Friday, March 23, 2007

Two One-man Shows - Cromoli Brothers & Bigger than Jesus

Rick Miller in Bigger Than Jesus []
Photo: Beth Kates

In the past week I have seen two very different one-man shows, Theatre Skam's The Amazing and Impermeable Cromoli Brothers: The Best of the Cromoli Brothers and the Belfry Theatre's Bigger Than Jesus (a Wyrd Productions/Necessary Angel Theatre co-production). Seeing two solo shows so closely together leads me to consider the phenomenon of solo theatre, exemplified in Victoria's Uno Festival (from Intrepid Theatre).

Even though I have performed a one-woman play myself - Joan MacLeod's beautiful play Jewel - and therefore have deep empathy for those who undertake solo performances, I am not at heart a huge fan of solo theatre. For me, theatre is an essentially social art form, along with the other performing arts of dance and music, and what I am most interested in finding at the theatre are meaningful, well-written and well-performed dialogic encounters between characters. While there are some one-person shows that offer dialogue between characters - The Syringa Tree or I Am My Own Wife being good examples of this (although I feel the former to be a better play than the latter, perhaps because it features more inter-character dialogue) - most often a solo play offers one or more characters speaking directly or indirectly to themselves and/or to the audience. Dialogue is deferred in favour of monologue, or perhaps soliloquy. This is fine, and can be fine (as in Jewel, where a widow speaks in soliloquy to her dead husband throughout), but is arguably a far less social experience than that of theatre featuring two or more actors.

This is a philosophical position I am taking that values the inherent power of theatre to allow access to the privileged close observation of human interaction in all its facets; good, bad and ugly. This said, it takes a particularly strong monodrama to compare favorably in my view with a "regular" play.

Lucas Myers, one of the founders of Theatre SKAM, is a favorite actor of mine. Myers has a warm presence, great physicality and broad range that allows him to play drama and comedy with equal success. The Amazing and Impermeable Cromoli Brothers is one brother short as the show begins and St. John Cromoli has been stood-up by his brother Hasbro. But the show must go on, so we are treated to an interactive series of 15 songs and vignettes, the titles of which are posted on chart paper on stage. Audience members are invited by the flustered St. John, an old-school vaudevillian entertainer, to select the order in which they wish to see these pieces. Thus we are engaged in a wide range of "bits" presented with little more than what can be found in a battered red suitcase and accompanied on a ukelele. Myers' songs are sweet and often quite personal (he sings one about his brand new daughter), although they can sometimes contain a bit of a political bite. Some vignettes work better than others, some being little more than throwaway quick gags. My favorite was the cover of Bowie's "Major Tom" with a volunteer audience member playing a breath-powered keyboard (what is that thing called?) and a tiny stuffed Major Tom in a real tin can passed through the house as Myers sings, lit by a single light bulb. Fun and funny, but also quite lovely. The show is very slight, built around Myers' engaging personality; however, if you are a fan this is no bad thing.

Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks' Bigger Than Jesus is a different kettle of solo flying fish. A much more ambitious show, a multimedia piece incorporating ingenious use of live video, BTJ is a major award-winner [three 2004 Doras for play, performer and lighting design] with the positive reviews to match. Working loosely within the framework of the Catholic mass, Miller takes the audience through a part-lecture, part-monologue, part-diatribe, part-homage to the life and legacy of the Big JC Himself. Miller plays "himself" the actor, a Jewish academic, a James-Brownish preacher, a prayer-answering flight attendant, and, finally, Jesus. Woven thoughout are live video feeds from multiple directions in the theatre, sometimes manipulated by Miller himself, that give us backdrop images that are occasionally quite awesome in their power. The play is intelligent, highly theatrical (especially in the scene of the Last Supper as played by Miller in miniature with action figures including Star Wars characters, all projected via video onto the giant backdrop screen) and well-performed by Miller, who is clearly a multi-talented actor.

So why did it make such a small impression on me? I should have been the ideal audience member for this piece, lapsed Catholic that I am (Miller asked us to identify ourselves off the top of the show), but somehow the individual parts that seem very successful in the moment failed to add up to a sum that had an overall effect. Miller and Brooks' point, that Jesus the man and his ideals are very different from the legacy of Christianity and the ignorance and violence wrought in His name, seem a bit like preaching to the choir. Theatregoers tend to be an educated and sophisticated lot...don't we already know these things? What else can be said about the life of Jesus at this point in history and through the medium of theatre that moves us beyond the platitudes of Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell? Yes, it is arresting to see Miller transform himself into Jesus, back turned at an altar with his face projected onto his vestment, but when he comes downstage to speak to the audience what we get are one-liners mixed in with the familiar Biblical wisdoms; "Love one another ... any questions?"

