Pianist Sergei Saratovsky at Müzewest Fundraising concert, May 22

In an era of constant budget cuts, music and art education and experiences are cut, despite their very real contributions to children’s lives. Children being able to play in a band or get music lessons does not happen by magic (even Louis Armstrong learned to play the trumpet as part of a school program). Organizations like Müzewest and St. James Academy bring music to children in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. I was invited to attend the Müzewest May 22 fundraising concert, which was a pleasure to do. Apart from the piano concert, founder Jennifer West called up some of the other volunteers in Müzewest for recognition, and it’s clear this is a group that really is passionate about musical outreach. Sergei Saratovsky started his programme with Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat major. This piece seems simple enough that I have even tried it myself, but like Liszt’s works in general, it takes a great deal of virtuosity and delicacy to make it work properly, which Saratovsky adeptly demonstrated. Liszt starts with a languid expression of love (this is a Dream of Love after all), which reaches a passionate crescendo. I was fortunate to have an excellent seat where I could see Saratovsky playing. Students think in terms of “mastering” a piece, which is itself an enormous challenge with works like the Chopin and Rachmainoff pieces that Saratovsky performed (.Frédéric Chopin – Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) – Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5 and Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff – Lullaby). But what I see in Saratovsky goes beyond mastery; he is collaborating with the music, channeling the music, emanating the music. Small venues like for this concert allow a much more personal experience. I was really taken by the last work of the evening–Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – Three Movements from the Ballet “Petrouchka”. Rachmaninoff, of course, demands a lot of his pianists, but Stravinsky’s demands here are at least equal. As I was listening, I could swear I heard ragtime influences. Could this be? I did some research and found that Stravinsky was indeed influenced by ragtime, although admittedly I have not specifically seen a study of ragtime in Petrouchka. I also found that Stravinsky had originally arranged this piano version for Arthur Rubinstein.  I have not listened to the Rubenstein version (given that Rubinstein never recorded it), but Saratovsky did Stravinsky justice. Here’s a description of the work that explains its challenges: petrouchka It might seem trite to say so, but with modern classical music in particular, it must be performed very well for the audience to be able to appreciate it. Saratovsky rose to this challenge admirably. I want to hear Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka again, sooner rather than later. You can see Saratovsky’s YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChTHvOWq7h05Kuva1n33C7g His website is here: Sergei Saratovsky This week, May 30 at 7:30, Müzewest has another concert that looks terrific as well. Attend, enjoy, and donate and know that you are helping propagate music by doing so. Take a look: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/729808

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Review: God and the Indian, Firehall Arts Centre, until May 30

http://firehallartscentre.ca/onstage/god-indian/

I had seen God and the Indian two years ago at the Firehall, so I was looking forward to this remount. Briefly, you should go.

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On the way to the Firehall, my fellow attendee asked me about the play and about residential schools. I started to answer from my reading and what I have heard. One seat over on the Skytrain, a Saskatchewan Cree residential school survivor interjected, and he started telling us about his experiences at the last school in Saskatchewan to close, which did not shut its doors until the late 1990s. He told us about the horrific impact the 10+ years he spent in that torturous place has had on him. I could hardly believe the coincidence. But keep in mind that Duncan Campbell Scott, a Canadian bureaucrat and founder of this genocidal policy, sought to make residential school compulsory for every Native child, starting in 1920 (although residential schools have an even longer history in Canada, dating back to the 1600s in Quebec). So it’s hard to fathom how many children and families have been devastated by this policy.

I am avoiding spoilers, but that means I cannot give you a complete sense of the play. So, please go and see it even if my explanation falls short. A Cree woman who calls herself Johnny happens to spot a teacher from her residential school years as he comes out of a Tim Horton’s. Assistant Bishop George King has climbed the church hierarchy, and has a comfortable life, enjoyable job, and a beautiful family. As for Johnny, life has been different. Lisa C. Ravensbergen does an excellent job of playing Johnny as a woman who has suffered immensely, but is very much alive and funny and sharp, even as she describes horrors. Thomas Hauff, playing George King (might this be a play on King George?), is a patrician Anglican minister whom Johnny accuses of horrific actions. Who do you identify with, Johnny or King? Can you identify with both?

