Monday, February 26, 2007


Photo: Programme cover for New York production of THE CARETAKER, 1961. Cast: Alan Bates, Robert Shaw & Donald Pleasence.

Theatre Inconnu is Victoria's longest surviving small theatre company, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. What can you tell us about its history and its Artistic Director Clayton Jevne?

Clayton Jevne is the rarest of theatre artists in Victoria, that is, he is someone who has stayed here. Most often what happens is young theatre talent moves through the Phoenix program at UVIC and then moves on to Vancouver or Toronto. Even those who do stay around for a while, like the artists of Theatre SKAM, eventually get pulled toward bigger cities. But Clayton has spent all of his career in Victoria devoted to producing, directing and performing the plays he is interested in doing. For many years he ran the summer Shakespeare Festival, but in recent years he has returned to his earlier days when he had a hole-in-the-wall theatre space in Market his space is a hole-in-the-wall in the Fernwood Community Centre, a small community meeting room that he magically transforms into a theatre space seating about 40 people. Clayton's taste is eclectic and his shows can be hit-and-miss, but are always worth seeing simply for the value of seeing something you know would never otherwise be produced in Victoria. As someone who has always worked within shoestring budgets, Clayton has a gift for making a lot out of a little, and for focussing on important, neglected or challenging plays.

Harold Pinter's THE CARETAKER is considered to be one of his greatest plays...would you agree?

Absolutely. THE CARETAKER is often listed as one of Nobel-prize winning playwright Harold Pinter's great achievements and it was a real treat for me to see it for the first time. As Pinter is reaching the end of his long career, a number of his earlier plays are being remounted. I saw a West End production of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY in London 2 years ago. But Pinter is rarely performed in Victoria, although Langham Court did do his play BETRAYAL a few years back. THE CARETAKER is a three-hander for 3 men that tells the story of 2 brothers and a hobo that one of the brothers brings home with him one day to the derelict building he lives in and is supposed to be fixing up for his landlord brother. The play explores the psychological power dynamics between these 3 characters, revealing all 3 of them to be deeply trapped in lives that are going nowhere. Communication, or the failure to communicate with others, is a key theme of Pinter...this is where we see the famous “Pinter pauses” where characters are often struggling to find the words to express themselves. Pinter has been clearly inspired by writers like Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Franz Kafka in seeing modern existence as hard, savage, even ultimately meaningless. And yet, done properly, his early plays contain lots of dark humour that can find audiences laughing quite unexpectedly quite a lot.

And what about this production? It can't be easy taking on the work of a Nobel-prize winning playwright...

It is a very challenging play to mount and I thought that this production did an admirable job of it. The small space has been transformed into the dingy and jam-packed room where Aston, the older of the 2 brothers, now lives. Piled high with furniture, piles of newspapers, a gas stove, even a kitchen sink, the place is a mess. Yet Aston, who is revealed later in the play to be the victim of electric shock therapy, invites the street tramp Davies into this tiny room in an act of unexplained kindness. This does not please Aston's brother Mick, a dangerous character who attacks Davies both verbally and physically throughout the play. Most of the play is written as 2 person scenes, very rarely are all three actors on stage together. At all times Davies is trying to find his ground with these 2 men, who both offer and then withdraw the job as caretaker of this squalid building. There are moments of comedy throughout, such as Davies' constant search for a proper pair of shoes, and even tenderness, as when Aston kindly gives Davies some old clothes and shoes and even Mick offers him a cheese sandwich at one point. But under it all is the omnipresent sense of desperation in these lower class characters who have nothing much to live for or to look forward to in their lives.

How does the cast manage the British dialect and London setting?

Both the acting and directing of this production are very strong. Jevne plays Davies as a fidgety bundle of nerves who is always prepared to be attacked, and yet can be full of himself and his empty dreams at the same time. His Cockney accent sometimes wobbles a bit, but overall it is a fine performance. The 2 brothers are played by Michael Shewchuk and Jason Stevens who both offer outstanding performances. I saw Jason Stevens in ARTICHOKE at Langham Court in the fall, and it is a treat to see an actor shift so well into such a different kind of role. Stevens is the rarest of birds in Victoria, a strong male actor in his 30s or 40s. Sadly, I hear he will be leaving town soon, which is a loss to the theatre community, as he plays Mick with focussed intensity and the necessary swagger and sense of danger brewing. Michael Shewchuk plays his role of the damaged Aston with great subtlety and sensitivity with a monologue in Act Two that is quietly shattering. Kudos to director Graham McDonald for creating a very simple show that lets the actors and the text of this great play shine. Overall, the production takes us very successfully into the world of London's underclass, the have-nots who for various reasons will never move beyond their stifling circumstances.

