Public Salon returns in 2016 (review from Jan. 27)

Sam Sullivan and his partner Lynn Zanatta keep hitting home runs with their public salons. They bring together a group of interesting people, each of whom is given 7 minutes to speak. The Jan. 27, 2016 edition (#24 in this continuing series) maintained the same standard that I have come to expect from these evenings.

Each salon begins with a musical group playing as people find their seats. This edition was fully booked, a credit to the interesting speakers and the networking possibilities available afterwards. This time the group was The Straight Jackets.

sj(Photo credit: John Gurcharan Nijjar)

Sam Sullivan as host is always good-humored and upbeat. He talked a bit about learning an indigenous language (the trade language Chinook Wawa), gave us a sample of what he has learned (the words rolled off his tongue quite fluently) and urged us to participate also.

The evening began with Brett Finlay, a microbiologist talking about how excessive hygiene may be causing the high incidence of allergies, asthma, and other disorders in current Western populations. If infants have certain bacteria in their microbiome at three months, they are unlikely to get asthma. But many factors, including Cesarean births and formula feeding (both of which can clearly be life-saving interventions), can hinder the growth of an ideal microbiome.

ed2(Photo credit: John Gurcharan Nijjar)

Next up was Kedrick James, who does what I call “stochastic poetry”. He uses randomness and remixes to create his poetry. From a data science and mathematical and computing point of view, I find the experiment to be fascinating. From a literary perspective, I longed for Keats and T.S. Eliot, or even David Bowie (who did indeed use Brian Eno’s suggestions to introduce randomness into his lyrics).

I guessed that Farzana Jaffer Jeraj might be related to Senator Jaffer, and I was right (the senator is her mother, and her mother was proudly tweeting during the session). Farzana is an author and coach, and as described by tweeter @drshimikang, “#lifehappens & what matters is how we manage it.”

Scott C. Jones talked about recovery from a stroke, and his delight when he could finally manage to read sentences again. He spoke of his appreciation for the bookstores around Pender and Richards, with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Everyone knows Bill Richardson from CBC. He talked of purchasing a house in tiny Holman, Manitoba, and the pleasures he is getting from country living. He was as witty and insightful as always.

Trevor Stokes spoke about his students in the alternative Streetfront program at Britannia Secondary School. Many of his students have taken up marathoning, with incredible results, and some of them attended the salon that night too. It is always a very special thing to see a teacher who is extremely proud of his students.

Eran Sudds was struck with postpartum depression after the birth of her son. She got the help she needed, and seeks to encourage other women to do the same.

Robert Sung operates Wok Around Chinatown food tours. He spoke with pride of his father, who helped build Canada while still not being allowed citizenship. As Chinatown is my neighborhood of choice, I am certain that his clients have no shortage of great places to visit.

Once again, Sam and Lynn brought together a group of eight local people with fascinating stories. Keep your eye out for the next one happening in a few months!

 

 

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Review: Agnes of God, PAL Theatre until Nov. 29

“Agnes of God” opens with a backdrop that clearly suggests a religious and austere setting, with a beauty and light that are quite striking.

Play information

The three women in this play are attired in contrasting clothing: Mother Miriam Ruth in a standard black nun’s garb, the psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone in a brown pants suit that exemplifies 1980s power-dressing, and the young novice Agnes, dressed in white robes that suggest her purity and innocence. The clean lines of the set and the wardrobe color palette are some details that really enhance the play.

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Although I knew the play featured Agnes and the mysterious birth and death of a newborn, I did not know the details of the plot. You may have seen the 1980s-era film featuring Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, and Meg Tilly, but I have not.

Agnes is a 21-year-old novice (meaning she is a relatively new resident who lives a nun’s life but has not yet taken her vows) with a mysterious past.

A ghastly scene involving Agnes on the ground, passed out from lack of blood, with a baby in the wastepaper basket under the bed, is described. Livingstone is the court-appointed psychiatrist with her own history of loss and trauma, who is far from a disinterested observer. Mother Miriam Ruth is not too interested in getting at the truth, and seeks desperately to stop the inquiries, but is she doing this to protect Agnes, or for some other reason?

As I was watching the play, I could not help but wonder what would happen now if a Mother Superior insisted on attending her novice’s psychiatric sessions, and if the psychiatrist freely shared what she had learned from Agnes with the Mother Superior. Rules were looser during the time the play was set in the 1980s, but I doubt this play should be taken as a legal guide in any event. According to Wikipedia, the play was inspired by a real-life case involving a 36-year-old nun with a somewhat similar story of concealed pregnancy.

