Theatre Terrific’s “BEING Animal” is a profoundly human experience

Theatre Terrific’s BEING Animal is currently running at the Vancouver Fringe. The final three performances are this Friday (6:00 p.m.), Saturday (2:00 p.m.) and Sunday (2:00 p.m.).

beinganimal_fringeimage

“Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears and nostril–all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.”

David Abrams

Inspired by the work of author David Abrams and created by Theatre Terrific’s ensemble (under the directorship of Susanna Uchatius and James Coomber), BEING Animal uses music, mask work, puppetry, and physical stage choreography to explore and help forge our connections to our natural world, and each other.

Theatre Terrific’s inclusive casting and creation practices provide professional theatre opportunities for performers with drive and talent, regardless of physical or cognitive (dis)ability; their resulting productions dissolve prejudices about ability and art, while reaffirming the inherent dignity of the human spirit. But BEING Animal is so much more than a great mandate. It’s a beautiful and immersive theatrical experience. The audience sits along the boardwalk behind Performance Works, the stage is a grove of trees, and the backdrop is a peekaboo view of the sea and the city. The matinee performance I attended was quite windy, but that only added to the other-worldliness of the show, allowing me to feel both a part of the city and outside of it at the same time, both immersed in nature and participating in the distinctly urban experience that is an afternoon at the theatre. With its sparse use of text and reliance on stage picture, physical choreography, and musical cues to move the show forward, watching Being ANIMAL is akin to watching contemporary dance–lulled by James Coomber’s ethereal score, I simply allowed the event to unfold before my eyes, startled from my reverie now and then as a new image or moment settled into recognition.

One of my favourite aspects of this show is its use of masks–I’ve always loved mask work and I find that masks both remove barriers to an audience’s relation with a character, but also accentuate what is particular or idiosyncratic about a performer’s body, turning what some may see as a performance liabilities into unique physical gifts. In masks, individuality is erased, but humanity is accentuated.

As much as BEING Animal uses ideas of “the natural world” thematically, at its core it is startlingly human. It’s not about having an open mind, but about having an open heart–recognizing our shared frailty, our longing for communion (whether with nature or with each other), and our strength.

Photo: Chantele Fry

Photo: Chantele Fry

[I don’t want to give too much of the show away but during one specific section both my companion and I were moved to tears–not because the play was sad but simply because the moment we were watching was so beautiful. That’s something I don’t get to say a lot.]

BEING Animal plays at the Vancouver Fringe, in the Sculpture Grove behind Performance Works, from Friday to Sunday (see Fringe website or top of post for performance times). Tickets are $14 (must be accompanied by $5 Fringe membership or valid pass) and can be purchased online at VancouverFringe.com.

Disclosure: I attended last Sunday’s performance of BEING Animal courtesy of Theatre Terrific.

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Fighting Chance presents “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Jesus Christ Superstar presented by Fighting Chance Productions in association with Renegade Arts Company at the Waterfront Theatre (Granville Island), now until August 22.

Photography by Tegan Verheul.

Photography: Tegan Verheul.

Whenever a popular show, especially a smash hit, is resurrected, directors, producers, and critical viewers like myself must ask themselves, “Why this play? Why now?” When the show in question is over 40 years old, enjoys worldwide popularity as both a theatre production and a film, and is presenting one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian faith to an increasingly secular audience, this question becomes even more pertinent. Why Jesus Christ Superstar, I wondered, why now? My first exposure to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s gospel-based rock opera was during a North American revival in the 90s–my parents went off to the city to see the show and came home with the soundtrack, singing “Hosanna” in the living room and generally failing to impress seven-year-old me. Having been unable to shake my own original impression of Superstar as a fuddy old relic, and being aware that the show has, over the last four decades of popularity on stage and screen, amassed a following with deeply entrenched ideas of what it should look and sound like, I was intrigued by a relatively young company’s decision to mount such a well-known production, and one so potentially burdened with expectation.

Fortunately, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar does not feel dated at all, nor does it make any attempt to reproduce the iconic performances of Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson (who played Jesus and Judas in the film version of the show and in the 90s Broadway revival). Rather than set the story of Jesus and Judas in 4 B.C. Jerusalem, directors Ryan Mooney and Anna Kuman have placed it in a world and time very much like our own, in a distinctly urban setting (represented by metal scaffolding) where social media, smartphones, and selfies not only exist, but help play into the “rise and fall” celebrity culture in which Jesus and Judas find themselves entangled.

