Fighting Chance’s “Little Women” Brings Warm Holiday Fuzzies

With its quaint 19th-century setting, four memorable heroines (five if you count Marmee), and its emphasis on the importance of family and togetherness in both good times and bad, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved semi-autobiographical novel Little Women, spanning almost a decade during and after the American Civil War, is both an obvious and daunting choice for adaptation to the stage. Obvious, of course, due to the sheer vitality and festive beauty of the March sisters (bedecked as they are in ribbons and lace, even as they stage blood and guts operas in their attic), and the palpable love and loyalty they feel for one another.

In Fighting Chance Productions‘ first holiday show, Little Women The Musical (music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and book by Allan Knee), the theme of love and loyalty takes centre stage. As the play opens, the adult Josephine March dreams of literary fame but receives only rejection letters from publishers. Dejected in a New York City boarding house, she realizes she was never so brilliant as she was back at home in Concord, Massachusetts, penning lurid tales of adventure and passion for the amusement of her sisters.

It is at this moment that we find ourselves in Orchard House, the home of the March family, many Christmases ago, and it is here that Alcott fans will find their footing. The impetuous Jo cuts down snobbish Mr. Laurence’s Douglas fir, sweet Beth decides to give it to the poor family down the road for a Christmas tree, little Amy complains about the shape of her nose, the romantic Meg hopes to be invited to Annie Moffat’s Valentine’s Day ball, and Marmee is tasked with enveloping all four of her daughters in love and stability while her husband is away at war.

Robin Eder-Warren, Danielle Melvin, Julie Casselman, Roan Shankuruk. Photo: Linda Leong Sum

Robin Eder-Warren, Danielle Melvin, Julie Casselman, Roan Shankuruk. Photo: Linda Leong Sum

The musical adaptation of Alcott’s text is concerned primarily with Jo’s story, and performer Julie Casselman is equal to the task of leading her intrepid band of sisters through the highs and lows of their years together. The March sisters–Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (Robin Eder-Warren, Casselman, Danielle Melvin, and Roan Shankaruk respectively) whirl around the stage in a flurry of ringlets and flying skirts, their beautiful voices singing in harmony like a chorus of angels, and their highly choreographed blocking creating elegant stage pictures worthy of a Christmas card. Ambitious, high-strung, and fiercely devoted to her family, Jo struggles to come to terms with growing up–and with letting the people she loves do the same. While she relies on them to support her in her dreams, she learns that loving her sisters means accepting that they will sometimes leave her–to get married, to travel Europe, or, in the case of the shy and quiet Beth, to finally give in to the spectre of illness that had been slowly sapping her strength.

Unfortunately, Little Women The Musical‘s focus on Jo means many plot points that don’t include her are left out–Meg, Amy, and Laurie, for example, are not given the benefit of the character development we see in the book, and while Meg does eventually become more mature through marriage and motherhood, we leave Amy just as silly at the end of the play as she was at the beginning. Both the adaptation and this production are highly presentational, and I wanted more moments of subtlety and quiet intimacy to balance out the bombast and musical pomp. Having a pianist and violinist on stage were an incredibly nice touch, but in the relatively small playing space some of the lyrics were occasionally drowned out, and the production may have benefited from more physical distance between the musicians and players.

That being said, Little Women the Musical still has plenty of heart. A particularly sweet and surprising duet between Beth and the curmudgeonly Mr. Laurence (Peter Stainton) stands out, and I saw more than one person wiping their eyes as Beth and Jo said their good-byes to each other (as for me, I was a sniffling mess). The love duet between Meg and Mr. Brooke (Mark Kroeker) is quietly romantic, and Jo’s closing solo in Act I (“Astonishing”) paints a strong picture of a dauntless young woman’s determination to succeed.

A refreshing departure from more thoroughly Christmas-based holiday productions, Fighting Chance’s Little Women The Musical, with its flouncing dresses, musical frolics, and story of love is an entertaining introduction to Alcott’s classic. I know if I had seen the production as a child I would have been absolutely in love with it.

Little Women The Musical runs at Studio 1398 on Granville Island until December 21. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: I attended Sunday’s performance of Little Women The Musical courtesy of Fighting Chance Productions.

 

 

Please Stop Fighting Straw Feminists (they’re not real)

As a feminist who is interested in one day having a family, I tend to spend a decent amount of time thinking about the values my husband and I will teach our future children, and the ways in which our ingrained ideas about gender will or won’t affect the natural expressions of our kids’ personalities.

So I was naturally curious about a blog post I came across recently, called,  “I’m a Mother of 2 Boys, and I Can’t (and Won’t) Support Feminism” by Tara Kennedy-Kline. Of course, my heart sank the minute I read the title of the post, but I have recently been having an interior conversation with myself about NOT disengaging from those who disagree with me, so I clicked on the link and read through to the end.

Not being a parent myself, and not knowing Ms. Kennedy-Kline and her children personally, it is fair to critique ONLY her views on feminism and otherwise assume that Ms. Kennedy-Kline’s two children are well-cared-for and loved. I have no reason to believe this is not the case. The author’s parenting abilities are not what I am taking issue with here.

What discourages, and frustrates, and occasionally enrages me, is the number of otherwise educated and well-meaning people out there who argue against and thereby continue to perpetuate the view the of sinister, man-hating feminism that doesn’t exist. As TC commented to me after reading Kennedy-Kline’s post, “Good thing no one has a lighted match because there are a LOT of straw men in there.” [Of course, perhaps as a spooky angry  feminist I should take offense to this and call them “straw persons“. But I digress.]