The humour might make you feel a bit guilty. But humour’s role as a survival tactic is well-known. Sit with the discomfort.

One slight criticism of the play is that King’s rhetoric sounds a bit too fundamentalist and Biblically literal for the typical Anglican minister, at least the urban contemporary Vancouver West End version that I know about. However, given that King was a teacher perhaps 40 years ago previous, and a huge part of the residential school experience was to “Christianize” the children (whether the school was United Church, Anglican, or Roman Catholic), this rhetoric is understandable. And King’s dialogue is clearly meant to introduce and explain historical events rather than necessarily following natural conversation (whatever that would be in the circumstances of the play).

Before the play started, Firehall general manager Donna Spencer noted that some audience members might be triggered by the content, and that counsellors were available in the lobby. Before the play, I noted some elders burning sage. This is a tough play, one that playwright Drew Hayden Taylor was challenged to write when someone asked him to write something serious.

There’s also an exhibit in the lobby about the residential school system in Canada, and it’s worth coming a bit early to look through that. Do some research too. It’s easy to forget details like the Canadian government starvation experiments done in residential schools (how can that be, but it was done officially).

I read that this play is loosely based on Death and the Maiden, by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman. I found that interesting, because I had previously seen the play Cativo in Vancouver, which is also loosely based on Death and the Maiden, but I did not make the connection among all three plays. Various countries have had to deal with how to handle perpetrators of horrible crimes, but whose rule has now been overturned. One thing is clear, though–despite the fears of the wrongdoers, personal vengeance is really rare. Very few of the enforcers and maintainers of Canada’s residential school system ever suffered any official punishment for their actions, and I suspect close to zero have ever faced personal retribution. What, if anything, do the perpetrators feel about what they did?

Again, no spoilers here, but I urge you to pay attention to the last couple minutes of the play. Although this was the second time I had seen this work, I missed something important, and my fellow attendee told me about it afterwards.

Review: Miss Shakespeare and J. Caesar, two plays in repertory by The Escape Artists

Until May 17 at Performance Works and May 21-29 at Kay Meek Centre

Tickets: http://www.escapeartists.ca/

In general, women (and men) are looking at theatre and noticing two problems: plays are typically written so that the characters with the largest roles are male. Yes, there are exceptions, but there’s no disputing statistical prevalence. Women actors are not going to be pleased with playing a supporting role (literally) forever. So that leaves two complementary solutions: 1) Write and perform plays with lead female characters, and 2) Fill traditionally male roles with women. You may have noticed in the last few James Bond films, that the role of “M” is played by a woman, Judi Dench. Clearly, Ian Fleming did not write the Bond books that way. But this change in no way harms the story–few James Bond fans will care that “M” is now a woman.

“Miss Shakespeare” is a new Canadian musical, by Tracey Powers, which takes the first approach. All of the characters are female (although the ghost of William Shakespeare makes an appearance and is played by a woman), and to add some “meta-ness” to the play, the lead character is Judyth Shakespare, a daughter of William. Women’s early theatrical history is hidden, because after all they were not allowed to perform publicly (although the exact legal status of this act is controversial). But we do have some evidence that women performed theatre in private settings. “Miss Shakespeare” is about a group of women who get together to form a troupe, to perform a play that Judyth Shakespeare has written. I loved the music, and I loved the ideas. My literal mind bristled a bit at some possible improbabilities in women’s conduct during that period, but I was not there after all. Lingering in the back of my mind always is Virginia Woolf’s famous essay “A Room of One’s Own”. Woolf famously imagines the difficulties that a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare (and wouldn’t you know it, this hypothetical woman is named Judith!) would have had should she have sought to become a theatrical and literary genius like her brother. Everything from the lack of education that her brother had, to the impossibility of women performing in public theatre, to unwed pregnancy, would have kept Judith from achieving her goals. What “Miss Shakespeare” conveys, beyond the historical interest, is how creating a work of theatrical art is liberating and thrilling for the performers. It’s clear Powers loves the process of creating theatre, and that comes through very clearly in “Miss Shakespeare”.

