“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.

Carrie PosterPNG

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.

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.

Sal Capone: a tragedy with sincerity and depth

Sal Capone PosterWhen I was offered the opportunity to attend Sal Capone: the Lamentable Tragedy of (presented by urban ink productions in cooperation with Black Theatre Workshop) I had no idea what to expect. I know nearly nothing about hip hop, and had no idea how it would play in a theatrical production. I thought, this will either be an incredible experience or a dud. I had never heard of Fredy Villaneuva, the unarmed youth whose fatal shooting by Montreal police inspired this play. Many new plays have called themselves tragedies, but very few have had the balls to honestly examine the complexities that create them.

It was my good fortune to discover that Omari Newton’s Sal Capone is a tragedy in the true Shakespearean sense of the word. As in Macbeth or Hamlet, one act of violence leads to others–violent emotions, violent words, violent actions. We know where this is going but the powerful emotional responses that bring us there are so skillfully wound up that we cannot look away. In this tragedy, the protagonists are not kings or princes but disenfranchised young people full of potential and talent. Their “fatal flaw” is not ambition or indecision but their anger at a system that marks them as dangerous, dehumanizing rather than protecting them.

Kim Villagante as Jewel

Kim Villagante as Jewel. Photo: Andrée Lanthier

I know I am watching a compelling piece of theatre when I cannot see the line between where the script ends and the performance begins. Tristan D. Lalla, Kim Villagante, and Jordan Waunch did exactly what excellent actors should do, inhabiting their characters (members of a hip hop group called “Sal Capone”) so completely that I never saw them working, only being. The hip hop pieces in the show are unforced, unpretentious, and incredibly powerful. I may not know much about hip hop, but I know when a performer is truly connected to what their character is doing, and these actors (who are also hip hop artists) are nothing if not genuine. I believed it. I bought it. I sent my heart out to it.

Counterintuitively, a cross-dressing sex worker narrator (played by Billy Merasty) frequently breaks the fourth wall and a little sister character (Letitia Brooks) also seems to play directly to the audience with her amusing grammatical pedantry. I personally found this contrary to the authenticity Lalla, Villagante, and Waunch create (which is not to say that there were problems with Merasty and Brooks’ performances, only that they operate, it seems, on a different level of theatricality). That said, when Merasty and Brooks enter the action not as a guides or foils but simply as people caught in the crosshairs, the “actor” masks fall away and you see every character for what they are, motivated by fear and anger, prey to a violence they participate in but cannot control. What I’m saying is that there will be times in this play when you are taken out of the honesty of the moment, into a place a little more literary, a little more theatrical, but when shit hits the fan the moment becomes real and every single performer is in it, body and soul. Sal Capone transports you into a place you’ve been busy ignoring, a place where violence isn’t just something that happens to people in gangs (as one of the characters points out, “What does ‘known to police’ even mean?”). A place where we realize that we, as a society, need to do better.

One of Newton’s greatest achievements in his script is his ability to examine violence and culture without resorting to a dichotomy of black and white, hip hop=good, police=bad. The “enemy” of the story (i.e. the police) are never even present onstage but between Newton’s sympathetic characters there is still enough fear and violence to spur the plot towards its tragic conclusion. Marginalized and misunderstood, Sal Cappone‘s characters trade in words of hate, hurting one another with “chink” and “faggot”, understanding that words are weapons, often the only weapons they have, and the only outlet for the violence they feel, fending off the physical violence that threatens to emerge.

The lesson in this tragedy, as in so many great tragedies, is that violence begets violence. People must be given a chance to break the cycle. We need to talk to one another, and do better. Sal Capone: the Lamentable Tragedy of is an incredible achievement and a powerful addition to this necessary conversation.

Sal Capone: the Lamentable Tragedy of plays at the Roundhouse Theatre until May 31. Tickets can be purchased online through urban ink production’s website.

Disclosure: I attended Sal Capone: the Lamentable Tragedy of courtesy of urban ink productions. The content of this review is my own.

 

Find Yourself “Through the Gaze of a Navel”, April 23 -27

Emilia Symington Fedy, performer Photo: Tim Matheson

Emilia Symington Fedy, performer.  Photo: Tim Matheson

Have you ever gone in search of yourself only to become lost amidst a sea of self-help literature, West Coast mysticism, wheat grass, and yoga pants? Have you ever wished that you could have a guide in this quest for self, someone who’s tried everything, someone who can help you sift through the affirmations and the crystal healings and maybe, just maybe, answer your most burning, pressing question:

Is this all a bunch of navel gazing?