Throughout her post, Kennedy-Kline insists that she is raising her sons to be “gentlemen”, to be “dedicated providers”, and to tell the women in their lives that they are beautiful. She also insists that feminism would punish, label as predatory, and otherwise be offended by her boys for doing these things. These fears are overblown and misguided. Alyssa Rose, writing at the Good Men Project, has a thoughtful and logically laid-out response detailing exactly why Kennedy-Kline’s arguments are irrational. I’m not going to repeat her work here, but I am going to point out two things:

  1. Ms. Kennedy-Kline’s fears that feminism will punish her sons for being stereotypically manly assumes her sons want to grow up to be stereotypically manly. How does she know? What does “stereotypically manly” even mean in this day and age, where households containing two working adults are the norm? How does she even know her sons will want to date the “princesses” she encourages her sons to provide for?
  2. When Kennedy-Kline posits that it is not only her sons’ right, but that it is normal and good for them to grab a woman’s hand or tell a woman she’s beautiful because they’re gentlemen, she completely ignores context (how would she feel if, say, a strange man grabbed her hand in a shopping mall or on a dark street?). Some women might not WANT to be touched, or might not appreciate being told they’re beautiful if they aren’t interested in talking to her sons (see my post on how to meet women without being a creep). True gentlemen care not about their gestures, but about the intended recipient of those gestures. If there is any indication that their mother’s so-called chivalrous act will make a woman uncomfortable or even afraid, they shouldn’t do it (alternatively, if it seems that the woman in question would appreciate the gesture, go for it). This is a principle we all learn as kids–it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and if your playmate says they don’t like what you’re doing, even if you’re having fun, you stop doing it. It’s not feminist ideology. It’s just being a decent human being and respecting other peoples’ boundaries.

The post is not the worst take-down of feminism I’ve ever read, or even the worst written by a woman (MRA sites enjoy waving around posts by women who, it seems, hate other women, or at the very least hate feminist women). So why did it bother me?

It bothered me because Ms. Kennedy-Kline is obviously not some wingnut, and it’s distressing that a rational, loving parent can believe such silly things about a movement that, as Alyssa Rose points out, can only benefit boys and men as it improves the lives of girls and women. Her argument is not only misguided (because she’s arguing against something that doesn’t really exist)–it’s harmful. The more feminism is painted as something a “normal” parent, or a woman who loves her sons or husband, could not, in good conscience, ascribe to, the more these completely false myths equating feminism with hating, harming, or revoking the rights of men are perpetuated. And when people believe these myths they stop believing in the things feminism really stands for, like equal pay, and the rights of people to have their physical boundaries respected, and the rights of both women and men to be whoever they want to be, regardless of whether their identity is traditionally considered the purview of one gender or the other.

I hate repeating this, but I feel I have to: FEMINISM IS NOT MISANDRY. Just like being Christian doesn’t automatically mean you’re a member of the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church, being a feminist does NOT mean you ascribe to the views of those extreme but rare persons who DO hate men and use the feminist label as their justification (my dear friend, performance artist Frankie Vandellous, has written a beautiful post about some of the various, and even the harmful, interpretations of feminism that are out there). Just as the Westboro Baptist Church does not speak for Christians (and cant’ really, considering they seem to have completely missed that “love thy neighbour” bit), misandrists do not speak for feminists.

Contrary to the belief of many, feminism doesn’t mean you have to “tow the line” either. I don’t expect Ms. Kennedy-Kline to be a feminist just because she’s a woman. I don’t expect people who believe in equal pay and equal rights to control over one’s own body to call themselves feminists if they don’t want to. And I don’t expect every woman to want what I want. But that doesn’t make smearing feminism appropriate, and it doesn’t mean that women who don’t want certain rights for themselves have the right to prevent me, or any other woman, from accessing these rights, nor do these women have the right to tell their sons, or anyone else, that certain behaviours are appropriate only for certain genders.

As feminists (and other like-minded people) work hard to change perceptions about gender and about what is and isn’t appropriate for human beings living together in a society, there will be, as Kennedy-Kline’s post makes clear, some discomfort. It’s awkward to have to change the way you’ve always treated or spoken to/about certain people. It’s uncomfortable when familiar tropes are demonstrated to be false or hurtful (I’m sure many folks in past generations were a little confused when racial slurs became not okay anymore). You know you’re not trying to be hurtful with your choice of words/actions/opinions, and you’re not out there assaulting anyone, so what’s the big damn deal? Isn’t everything fine the way it is?

Well, it may be fine for you, but when 1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it’s obvious that things are NOT fine for a LOT of people. Just because I personally haven’t been raped (and hopefully never will be), that doesn’t mean I should prevent rape victims from seeking justice, or should willfully perpetuate rape culture.

When you say, “I think things are fine the way they are,” what you’re really saying is, “It’s never happened to me, so I’ve chosen not to care about it.”

When you say, “Why should I have to experience change just because SOME people don’t like the way things are working?” you’re really saying, “Being comfortable is more important to me than the physical and emotional pain experienced by a very large number of people.”

And when you go out of your way to say, “I can’t (and won’t) support feminism,” you are saying, “It’s okay with me that half of the population have less rights than the other half.”

If you don’t want to be a feminist that is 100% your choice. But please, PLEASE, don’t actively work against feminism by spreading false perceptions about it. Humanity has nothing, absolutely NOTHING to lose by the success of feminism. The only “rights” which could be lost by men would be the ones they never actually legally had in the first place (like the right to touch another person without their permission, or the right to make more money than someone else doing the same job). Feminism is inclusive, egalitarian, and ultimately freeing. Isn’t that the kind of environment a parent would want for their children?

The Bloggerversary Edition: Nifty is 4!

I’ve been on the fence about whether or not to acknowledge my “bloggerversary” this year. I knew I was going to roll out a new look (hope you like it!) but I wasn’t sure whether to proclaim the milestone from the roof tops (“Oh my god! I’ve been writing this blog for FOUR WHOLE YEARS!”) or whether to just let the day pass by (“M’h. No big deal. Let’s write about something else.”).