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(Miss Shakespeare, credit Bold Rezolution Studio)

J. Caesar, in contrast, takes the second approach. We are accustomed to Shakespeare plays being re-imagined. Romeo and Juliet appear as gang-identified New Yorkers, to name one famous case. With J.Caesar, in another fantasy world, there are only women. Some notes I read suggest that a plague has wiped out the men. If so, I missed that. I just saw another world, with no clear time or place, where women were jockeying for power. Antony becomes Antonia, Julius Caesar becomes Julia Caesar, and so on. I found it interesting to note my discomfort when some famous Shakespearean lines came up and were adapted to the characters, “There is a tide in the affairs of women, which taken at the flood …”. Wait, why does that involuntarily distress me? We are so accustomed to the male being universal, and the female being somewhat of the exception. (As a side note, I think that some French- and Spanish-speaking feminists are bending the traditional rules we always learned, where this phenomenon is even more obvious than it is in English.)

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(Note the timeless, plain costumes of the actors in J. Caesar. Credit Emily Cooper.)

I did find the complete lack of time or place in this re-envisioned J. Caesar to be a bit of a distraction. Although I know Shakespeare does not aim for historical accuracy, ever, I still can easily picture Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius walking around Rome. With these characters, I could not. But the actors gave excellent performances, and it is enlightening to see women vying for political power and committing political intrigues of huge significance. There’s no question of passing the Bechdel test in this work!

It was fun to see these plays on consecutive nights, and see both approaches to creating theatre that brings women front and center.

More innovative women-only productions in May and June: Miss Shakespeare, J. Caesar, and Glengarry Glen Ross

Lisa Wolpe as director, and Classic Chic Productions, brought a terrific women-only interpretation of “The Winter’s Tale” to Vancouver last year.

Women-only theatre productions can be done in two ways: either typically male characters are made female, or women play male characters. Both can work very well.

This year, we have two innovative Shakespeare-inspired productions: the musical “Miss Shakespeare” with Music TheatreWorks and “J, Caesar” (a futuristic) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), both by Chelsea Hotel co-creator Tracey Power. I strongly suspect that Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own”, which details the impossible obstacles and tribulations that a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare would face should she have tried making her career in the theatrical world, is a strong influence. In Miss Shakespeare, Judyth Shakespeare, an imagined daughter of Shakespeare, These productions bring female characters played by women to the fore.

As a separate production, Classic Chic Productions is bringing acclaimed playwright David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” to Beaumont Studios in June. David Mamet’s works always send shivers through me and set my teeth on edge, because they so perfectly depict horror in everyday situations. Can women actors convincingly portray Levene, George, and others? I have no doubt, and I want to see them do it. Glengarry Glen Ross is a theatrical staple, and I am really looking forward to this innovative presentation. In this case, the women play male characters. Based on how Classic Chic Productions did last year with “A Winter’s Tale”, I expect exceptional performances. You will forget the gender of the actor, as the character comes fully to the fore. Jason Reitman tried this idea a couple years ago as a reading with superstar women actors, to great acclaim:

http://www.slashfilm.com/jason-reitmans-all-female-live-read-of-glengarry-glen-ross-transcends-gender-with-brilliant-performances/

Miss Shakespeare and J. Caesar play in repertory at, Performance Works, May 5-18. and at the Kay Meek Centre from May 21-29. Make sure to check what play is playing which night.


Glengarry Glen Ross, Beaumont Studios, June 5 – 27

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