For a limited time this April, storyteller, theatre artist, and self-proclaimed advice expert Emelia Symington Fedy will be sharing her wisdom in The Chop Theatre’s Through the Gaze of a Navel, presented as part of Boca del Lupo’s Micro Performance Series. Part theatre performance, part yoga class, Through the Gaze of a Navel promises to irreverently but unflinchingly explore the fuzzy line between enlightenment and navel gazing, and ask audiences what it is they are really searching for.

Having watched Symington Fedy perform before and having read some of her writing on her website, Trying to Be Good, I was incredibly excited to hear a show like this existed. I was also incredibly excited that Emelia Symington Fedy agreed to answer some of my questions about the show:

You have been described as a “professional seeker”, who “has been obsessed with making [yourself] better since [you] were a kid”. What made you decide that now was the time to share your experiences? 

My co-artistic director Anita Rochon and I were talking one day about how incredible it actually was that I’ve spent so much time and money on “healing” and spiritual pursuits. We realized that I had over the course of 20 years become somewhat of a “professional” at it. Satire is usually a comedic style we like to play with, so considering Vancouver and the overabundance of spiritual practices here, we decided that my personal investment in the material along with living in lotusland made a perfect match and a show began to take shape…

I’m very interested in the shared territory between popular self-help and enlightenment practices and performance. As a theatre student, we did yoga and pilates, we meditated, we had ritualized ways of entering and leaving a performance. What parts of your self-help life have you found performative? What parts of your work as a theatre artist have you found therapeutic?

All of the practices I’ve tried are performative in some way. Searching for an answer is inherently dramatic and the rooms are lit well and the stakes are always high. As well, all of my artistic endeavours have been in some way therapeutic. I make art that I’m personally connected to and means a shit load to me. That’s what makes it good. That doesn’t mean I figure my emotional state out on stage. I’ve figured it out a long time beforehand and now I’m playing around with it; which makes it safe for an audience.

Judging by the almost outrageous amount of self-help literature available on the Internet and on bookstore shelves, and the number of classes, seminars, and gurus advertising paths to wellness, it’s obvious that “self-help” is a lucrative business. Ironically, its success as a business model relies on people not actually finding what they’re looking for. As someone who has explored several different self-help paths, what has been your experience with the “business” side of enlightenment? And why do you think people keep coming back?

I call it “Spiritual Capitalism” and it’s the really disappointing side to a meaningful path. People try to make money of our longing for God and what can I say, it sucks.

There is a part of me that wants to name and shame and blame the folks involved in turning someone’s vulnerable and authentic search into personal gain but then that makes me part of the problem too–so instead we make a play that points satirically at a few of the dark parts in the community. With a light hand we turn the mirror on the audience and laugh together at the struggle of never being satisfied. We are not mean spirited in any way, but I play a character who thinks she knows a lot about yoga and meditation and enlightenment, and really, who can say that they know a lot about that?

In terms of why people keep coming back…we want answers. Why are we here? What is my purpose? Will I get a book deal? And we are willing to pay anything for it.

In grade 8 I studied a pyramid chart called the “Hierarchy of Needs”. At the bottom of the pyramid were needs like food and shelter, and at the very top of the pyramid was a need called “self-actualization”, which could not be sought for until the needs below it were met. With this in mind, do you think the modern journey towards enlightenment is primarily a luxury of wealthier countries, or do you think the quest for inner fulfillment and enlightenment is universal?

You can’t gaze at your navel if you are hungry. Yes, on one hand our ability to focus on “self actualization” is a product of being very lucky and being born in the right country. On the other hand, some people say that humans rising into a higher state of consciousness is our only way to transform and save the earth from extinction. So, like most things, it’s probably not simply good or bad. Folks who have the privilege to study spiritual pursuits are both helping the planet through learning how to raise their awareness and also possibly wasting precious time when they could be digging a well. You know what I mean?

[Yes, I know what you mean, Emelia! Cripes, you’re pithy. And now for a couple of logistical questions…]

I understand Through the Gaze of a Navel will have limited seating. Do you have an additional limit on the number of people who can participate in your yoga class portions of the performance, or are all audience members able to join in?