Of course, I already did let the day pass by. The four-year anniversary of my very first post was actually on November 29. But I was on Salt Spring Island last weekend having a wonderful time and drinking martinis…so…yeah. And besides, is four years of (over)sharing on the Internet really such a thing to celebrate? Is it an accomplishment? Can I look at it and say, yeah, I get to feel like a real blogger now?

In many ways, no. It’s weird, but although I set out to be a blogger four years ago and began by following a lot of bloggers on Twitter and going to blogger meetups, etc., the more I’ve blogged the more I’ve pulled away from the idea of “being a blogger”. This is partially explained by personal growth–as I have become a more confident blogger I have also become a more busy person with more going on in my life, and I simply don’t have time to be an active part of an online community. But it’s also a question of how I identify myself. Would I call myself a blogger? Trick question. I don’t not call myself a blogger, but generally speaking I consider myself a writer. And having a blog can be an amazing gift for a writer–it holds me accountable to writing at specific intervals and has allowed me to share my writing with an audience (and sometimes to be a part of one as well–I have absolutely loved loved LOVED watching and reviewing theatre for NiftyNotCool).

As a blogger/writer/what-have-you, I’ve had some uncomfortable moments too: For every solid piece of writing there’s a mediocre one just taking up space. Being on the Internet gives people access to me, in ways that I don’t always foresee. Posting my opinions means sometimes people will disagree with me, occasionally very unpleasantly. And after blogging about sensitive issues, some of the responses I’ve received have forced me to re-examine my position, even my motives for writing. Does the fact that I am good at saying something about something mean that I should? Do I have a responsibility to post about certain issues because I am an okay writer who has a blog? Do I also occasionally have a responsibility NOT to write about certain issues, because I am not the best person to address them? Should I occasionally leave some silence in cyberspace for someone who isn’t white/cis/hetero/middle class (not that I take up much room, but still)? Why am I talking? Am I trying to help? Enlighten? Learn? Or am I just talking to hear/read myself think?

While monitoring the site stats for NiftyNotCool, I’ve had the thrill of watching a post go viral (my post on the recent teacher’s strike in BC has been viewed almost 50 000 times, most of them occurring within the first two days of its existence), and I’ve also bruised my ego realizing that the majority of my site traffic still comes from people googling the phrase “nifty nudes” [which is depressing, because obviously those people aren’t really interested in what I have to say and are visiting my blog posts about Wreck Beach by accident while looking for porn, but also intriguing: who knew so many people were on the hunt for specifically “nifty” nudes?]. At the end of the day, what do my stats really mean? Very little, most likely. WordPress hosts my site for free (I just pay for my domain name) so I don’t make anything off the little ads that sometimes run at the bottom of posts, no matter how many people view them. I’m not getting book deals or job offers. No one hands me a medal for having 20 000 views in a day or harangues me for only having two.

So what the heck have I been doing for four years? Shouting into the darkness? Well, sometimes. But other times, more and more as my blog and I grow older, I manage to say something that lands. And every once in a while somebody tells me that I have expressed something that they were feeling. And then I do think there’s a place for NiftyNotCool here in cyberspace, and there is a reason that I talk–not just to hear/read myself think but also so that every once in a little while somebody else can hear themselves too. And as a writer that’s just….wonderful.

IMGP6411

Photo: Bill Kresowaty

 

 

I want to write about the Mountain

I tried to write about Burnaby Mountain this week, and the profiteering oil company Kinder Morgan, and the undemocratic and unscrupulous National Energy Board (who are really just a front for our unscrupulous and undemocratic federal government), and the courageous City of Burnaby who is doing what it can to fight both KM and the NEB (though losing as well–the company was granted the right to cut down trees and test drill in the Burnaby Mountain conservation area in defiance of Burnaby’s bylaws and the NEB and the courts have decided Burnaby does not have the jurisdiction to decide what happens in its own public parks). I wanted to write about the protestors and defenders of the environment, and First Nations rights, and justice, and democracy, who have been, in large and small numbers, on the Mountain since September, who have been so brave. I wanted to write about the people, old and young, First Nations and settler, rich and poor, who have willingly crossed the police line that marks the KM drill sites to be arrested. I want to write about how beautiful it is to calmly declare that you understand you will be arrested, and to cross a line, walk towards the RCMP on the other side, and be (sometimes gently) received into the shackles of a law that, I’m sure, many of the officers themselves don’t even agree with.

I want to write about Monday afternoon–my day on the Mountain in the mud, my day meeting (fellow) protestors, and chatting with the RCMP, and explaining what I believe, and listening to others explain what they believe, and simply standing in front of a yellow line, knowing that the people on the other side are different because they are in a uniform, but really not so different beneath, and knowing that behind them, partially out of sight, is a Kinder Morgan work crew, and knowing that the people on that work crew are different because they are doing something that is wrong, but really not so different underneath their jobs, and not knowing what to do with that information.

I wanted to write about discussing with my husband before I went up that day whether or not I should be purposefully arrested because perhaps the charge would not be so bad and perhaps it was the right thing to do. I wanted to write about the fact that this is the first time I have EVER thought that perhaps being arrested might be something I could do, and that I think that says something about how important this fight is. I wanted to write about the young man I walked up the mountain with, who asked me why I wouldn’t cross the line and “add to the numbers”. I wanted to write about telling him that maybe I was just more selfish. And that I wasn’t ready. And knowing that I’m not.

I wanted to write about the calm that descended on me as I stood on the Mountain. I wanted to write about the rain, and the umbrella someone lent me while he helped make a wooden track alongside the road (which had been blocked off by the RCMP) to help the protestors through the mud. I wanted to write about knowing that I was where I should be, and what it feels like to know you are on the right side of history.

