Words, Words: UBC Alice 150 Tea Party and Vancouver Writers Fest

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Happy 150th birthday, Alice in Wonderland!

I attended two literary (but mainly amusing) events recently.

The main week of Vancouver Writers Fest has just ended, and I’ve heard a dozen authors for free just by volunteering for two days (despite spending half of that time in the bookstore — never again).

Pretty sweet deal, eh?

New self-help book
New self-help book

TJ Dawe was my favourite at the spoken word event. His joint book with Chris Gibbs, The Power of Ignorance, is a mock self help manual by an oblivious but largely well-meaning idiot. It isn’t as funny as his own work and person seem to be, but it is surprisingly clever… and bittersweet.

After hearing readings by a few horror authors, all of whom were a little bad at presenting themselves, I picked up Samuel Archibald‘s new collection of short stories. Arvida is also a surprise; though I’m only halfway through (I tend to read several books at once), there is nothing all that Gothic or fantastical in it. Promo hype aside, it’s perfectly respectable literary fiction of the type belonging to, say, Alice Munro or Carol Shields. There is something decidedly feminine about the style.

“A Mirror in the Mirror” is the closest Archibald gets to horror, though.

Arvida by Samuel Archibald
The streetlight made Arvida and my Compass Card holder mauve/pink

Having won a seat at the sold-out Sunday brunch in the volunteers’ raffle, I finished the festival with strong tea, mimosas, two giant slabs of pate, and some of the best readings of the week.

Steven Hayward, my favourite there, read from a short story in which he pokes fun at himself and the short story genre. Hilarious. Of course I’d left my credit card and everything else at home during a bag switch, so I’ll have to track down To Dance the Beginning of the World some other time.

Sunday brunch at VWF
Sunday brunch at VWF

The week before VWF, my friend S, a current English major, invited me to an Alice-themed tea party at University of British Columbia.

Hosted by UBC’s department of language & literacy education, the Golden Afternoon event began with a buffet-style afternoon tea with smoked salmon and watercress sandwiches, featured a number of poetry readings by professors, and ended with a rare books tour and croquet “match” in another building.

Proceeds went towards libraries.

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Vermin in my teapot!

As you may know, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Not at all good at math beyond high school algebra and formal logic in philosophy, I find the two Alice novels almost tedious in the amount of footnotes necessary.

Yes, I’m a dumb-dumb.

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Macarons from the sweets buffet

As a children’s story, though, and along with everything arising from the originals (except the awful Tim Burton film), Alice is delightful. I particularly like the Christopher Wheeldon ballet performed by the Royal Ballet, which B-cat gave me in DVD form last Christmas.

It’s rare that a ballet trumps (haha) the literary source material.

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My first plate of sandwiches and tarts

The readings were the highlight of the event. Dr. Carl Leggo and Dr. Kedrick James were passionate and amusing; I don’t think I’ve heard such energy in recitations since high school, when the best teachers read that way and told us that was how poetry should be read and heard.

There isn’t much Alice material on display — the children’s books in the rare books room are more interesting — and the croquet thing didn’t go anywhere, but it was otherwise a fulfilling afternoon.

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E and me

The Illustrated Alice exhibition ends on Hallowe’en (Oct. 31, 2015).

P.S. It takes me two hours to bus there. If you live nearer to UBC or can drive, you may as well go.

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Poetry readings by the Mad Hatter and March Hare

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.