Pop Up Love Party

Pop-Up-Love-PartyZuppa Theatre’s Pop Up Love Party is a re-imagining of Plato’s Symposium, an analysis and merry toast to all forms of love, which are in perpetual conversation with one another and, in this play, competing for supremacy over one another as they are embodied by the Zuppa Theatre Collective of Sue Leblanc-Crawford, Ben Stone and Stewart Legere. The evening is a communal one at the very cool Lion and Bright Café, which combines delicious food and wine with an exuberant and heartful theatre.

This piece is very early in its process and needs some tighter shaping and focus and  it seems like perhaps it might provide inspiration and insights that might morph the play into something completely different by the time it premieres here in Halifax in March, 2015. It is filled with potential and that is exciting, as developing new work and these newborn ideas have a specific magic that can be quite invigorating and captivating to watch.

The three performers give us speeches that are based on Plato’s text, but made personal and updated to suit our own time and they are compelling and poignant, funny, informative and thoughtful. There is a fun interlude featuring salty chocolates and plain yogurt (not mixed) and some musical stylings from Stewart Legere. These elements have the potential to be connected and intersected in an even more theatrical and thought provoking way- which I’m certain will be explored between now and March 2015.

I wanted to know why these theatre artists feel like we need to be reminded of the various facets of love, here in Halifax in the 21st Century. I wanted to know why we need to choose the truest definition or most compelling portrait of this love and why we must do it through Plato’s standards. I wasn’t sure what new ideas about love that Zuppa Theatre were bringing us to feast upon or what their commentary was on these ancient ideas of love and how or why we have dragged them with us through so much time. I also wanted to know what it was that Halifax needed to know specifically from Zuppa Theatre about love. Ben Stone and Stewart Legere often reprise their roles from their last show Tiny Vaudevilles as the ‘Aging, Fatherly Artist” and the “Young, Perhaps Usurping, Artist,’ which is always a funny gag, but I wanted there to be a stronger reason for why this dichotomy was imperative in Symposium and its musings of love.

As a party, this show brings people together in a lovely way and is quite entertaining, although as Zuppa Theatre’s contrition to the Magnetic North Theatre Festival I was a little disappointed that this show hasn’t yet found the Zuppa distinctive style, voice and theatricality that has been so imperative to their past work, so it is not an ideal introduction to Zuppa Theatre for Artists who are encountering them for the first time.  It captures their love of process and their bravery and sense of silly wild abandon mixed with solemnity for sure, but I wonder if it would have been better for a National Festival to save the Love Party for 2015 and to remount an older show that really showcases the company at their finest.

The Pop Up Love Party played as part of the Magnetic North/ Stages Theatre Festival and has closed. 

The Zuppa Sillies & Chekhov Vaudevilles

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sue leblanc-crawford, stewart legere & ben stone

photo by ryan taplin

Anton Chekhov, perhaps most well known for his doleful Three Sisters who never make it to Moscow and his Cherry Orchard that never gets saved, always insisted that his plays were meant to be comedies. If you are skeptical, I strongly encourage you to attend Zuppa Theatre’s Tiny Vaudevilles: Two Short Plays by Anton Chekhov, which brings elements from Vaudeville, The Muppet Show and past Zuppa show scores together with two of Chekhov’s lesser known plays The Bear (1888) and A Marriage Proposal (1890). The shenanigans run to May 11th at The Music Room in Halifax.

The Bear and A Marriage Proposal are known as Chekhov’s “Farce Vaudevilles” and were both very lucrative and popular with audiences during his lifetime. The translation of these plays in the hands of Sue Leblanc-Crawford, Ben Stone and Stewart Legere has a distinctly modern quality to it and seems as custom built for their various personalities within the company as any of the plays that they have devised themselves. Legere drinks real vodka onstage, as his characters are called toward the drink in the plays, and the audience is encouraged to purchase their own at the bar to drink along. This gives the show a sense of danger, as Legere becomes more and more prone to fits of giggles and ad libs as the evening progresses. Yet, within the framework of these plays, and the Cabaret-style musical interludes and Vaudeville schtick borrowed from the Muppets, the real magic tends to erupt when Legere deviates from the script and it keeps the room alive and pulsating in common time, which can be rare during productions of 125 year old Russian plays.

These two “Farce Vaudevilles” are especially funny because they seem to be written by Chekhov as a parody of the theatrical style that he is most well known for writing. In the same way, Leblanc-Crawford, Stone and Legere spend much of the evening pastiching their own Zuppa personas- in both cases bringing something that can be perceived as being lofty, intellectual and even in Chekhov’s case, solemn, far closer to the Absurd. Tiny Vaudevilles is a pure celebration of silliness for silliness’ sake. The cherry on the Zuppa sundae is definitely Legere and Stone performing the classic Vaudeville sketch “Slowly I Turn” at the very end of the evening, in which Stone antagonizes the young (and by this time quite tipsy) Legere to the merry delight of all. Tiny Vaudevilles reminds us that regardless of how beautiful the poetics of language, the intelligence and poignance of ideas and the depth of character, there is something innate in all of us that loves to watch the clown slip on the banana peel or pie the straight man in the face.

The Music Room provides an ideal space for Tiny Vaudevilles because the audience is in close proximity to the action, and especially when the company uses the real door to the outside of the theatre, one gets the immediate feeling of being transported to the wealthy widow’s estate at the turn of the 20th Century. This, along with the Drink-Along, “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” ambiance creates a sense of collusion between the actors and the audience. It is not just Legere, Stone and Leblanc-Crawford who are acting out these shenanigans, we are all complicit in the merrymaking as well.

There are moments in the play that are clearly scripted but are supposed to appear improvised where there is room for Leblanc-Crawford and Stone to settle in more comfortably with their impromptu banter with one another and the audience, as it can come across as a little forced or performative at times. Leblanc-Crawford also gave a preamble before the show saying that although she the actor is noticeably pregnant, her characters are not supposed to be pregnant and I wondered why she would make this clarification as in both cases, as the mourning recent widow and the farmer’s daughter desperate to wed, a pregnancy would only raise the stakes in both plays. It seemed like a missed opportunity to make use of a significant aspect of what is really happening in the room that the audience and actors are sharing and experiencing together and to add an extra stamp of uniqueness to this rendition of these specific Chekhov plays.

In all, prepare to giggle and guffaw with glee. Tiny Vaudevilles is a crowd pleaser and it’s shamelessly euphoric in its own ability to charm.

Tiny Vaudevilles runs through Saturday, May 11th at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee at the Music Room (6181 Lady Hammond Rd). Tickets are $20. To purchase tickets please visit this website or call 902.489.9872.

Uncle Oscar’s Experiment: 10 years later & still defying death

uncle oscar

sue leblanc in the 2003 production of uncle oscar’s experiment

The 10th Anniversary production of Zuppa Theatre’s Uncle Oscar’s Experiment is an imaginative and delightful Expressionistic exploration of the traditions of the Grand Guignol and solidifies theatrically and musically as a dark and twisted, yet jubilant, fairy tale for adults.

Uncle Oscar’s Experiment tells the story of poor Felicity Luckless, the little girl followed by death, who comes into the care of Dr. Oscar Smitthison-Burke, a mad-scientist, intent on curing her of this curse. He is aided by his shy and awkward henchman, Gregory, who has never seen a girl before and is quite intrigued by his new housemate. Can Felicity overcome her power for accidentally murdering people haphazardly? Will Gregory have to choose between the love of a girl and his loyalty to his master? What insight does the angel have to impart on Felicity first? The Zuppa collective has woven this story together using aspects of clown, melodrama, physical theatre, magic and dance, with original music fully integrated into the world of the play, led by Jason Michael MacIsaac and David Christensen. Together, the elements capture an ardent sense of play and the magic inherent in pretend.

Kiersten Tough oscillates between vulnerable dejection and guarded exuberance as young Felicity Luckless, capturing the sense of the lost and sometimes terrified child trying to cope beneath her strange affliction. She is countered beautifully by Ben Stone’s Gregory, whose vulnerability is even rawer than Felicity’s. Together they manage to be both hilariously funny and then immediately heart rending. Susan Leblanc is visually stunning and alluring as the mysterious angel and her exuberance while coaxing Felicity to follow her nicely mirrors Tough’s. Stewart Legere is earnest, yet progressively unsettling, as “Uncle” Oscar. Together, with MacIsaac and Christensen, the cast works together creatively to keep the momentum of the play turning in unexpected and entertaining ways.

Much of what firmly roots Uncle Oscar’s Experiment in its distinct world, somewhere between us and the stars, is MacIsaac’s original score with jaunty guitar and banjos and a lilting accordion to create a beautiful juxtaposition between the play’s inherent celebration of the blithe magic of storytelling and make believe and the grim fates that befell our characters. Alex McLean has expertly choreographed these musical numbers in a way that is a fun pastiche of styles: sometimes reminiscent of Peanuts characters, sometimes channelling the Broadway musical and at one point with a tilt of the hat to Thriller. As in a dream, these characters exist in a fluid state of extended and unlimited possibility because they are alive in play.

It is the playful and the inventive use of objects- guitar cases and accordions and beds with wheels- and the cast’s crisp, specific gestures that are the cornerstone to McLean’s visual concept for Uncle Oscar’s Experiment. This is also reminiscent to children “playing pretend” or actors improvising a scene and mixing freely the elements from different theatrical styles and historical contexts with wild abandon. The result is akin to Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas only far more immediate and joyful.

Come check out Uncle Oscar’s Experiment before death comes- singing and dancing- to find you. It’s a great way to celebrate the advent of Halloween.

Uncle Oscar’s Experiment plays until October 20th, 2013 at Fort Massey United Church (5303 Tobin Street, Halifax). Tickets are available by calling 902.489.9872 or visiting this website . Tickets are $25.00 (regular) or $20.00 (student/senior/artist/groups of 10+)

SHOWTIMES ARE AS FOLLOWS:
Tuesday, October 15 @ 8:00pm
Wednesday, October 16 @ 8:00pm
Thursday, October 17 @ 8:00pm
Friday, October 18 @ 8:00pm
Saturday, October 19 @ 2:00pm
Saturday, October 19 @ 8:00pm
Sunday, October 20 @ 8:00pm

Zuppa Attains Gigantick Emotions

sue and stew

susan leblanc & stewart legere

The first thing that struck me upon entering the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre for Zuppa Theatre’s production of The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions, which closes there tonight, was the gorgeously crafted set, created by Katherine Jenkins-Ryan and Michael Ryan that immediately planted the story I had not seen yet in Halifax’s own North End. Yet, these familiar “jellybean houses,” to borrow from Alex McLean, are here in miniature, like dollhouses, which was immediately suggestive of the playful exploration of the dichotomy of bigness, smallness and gigantickness in our everyday experiences. It also prompted me to lean forward, craning my eyes to see all the very small details in these houses, and in these boxes and as the actors filled the space I leaned forward even more ardently, listening and watching the most intently for the small among the deafening and the gigantick among the silence.

The second thing that struck me upon entering the Studio was the realization that, unlike many of Zuppa shows that are devised by the company, this one was written by a Cleveland-based playwright, Mike Geither. It is interesting to see a play so strongly rooted in the local neighborhoods of Halifax, and also featuring Peggy’s Cove, one of Nova Scotia’s most iconic tourist attractions, performed by a company just as rooted in the here, the now and the community, but written by an obviously smitten visitor. The most fascinating thing is that Geither’s voice melds seamlessly into the familiar Zuppa voice. There are echoes of The Debacle here; there are echoes of Poor Boy. This play manages to be very different, yet, still fits beautifully into an already established canon and aesthetic, which makes this collaboration seem very organic.

The story of The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions is rooted in the personal, in the subtle shifts in the human experience that often can seem utterly Gigantick when we are going through them, although they may appear inconsequential or commonplace to others. It is set atop a sort of counterpart backdrop of war in a foreign place that can be seen as being universally Gigantick, or entirely marginal, depending on your point of view. Alice’s father is dying and for Alice the pain, the fear and the sadness is Gigantick. Her brother, Francis, is returning from his second tour as a translator in Afghanistan and his post-traumatic stress is Gigantick and the atrocities he has witnessed in Afghanistan are Gigantick, but the, potentially, more personal grief that awaits him at home is also Gigantick. He also may be falling in love with Alice’s friend Robin, which also has moments of Gigantick. Robin is from Texas and her exuberance is Gigantick. Alice and Francis have a dear friend named Martin, who is childlike in innocence and wonder. His feelings for Robin (as well as his concern, care and love for Alice and Francis) are also Gigantick.

The performances in this production, along with the miniature jellybean houses, are what make this play so compelling, heart rending and beautiful to watch. The dynamics between the characters are so rich, wordlessly complex, intense and fascinating. Susan Leblanc and Ben Stone immediately are siblings and one gets the sense of being able to imagine their lives before Francis went off to a war zone. Leblanc is filled with conflicting emotions that meld into one another in a frenzy of anguish and fear. There is a moment where Alice attacks Francis in the middle of his homecoming party and it is a brutally honest portrayal of an extremely human moment. Stone’s Francis is trapped behind a facade of affable relief and joy at his own homecoming, trying to remain the stoic hero, but his eyes are always melancholy. Katie Dorian gives a spirited performance as Robin, whose optimism and blithe love of life seems to both lift the more introspective others, but her light also accentuates the darkness Francis, Alice and Martin often drift into. Stewart Legere gives a beautifully poignant performance as Martin, whose genuine goodness radiates sheepish and cautiously as he finds his own ways to play and to find joy in an often dreary world.

Alex McLean makes some great directorial choices in this piece. I love how he allows Gigantik outside influences, like the music at a party or the crashing waves of the Atlantic, drown out the voices of the characters, making them small and forcing the audience to strain their ears or perhaps miss pieces of the action, as it happens so often in life. We are often dwarfed by overpowering circumstances, we are often left with no resolutions or answers and we are always imperfect. This play captures all these things while still remaining fascinating, reflective and lovely.

On Opening Night some of the projections had technical glitches and I found that while sometimes it was immediately clear what the intended effect of the projections was, for example the dialogue on the screen when the scenes grew too loud, the tiny people in the miniature houses and the way the back panels changed to evoke the change in scenery, sometimes the intention seemed less clear or superfluous. I would have liked to see more playing with the small characters within the houses- they are so beautiful and unique, I wanted them to be even more central to the way the stories unfolded. Geither’s writing is very polished. I like that he leaves gaps allowing the actors to fill in the spaces. It’s interesting to see a story about a man returning from the war in Afghanistan, which, I think so often is seen as being “someone else’s story” set immediately among us. Of course it is our story as much as it is anyone’s story and it deserves to be told. I did wonder if Robin was slightly too stereotypically “Texan,” which is interesting given that Geither is from Ohio and yet his Canadian characters are not at all clichéd.

In all, The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions is a lovely play about the smallness and the largeness and the loudness and the quiet that invade all our lives. Its poignancy is in watching the four actors care about one another in the midst of Gigantick emotions and staggering dimensions of a precarious and often cruel world, while clinging ardently to hope.

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