I must confess I was skeptical at first when I saw the screens mounted on the scaffolding, and read about the directorial vision to include 21st-century technological trappings in the show, but it works. The presence of media in this production presents a direct challenge to Judas’ assertion (in the song “Superstar”) that “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation/ Israel in four B.C. had no mass communication,”  the assumption being that an increased ability to spread his message and have his motives understood could have saved Jesus from crucifixion. Fighting Chance’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t so sure (and neither am I)–when we look at the way celebrities of today are worshiped one day and vilified the next, stripped of their privacy, legacy and livelihood by the social media mob, do we really think a Christ-like figure would have any chance of escaping our scrutiny, caprices, and, eventually, our wrath when they fail to meet our extraordinary expectations? The result of this directorial choice gives Fighting Chance’s Superstar an authenticity that a more faithful visual reproduction would not have had and allows it to reach for what the original Jesus Christ Superstar was always meant to be–a refreshing vision of an old story, and an examination of the ways celebrity can destroy our best intentions.

And the music! It’s just SO GOOD! As a lyricist, Tim Rice’s achievement is not to be understated but Andrew Lloyd Webber is a bloody genius. In true (rock) opera form, Jesus Christ Superstar has no spoken text, but it hardly matters when the music is so electrifying  and expressive–the subtle shifts into minor harmonies in otherwise joyful pieces like “Hosanna” foreshadow the fickleness of the mob and the enormity of the burden they are placing on one man. And indeed, the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar, whatever connection he may have to his unseen god, is never more than a good man, and Judas, whatever the outcome of his decisions may have been, is never less. As our troubled world waits for the next revolution, we would do well to remind ourselves how often we destroy those who would be our saviours, and how easily they, or we, can be corrupted.

As for the performances themselves, they leave little to be desired from a vocal perspective. A colour-and-gender-blind casting process for Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar gives us Hal Wesley Rogers (an actor of colour with an incredible falsetto) in the title role, and actresses Sara Mayer and Lisa Ricketts as Peter the Apostle and the High Priest Caiaphas respectively. Lovers of the film version may take issue with Caiaphas’ low notes (heard in the film in Bob Bingham’s surreal bass) being bumped up a couple of octaves for Rickett’s menacing and sometimes shrill soprano portrayal, but for me it worked. Vocally, I thought the entire ensemble was strong (together with Rogers, Ray Boulay as Judas and Vanessa Merenda as Mary Magdalene made for a dynamic and engaging trio), but I did want to give props to three cast members with smaller roles that I thought delivered outstanding performances not only vocally but also dramatically in bringing their pieces of the story to life: Sean Anthony, required to fight his better nature in order to uphold Caesar’s law as Pontius Pilate, Riley Qualtieri as the bombastic apostle Simon, and Myles McCarthy as the deliciously sinister and slithering High Priest Annas.

As much as I enjoyed the production, I did not leave the show without regrets. The first is that the live band was not visible onstage but instead played the show from the wings. I know the scaffolding of the set took up a lot of space and that staging a singing and dancing extravaganza like Jesus Christ Superstar in a smaller theatre requires tough decisions and sacrifices, but if the show is ever remounted, I would love to see the band incorporated into the visible stage area. Live music in theatre really adds something special to a performance and I hate to see it hidden. My second complaint is an issue I have experienced in a couple of other Fighting Chance shows–audibility. Off the top of the show, the sound levels seemed a little out of whack, especially in Judas’ more instrumental numbers (with the band often drowning out Judas’ words), and there were some microphone issues in both acts. It’s frustrating as an audience member to see a performer singing the hell out of something, and be able to hear how great their voice is, but be unable to make out what they’re saying. The plot of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but it would have been nice to have had a more full appreciation of Rice’s take on this ancient story. I sincerely hope that for future endeavors Fighting Chance will be able to obtain whatever resources they need to overcome these sound issues (more tech time? better mics?) because these kinds of barriers to audience enjoyment or comprehension undercut the otherwise incredible work being done on the stage.

Apart from those issues, I enjoyed myself immensely. The music has been in my head ever since the performance and it seems that despite my childhood first impressions of the musical, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar has definitely made a convert out of me.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until August 22 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of Jesus Christ Superstar courtesy of Fighting Chance Productions.

