Review: Annapurna (until October 10, PAL Studio Theatre)

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Annapurna grabs your attention from the moment you sit down and look at the set, a ramshackle 1970s-era trailer, although the play is set in the present. My attention did not waver. The play’s crackling tension keeps you engaged throughout.

We can all relate to wanting, even fantasizing about, a conclusive conversation that puts to rest all sorts of ugly, lingering,unresolved matters with an ex-partner. That is the reality that Ulysses, an ex-professor on disability with emphysema and living in rural Colorado, and Emma, his ex-wife who ran from their marriage with their son in tow, enact when Emma pops in without warning to Ulysses’s disorderly trailer living room. The way that they converse with each other and act towards each other is fascinating to me. Twenty years can pass, and some things do not change, even if everything else does.

Annapurna PAL Studio Theatre, Christy Webb, Director, September 2015 (photo credit Anne Marie Slater)

Annapurna PAL Studio Theatre, Christy Webb, Director, September 2015 (photo credit Anne Marie Slater)

Annapurna is both a beautiful and deadly mountain (actually a set of mountains), and a Hindu mother goddess of the harvest. Looking at the Wikipedia page in advance might enhance your appreciation of the title and its significance in this play.

Emma wants to make everything appear nice and good. She remains insistent that their son should never know the truth. Although Emma is eminently easy to sympathize with, and has made some difficult choices to improve her life and that of her son, ultimately she represents co-dependence, although such a characterization is insufficiently complex, What does it mean to forgive–a question I frequently ponder?

We all live with the inherent tension that someone we love can be both horrible and lovable, sometimes a monster but more often not. Any number of human beings demonstrate daily that you can be a masterful poet, artist, musician, or philanthropist, and yet abusive to one’s family. The good and evil do not cancel out, and denying either is not helpful. It’s hard to accept this complex conundrum.

This play is a splendid combination of a great set (I often overlook sets, but it’s so important here), terrific acting by two mature actors ( Daryl Shuttleworth and Lucia Frangione), and a demanding, nuanced script (this is one that particularly depends on the quality of the acting to reveal the internal drama of the characters). Despite the deadly seriousness, though, the play has many funny moments. Tragedy coexists with humor in real life, and it does in this play also.

Review: Oh the Humanity, and Other Good Intentions (last performance September 16!)

This set of five plays has a simple setup. There’s an athletic coach giving a press conference about the team’s losing season. A spokeswoman gives a press conference updating the public on an airline crash. A woman bristles with lack of sympathy for her partner’s suffering as they head off, or possibly don’t, to his father’s funeral. A man and a woman, separately, have to make promotional videos of themselves, and find it hard to think of anything promotional to say. A photographer and his assistant try to compose a reenacted photo from the Spanish-American War.

This is dark, black, comedy noir. The actors, Maryanne Renzetti and Brad Duffy, sparkle in their solo and duo performances. These plays rely almost exclusively on the skills of the actor to wittily convey excessive honesty and oversharing. The simplicity of the arrangement allows the talents of these thespians to shine through.

I read one comment that Will Eno’s work can be rather cold. That is true, but it’s more like shivery recognition.

Review: The Inventor of All Things (Revue Stage, until September 20) – Vancouver Fringe

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For those who don’t know me, I am somewhat geeky (a few might use an adverb other than “somewhat”). So when I read about this play, about the physicist Leo Szilard, and saw that it was going to be performed by veteran spoken-word artist and storyteller Jem Rolls, I was particularly excited.

What can I say? I was thrilled by this show. It cannot be called a play, but more like the most exciting lecture you’ve ever had. Except that “lecture” does not convey the sense of suspense, drama, fear, and delight that will result from attending.

I have read the biographies of various physicists, including of course Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, but Leo Szilard barely registered to me. I certainly did not know that he was the first person to envision how a nuclear bomb could work. I had heard of Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt, but I did not know that Szilard drafted it.

Are you worried that the physics discussions will go over your head? No equation enters the play at any point. This play is a model of clear communication for laypeople. Plus, there is a lot more than physics to this work–politics (both international and internecine), personal antipathies, and romance are all part of the story too. Jem Rolls did a huge amount of research (I was jealous when he talked of visiting the Bodleian Library in Oxford) to make this all come together, and it does, magnificently.