What makes this nearly 50 year old play still relevant today?

This play has often been compared to Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT that was premiered only a few years before Pinter wrote THE CARETAKER. Both plays are written out of the residual post-World War II/Holocaust/Hiroshima sense of despair for the very future of humanity. But where Beckett sets his play in an indeterminate No-place with undefinable characters who are almost clown-like, Pinter roots his play in the real world of London of the late 50s/early 60s. We cannot distance ourselves from Pinter's characters because they are real people who live among us; the homeless, the psychologically disturbed, the restless losers who can become dangerous to those of us cozied up in our middle class comforts. We need theatre like this to remind us of what's really going on in the world, to remind us that the despair of the dispossessed is very real and something we ignore at our own peril, to remind us that we are all struggling to connect with others, that this effort is sometimes a failed joke and can kick us when we're down, but that it is necessary to keep trying, to try to maintain our sense of humanity in the face of oblivion, nonetheless.

Monday, February 19, 2007


Q: We heard about this Canadian debut performance of Richard Strauss' DAPHNE last week from POV musical director Timothy Vernon. What was your first impression?

A: Set designer Leslie Frankish has created a lovely and evocative setting for the opera, under the branches of a weeping willow next to a pond. The branches form a multi-layered curtain of gauzy leaves that rise and fall at various points throughout the opera creating a beautiful effect. Water nymphs arise from the pond and Daphne's father Peneios – a river god – pours water from his hands into the pond at one point. The overall effect is one that transports the audience into the world of Greek mythology where humans and gods can interact.

POV's last production of Puccini's MANON LESCAUT was moved from its pre-French revolution setting and re-set in World War II Germany. DAPHNE was actually created by Strauss and performed at that time, in 1938 under the Nazi regime. Does anything in this production refer to this difficult fact?

Not that I could see. Director Wim Trompert has chosen to present a version of DAPHNE that seems very faithful to Strauss' original intent to interpret a popular Greek myth about the nymph Daphne who cannot or will not submit to earthly love, and who pays the price for her refusal to conform. This is a powerful and popular myth of transformation (Daphne in the end is changed into the laurel tree by the god Apollo who is one of the two characters who try to seduce her) that has been turned into a number of different opera and ballet versions. Yet, any contemporary audience member who is aware of the origins of this particular DAPHNE, presented by Strauss in Berlin in 1938, is going to feel the tension of its uncomfortable beginnings. I felt that this production plays it a bit on the safe side by not helping us find the connection between then and is always a product of its historical context and in this case, I feel the reality of DAPHNE's origins has been unfortunately ignored. In contrast, while I didn't feel that the updating of MANON LESCAUT was wholly successful, I did like the bravery of such a choice.

How did you feel about the musical aspects of the production?

I am a theatre reviewer and admit my failings in critiquing the musical aspects of POV productions. To my untrained ear, however, the Victoria Symphony under the musical direction of Maestro Timothy Vernon sounded as wonderful as ever. Lead performers in the production sounded beautiful in singing what I understand to be very challenging material. I enjoyed Rebecca Hass' musical and physical interpretation of Daphne's mother Gaea and Anthony Pulgram's Apollo especially, although none of the singers, nor the supporting chorus could be faulted in any way. Leading lady Sookhyung Park is onstage for most of this 100 minute one- act opera and sings gorgeously throughout. Her final moments are particularly affecting as she metamorphises into a tree and sings a wordless melody that is haunting and very memorable. This production is being broadcast by CBC Radio's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and will be a real feather in POV's cap in this regard...a world class musical interpretation.

What about the visual elements?