Everyone is welcome to do yoga. There are seats for folks with mobility issues and anyone who is shy but I have a strong sense that you will be on the mat soon enough when you see that it’s fun and I’m not pointing anyone out. I HATE audience participation when I watch theatre, so I make my shows really friendly and easy to be involved in. The goal is you find yourself saying “I cannot believe I’m doing this, and it’s so. much. fun.” Also, it’s built as a beginner class so everyone can access the poses.

Is there anything the audience members wishing to do the yoga should bring (yoga mats, water bottles, etc.)?

Wear comfy pants.

Having gone swimming with cosmic dolphins and even tried vaginal weightlifting classes, Emelia Symington Fedy is more than qualified to guide you in your search for your centre (whether that centre is spiritual fulfillment or just your own belly button). Remember, spaces are limited so book your ticket early and WEAR COMFY PANTS.

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Through the Gaze of a Navel will be performed at various times, April 23 – 27, at The Anderson Street Space (1405 Anderson St., Granville Island). Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online.

Notes: Boca del Lupo contacted me to inquire if I would be interested in writing about this show (and I definitely was). The decision to interview Emelia Symington Fedy, as well as to write this post, was mine. I would like to sincerely thank Emelia Symington Fedy for her time and her thoughtful, eloquent responses.

“AFTER” – Hilarious, Awkward, and Close to Home

AFTER-Poster-FinalThe premise of Martha Herrera-Lasso’s new play, After, is fairly simple: four young people navigate the murky waters of love and lust, all through conversations that take place after sex. While the premise may be simple, the emotional situations explored are anything but, rife with humour, heartbreak, and devastating shades of grey.

If you like sharp, fast-paced dialogue, nuanced performances with rapid-fire timing, and recognizing the awkwardness of your own life onstage, you will not want to miss dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre‘s co-production of After, running at the Havana Theatre until April 5.

When it comes to intimacy and matters of the heart, once the moment of passion has ended few of us are secure enough with vulnerability to simply be. Instead, we protect ourselves: we make jokes, justify, feign nonchalance, contradict ourselves or lay blame. Many relationships are not what they seem, and the biggest fools are usually the ones with the front-row seats.  Herrera-Lasso’s intelligent, funny, and honest script requires performers who identify with their characters, even as they hurt others, hold tight to things they don’t want, hide from their partners and hide from themselves. Luckily for us, under the direction of Excavation Theatre’s Jessica Anne Nelson, the ensemble of four actors (dream of passion’s Stefania Indelicato, Al Miro, Jane Hancock, and Matthew McLellan) deliver tight performances that never miss a beat. Both perfectly natural and perfectly rehearsed, no gesture, line, or inflection is wasted as the performers feed off one another and carry the audience through an incredibly quick (but incredibly satisfying) 80 minutes.

What strikes me most about  After is the characters’ extreme lack of self-awareness, even as they are acutely self-conscious (whether due to insecurity, like the verbally incontinent Jackie, or narcissism, like the incorrigible James). Unhinged by their moments of vulnerability, these four young people fumble towards and away from one another, wanting both the satisfaction of intimacy and the safety of independence. After the Friday-night show, we overheard another audience member saying he had been all four of the characters at one time or another, and I think this is the play’s real strength. For my part, I certainly recognized myself in two or three of the characters (I won’t give myself away by saying which characters or why) and it is this familiarity and recognition that elevates a simple (rather comedic) premise into something much more impressive and special.

After plays at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Drive) until Saturday, April 5. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets. Shows are at 8:00 p.m.

Disclosure: My TC and I attended Friday night’s performance courtesy of Excavation Theatre and dream of passion productions. My content is my own.

“Ghosts in Baghdad” and the Vulnerabilities of Heritage

Sarah May Redmond (Malika) and Alec Willows (Khalil). Photo: Tim Matheson

Sarah May Redmond (Malika) and Alec Willows (Khalil). Photo: Tim Matheson

What would you do to protect your life’s work? Your country’s heritage? When does an object stop being a “thing” and become a treasure worth risking your life for? How far will you go to protect the treasures you hold dear?

These are the questions posed by Ghosts in Baghdad, a new script by playwright and Working Spark Theatre founder Michelle Deines. Inspired by a New York Times article by Roger Cohen, Deines’ script centres around the complex decisions faced by Khalil and Malika, two fictional museum directors who continue their work in fear and isolation ten years after the 2003 American invasion and the looting, destruction, and subsequent closure to the public of the Iraq Museum. With thousands of ancient historical and cultural objects still missing and the Museum open only to government officials and foreign diplomats, Khalil walks the empty halls alone, dreaming of the day he can throw open the doors and share his country’s history with its people. Malika, meanwhile, hides away in her office, hunching over a piece of stone tablet she has been translating for over a decade, and while she tries to decide if her affection for country and colleague are enough to keep her in a city still so dangerous and full of sorrow. When a desperate young boy appears claiming to have found the missing Mask of Warka, his arrival threatens to unravel the delicate webs of secrecy and betrayal that have sustained what is left of the damaged Museum.