I wanted to write about how it feels to know you are standing on the right side of history, but to know also that you might not win. I wanted to write about how unwilling I was to be angry, even when the shouting started. I wanted to write about how I just wanted to be a pair of eyes in a face. I wanted my gaze to help wedge someone’s spirit open, help them see that the world is worth saving, help them to be brave enough to NOT drill into a mountain even though it’s their job.

I wanted to write about how lonely but not lonely I was, by myself but surrounded by strangers who were allowing me to put my heart with theirs. I wanted to write about when the cold finally seeped into my bones, and I returned the borrowed umbrella, and said thank you, and walked down the mountain alone, and rode the bus alone, and watched my sodden mittens soak the lap of my jeans.

I wanted to write about how heavy I have felt since. So heavy I could not write this. So heavy because so many people, and so many organizations, can speak to what’s happening so much better than I can. So heavy because I’ve really been just a pair of eyes from the very beginning, following the story on the Internet, reading everything I could read, forgetting where I found it. A pair of eyes whose legs finally walked me up the Mountain, but could not walk me across the line.

So heavy because I just wanted to reach across the yellow tape, to the officers in their heavy vests and heavy boots, and touch them on the shoulder, and say “You are not a robot.”

So heavy because I wanted to thank everyone, wanted to tell them really and truly from the bottom of my heart how good they were to be there, but I couldn’t, because I was just eyes that day and a very quiet tongue. And the rain was so heavy, and so cold, and they said there was a fire and I could go warm up, but I didn’t feel deserving, and my feet that would not cross the line were rooted to a spot in the rain.

And so heavy because I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it will be so important, and everyday the world is so beautiful, and it’s starting to look like sunset now, and how do you write about that?

Burnaby Mountain police line

Reveries of a Solitary Blogger

Since September, I have been enrolled in a graduate-level class in Liberal Studies (like Humanities, but even more broad). During this time, I have had the opportunity to read, and grapple with, and sometimes hate, a variety of canonical writers and texts, from Sophocles to Henrik Ibsen, from Euripides to Margaret Atwood, from Plato to Thomas Mann, from Freud to Henry James, from Genesis to Lucretius, and on and on and on. When it comes to by-gone thinkers (especially European males), my library is fairly well-stocked for a single semester of reading.

As a broad (albeit Western-heavy) foundation for further study, the ideas I’ve encountered this semester have been a lot to take in. Before we had an entire planet’s worth of knowledge (and also, let’s face it, baseless opinion) at our fingertips, people used to sit around reading books and THINKING about things, and proposing ideas for the way the world worked based on nothing more than observation and deduction. Long before microscopes, Lucretius (ancient Roman, author of massive didactic poem The Nature of Things) knew that matter was made of atoms, which could neither be created nor destroyed. He also thought that while you slept your “soul atoms” left your body and floated around in the ether until you woke up, but hey, he made some pretty interesting hypotheses based on what he could observe at the time, and some of them (like his ideas about genetics) were pretty on the money.

What’s significant to me is not whether these philosophers, psychoanalysts, poets, and/or scholars were right or wrong, but simply that they took the time to think deeply about the world and to try to answer big questions: what is the universe? What makes a human being? What is a person’s obligation to the State, and vice versa? If we’re becoming more “civilized”, why are people so unhappy? What is the nature of love? Of beauty? Of “truth”? Despite the almost total exclusion of women and working class men from the intellectual sphere at the times when most of these thinkers were writing, encountering these works, I almost long for the European “salons” of the late 18th-century, where educated people would meet to talk and argue about the big ideas, and a time when intellectual conviction about the way the world is and ought to be was enough to spark a revolution.

Reveries-RousseauWhich brings me to the subject of my penultimate class for this semester, and also (technically) of this post: the autobiographical Reveries of a Solitary Walker by 18th-century Swiss writer and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau lived a rather sad and tumultuous life, eventually cut out of his Parisian intellectual community for being too religious and prevented from further publishing or public speaking by the French government for not being religious enough (he believed he did not need the Church to have a relationship with god), plagued by chronic health issues throughout his life and by his own paranoia and melancholy in his later years. These troubles, combined with deep convictions resulting from intense self-reflections, forced Rousseau to adopt a quiet life of contemplation and comparative solitude (though not quite as solitary as Rousseau would have you believe–it’s true that he was denounced in the circles where he wanted to be welcome, but he did have many visitors and a great deal of correspondence with fans and well-wishers, in addition to a very supportive wife).

ANYWAYS, Rousseau, in his now quiet and isolated life, sought to find comfort and satisfaction in himself, taking long walks in the countryside during which he would think many thoughts. The ten “walks” which comprise his Reveries are a collection of some of these thoughts. Though I must confess that I have neither completed all of Reveries of a Solitary Walker yet nor totally gotten on board with the way the Rousseau depicted in this text is (his pious brand of self-pity is a bit much, even though I know he had his reasons), there’s something I really really like about the fact that this book exists. Because Rousseau makes THINKING important. Not so you can win an argument, or look clever, or sell a bunch of books. But just so that you can know yourself, and your own moral compass, and how you want to be in the world. As Rousseau “walks” (or rather writes, though the reader is meant, I think, to assume that each section topic is something the author pondered as he rambled around the countryside), he discusses human conundrums like how he came to his unpopular religious beliefs (through “…the basic principles adopted by my reason, confirmed by my heart, and bearing the seal of my conscience uninfluenced by passion” he says in the Third Walk), whether or not it’s alright to tell lies if they don’t advantage you or hurt anyone else, and the uncomfortable moral state people find themselves in when good deeds done freely become obligations done resentfully.