This is the aspect of the production that did provide some disappointments for me. While I found Frankish's set very beautiful I did have problems with her monochromatic color scheme of black white and gray. I kept wondering why a natural setting wasn't being portrayed in natural colors of green and brown and nothing in the production helped me understand this choice, as the costumes were more naturalistic, the standout one being Daphne's mother Gaea's stunning earthy brown dress woven with tree roots. And Gerald King's lighting was also quite cold, I found, except for a few chosen moments when it becomes golden and quite gorgeous, but then moves back into being rather harsh and chilly again. And the most critical thing I have to say about this production is about Daphne's costume, which I found made her look like a cross between Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Peter Pan. She is supposed to be an unbelievably beautiful young girl who makes both mortal and immortal men fall instantly in love with her...why does she look like so ragged and tomboyish, without even a skirt on to cover her legs? Even if the production begins with her dressed this way, it makes no sense to me that she should not change into a beautiful dress for the Dionysian festival in the second half of the opera. I found it quite hard to overcome the visual portrayal of Daphne in this way, especially when the poster for the production itself shows the character in a lovely gown. This is an example of a costume design working against rather than with a performer.

Any final thoughts on this opera?

This production evoked memories in me of last season's stellar production at UVIC's Phoenix Theatre of Ovid's Metamorphoses. These ancient myths are powerful and full of important morals that still remain significant to our lives today. Strauss himself felt Daphne to be one of his crowning achievements, a love letter to the soprano voice, and it is certainly that. Yet, given its debut in Hitler's Germany and the fact that it has only appeared onstage in North America nearly 70 years later, I was left longing to see the companion piece first presented with Daphne, Friedenstag [The Day of Peace]. It feels to me that it is the message of earthly peace and the transcendent power of nature that Strauss wove into both of these short operas that, together, have something of great value for us today.

Monday, February 12, 2007

RAGE at Green Thumb Theatre

Last week I saw Green Thumb Theatre's revival of their hit 2005 production of RAGE by Michele Riml, winner of two Jessie Awards (for Best New Play and Best Production). As someone who spent a number of years working with Toronto's Young People's Theatre, I was looking forward to seeing this show, albeit with some trepidation once I had heard the premise. In this two-hander, a troubled male high school student meets with a female guidance counsellor to discuss his behavioural problems and potential expelling from school. They talk about various heady matters around the key theme of violence vs. non-violence including the works of Hitler, the Columbine killers, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Then the boy pulls out a gun and demands that the counsellor kill him or he will kill her. High-stakes drama indeed, and the two actors who originated and are reviving these roles perform them very well. The tension is unrelenting throughout the second half of this 70 minute show as the boy, "Rage" [real name Raymond], terrorizes the counsellor. The ending feels inevitable but is shocking nonetheless - violence breeds violence and all that.

I had a very mixed response to this production. I greatly valued the work of David Beazley and Leslie Jones [the most moving moment for me was seeing how hard the two actors clutched each other's hands at curtain call] and could see that the playwright's intentions were to provoke young audiences who are generally numbed by the amount of dramatized violence they see on TV and in movies. It's true that the live presence of theatre makes a violent encounter more difficult to bear and this may be an important way to get young people to address this issue. But I'm not sure. What kept coming back to me after the show was the old 60's slogan "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem". This play wants to be part of the solution, clearly, yet as soon as the gun is pulled out of Rage's backpack, for me the play changes its course and becomes part of the problem. I don't care to see women terrorized and victimized by violent men in the news, on TV or in films. Why would I want to see it onstage? The fact is, I don't, nor do I think it does young people much good to use violence to talk about violence. Can't we do better than this?

I couldn't help but notice that playwright Dennis Foon was in the audience the night I was there. Foon is almost entirely responsible for the shift in children's theatre in Canada in the 1980's away from safe adaptations of fairy tales or morality plays for kids and toward realistic dramatizations of issues like bullying and divorce that directly affect young people. I wonder if this play RAGE is the logical outcome of such a shift, or a perversion of it? For me, the literalness of the play, played out in real time, is its downfall. The theatre is built on metaphor. When you pull out a gun, it's just a gun, a killing machine that shuts down debate, empathy, hope. I long for a theatre that engages me (and, more crucially, young people) through metaphors that lift and transcend to become glimpses of the solution, not a theatre trapped in the hopelessness of the problem, as this play is.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Tim Crouch's AN OAK TREE & MY ARM Review

I have been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between theatre-going and faith, about how going to the theatre is at some level an act of faith. Of course, the epiphanies promised to the faithful are most often hidden and denied, and these epiphanies happen as rarely to those of us held in thrall to the theatre as they do to the everyday religious faithful. So, when we are so often disappointed - constantly and consistently insulted by acts of deadly-theatre making - how and why do we keep going? The answer is simple: Because every once in a rare while we encounter an act of theatre that measures up, that gives us what we are seeking, that fills a missing space in our lives, even in our souls.