The Little Mountain Gallery, which houses this production, is a spartan venue that certainly has its difficulties (I’ve performed there myself so I know first hand). Working Spark has done an exceptional job of transforming this space, building a new and larger platform for the actors and bringing in more comfortable multi-level seating for the house. That said, the space has its challenges. The performance I attended was the Thursday-night preview and it was clear, both from director John Murphy’s comments before the show and the slightly tentative energy of the performers onstage, that there were still a couple of kinks to be worked out in the space. Without a conventional “backstage” in the Little Mountain, the transitions between scenes seemed to be a particular challenge for this particular performance. However, I trust these transitions are going more smoothly during the actual run of the play, and also recommend simply choosing the seats in front of the shallow thrust stage (rather on the left or right side) where the “offstage” movements of the actors won’t be as visible.

Still, the actors fill their roles with natural ease and without pretension (Gili Roskies’ performance as the youth Dawood is particularly arresting) and Deines and Murphy made important choices in the writing and direction that support this ease. The actors’ voices are without put-on accents and their dialogue is as casual and full of expression as any other English dialogue. These choices (i.e. the choices NOT to have the actors use accents or speak using phrases or expressions that are different from those we would use in everyday English) are tremendously important in that Working Spark has managed to set a play in Baghdad without casting the characters as “the Other”. Of course there are no special accents–Iraqi people are not “foreign” in their own country. Of course there are no unfamiliar expressions–the expressions used by native Arabic speakers would not sound unfamiliar to other Arabic speakers. The point is not to exoticize Baghdad or to pass any kind of judgement on its culture, before or after the American invasion. The point is that culture is important in itself.

What Ghosts in Baghdad shows us is the way in which society’s treatment of historical, natural, and cultural artifacts is a measure for the condition of its people. When looters storm a national museum and force its closure to the public, they steal not from an enemy force but from themselves. Only extreme circumstances would create that kind of selfishness in most people–circumstances whose immediacy renders centuries and millennia of artistry miniscule. You can’t eat a statue, or live in an ancient vase. An artifact in a display case can’t protect you from bullets and heritage can’t buy your ticket to a safer place. But if money could do these things–and you could find the right buyer–could anyone blame you? Sadly, these treasures once lost are usually lost forever, and a people whose history has been stolen and who are unable to take pride in their collective culture will find it that much more difficult to heal–but what can they do?

In Ghosts in Baghdad these questions are turned back on themselves, as those champions who have sworn to preserve their cultural artifacts struggle to protect them from the desperation of poverty and fear–and also from themselves.

Ghosts in Baghdad plays at the Little Mountain Gallery (Main at 26th Ave.) until Sunday, April 6 (no show Monday, March 31). Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets.

Disclosure: TC and I attended the Thursday-night preview courtesy of Working Spark Theatre. My content is my own.

“Nothing But Sky” Delivers Nothing But Promise

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From now until March 2, The Only Animal invites you to step into the world of their latest production, Nothing But Skya comic-book world of heroes and villains, lovers and underdogs, flesh and ink. Written and directed by Kendra Fanconi, Nothing But Sky explores the true story of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the artist and writer behind the legendary Superman, and Joanne Kovacs, the original model for Lois Lane.

Feeling small and powerless in a big and uncaring world, Joe and Jerry dream up Superman–the ultimate champion of the underdog and protector of the weak, a man who can catch bullets in his bare hands and who disguises himself as a regular schmuck (i.e. bespectacled Clark Kent) to avoid discovery. Together, the pair create a hero stronger, better, and braver than they are, and dream of blue skies and smooth sailing for themselves and for their creation. Unfortunately for the friends and artistic partners, nothing is as black and white as their comic-book fantasy: DC Comics (to whom Joe and Jerry sell the rights) wants to control Superman (and his profits), and both men find themselves in love with their Lois Lane, a model named Joanne Kovacs. For Joanne’s part, she wants to be loved for who she is; a person in her own right and not just a stand-in for a paper and ink character.