All three women in the play have different experiences of femininity and womanhood, but all relate to womanhood through the prism of their Catholic upbringings, even when this has been discarded, as with Livingstone.

It’s hard to say much without spoilers, so I will stop here. But I will say that Annie Arbuckle, who plays Agnes, has a wonderfully lovely voice singing Latin songs. In contemplative orders, to which the nuns belong in this play, nuns often had choirs where their voices could be heard only from behind a screen. That may even still be true in a few places.

Whether or not you are a Catholic (I am not), the themes of this play are universal for anyone concerned with the plight of girls and women. The acting is compelling, and I was more drawn into the mystery than I expected.

 

Blue Tango Project, with Maria Volonte, September 17 (Orpheum Annex)

I have visited Argentina and Buenos Aires, and was thrilled with the art, music, and tango scene there. In a country where a painful past continues to reverberate into the present, I felt such a sense of energy and élan. If you go, and are at all interested in the arts, please visit Clásica y Moderna. At your computer right now? Look up Mercedes Sosa, Leon Gieco, and Jorge Cafrune on YouTube.

I am glad that we are going to get that Buenos Aires spirit, in particular that of La Boca (a colorful and gritty district), here in Vancouver. Here’s a typical La Boca street (photo credit Railtown Cultural Eclective).laboca Tango did not start off with any aristocratic pretensions. A commonly accepted history is that tango originated in the brothels frequented by working men in the district, but some see its history as somewhat more complex. In any event, in the music of tango, one can easily hear an affinity to flamenco, to fado, to the blues. This is art borne out of hardship.

With the Blue Tango Project, acclaimed Argentinian singer and songwriter Maria Volonte will be partnering with the blues artist Kevin Carrel Footer, who have together pioneered a fusion of tango and the blues.

The Railtown Cultural Eclective’s Trier Series provides a showcase for the amazing talents of both Vancouver and international artists. The support of City of Vancouver Theatre Rental Grant Program has made it possible to present this occasional series at Vancouver’s intimate performance venue, the Orpheum Annex.

Blue Tango Project appears Thursday, September 17 at 8pm, doors open at 7pm, Orpheum Annex, 823 Seymour Street. Tickets are $20 and available at http://www.artspoints.com. For more information email info@railtownce.ca or call 604-836-9943.

Review: Glengarry Glen Ross, by Classic Chic Productions (until June 27 at Beaumont Stage)

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“A man’s his job …” – Shelly “The Machine” Levene

What a great opening, for both this all-women production of Glengarry Glen Ross by Classic Chic Productions, and the Beaumont Stage space (be sure to check out Beaumont Studio some time too, which has some very interesting artists in house).

The cast of Glengarry Glen Ross (credit, Megan Verhey Photography)

The cast of Glengarry Glen Ross (credit, Megan Verhey Photography)

Many attendees might know the 1992 film, which is legendary for its powerful all-star cast. David Mamet wrote both the 1984 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play (which was a sensation on Broadway) and then the screenplay, and the play is by necessity more abbreviated. But if you know the film, you’ll undoubtedly recognize many of the legendary scenes.

Glengarry Glen Ross is something of a period piece. There are no cellphones, which would have changed the plot a fair bit. Online databases might be easier to steal than paper ones, but require different strategies. Has the essential psychology of boiler-room scam sales changed, though? I suspect not. David Mamet based the play on his experience as an officer manager in a similar real estate office in 1969. As grim as it is, there’s nothing implausible about it. The office set looks just like you would expect an early 1980s real estate office specializing in Florida swampland to look. The actors have to dress the part of old-style salesmen, and the costume design hits the mark. To see these transformations, just take a look for some of the actors’ standard publicity photos compared to how they appear in this play–the combined effort of all the theatrical staff to make these characters look and act the way they do is stunning.

Left to right: Michelle Martin (playing Ricky Roma), Colleen Winton (Shelly Levene), Corina Akeson (Moss) Credit - Megan Verhey Photography

Left to right: Michelle Martin (Ricky Roma), Colleen Winton (Shelly Levene), Corina Akeson (Moss) Credit – Megan Verhey Photography

When I think of Mamet’s theatrical works, I tend to think of almost unremitting grimness. That is certainly true of Glengarry Glen Ross, but this production sparkles throughout regardless, and the texture and tempo of the grimness changes constantly. The actors skillfully extracted numerous laughs from the audience.