Theatre Terrific presents “I Love Mondays” April 17 – 26

One of the downsides of living in an artistically-active city like Vancouver is that there is so much out there, it can often take me a while to explore theatre companies whose work I haven’t experienced before. I am therefore delighted to have finally fulfilled a theatrical goal of mine to check out Theatre Terrific, Western Canada’s oldest inclusive theatre company. From their website:

Theatre Terrific pioneers inclusive opportunities for artists of all abilities to develop performance skills and collaborate in the production of theatrical works. […]

Vision

Supporting artists of all abilities in the rigorous creation of provocative theatre.

Mandate

Theatre Terrific brings together artists who would normally never work together. Our diverse ensembles include professional and emerging artists with or without developmental, physical, or mental health issues, gender or language challenges.

Good art is often art that examines and challenges our assumptions about the world we live in and the people with whom we share our time on this planet. Issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, ability, and mental illness are often explored onstage, and yet, the theatre world remains structurally exclusionary in many ways (as a basic example, I was lucky to audition for and be accepted into one of the few theatre programs I knew of that didn’t have set intake numbers based on gender–many schools will only accept a set number of men and women each year, despite the often much higher numbers of women auditioning). Many performance spaces are not fully accessible, and ones that have an accessible front of house often don’t have that same level of accessibility in their backstage areas. Performers are expected to meet certain expectations of physical and vocal ability, and it’s rare to see disability onstage unless the disability is written into the script as a particular aspect of a character, and even then, the character is more often portrayed by an actor who doesn’t have a disability than by one who does.

All this is to say that for a company like Theatre Terrific to have been operating in Vancouver for 30 years is fantastic, and it’s important, for artists and audience members of all backgrounds and abilities, that their work continue to be supported, seen, and enjoyed.

Jonah Killoran and Darlene Brookes. Photo: Alanna Milany

Jonah Killoran and Darlene Brookes. Photo: Alanna Milaney

Theatre Terrific’s current professional production is I Love Mondays, adapted by director Susanna Uchatius from the script by Pamela Boyd and playing at Studio 1398 on Granville Island. I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend their opening night.

Both in form and in theme, I Love Mondays is a quiet play, a story of two isolated people finding in each other the friendship and support they need to pursue their “best dreams”.  While Darlene Brookes (who plays Peggy, a divorcee and visual artist) is a well-known Vancouver performer, her co-star Jonah Killoran (who plays George, the developmentally challenged man Peggy is hired to work with), is an actor with cognitive differences whose experiences and path in the theatre are likely much different from those of most actors. Staging a play with an inclusive cast is certainly a challenge, and one that does require letting go of some of the performance conventions we’re used to.

At first, it may feel that watching I Love Mondays requires a little bit of patience. The pace is a little slower than the clippy, rapid-fire exchanges we tend to associate with a “tight” show. The important thing is that the actors are fully present and the dramatic intentions are all in place in every line, even if some actors need to take a little more time in their delivery than others. I quickly settled into the rhythm of the show and allowed it to take me on its quiet, and ultimately quite rewarding, journey.

What struck me the most about the way in which Theatre Terrific has staged I Love Mondays is the incredible gentleness displayed between the characters in the play and between the actors on stage. It is rare, very rare, I think, to sit in the theatre and see that the performers care for one another, and are taking care of one another in various small ways throughout the evening. As I watched I allowed my preconceptions to fall away, and I realized that just as some of the characters onstage were being limited because of their differences, I had been limiting some of the actors in my mind, and when they emerged, butterfly-like, beyond the boundaries of the limitations I had unconsciously imposed on them, I was both delighted and a little embarrassed of myself. What I mean to say is this: what is happening between the characters onstage is also happening between the actors, and between the actors and the audience. The characters who gain our respect as people in a story are also actors who deserve our respect as performers onstage, whatever their path into the theatre has been.

Theatre Terrific has been pushing beyond its own boundaries in this first-ever production from a scripted play (previous professional productions were collaborative creations), and the result is a unique and gentle story, told in a unique and gentle way. I urge you to challenge your assumptions of what theatre can be–art, and its creation, belong to everyone.

I Love Mondays will be playing at Studio 1398 (1398 Cartwright St., Granville Island) until April 26. Tickets can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets.

Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of I Love Mondays courtesy of Theatre Terrific. I was not asked for a review.

“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.