Beautiful images and skilful performance do not necessarily add up to great theatre. I received more soulful sustenance and real learning from Theatre Inconnu's recent low-budget production of Pinter's The Caretaker around how we human beings so often fail dismally to love one another, than in this highly-individualistic one-man show that failed to convince me of the essential human connection that Jesus tried so hard to reveal.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

SKYDIVE & WAITING IN THE WINGS Reviews - March 5, 2007

Photo credit: Tim Matheson


I hear it was a busy week of theatre-going for you and that you're going to tell us about two shows you saw, one of which has now closed – the Belfry's Festival production of SKYDIVE – and the second Langham Court's production of Noel Coward's WAITING IN THE WINGS which runs until March 17th. So, what can you tell us about SKYDIVE first?

SKYDIVE a is a co-production between the Belfry and a new Vancouver theatre company called Real Wheels [] that is focussed on providing opportunities for disabled performers. In this two-hander one-act play, one of the two actors – James Sanders – is a quadriplegic. In discussions with the Governor-General award winning playwright Kevin Kerr, who was commissioned to write the play, the idea of skydiving came up. From this beginning emerged the idea to make use of the wonderful aerial choreography machinery developed by Victoria's Sven Johansson that has been most often used by disabled dancers. The end result is that both Sanders and his acting partner and real-life close friend Bob Frazer become capable of flight in a story of two brothers who let us into their dreams, nightmares, phobias and failures as flashbacks during a freefall skydive. The visual effects created in the show, under the direction of the Belfry's Roy Surette, are nothing less than stunning. This incredible machinery, developed by Johansson about 20 years ago, makes use of weighted levers and human operators such that the actors become puppet-like, constrained in some ways, but freed in others. While they are fixed and held in place at the end of the levers for most of the play, they are manipulated so that they can fly, leap, roll, and fall in dazzling combinations. It is an extraordinary effect that makes it one of the most unique visual theatre experiences I have ever had.

And what about the play itself? Did it live up to this innovative form of presentation?

Unfortunately not. Kerr is clearing drawing heavily on Sanders' and Frazers' real-life friendship and the dialogue reflects this quality of a longterm and close male relationship, even though in the play they are cast as brothers. Kerr writes very funny dialogue and there are a lot of laughs to be had as we see one brother (Sanders) try to help his younger brother (Frazer) overcome a host of phobias through different and questionable therapeutic techniques. One of these therapies is lucid dreaming, and this allows us to enter into the dreamworld of these characters in very effective ways. But there are a couple of significant problems with the script. First, these characters have little or no history, no context that is given to us, and this makes it difficult for us to care about them...they feel like types rather than real people, despite the actors' fine performances. Why is one brother full of phobias and the other a bit of a loser? The answer offered within a lucid dream is superficial and unconvincing. We want to know more about these men than the play and its technological centre can allow. And second, this play begins as a comedy and remains a comedy until its last five minutes when it becomes a tragedy, out of nowhere. This feels like a bit of a cop-out, and is manipulative of the audience who has been happily looking forward to the skydive planned by the brothers throughout. The conclusion is a downer which feels tacked on somehow, and I for one felt a bit cheated.

Moving on to Langham Court's production of Noel Coward's late play WAITING IN THE WINGS. Coward has been a favorite playwright at Langham Court over the years, isn't that right?

Yes. Langham has produced over 20 Coward plays in productions dating back to the 1940s when Coward was still in his prime. This play was written in 1960, later in Coward's long career (he lived until 1973) as a kind of love letter to all the women he had worked with on stage over the years. Set in a charity retirement home for retired actresses called The Wings, the play features a huge cast of 18. While still containing some of Coward's classic British comic wit, and even a few of his musical ditties, it is a more bittersweet affair, focussing on the reality that these women's glory days are long behind them. The original production in 1960 was not a hit as critics found it gallant and affectionate but also sentimental, contrived and tepid – described as a “weak over-sugared cup of tea” - and it was only performed in New York as recently as 1999, in a production featuring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris. So it is a lesser-known and little-performed Coward which will certainly be of interest to Coward fans.

And is the production here a love letter from Langham Court to its long-time actresses?

It is, and is a warm and wonderful tribute. Toshik Bukowiecki has designed a marvelously detailed set of the living room of the home, with views out the French doors to the British countryside. Set design is consistently strong at Langham. And the ladies of the Wings have numerous costume changes throughout the play, including quite elegant evening dresses they put on for Christmas dinner. This is one of the largest and most complex Langham shows I have seen, directed very capably by regular Roger Carr, and it looks terrific. Happily, there are also some very fine performances here as well. Each of the dozen women who make up the home's residents is clearly defined as a character (albeit written somewhat stereotypically by Coward) and all have their moments to shine. I can't single out all of the company for recognition here, but I especially enjoyed the work of Jean Topham as the manager of the home, Miss Archibald, Angela Harvey as the diplomatic Bonita, Lynda Raino as the nervous and fragile Estelle and Lesley Gibbs as the musical Maud. Both Philippa Catling and Danda Humphreys play the central roles of two feuding actresses who haven't spoken for 30 years very well, and their scenes together are quite touching. Supporting roles played by Drew Waveryn, Heather Jarvie and others are also well done. The play is long – I understand some scenes from the original have been cut – but it's still two and half hours with intermission and sometimes the pace lags a bit, but overall it is a very pleasant visit with a charming and eccentric group of senior women.