Is it ironic that such a stereotypically masculine play is being acted by a troupe of women? I think you will find that you forget the gender of the actors when you watch this play, as they fully embody their roles. I have seen this happen before in other plays (including when Classic Chic Productions did The Winter’s Tale last year), but I am always stunned in retrospect about the power of the characters and the power of the actors to create an alternate reality.

Classic female status-seeking and oneupmanship (an ironic term in the context) can be seen in films like Mean Girls (admittedly that is about teenagers, not the middle-aged). In Glengarry Glen Ross, seeing women vie for status as men would do calls attention to gender stereotypes about these cruel behaviors.

I found this New Westminster Record article (and interview with Colleen Winton, who plays the washed-up Shelly Levene) humorous and informative. Some of the actors are mothers of young children who have to rehearse these profanity-laced lines (continual profanity is a characteristic feature of Mamet plays)

As with other Mamet plays, the way each actor physically embodies the character and lives his reality is extremely important as to whether the play resonates. Each of the actors demonstrates natural body language that reflects the character. Ricky Roma, vying for #1 spot and a Cadillac, throws open his legs and puts his feet on his desk in a completely easy fashion. Of course, being masculine does not just mean being an alpha power-seeker. James Linghk is mousy, subject to flattery, and attempts to shrink away rather than offend the sociopath who sold him Florida swamp land, but the character is indubitably masculine nonetheless. Shelly Levene demonstrates the art of keeping a calm, impenetrable surface over raging doubts and insecurities. Williamson, as office manager, is denigrated constantly by the salesmen who see themselves as superior, only to be fawned on occasionally when they desperately want a favor, and the actor’s facial expressions are masterful at conveying Williamson’s internal satisfaction in seeing through the facades of his fellow employees.

Although I have seen various productions of Glengarry Glen Ross over the years, and there could not be any plot surprises, I was amazed at how the dramatic tension still held me. Mamet is a master at drawing out suspense, and the actors work well with it.

The play is about grinding degradation and competition in pursuit of material goods and status. I found myself thinking of Michael Lewis’s 1989 book, Liar’s Poker, which is based on Lewis’s experience as a Wall Street salesman of poor-quality bonds in the 1980s, in an environment which may have been higher class, but scarcely more reputable.

Shelly Levene, in particular, reminds me of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

One major reason this play resonates is because we (the audience) know that we are subject to continual cons all the time, whether it be marketing for harmful or unnecessary products, or the latest political shenanigans and scandals. By making the con so stereotypically obvious (Florida swampland), we can better focus on the mechanisms of the con.

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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Review: Virtual Solitaire, at Studio 1398 on Granville Island (until March 29)

Buy tickets: https://tickets.vancouverfringe.com/shows/virtual%20solitaire/info/2

Virtual Solitaire, staged by Vancouver Fringe, looks at a technological dystopia where virtual reality scrambles a hapless worker’s brain.

When watching this play, I thought often of the sci-fi writer William Gibson. With the disclaimer that I have not finished that book, his latest novel “The Peripheral” is also about the boundaries between “real life” and virtual reality in a dystopian future. The concerns that Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have about artificial intelligence are well-known.

When those in charge of the game make permanent and destructive brain-altering decisions, without the informed consent of their employee, you might be tempted to think of the Nazis and Mengele. But a closer analogy in time and place is Dr. Ewen Cameron, who used LSD, paralytic drugs, electroshock, and long-playing audio devices to “reprogram” his psychiatric patients in Weyburn, Saskatchewan in the 1960s.

In this one-man show, Dawson Nichols moves seamlessly and effectively from character to character, playing a wide range of roles. He’s the confused patient and the overseer, the detective and the asylum dweller, among others. This aspect of the performance was excellent.

Both my friend and I felt that this play would benefit from some editing to tighten up the narrative and pacing. That said, the dramatic tension was generally good throughout. I was frequently confused as to what was happening, although that is probably part of the plot.

I saw David Mamet referenced in a review, and just as watching a Mamet play can frequently be uncomfortable, the same is true here. What is happening to the main character Nathan is not pleasant to consider. But like Mamet’s work, this is theatre that stimulates deeper considerations.