Butt Kapinski – collectively-created Film Noir at its finest, and most vulgar

I was recently complaining to a theatrical friend of mine that of all the arts events and shows that have claimed to be immersive and interactive with their audiences, very few that I have seen truly were. That is, until I met Butt Kapinski, private eye and film noir enthusiast (performed by creator Deanna Fleysher in the Cultch’s VanCity Culture Lab). Butt Kapinski wants to make a film noir, and Butt Kapinski wants us to help him.

Deanna Fleysher as the unflappable Butt Kapinski

Deanna Fleysher as the unflappable Butt Kapinski

Obtaining and enlisting our good humour from the get-go, Fleysher’s creation, the lisping but likeable private investigator Butt Kapinski, manages to charm, cajole, and occasionally chastise his audience into creating an entire 60-minute film noir world, with its grisly murders, seedy locales, dangerous characters, and atmospheric music. As befits an old-school private “dick”, Fleysher is dressed in slacks, with suspenders and a tie, and a long trench coat with her very own streetlamp/desk lamp rising out of the back of her collar to dangle over her head. I raised my eyebrows a little when Butt Kapinski first emerged from the shadows and I saw this odd contraption, but I soon realized that this lamp is genius, immediately creating mood and bringing our focus to whichever hapless audience members are needed for the next scene. Over the course of the evening, I played spurting blood, a filthy john, and Hobo John (who was a different kind of filthy John, I guess).

[Note: Much as I love being part of the action, I did not ask to be Hobo John. I was sitting in my seat enjoying the show when Fleysher shone her light on my section, telling us that Butt Kapinski was down by the railroad tracks, where all the hobos hang out (us). “And there,” she said, climbing into to risers to stand over me, “we find the dirtiest, the most pathetic, the saddest old hobo of them all: Hobo John. What train are you waiting for, Hobo John?” I couldn’t answer because I was laughing so hard. “Yeah, well that train’s never gonna come,” Fleysher/Kapinski said, “So cry, Hobo John. Cry your filthy tears.” (at this point my face was in my hands and I was shaking), “You didn’t always used to be this way, Hobo John,” she said, and I shook my head no. “You used to be someone, didn’t ya? You used to be something special. What did you used to be, Hobo John?” and I was so nervous under that lamp I said the first thing that popped into my head, which for some reason was, “A ballerina!”. “A ballerina,” Fleysher/Kapinski sneered contemptuously, “that’s quite a change, from a ballerina to a big gross man.” and with that my time was done, and Fleysher’s light swung to a new victim/performer/audience member, and a new part of the story.]

Fleysher is a master at getting the audience on her side, and into her world. The ushers warned us as we walked in that there were no “safe seats”, and because of that’s true, I think no one was really put upon or singled out more than anyone else. However, this show is definitely not for everyone. If you do not want to play along with whatever strange, awkward, or potentially totally vulgar thing Fleysher/Kapinski is doing, this is not the show for you. Though Fleysher is an incredible improviser and can work with anything the audience members throw at her, Butt Kapinski himself really doesn’t put up with anyone being too cool or too shy or too offended to participate, so if you REALLY don’t like this sort of thing you might be better off giving this one a pass.

But if you did give it a pass, that would really be too bad. It’s been a long time since I have had so much fun at the theatre. Fleysher truly includes her audience in her work and this show genuinely cannot function without them. The Culture Lab is an intimate space and Fleysher has a unique gift for stealthily dissolving the divides of silence and civility that usually separate audience members from performers, and from each other. She is a artist who has clearly studied audiences. She knows how we react, she knows what makes us uncomfortable, and she knows how far she can go (or rather, how to get us in the palm of her hand early on so that she can go as far as she likes). The intensity and adaptability of Fleysher’s focus in the face of an ever-changing crowd of unique individuals is nothing short of miraculous (in an obscene, hilarious kind of way).

If I have one criticism of the show, it’s that I didn’t need the ending to be what it was. TC (who was with me) didn’t seem to mind it, so it might just be one of those intangible things where I see a particular part of a great show and think to myself, “Huh. Was that bit necessary?” and simply choose to write that bit off as Not For Me. Maybe it was how raunchy Fleysher got by the end; I’m not sure.

And my god, Butt Kapinski IS filthy. But small criticisms aside, it is so funny and so FUN and so unique in its ability to absorb its audience into the world it’s creating that I consider it a rare gem amongst my theatrical experiences.

Butt Kapinski runs until October 11 in the VanCity Culture Lab at the Cultch. Tickets can be purchased online from the the Cultch Vancouver.

Disclosure: TC and I were able to see the opening night performance of this show by invitation of the publicist for Butt Kapinski.