This performance is hard to describe without summarizing it, and the best way to find out what it’s about is to see it. Jem Rolls frequently has sell-out performances at the Fringe, so buy your tickets quickly.

Want to learn more about Szilard and his cohort of Hungarians who changed the face of modern science? Wikipedia has a lot, but this book looks really good: The Martians of Science.

Clustering Vancouver Fringe shows by theme

Vancouver Fringe shows

My organizational self keeps wanting to group Vancouver Fringe plays, although generally they are completely unrelated. Because Fringe plays are chosen by lottery, any overarching themes are coincidental. But that does not stop me.

The Inventor of All Things and The Exclusion Zone both feature nuclear physics. The Inventor of All Things is about the quirky and unbelievably brilliant Leo Szilard, who should be as well-known as Einstein, but somehow isn’t. Featuring noted performer Jem Rolls, I expect this will sell out soon. The Exclusion Zone is about the Chernobyl disaster, and features Fringe favorite Martin Dockery. Starstuff: Per Aspera Ad Astra has physics embedded in it too, but not specifically nuclear physics.

Spilling Family Secrets and Fire in the Meth Lab are about exposing the secrets of one’s family–and about oneself. Self-revelation and self-exploration is a common Fringe theme–a huge percentage have some aspect of this, in part because the Fringe setup is perfectly suited to one-person shows. Going On and Brain are two examples of plays that explore and reveal the self.

Magic, dance, vaudeville add fun and are a nice break from serious dramas. The New Conformity uses juggling and dance and martial arts, and Vaudevillain uses magic and vaudeville. Bear Dreams features dance and music.

These are just a few examples of some pervasive themes. I know there are many more. Have fun reading the catalogue (available at Blenz and at each venue, or just read the listings on your phone.

Review: Fire in the Meth Lab (Waterfront Theatre, until September 20)


Saturday night, I had time to see a show around 9:45 on Granville Island, and I had a pick of three. I texted the names to a friend, who told me (knowing nothing other than the titles) to pick “Fire in the Meth Lab”. Well, it had been a long day, and it turned out Waterfront Theatre was also the closest. So away I went.

I ended up being stunned by the humor, pathos, tragedy, and possibly redemption in this true family story of the impacts of addiction and bullying. Jon Bennett, the performer, is very engaging and interactive in this one-man show, which went about 75 minutes when I attended (a bit longer than the average Fringe show). He is Australian, and of course a good part of the humor arises from Australia-based jokes.

It’s a truism that many actors work out traumas by performing, and there’s no doubt that Jon Bennett does achieve some catharsis with this play. Bennett’s family, although very religious, is not portrayed as abusive, but the behavior of one son, out of four brothers, casts a huge shadow.

Bennett’s brother, given the name of “Tim” in this show (a disclaimer says the stories are true, but names are changed), comes across as inherently malevolent. Although no one wants to think this can be true of children, Bennett’s stories certainly suggest someone who was evil from the time he could reason–except for a couple of things.

Bennett throws in Australian cultural references, like 80s heart-throb Jason Donovan (it seems North America missed hearing about him), and to the Australian version of highly religious child Bible camps. It’s easy to fall into the misconception that Australia is pretty much like Canada, but hotter, but I think not.

Heavy and funny and both at once, go see Fire in the Meth Lab.

Review: Starstuff: Per Aspera Ad Astra (at the Cultch until September 20)

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“Per Aspera Ad Astra” means “Through hardships to the stars”. What I did not realize is that this phrase references a 1981 Soviet science fiction film (although while I was watching I kept on thinking that this play reminded me of the Russian science fiction that I had read) .

This play moves and weaves among multiple storylines, with an astronaut communicating with Ground Control, a pregnant couple, an adolescent hanging out in his room not responding to his mother.

When Ground Control (played by Pedro Chamale) says “Ground Control to Tom Molinsky”, I felt pretty sure that this is an allusion to David Bowie’s Space Oddity (“Ground Control to Major Tom”), which for me is an incredibly compelling song (and I will take this excuse to reference it).

Fringe constraints necessarily tend to produce sparse sets. In this case, the sparse set is fully evocative. The would-be parents hold a sheet of plywood between them to make a convincing table in a diner.

