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.

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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.

private_inset

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.

TV — on Stage! Fawlty Towers at Metro Theatre

Hours before posting my previous review, I caught Fawlty Towers at the Metro Theatre in Vancouver. Unfortunately this review comes four days too late for you to see John Cleese and Connie Booth’s creation for yourself (my bad!), but hey, there’s always Youtube.

fawlty
Polly signed my programme

To summarise, Fawlty Towers is about the interaction among the owners (the pretentious yet lovable Basil and his quick-witted but equally quick-tongued wife Sybil) of and guests (colourful in a positive sense, though not in the “ethnic diversity” sense) at the namesake hotel.

Even if you hadn’t heard of it — I hadn’t until B-cat’s old coworker invited us to see the latter’s sibling on stage — you would’ve seen Monty Python at some point or another, in one form or another. (And if not, I assume because you’d been abstaining from technology for decades, just think of any English television show you’ve seen in the past and then get off the Internet, you Amish hippie.)

In either case, you should have an idea of what British humour is like. Fawlty Towers, which is three episodes of the British telly, which makes me feel a bit uneasy about paying to see it, is a very fine example of British humour. After all, it’s not only written by John Cleese, the only person everyone recognises from Monty Python, but also performed by an excellent cast headed by Chris Dellinger, who I’d say could be the best Cleese impersonator in the world if it wouldn’t sound like an insult to the former’s talents, since Dellinger brings a youthful, mischievous charisma to the character of Basil that the original, though superior in deadpanning, lacks. Which Basil is better is really up to taste.

While the aye-yai-yai-ing stereotype who is Manuel (the oppressed waiter/bellhop from Barcelona, played on stage by Tom Kavadias) is almost as jarring in a 2015 context as the blackface in the ballet La Bayadere, Fawlty Towers is otherwise as fresh and funny today as it was when people still watched TV.

While I wouldn’t have gone to this if I had seen more than one episode beforehand, I highly enjoyed the production (and admired Robin Richardson‘s beautiful and efficiently designed set!) and look forward to seeing more from director Alison Schamberger and the others involved in recreating this bit of classic English fun, if only for a few hours.

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.