The most breathtaking aspect of Nothing But Sky is most certainly the blending of comic-book animation with live staging. Projections create both the “real world” of the characters and the world of their creation. Eventually, for artist Joe especially, the lines between the world he has drawn and the world as it is begin to blur until we are not sure where he truly lives. The execution of this unique and challenging staging by the actors, artists, and technical crew is a laudable accomplishment. Nothing But Sky certainly does deliver promise–the promise of new horizons in theatre and new worlds to explore.

Unfortunately, not all of the play’s promises are realized. Though the performances are sharp (the comic-book action sequences especially), the story of Nothing But Sky seemed bigger than the four-person cast’s ability to carry it. Huge amounts of time (i.e. years) pass in a moment, with very little to anchor the audience or prepare it for this leap forward. Most notably, the character of Jerry Siegel comes off as sexually aggressive, socially selfish, and possessed by a delusional perception of his own artistic abilities. With so little to like about this character (despite actor Robert Salvador’s best efforts) I found that I cared very little about the betrayals and injustices he experienced, which is, I think, contrary to Fanconi’s intentions.

That said, Nothing But Sky is still absolutely an experience worth having. The production is a fantastic achievement by everyone involved, by turns magical, humourous, and sad. The technical wizardry alone is worth a look, but the way it is used to support the play is what makes it matter. With such an interesting story, such a beautiful set, and such solid performances, I really really wanted to feel my heart leave my chest. Though it didn’t happen as often as I would have liked, there are moments that truly drew my heart from my body, and those moments are definitely worth watching.

Nothing But Sky is playing in the Faris Family Studio at the Scotiabank Dance Centre until Sunday, March 2. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students on February 26 only) and can be purchased online.

Disclosure: My guest and I attended the opening night performance courtesy of The Only Animal. I was not asked for a review and of course all content remains my own.

Ridiculously Fun: Fighting Chance Productions’ Rocky Horror Show

rocky-posterIf you’re still a “Rocky Virgin”, it might be time to pop your theatrical cherry with Fighting Chance Productions‘ season opener, the cult classic Rocky Horror Show, playing at the Jericho Arts Centre until October 26 (with “11:59 Midnight” showings October 12th, 19th, and 25th).

Fans of the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show starring Tim Curry will know what to expect, but those who have never experienced the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter on either stage or screen are in for a bit of a shock. This show is NUTS, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense, plot-wise. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great time. Though the film was originally considered a flop, a devoted group of fans soon made The Rocky Horror Picture Show an engaging and interactive experience through the development of “official” heckles and the use of audience props.

Fighting Chance’s Rocky Horror Show embraces (and often relies) on these traditions to make the performance the fun that it is. The cast members expect to be heckled and are not surprised when the audience showers the stage in rice or playing cards (for the safety of the performers, audience members are asked NOT to bring their own props, and to instead purchase actor-friendly prop bags available at the venue for $5 if they want to throw things during the show). Not knowing any of the traditional heckles, I felt a bit left out, but after doing some internet research it seems that part of the mystique is having to attend a showing or performance of Rocky enough times in order to catch on, and since the heckling is sort of ever-evolving, it’s hard to find a definitive source anyways (the Official Fan Site for The Rocky Horror Picture Show does NOT publish a list, though it does help clarify the Rocky phenomenon). In the spirit of good fun, I do have a few tips to get you Rocky Virgins started:

  • Whenever a character says the name “Brad Major”, yell “ASSHOLE!”.
  • Whenever a character says the name “Janet Weiss”, yell “SLUT!”.
  • Whenever Brad asks a castle resident for a telephone, yell “CASTLES DON’T HAVE TELEPHONES!”
  • When Dr. Frank-N-Furter sighs, “Whatever happened to Fay Ray?”, yell “SHE WENT APESHIT!”
Erika Thompson  and Will Hopkins play a nice young couple who don't know what they're getting into. Photo credit: Devin Kerringten

Erika Thompson and Will Hopkins play a nice young couple who don’t know what they’re getting into. Photo credit: Devin Kerringten

By and large, the performances (by both the leads and the chorus members) are pretty solid. Good singing, good dancing, lots of camp and naughtiness, but one performance truly stands out: Seth Little simply dominates as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, with a voice to match his physical prowess. Every purse of his painted lips or cock of his pencilled eyebrows is both perfectly natural and right on cue. Little speaks, moves, and sings with the ease of a seasoned drag veteran (one would think he wears a corset and heels every day of his life, and who knows, maybe he does…).  I love when a performer takes a difficult role (especially such an iconic one) and makes it seem effortless; Little is a pleasure to watch. A special nod should also go to Erika Thompson for her performance as the ingenue-turned-“slut” Janet Weiss, and Steffanie Davis for her delicious portrayal of Dr. Scott.