Like many current plays, this one incorporates a screen with text behind the characters. I was perhaps a bit too distracted at times, but information like the names of the people who died in various space disasters was oddly compelling, as I thought back about who I did and did not remember.

As I watched the show, I had what may be an atypical response, as I kept wanting to remember how to calculate escape velocity (I could remember learning about it, but not how to do it), and with that and the screen information I was a bit distracted at times. In order to escape the orbit of the earth, the rocket must reach a velocity that prevents earth’s gravity from pulling it back. You don’t need to know, but Wikipedia did tell me. If you need an excuse to read up on space exploration, this show provides it. But pay attention during the show.

The most lovely part of the play is the parallels drawn between space exploration and the astronaut in the comfort of his space capsule,and the fetus in the womb, and the adolescent struggling to become an adult free of his parents. All must leave their comfortable if cramped environments, and these environments can become unsafe at any moment. Life is perilous, and precious and never to be taken for granted.

The play has many cross-references and allusions, and I suspect I would get even more out of it with another viewing. But go and pay close attention. With the group I attended, we all saw different details and learned a lot from discussing it.

Review: Spilling Family Secrets (Havana, until September 20) Vancouver Fringe

I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that Susan Freedman’s Spilling Family Secrets is not a dark tale of horrific family dysfunction. It’s quite the opposite. There are lots of secrets, hardships, and triumphs, and huge amounts of love and character.

The preview that I saw at Fringe-For-All, a show at the start of Vancouver Fringe where actors from dozens of shows get two minutes to persuade the audience to see their work, hooked me. Susan and her friend Anita Ruth find a treasure trove of love letters between Susan’s parents, written from 1927-1937. Their giggly fun is quickly and harshly interrupted by Susan’s mother, and the secrets hidden in those letters remain hidden from the children for another 40 years or so.

Ultimately, Susan’s mother bestows the letters on Susan, and 2.5 years after her mother’s death, Susan finally begins to read them with her mother’s blessing and no fear of interruption. The parents’ relationship was exceptionally long, and almost devoid of fighting or tension. How is it that some couples are able to manage marriage so well? Susan does not answer that question, but she was frank in discussing how this expectation did not work out for her. Every thing that Sam and Brownie (Susan’s parents) experienced, such as poverty and family opposition, is common to many couples, and many relationships crumble under those intense stresses. Susan does point out the wisdom of her mother (somewhat forced by circumstances) in ensuring that her would-be husband did indeed truly care about her, because it was so many years, during the Great Depression, before they were able to finally establish themselves as a family.

The immigrant narratives of Susan’s parents and extended family are very interesting as well. Do we still live in a country where the son of a rag-and-junk man can become the Chief Justice of the Manitoba Court of Appeals (like Samuel Freedman, Susan’s father, did)? Can you envision the excitement of a honeymoon trip to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota?

Susan crafts a compelling narrative from the letters, while giving the audience an interesting portrayal of her own life in the shadow of her parents’ perfect marriage. If relationships interest you, if you like gossip, if you enjoy memoir–go!

Review: The Traveller (at Havana Restaurant Theatre until September 20)

Ulysses, the Ancient Mariner, and many other figures in literature represent the wise, grizzled traveller who returns and reports the terrible, the fantastical, and the unimaginable. A young protegé lacking in experience listens to the old traveller, but ultimately must make these discoveries for himself–and that is the story of the Traveller, playing at the Havana Theatre as part of Vancouver Fringe. Jung uncovered the archetypes of the Traveller (like Ulysses who returns) and the Eternal Wanderer (the one who cannot return, like Cain).

These classical archetypes pervade the Traveller. Imagine a story, partly sung and partly narrated, accompanied by The Traveller intermittently playing his guitar and mouth organ. Max Kashetsky plays the role of The Traveller who has been advised by an elder traveller, only to find himself gaining experience and knowledge he had not bargained for nor wished for. As travellers, want to see new things, exciting things, things that shake us out of our humdrum existences–but what happens when we do?