I guess I like Rousseau because although I don’t go on too many long excursions, commuting via public transit has provided ample time for walking and thinking and I often do find myself parsing out moral conundrums like the implications of giving a donation to an organization like the United Way from the comfort of my own home but refusing spare change to a person on the street, or of owning a car even though I know how much damage the extraction, transport, and burning of fossil fuels is doing (or at least, I know that I don’t even know how bad it really is). And sometimes I just find myself thinking about anything, because I have a 20-minute walk from the station to my apartment, and nothing better to do with the time. Today, for example, I thought about how I would hypothetically describe what “seeing” is to a person who was born completely blind and has never experienced it themselves (I settled on saying “Sight is a way of knowing where objects are, and how big they are, and what shape they are, and whether they are moving, without having to touch them or hear them,” but I’m not totally done with that one yet).

What Rousseau does for me is bring home a little epiphany I’d had earlier in this course which is that philosophy doesn’t have to be some lofty process that requires a great deal of book-learning or a knowledge of Greek. It’s just a process of trying to reason out what’s going on within and outside of you, and I realized that when I was a kid, I USED TO PHILOSOPHIZE ALL THE TIME. I grew up in an agnostic household with a father who occasionally turned car rides into mini lectures about whatever (one where he tried to explain to five-year-old me why god wouldn’t be a boy OR a girl comes to mind) and whose answers to my questions about religion were non-dogmatic enough to leave me to make up my own mind about the spiritual realm (except for knowing that god, if god exists, is NOT a boy OR a girl). This meant that I had the freedom to float around in the bathtub while my impatient family members knocked on the door, wondering if I was maybe the only REAL person in the universe (because I couldn’t hear anyone else’s thoughts), or if the fact that I have now existed means that I am infinite (because now there will always be The Time Before Lauren and The Time After Lauren, regardless of how long my physical life is), or whether the weird gyprock spackles on the ceiling were actually a skeleton hoard coming down from the sky on horseback with spears and arrows (probably not but it looked that way from where I was) or whether I was really here at all or whether the whole entire universe is inside a single atom.

My commute notwithstanding, I’ve realized I don’t have as much time to just think about stuff anymore, and though in many ways it’s because I’m now more responsible, and I’m doing and learning lots of cool stuff instead of just being idle, I miss it.

“Broken Sex Doll” is a Fun and Funny Ride

It is the year 2136. Humans are routinely implanted with sensory hardware that allows them to record and share their own experiences for download. These downloaded experiences are called “feelies”. A culture of vicarious (and often debaucherous) distraction is celebrated. Those who can record the most downloaded experiences are stars, their wealth and fame contributing to their wild popularity.

Sound sort of familiar? It should. The Virtual Stage’s Broken Sex Doll kicks our own voyeuristic pleasures and obsessions with distraction into overdrive. What would we do if we didn’t need even our tiny screens to see, hear, smell, and taste the lives of others? What lows would we sink to if all moral impediments to indulging our needs for distraction were removed?

Benjamin Elliott and Chelse Rose Tucker, singing the word "balls". Photo: Bettina Strauss

Benjamin Elliott and Chelse Rose Tucker, probably singing the word “balls”. Photo: Bettina Strauss

When watching a musical love story full of sex, robots, and, well, sex robots, it’s best to just go with it. Broken Sex Doll can feel a bit silly or exaggerated at times, but so is our tabloid culture. Like your favourite childhood sci-fi flick, the design concept has a fantastic 80s feel, the villains are wonderfully villainous and the heroes are heartwarmingly loveable. As a bonus, it’s pretty damn funny too–Experience the frustrations of running the set-up program on your brand new sex-bot! Find out why a wave of feelie-downloading females suddenly want penises! Get totally icked out by a mother-son soft shoe routine!

Supported by a tight ensemble cast, the Virtual Stage’s leads form a powerhouse theatrical quartet, each bringing their own unique talents to the York stage. From the affable Everyman quality of Benjamin Elliott, reprising his Jessie-nominated role as Daryl (his virtuosic physical work complemented by a charming emotional depth), to the sexy physical prowess of former Cirque du Soleil performer Neezar as The King; and from Greg Armstrong-Morris’ frankly frightening diva-esque machinations as The King’s Mom, to the sweet clear-as-bell singing voice of Chelsea Rose Tucker as the mysterious Ginger, the cast of Broken Sex Doll pull off a surprisingly multifaceted and nuanced performance, combining lighthearted gyrating with deeper questions on the nature of the human experience.

Considering recent innovations like tablet computing and Google Glass, director and playwright Andy Thompson’s script feels remarkably prescient. You can certainly attend Broken Sex Doll for the laughs alone, but you may find yourself considering the premise in a more intellectual way. Broken Sex Doll has enough dramatic meat to have been a more serious play. The fact that Thompson and composer Anton Lipovetsky joined forces to make a musical comedy instead is just the audience’s good luck.

Broken Sex Doll runs at the York Theatre (639 Commercial Dr.) until November 22. Tickets can be purchased online through The Cultch’s website. Minors are not permitted in the theatre during evening performances, and all performances, including matinees, will contain mature content and language.

Disclosure: I attended Thursday night’s performance of Broken Sex Doll courtesy of The Cultch.

Yes We Can (Change Our Minds)

Q-program-image_1027091130544_16x9_620x350Like most Canadians (and perhaps some interested folk south of the border), I have been following reports of the allegations made against former CBC radio and television personality Jian Ghomeshi very closely.

There are many lessons to be learned here–lessons about what consent is, lessons about why victims of assault may choose not to report, lessons about our willingness to look the other way when it comes to a person who has star power, and lessons about how we perceive and treat victims of assault. Many of these lessons are disturbing, but necessary.

There is, however, one lesson I am actually glad to be reminded of as I watch this story unfold on social media and through conversations: we can change our minds.