This week I went to see British actor Tim Crouch's one-act plays AN OAK TREE and MY ARM, brought to Victoria for four nights only by Intrepid Theatre (thank you Janet, Ian & Nathan!) Crouch has been performing and touring these plays over the past 4 years throughout England and Scotland, Europe, America and Canada (see his website While I enjoyed MY ARM very much - a monodrama telling the story of a young boy of ten who, for mysterious reasons, decides one day to raise his arm above his head and keep it there (for the rest of his life) - it was AN OAK TREE that for me became an epiphany that restored my faith.

In what at first glance seems to be a rather masochistic choice, Crouch chooses to perform his two-hander play with a second actor who has never seen the play or a script beforehand. This actor is recruited by the producers wherever the play is happening; in New York, Crouch played against such well-known actors such as Joan Allen, Frances McDormand, and Mike Myers. Crouch spends an hour before the show talking his volunteer actor through what is going to happen, encouraging them and allaying any fears that they will be called on to improvise at all. Everything the second actor is asked to do is scripted in some way; Crouch asks his partner to repeat lines back to him, or whispers lines in a mike that the partner hears through headphones and repeats, or hands the partner clipboards with text that they read together. All of this is completely apparent to the audience, who is "in on it" from the beginning and throughout the show. Our empathy is already highly-engaged with the second actor and the challenges he or she is facing (even though the character is the "Father", Crouch is happy to have male or female actors take the role).

Inside this premise the story we are told is of a hypnotist who has accidentally hit and killed a young girl in a car accident. The hypnotist, played by Crouch, shows us his act by enrolling us as a pub audience that witnesses his show. When he calls for volunteers, the second actor steps onto the stage (we have been told beforehand not to participate in this way, with a measure of audiences most often don't care much for participation!). It is known to us, but not to the hypnotist, that this second character is the father of the dead girl. As the play proceeds, we see the father successfully hypnotized and taken through various humiliating tasks by the hypnotist who thinks he's being "had" by the father. When the father finally reveals his identity, the hypnotist is shattered and the "act" ends. The pub audience is sent away, but we (the "real" audience) are allowed to then see how this highly-emotional encounter plays out through flashbacks, scenes, monologues, even scenes with other characters played by Crouch. Throughout all of this, the second actor is kept totally "in the moment" as he or she responds to whatever Crouch offers as text. Crouch himself plays both actor and director, seamlessly, as he shifts from playing the devastated hypnotist into playing himself as director side-coaching his partner.

As confusing as this may sound, it is never once confusing in the playing of it. We always know who is speaking and what is happening, even where we are as we shift from the pub show to the father's home, to a car, to the side of the road where an oak tree marks the spot where the daughter died. In the end, we see a father so in denial in his grief that he comes to believe his daughter has become part of everything, especially as the oak tree he cannot keep from visiting even as his wife suffers and threatens to leave him. The hypnotist is so guilt-ridden he can no longer hypnotize and is left with his own life in tatters.

I could use words like "metatheatrical" here, or "postmodern" or "deconstructive", but these critical terms would only absolve me of speaking more deeply about what this play gave me. As an actor who sometimes has dreamt the classic actor's nightmare of performance anxiety - appearing onstage in a play where I have no idea what character I am playing or what my lines and actions are supposed to be - AN OAK TREE has given me what might have seemed impossible; a therapeutic purging of this nightmare through its realworld realization. I have seen this happen to an actor (my former professor and friend John Krich) and have seen him survive. I have seen him taken through this nightmare experience at the level of both actor and character, a doubling effect that only deepened its effect. And I have seen him emerge undamaged, even, perhaps, reborn? Thus, as given to us in the myth of Christ and many other religious mythologies, there is life after death, reincarnation is possible, just as experienced by the father in the play who sees his daughter inside a tree. I am heartened by this, made just a little bit stronger, able to go on.

It is for experiences such as this one - given in the greatest spirit of sacrifice and generosity and courage and artistry and complexity and simplicity by Crouch and his volunteer partners - that allow me to hold on to this strangely arcane act of faith and witness that I call theatre-going.