For me, the play brought up some questions and considerations. Do we shed our identities when we travel, like The Traveller says we do? I’m inclined to say that in the past, perhaps we did. But now, that is much harder to do in a hyper-connected universe. I am not someone with a blank slate when I meet someone when I travel–he or she can look me up on Facebook or Google in a moment (and we do–connections made while traveling need not be ephemeral anymore, and often they are not). There’s a perhaps related phenomenon where long-distance travel can feel just like I took a somewhat inconvenient bus trip–literally it can be just as fast for me to fly to Mexico City as it is to get to Hope without a car, and I would actually feel more at ease in Mexico City, because of familiarity. What feels like home and what feels like a neighborhood is not anchored in physical space.

I am drawn to this play for a multitude of reasons, being a frequent traveler, someone who loves visiting Latin America, and having a strong interest in the philosophy of what it means to travel or be at home. We navigate vast distances and endure numerous hardships, but ultimately living with the results can be the most challenging of all.

Review: Going On (with Elizabeth Richardson, at Studio 1398 until September 20)

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I love theatre wherever I see it. I love seeing elementary-school kids and high-school students, community theatre productions, old plays, new plays, all of it. But, I have to admit, when I see theatre in London I certainly enjoy the polished talent and perfect productions at places like Royal National Theatre and Donmar Warehouse. So it is really a treat to see Elizabeth Richardson, a Canadian actor with London training and experience who matches precisely what I expect from a London stage actor, performing at Studio 1398 on Granville Island. We are lucky!


(photo credit Kat Wahamaa)

Richardson is telling a story about her life that she is very keen to tell. She draws from her early acting experiences and from recent heartwrenching personal and family dramas that are all too real.

With a Fringe show, Richardson has the power to create her own world, her own script, and choose her own director,a privilege often denied to women in theatre and performing arts, particularly women over a certain age.

I wondered about Richardson’s decision to enter a Buddhist retreat for a lengthy stay, where the general theme was monasticism. Richardson does not beat us over the head with an explanation, but conversationally explains her choices.


(photo credit Kat Wahamaa)

Richardson manages the chronology nicely, moving back and forth between her young-adult self and her current self, between her mother, herself, and other characters. Richardson is a good impersonator–go and see for yourself!

I found Richardson’s story compelling, and could hardly believe the showtime had elapsed when the lights came up. If you have ever had a life crisis, dealt with an ailing parent, wondered what to do with your life, or wanted to get away from it all, you will find this work very relatable.

Two Vancouver Fringe selections: The Traveller, Going On

Vancouver Fringe is just about here (September 10-20). Come out and get to some shows–it is really one of the most fun festivals you can go to in Vancouver. If you are unsure what to attend, start with the very fun Georgia Straight Fringe-For-All where various Fringe performers give a two-minute preview. Try to hit the 1/2-price shows if you are worried about committing the full ticket price. Buy a 10-ticket Frequent Fringer pass if you still can. If both of the shows here sound too serious, there’s always Quack Quack Penis and many, many others.

Both The Traveller and Going On have intriguing storylines and themes of travel and self-discovery as well. As someone who loves to travel incessantly, I am drawn to both of them.

The Traveller is a one-man show featuring Vancouver actor and musician Max Kashetsky, at The Havana (which is a great venue, and may be easier to get to than Granville Island for a lot of people).

The Traveller show times:

Be careful what you look for, you just might find it. The Traveller is a stark, gripping, poetic morality tale about the dark side of travel, one young man’s memories of Central America and how far he went to find something real. Written by avid backpacker/playwright Daniel Morton and directed by film industry veteran Cecilia Davis.

Daniel Morton wrote El Centro which was featured in the Fringe last year. I have been told that there are some echoes of El Centro in The Traveller, but they are two very different works. I am really looking forward to seeing this.

Going On is acclaimed actor Elizabeth Richardson’s memoir, and she presents it as a one-woman show. Show times at Studio 1398 at Granville Island:

Drawing from her own life, Richardson counterpoints her adventures as a young actress on a famous theatre tour with Peter O’Toole in Toronto, Chicago and Washington with her later challenges as a Buddhist on a three-year meditation retreat in Nova Scotia. All is seen through the eyes of a dozen characters played by Richardson, including Peter O’Toole and classic characters from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. Richardson navigates the razor edge of funny and poignant, in this compelling, raw and hilarious account of the paradoxical life of a Buddhist actress.