When it was first announced that Ghomeshi had been fired, the CBC was not saying why, and the Toronto Star was keeping mum until its own story was ready. Several people I love and whose opinion I regard very highly are/were huge fans of Ghomeshi’s show Q, and were furious that one of their favourite media personalities had been dropped by the beleaguered public broadcaster whose continued relevance and popularity (such as it is) are due mostly to shows like his. When Ghomeshi published his version of events on Facebook (in an effort to “get ahead of the story”) these same beloved folks, along with many other die-hard fans, denounced the CBC as prude-ish and out of touch.

When the Toronto Star published the allegations they had collected, and as more women began adding their voices to these allegations (some anonymously, some publicly), Ghomeshi’s initial statement was put under the microscope. And then I got to see a beautiful thing: I got to see people examine the new evidence and change their minds. People that I know had been long-time fans of Q and its host were looking past all that and saying, “Something isn’t right here.”

This might not seem like such a big thing to you. You might say, “Well of COURSE they changed their minds! Who wouldn’t in the face of mounting evidence?”, but the fact is that changing your mind is not always that easy. One only needs to look at the case of Steubenville, Ohio, where irrefutable evidence of the 2012 sexual assault of an unconscious teenaged girl was recorded and shared by her high school football-playing assailants. There was no doubt the assault had occurred. And yet, many people of the community of Steubenville loved their high school football team, and could not change their minds about them. The victim received death threats, despite having nothing to do with either her assault or the fact that the evidence of it was willingly shared on the internet by her assailants. Had the rapist been a shady character the town had always hated, the victim may have been believed and supported, no questions asked. But Steubenville loved their football team, and could not change their minds, even after two of the perpetrators were found guilty in juvenile court.

[You’d have a point if you said that it’s harder to change your feelings about people you know personally and that is true. So I will also provide the example of Roman Polanski, celebrated film directer and convicted rapist, who plead guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl before fleeing the U.S. to avoid his sentence. He is still much loved by many, inside and outside of Hollywood.]

My point is that changing your mind about an issue, or about a person, can be unsettling, and difficult. But often it is the right thing to do. I understand the cynicism felt when certain Republicans (like Dick Cheney and Senator Rob Portman) become suddenly less homophobic upon discovering members of their own families are gay, but the important thing is that these people, who had held very firm views regarding homosexuality, can change their minds. They can think about the person they love and realize that they were mistaken.

When people change their mind in this way it gives me hope. Politicians are often celebrated for being “unshakeable” or “steadfast” in their positions, and sneered at if they are “flip-floppers”, but I’m not so sure that “steadfast” in many of these cases isn’t just another term for “stubbornly and pigheadedly holding to their view of things, regardless of evidence to the contrary”. Much bad policy has been enacted in Canada by governments who wanted to be “unshakeable” rather than adaptable, and “focused” rather than “open-minded”. It’s no secret that I have many problems with Canada’s current “Harper Government”, and much of the legislation I have issue with is a result of this kind of obstinance (scientific or statistical evidence doesn’t support your policy? Why not burn the scientific records, prevent scientists from talking to citizens, or get rid of the long-form census? That’s way better for the country than simply adapting your policies to reflect evidence-based realities!).

Changing your mind, especially if you’ve been very public about your position or beliefs in the past, is uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing. You’d probably feel sheepish admitting you’d gotten it so wrong. And yet, a little change of mind is exactly what we need. Imagine how quickly labour disputes would be resolved if the parties could admit where they were wrong instead of waiting to break each other down. Imagine how much more respect you’d have for politicians if they said, “You know what? The policy we were pursuing no longer works. Upon examining the evidence more closely, it seems that we need to go in a different direction and we will be working towards that.” Imagine if a massive, multi-billion dollar oil company said, “The writing seems to be on the wall and fossil fuels are not the way of the future. We’ve got billions of dollars to spend and we’re going to spend it developing clean technologies.” Imagine the true progress we could make as a species if we could learn to change our ways and change our minds every now and again.

As the late John Lennon sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” With each good decision, each humble change of heart, we are, I hope, inching a little closer towards grace.

“Evil Dead: The Musical” is Bloody Outrageous

Five young college students park their car on a lonely road and venture deep into the woods to spend their vacation in an abandoned cabin. The boys are expecting a weekend of hanky-panky and the nerdy little sister has plans to read and bake. Their car is an unreliable piece of junk, they’re technically breaking into the cabin since they didn’t actually rent it, and they didn’t tell anyone where they were going. Surely nothing can possibly go wrong, except everything you might expect from an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods (accessible only by a single, easily destroyed, footbridge) a creepy cellar full of creepy voices, and an ancient book written in blood.

So begins the camp and gore-fest that is Down Stage Right ProductionsEvil Dead: The Musical, a blood-squirting, chain-sawing song-and-dance extravaganza that has its tongue firmly in cheek and its demon-possessed sister locked in the basement.

Scott Walters and Meghan Anderssen('s head). Photo: Graham Ockley

Scott Walters and Meghan Anderssen(‘s head). Photo: Graham Ockley

For an exaggerated and ridiculous show like Evil Dead to be cheeky and entertaining rather than silly and embarrassing, two things need to happen. First, the cast needs to be strong enough to carry their audience through outrageous plot points and musical numbers like “What the F*ck Was That?” and “”All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons”. Second, everyone involved needs to completely understand what kind of show they’re in. Performers who aren’t talented or don’t try because it’s supposed to be “funny” rely on the jokes in the script without actually doing the work required to transmit those jokes to the audience. Alternatively, an actor (or director) taking themselves too seriously would deflate every scene and pull the audience down with them. Luckily, this production of Evil Dead has none of those problems. Every cast member is an excellent singer with impeccable comedic timing, and every cast member knows how to work with an audience to ensure we’re the ones having the most fun (not that the performers aren’t having fun as well).

Simply put, Evil Dead: The Musical is ridiculously fun. What began as a cult classic film series has moved onto the stage and gained a devoted fan-base (some of whom are willing to attend the show in costume and pay extra to sit in the “splatter zone”). The play involves several nudges and winks to the audience, and the audience itself is evolving some traditions that make watching the show similar in feel to cult productions like Rocky Horror Picture Show, however, unlike Rocky Horror, you don’t need to be in on the traditions to get the joke. Since Evil Dead pays homage to horror movie tropes familiar to anyone who spent their youth watching teen slasher flicks, and actually has a plot that makes (some) sense, I believe Evil Dead to be more enjoyable and less alienating to the average unfamiliar-with-the-show audience member. Young love, bad puns, dancing demons, shotguns–in a show that consistently makes fun of itself, what’s not to like?

Evil Dead: The Musical plays at the Norman Rothstein Theatre until November 1. Tickets can be purchased online through DSR Production’s website.

Disclosure: I attended Friday night’s performance of Evil Dead: The Musical courtesy of DSR Productions.

 

 

 

Fighting Chance presents “Carrie the musical”

Carrie the musical presented by Fighting Chance Productions at the Jericho Arts Centre, now until October 25.

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Poster: Elie Berkowitz

As the tragic consequences of high school bullying continue to dominate headlines in both Canada and the U.S., the story of Carrie, the protagonist of Stephen King’s 1974 novel of the same name, seems all too current. Abused at home by her fanatically religious mother, the peculiar Carrie White finds no compassion at school, only ridicule. This could be the story of many tortured young girls across the continent, with one exception: most teenagers can’t unleash one of pop culture’s most infamous prom scenes with their minds.

When it comes to musicals, especially those adapted from well-known films or books, it would be insulting to the audience to pretend they don’t know what will happen, and to rest on the strength of the plot alone. The challenge of any theatre company producing a show like Carrie the musical is to force us to see the story with fresh eyes, while still paying homage to the original. Though I haven’t read Carrie or seen the 1976 film adaptation, the images conjured up by Stephen King and film director Brian De Palma have become so iconic that I was familiar with the major plot points before I even walked into the Jericho on Friday. Audience members entering the playing space were immediately greeted by a floor-to-ceiling white set, blank except for the word “Carrie” scrawled over and over in black crayon, a nod, I felt, to the influence this name now has on our cultural imagination.

On the whole, Fighting Chance has mounted a success (this is also the first Canadian regional production of Carrie the musical). The production is sympathetic not only to the lonely Carrie but also to her classmates at school, who may take part in her bullying but are, in some ways, subject to many of the same pressures Carrie feels and are trying to protect themselves. There are even shreds of pity to be had for villainous Teen Bitch Chris Hargensen (architect of the pig’s blood plot) and oppressive, morbidly religious Margaret White. The chorus of Chamberlain High students is strong and the teenaged characters manage to evoke feelings of excitement and nostalgia for the last days of high school, even as we know the “night [they’ll] never forget” will end in carnage.

By far the most powerful scenes in this production are those between Ranae Miller (Carrie White) and Sabrina Prada (Margaret White). Miller and White are incredibly strong performers and their duets reveal much about the warped complexities of their relationship, rife with abuse, fear, and yes, a terrible amount of love. It is in these mother-daughter scenes that much of the show’s later horror is established and maintained–their first duet, “And Eve Was Weak”, in which Mrs. White physically punishes Carrie for getting her period, is especially chilling. Carrie’s innocent desire to blossom into womanhood and her mother’s need for absolute moral control balance each scene on a knife’s edge and these roles could not have been better cast.

On the technical side, I appreciated Fighting Chance’s use of a live band (it just makes a show so much more cohesive and immediate) and director/set designer Ryan Mooney’s use of colour in the production. The white floor and walls, coupled with costuming details like Carrie’s mother’s bleached white night gown, provide a blank canvas energetically imbued with the blood we know is coming. And Carrie just wouldn’t be Carrie without the blood.

Performances of Carrie the musical will run at the Jericho Arts Centre until October 25. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: My tickets to see Friday’s performance were provided by Fighting Chance Productions.

I Don’t Like van Gogh’s Sunflowers (and other cultural confessions)

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_127I don’t like Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I don’t. I think they look puffy and pregnant and mildewy and sick–and all kinds of wrong, like furry alien appendages poking out of vases that couldn’t possibly be large enough to hold them upright. The paintings are a rotten-artichoke coloured assault on my eyeballs and I just don’t like them. So there.

I like to think I’m about as cultured as any other middle-class North American with a university education, who grew up with creative and left-leaning parents and an abundance of white privilege. As a child, I didn’t have “fine art” all over the walls and we weren’t at the philharmonic or the opera every week Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_128but my young life did include some rare and exciting trips to the ballet, theatre, museums, galleries, etc. and the rest of the time I had access to a huge amount of recorded music (both in my parents’ collections and on CBC Radio), prints and posters, good films, music lessons, SO many books of course, and assistance in pursuing post-secondary study. All this is to say that I had more than enough opportunity to become familiar with and learn to appreciate the Western Canon of art and culture as well as important contemporary artistic, literary, and cultural figures and objects.

But sometimes, I just DON’T. Appreciate them, I mean. And sometimes, instead, I appreciate absolute total crap. I’m a traitor to my learned middle-class compatriots, perhaps, but that’s just how I feel about some things. For example:

DANTE’S INFERNO

I understand that Dante’s ideas of the punishments of hell really infiltrated the Western imagination (a lot of what people imagine hell to be like actually comes from Dante, not the Bible) but otherwise, come on! Most of Inferno rattles off the names of political and artistic figures that Dante was familiar with (often personally) and which he had the audacity, or the pettiness, to place in his fictional hell (some of the people he mentions weren’t even dead yet when he wrote about their divine punishments). There are some interesting things going on in this text but for the most part, I feel like there are more enjoyable books to be read.

Mona_LisaLEONARDO DA VINCI

A genius, certainly, but not always my cup of tea (with the notable exception of Lady with an Ermine and MAYBE The Last Supper). His depictions of the Christ child are creepy monstrosities, and most of his women look like clean-shaven men with dresses and no eyelashes. And the Mona Lisa? I’m pretty sure she’s smiling so mysteriously because she’s actually just Leonardo da Vinci in a wig. Given da Vinci’s incredible talent there’s really no excuse for not getting women right (and he could, as his drawing of a female head, “La Scapigliata” shows, so I’m not sure why he didn’t).

MICHELANGELO’S CREATION OF ADAM

La-Creazione-dellUomo-di-Michelangelo-Cappella-SistinaDon’t get me wrong–Michelangelo was another genius of the Italian Renaissance. His statue of David is absolutely breathtaking. But the famous “Bearded Man in the Sky touches finger of Naked Man Lounging on a Hillside”? No. Adam’s head looks tiny compared to his body. Nitpicking aside, I’m just not moved by the sight of all these corpulently-muscled naked males lounging around in pretentiously-affected poses. In a frozen scene, as in performance, the sight of what could be an energetic line broken by languor, weakness, or a simple inability to follow through and complete the image is absolutely maddening. God is reaching down and TOUCHING you, Adam! The least you can do is look excited about it and carry that through-line of energy into your hand and out that index finger that is touching GOD. Instead, Michelangelo’s Adam listlessly proffers his hand like a past-her-prime Elizabeth Taylor getting a manicure. Eugh. Could you look any less thrilled to be here, Adam? Is there something more important that you were doing before you were CALLED INTO BEING?

THOMAS MORE’S UTOPIA

Um…it’s not a nice place. Just read the book. It’s not a place most of us would ever want to live in and I’m not sure what More’s point was when he conceived it. Some things, like food and medicine for all, sound great. Other things, like a life sentence of enforced celibacy for having premarital sex, seem arbitrary and cruel and add little to the Utopian concept except to reveal More’s Catholic bias (a bias he seems to really try to set aside in other parts of the text but which certainly comes out here).

GERTRUDE STEIN

I know many people far more intelligent than me have confirmed her brilliance, so I’ll have to take their word for it, but I spent two semesters studying Stein’s work (and performing it) and I just couldn’t get there. Most of it (the exception being the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which is totally conceited and self-praising but still very good) just seems like nonsensical garbage to me. And whenever an academic or a poet or another smart kind of person tells me that they see something in the texts, that Stein had some kind of goal or purpose in her work, I think they’re lying. If she had wanted us to know what she was talking about her readers wouldn’t have had to hypothesize about it for a hundred years. The fact that no one has ever actually been able to tell me that they actually KNOW what any of her work was about (even in a general sense) is enough for me. Gertrude, you lived a very interesting life and your support of the artists around you was incredibly important but good god, woman. Did you have to write Four Saints in Three Acts? Did you? Because I had to READ it, and I can never have those hours of my life back.

J. D. SALINGER’S THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

I’ve already written a little bit about why I found both Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby a bit irritating, but really, this book just made me sad and impatient. Get it together, rich boy! If I have to read Salinger, I’d rather read Franny and Zooey even though in many ways it is equally frustrating.

THE GRADUATE

What is there to like about this film? Were you all on drugs? See point above about being sad and impatient while watching directionless rich boys failing to get their poop in a pile.

LED ZEPPELIN

It’s not that I don’t like Led Zeppelin, I’m sure I actually do. But if you played me their most famous song, one I’ve probably definitely heard so many times, and said, “Whose song is this?” I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m sorry. I’d have no goddamn clue.

MAYA ANGELOU

This makes me feel like a monster because it’s MAYA ANGELOU for goodness sakes–a courageous, inspiring woman of colour whose incredible career in literature and the arts expressed the realities of an incredible, and not always easy, life. But whenever I read her poems (or her line of greeting cards), my response was always kind of, “M’h”. Which says more about me than about Angelou I think. What kind of cynical bum doesn’t like to be inspired? Me, apparently.

MARGARET ATWOOD’S PENELOPIAD

People apparently liked this book SO MUCH they turned it into a play (which I haven’t seen, because I was iffy on the book). I just felt like I could sense Atwood on every page, winking at the reader (or perhaps herself) and saying, “Tee hee. How clever I am!”. I don’t know. Maybe I should give this one another go.

THE ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING FILM THE ARTIST

I wanted to like this film. I really really did. Jean Dujardin is a charming actor and the film was full of old-school whimsy but like most of the feature-length films from the actual silent movie era, it was just too damn long. It wasn’t a very complicated story. It didn’t need to take quite that long to tell it. All the good will I had when I began the film evaporated pretty quickly watching the confused and despairing Dujardin emoting for the umpteenth time.

I know I’m not as talented as any of these artists or writers or musicians or filmmakers and that nothing I will ever make will be as important as even the least of their works. I know it’s easy to be a critic, and I know I shouldn’t indulge in trashing things I have not taken enough time to truly know anything about. But sometimes, I get tired of trying to be educated, and it is an immense pleasure to get some of the bitterness out of my system.

And it’s not that I automatically reject great work either. I love Vivaldi and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky ballets and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”. I love Greek tragedies and Shakespeare (sometimes) and Alice Munro and the Beatles and Leonard Cohen and the paintings of Botticelli and also Marc Chagall. And I do try to learn to love, or at least like, the more difficult works for what they can teach me, and how they can inspire me. All is not lost for my liberal arts education. As for poor maligned van Gogh, while his sunflowers are gloomy to me, his Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum most certainly is not. Has painted light ever looked so warm?

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