Few opening nights are without their technical hiccups and unfortunately during Tuesday’s performance serious microphone issues left some main characters without a mic for several musical numbers (thankfully never Dr. Frank-N-Furter), and overall, I felt the musicians needed to be turned down just a bit so as not to overpower the singing. The draped walls and cavernous ceilings of the Jericho make it a difficult singing space to begin with, so even with a talented cast doing their valiant best, a lot of lyrics were lost over the course of the night. Having worked with (and attended many productions by) smaller theatre companies, I am usually pretty forgiving of technical snafus (especially on opening), however, given that tickets to the Rocky Horror Show sell for $39.25 each ($34.25 for students/seniors), the audience really should be able to expect a fairly high level of technical mastery. I sincerely hope these technical issues are just a case of “Opening Night Murphy’s Law” and will be worked out for the remainder of the run–it would be a shame if they prevented anyone from enjoying what is an otherwise outrageously pleasurable show.

Luckily for Fighting Chance (and for the audience), if any show can handle a few technical disasters it’s the Rocky Horror Show. It’s raunchy, campy, and incredibly interactive. The characters know they’re putting on a show and they can react to technical mishaps with humour and cheek. The audience is never meant to forget that they’re watching a performance so it’s not a big deal if we can see some of the strings being pulled. Technical issues aside, the Rocky Horror Show is absolutely ridiculous and is ridiculously fun to watch.

The Rocky Horror Show runs until October 26 at the Jericho Arts Centre. Tickets can be purchased online or by telephone at 604.684.2787.

Disclosure: My tickets to the Rocky Horror Show were provided by Fighting Chance Productions. The content of the review is my own.

Hive: the New Bees 3 (Chapel Arts, June 11-14)

New Bees 3 BannerThe buzz is back! Following on the heels of the successful New Bees 2, Resounding Scream Theatre‘s Catherine Ballachey and Stephanie Henderson have once again corralled almost a dozen emerging theatre companies into the labyrinth that is the Chapel Arts gallery in East Vancouver. Together, this eclectic hive mind has conspired to bring you Hive: the New Bees 3, running Tuesday, June 11 to Friday, June 14, in nooks and crannies all over Chapel Arts.

Considering New Bees 3 is the sixth Vancouver Hive event (there have been three professional Hives facilitated by the Progress Lab and three events, including this one, produced under the “New Bees” banner), many of you may be veterans of the Hive scene already. In case you’re not, here’s the skinny on what you can expect:

  • The doors open at 7:30 p.m. and shows will run simultaneously, in various spaces, until approximately 10:45 p.m.
  • You can see as many (or as few) shows as you want, in any order you want.
  • Before, after, or between shows, you can drink at the bar and enjoy the ambiance of arts and culture.
  • Due to space restrictions in the different Chapel Arts performance areas (which includes coat rooms and bathrooms), each show has its own limits on the number of audience members it can hold at one time. You’ll need to scope the place out, and, if there’s a particular show or company you know you want to see, it’s a good idea to line up/sign up for that one early.
  • At approximately 11:00 p.m. on Friday (following the final performance), the after party will begin with the Gal Pal DJs. 90s dance hits will be playing. The bar will be open. Party party.

If you’re looking to test the waters of the emerging theatre scene in Vancouver or just test the waters of the Vancouver theatre scene in general, an event like Hive: the New Bees 3 will be a good place to start. Last year, the Georgia Straight’s Colin Thomas called New Bees 2 “an intimate adventure, which is exactly what theatre should be,” and I am sure the companies participating in this year’s theatrical caper will continue in this new tradition.

Hive: the New Bees 3 will feature 11 emerging theatre companies:

Many of these companies participate in New Bees 2 and some are brand new to the event. All of them will be bringing varied and interesting work to their little corner of Chapel Arts. Why don’t you join them?

Hive: the New Bees 3 will run from Tuesday, June 11 to Friday, June 14 at the Chapel Arts gallery (Dunlevy and Cordova). Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets available online through Brown Paper Tickets.

[SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: I wrote the text of the Troika Collective’s piece this year. Even if I hadn’t I would still be recommending this event. :)]