with only hour and minute displays. He began looking for a different clock app at 11:55. Predictably, we entered 2015 staring at the app menu. (But we were with each other, and it wasn’t freezing; it was a good night.)

Google Street View of the main path/road as seen from inside the park
Google Street View of the main path/road as seen from inside the park

Ten minutes later, a car pulled up beside B’s, until then the only vehicle at the gate. Two men got out with flashlights and walked rapidly down the only path.

“Should we hide?” I asked.

“Hide where? They can see us anywhere, with the moon this bright.”

“We can at least move off the path?”

So B-cat and I dragged the blanket five feet off the path, into the bramble-filled ditch. There we squatted, less comfortable but no less visible. The two strangers passed us, literally within arm’s reach, without a word or glance. They disappeared into the woods.

Less than 10 minutes later, two figures came running out of the woods without any light.

“Hey, what’s up?” B called out as they passed us. No response.

“Should we get out of here, too?” I asked.

“That might be a good idea.”

So we chased the strangers across the field and back to the gate, where they took the final few steps to their car at a (strangely) leisurely pace before driving away.

What were they running from? Was it safe to go back into the park? I suggested they might’ve committed a crime, and that if we went back we’d be mistaken as the perpetrators. B suggested they might’ve been too spooked by the sight of us to continue their trek. A friend later suggested they might’ve stumbled upon a bear. We may never know.

The stars were nice, though.


You can read more about McDonald Park here: