PC Nutcracker

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S (the best dancer at one of the schools I go to… or went to, before the car accident) took me to Ballet BC & Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s last Nutcracker (on tour) of the season.

There’s lots to like about the production:

  1. RWB is a little different each year. This year’s Nutcracker takes place in 1910s Canada and includes hockey, people falling on icy sidewalks, and polar bears. So Canadian;
  2. Soft colours and fine painted details make lovely, realistic costumes and storybook backdrops;
  3. Makeup & costumes look good on the non-white dancers, too, and the “multicultural” bits are more balletic and less racist than most! (Incidentally, the Arabian costumes should’ve been First Nations);
  4. No more bear baiting or obvious favouritism among the kids. A bear comes into the house for food. So, so Canadian.

Conversely:

  1. S feels the 1930s opening is pointless if the Kingdom of Sweets is just business as usual;
  2. Smallest mice look like clones of Disney’s Goofy (same face and colour and all) while the Mouse King looks like a dog-headed man;
  3. Chinese/tea dancer still has double buns, arms forming permanent Ls, and hands fused in gesturing “1”s. At this point she may as well be using those fingers to push up the corners of her eyes, she’s such a stereotype;
  4. All the angels are blonde!… you want me to say. Actually, the wigs are so metallic gold I don’t give a damn.

No one was spectacularly good or bad, which perhaps makes for better holiday viewing than placing awesome virtuoso dancers alongside people who fall out of jumps. The choreography was too safe, though, wasn’t it?

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Photo from RWB, since my curtain call photo failed

On a side note, we sat dead centre in the lower balcony (as mentioned before, S has high standards for everything ballet). The view would’ve been perfect if the mother and child in front and two women another row down didn’t lean forward the entire time. Behind them, to S’s left, a man with a wedge-shaped head started playing with his little phone in the middle of Act I. After I asked him to turn it off, he squirmed and rustled wrappers for over an hour. S says she was afraid he was going to attack me, but he merely threw a fit from a safe distance at the end before running away.

If you think not being racist is being too PC, you wouldn’t like this production. Otherwise, you can still catch the RWB Nutcracker in Winnipeg later in December.

And When is This Free Thursday

Last Thursday I saw Vancouver Opera‘s free production of Stickboy tailored to high school students but performed for adults (under 35) at a wine reception. Jillian Christmas opened with a spoken word performance featuring two poems I’d heard at Vancouver Writers Fest.

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Wine and cheese: the lavender-streaked cheese that tasted of berries was best. (What was it?)

But first, I have updates on the hellish adventure that is VO customer service. As you may recall, the story began when a rep we shall call Doreen tried to get me to resubscribe to VO by being a bit of a thug. I complained at the next opera; someone told me to email; my email was ignored. In the next chapter, someone at VO saw that blog post and told me to contact them again; my email was ignored again.

Chapter 3: Someone at VO called to solicit donations. I summed up the above as refusal. She transferred me to her manager, who declared she’d look into this and get back to me for closure. Still no word a month later.

If there was any doubt about my tone here or on the phone, let me clarify that I find all this unprofessional and infuriating. I’m glad there’s nothing left in the season but a musical and the Orientalistastic Madama Butterfly, because screw VO.

 

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The stage

As for Stickboy, the music often weakens where it should affirm the words, and at times the piece is less opera than musical. The version we saw has a particularly small cast, which inspires clever stage setup and character changes, but again does not help the sound. The writer (Shane Koyczan) manages to portray the bullying experience among boys in a realistic and moving way, however. The most effective scenes are those that speak more universally of love, e.g. when the Boy and his grandmother pass each other notes under the door, and when the Boy graduates.

So, screw VO, but read about the good things they’re doing with Stickboy in schools.

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 (think 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.

Die Bart Die: Die Fledermaus at Vancouver Opera (and a Bonus Play)

This is late as I’ve been preparing for a trip to Germany (Staatsballett Berlin, yo), but in March I saw Vancouver Opera‘s production of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

I’ve loved opera since I first took opera studies in the SFU English department, and the first opera I ever saw in person was Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with VO, 10 years back. (Turned out not to be quite my thing, being a comedy.) I even subscribed to their 2013/2014 season.

But since one of VO’s reps — let’s call her Francine — hassled me last summer, I’ve borne a bit of a grudge.

Over the course of a few weeks, Francine called half a dozen times demanding to know if I would resubscribe. I hadn’t yet looked at their 2014/2015 lineup, but she offered no information (unlike the other rep who phoned, just once). When this crotchety CS genius caught me at work/sleep, she’d keep talking, and sounded disbelieving and offended when I offered to call VO back when ready.
Each time I picked up, Francine increased in volume and aggression, until finally I received a call that was literally, “Are you gonna subscribe or not?”

When I complained to VO during the intermission of one of the operas, they gave me an address to email. And then never responded. Thus completing the circle of excellent customer service.
[/rant]

San Francisco Opera being an 18-hour drive away, VO is unfortunately the only good live opera around, so for Christmas I got B-cat tickets to Die Fledermaus.

This year they encouraged pictures to be taken (and shared online) at the final bow

It was good. We both prefer tragedy over comedy, but it was good.

[This opera is ollld. Do you really need a spoiler alert?]

Die Fledermaus, which I’ll forever remember as the opera Rachel missed in that episode of Friends (the one in which Ross meets Emily) is a comic opera about a man, Gabriel von Einstein, skipping his week-long prison sentence to go to a ball, at which he encounters his wife Rosalinde and maid Adele in disguise. The ball is held by the Prince so that Falke could publicly make a fool out of the latter’s pal von Einstein, as revenge for another prank involving a bat (the titular fledermaus) costume.

[/spoiler]

With several of VO’s operas the previous year, and with all student operas I’ve seen, weak (?) voices seem to be a problem. i.e. Some of the singers are unable to project, and are drowned out by the orchestra. Is this a thing?

Aside from first faltering minutes of Joyce El-Khoury’s Rosalinde, who soon warmed up beautifully (and the Prince, who is too minor a character), there are no voice issues in this performance. Not quite as smooth is the insertion of jokey references to Vancouver places and people — VO touts this as being set in “Viennacouver” — but the jokes aren’t bad, and Frosch, the drunken jailer who delivers most of them, is a hit with the audience.

B-cat and I especially liked David Pomeroy‘s Alfred, Rosalinde’s enthusiastic foreign lover, with his wonderful voice and energy.

Vancouver Opera’s next and last production of the season is Sweeney Todd, with performances on April 25, 26, and 30, and May 1 to 3.

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Plus:

Two weeks after the opera, I took B-cat to Arts Club Theatre Company‘s production of The Foreigner at Shadbolt.

Written by American playwright Larry Shue, The Foreigner is a farce about Charlie, a shy, cuckolded Brit reluctantly vacationing at a country resort in the US where the other guests mistake him to be something very rare: a real foreigner! They discuss private matters in front of him, try to teach him English, etc. Add a pair of no-goodniks with Klan ties who try to cheat the lodge owner out of her property, and hijinks ensue.

B-cat and I have been lucky in that each play we’ve seen this year has been better than the previous, and The Foreigner is the best yet. Except when Charlie’s bowing and hai-ing get way too Mr. Yunioshi for comfort, and except when the portrayals of the Klan and bigotry truly terrify — ironically, considering my only complaint (unless the awful Japanese stereotyping was intentional…) — we laughed and laughed and cried and laughed. As did everyone else.

tempArts Club‘s next next production is Farewell, My Lovely on Granville Island. It’s a private eye tale based on a Raymond Chandler novel I haven’t read. I won’t be able to see it, but you should if you have the chance.

Double Feature: Private Lives (Vancouver, BC) and Orphans (Spokane, WA)

I’ve been going to a good number of plays this year and I don’t know why. Theatre has always been my least favourite of the performing arts: it just seems like opera without the beautiful music, or ballet without the beautiful dancing.

It doesn’t help that Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach is so smug as “Western Canada’s largest annual Shakespeare festival” that it doesn’t mind putting on dull productions full of overactors set in time periods just “modern” enough to reduce costs for wardrobes and sets, summer after summer…

But I’m rambling.

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The stage, photographed from our private “balcony” seats

On St. Valentine’s Day, I took B-cat to see United Players of Vancouver‘s production of Private Lives. Written by Noel Coward, this comedy was touted to be “witty” and “wicked” and full of love and lust in the fairly low-budget ads, one of which was placed in the Bacchae 2.1 programme.

I chose this play over two others on Valentine’s evening for the charming retro illustration in the promo:

private_insetAmanda and Elyot, formerly wife and husband, run into each other while honeymooning in France with their respective new spouses. The two try to flee the hotel with said new spouses, but then, quickly overcoming initial ill will, flee with each other instead. The abandoned newlyweds pair up to pursue A and E, and… shenanigans ensue!

Although Amanda (Caitlin Clugston) delivers all her lines in a sing-song, over-the-top nasal way that grates on the ears at times, she and her Elyot (Ted Cole) make a believable and highly charming couple. Oh so sweet together they are, whether they’re so right or so wrong for each other — B-cat and I don’t agree on that last point and thus feel differently about the ending.

The story is also a bit thin, but the dialogue makes up for it, and the play is fast-paced and funny over all. Private Lives is the theatre equivalent of champagne (or sparkling cider if that’s your thing), and Valentine’s is the perfect time for it, even for tragedy lovers like me.

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A week after that, B-cat took me to Spokane, Washington (our first vacation in a foreign country, haha), where we caught Orphans at Spokane Civic Theatre.

It’s to the theatre’s credit that Orphans was the highlight of our trip, even if the border guard was loudly incredulous that anyone would visit such a small town (though I shouldn’t give much credit to the opinion of someone who works at the border yet cannot pronounce “spo-KAN”)… Wait, is this even a compliment anymore?

The theatre is divided into what appear to be a more professional side and a more “junior” (?) side, with the latter literally accessible by a small side door. The front lobby featured no signage for Orphans, but after much running about, we did manage to get on the waiting list and, an hour later, the pair of tickets we really should’ve purchased in advance — the play is more popular than I expected.

It is, without exaggeration, the best B-cat and I have seen together to date. Written by Lyle Kessler, it centres around two grown (physically but not emotionally) orphan brothers, Treat and Phillip, who are baited and jostled out of their sad, stagnated existences by Harold, a shady businessman and former orphan. The staging is small and intimate, making the acrobatics more impressive and the violence more startling.

My programme (and the most delicious lobby snacks)
My programme (and the most delicious lobby snacks)

Maxim Chumov plays Phillip, the trusting younger brother with the underdeveloped yet curious mind, so well that he is painful to watch. Jamie Flanery’s Harold is the father I wish I had (figuratively)… once I realised his sinister undertones didn’t hint at pedophilia. (Hey, B-cat suspected the same thing.) Billy Hultquist makes a great amateur thug and overprotective big brother as Treat, but doesn’t pull off a convincing enough transformation at the end.

At times I cringed at the sappiness, and wondered if the play, with its unflinching sentimentality, would’ve made it to Vancouver at all, let alone produce a roomful of tear-streaked faces. But then I reminded myself how tedious it could get when everything had to be experimental and ironic and hipstertastic, and I cried for the orphans with everyone else.

One of the actors told us they will be bringing Orphans on tour for a national competition after trimming it down to an hour in length. I couldn’t find further information, but if they happen to visit a city near you, and if you’re not too much of a hipster, do go see them.