His Greatness: The Brilliant Daniel MacIvor’s New Show.

daniel macivor

I don’t need to tell you that Daniel MacIvor is a brilliant playwright. As the former co-artistic director of da da kamera, renowned playwright of plays like You Are Here, The Soldier Dreams and In On It, writer and performer in an array of one-man shows such as Monster, Here Lies Henry and Cul-de-sac, screenwriter, actor, director, artist, MacIvor has been an international theatre sensation since before I started kindergarten.

If you are given the opportunity to attend a reading of a new Daniel MacIvor play, especially a reading where Daniel MacIvor himself will be in attendance, you should always jump at the chance. That is how a friend and I came to take a little road trip from Toronto to Stratford, Ontario to see a reading of MacIvor’s new play His Greatness.

There are certain things that one comes to expect when he or she sees a Daniel MacIvor show, a meta-theatrical array of flashes into the lives of cleverly intersected characters whose stories- witty, poignant, poetic and uncouth- layer one on top of the other to create a theme or image all-encompassing, messy, contradictory, raw, extraordinary. Each play is remarkably different and yet, somehow there is a shared thread that links them to this one man. His Greatness takes Daniel MacIvor in an entirely different direction.

The play was inspired by Canadian theatre folklore surrounding Tennessee Williams’ early 1980s visit to Vancouver to premiere his latest work. Grounded in history with an element of almost “kitchen sink” realism, Daniel MacIvor beautifully leaps (some would say backwards) into a different form of storytelling. The result is an insightful look at what constitutes “greatness” and what happens when talent, loyalty and beauty fade away.

Even in a reading, without costumes or sets, props or staging, simply watching actors standing and reading from scripts on music stands, MacIvor’s words and his story came to life. His characters are perfectly crafted: the aging playwright fading into obscurity dependent on drugs and male escorts to kindle his vitality, his neurotic assistant whose obsessive monitoring of the playwright’s world smothers him away and the charming young man with his naïve pursuit for fairness. Together they create a gripping threesome of opposing desire, truths, principles, and perspectives. The audience spends the play falling in and out of synch with each of them.

At the Stratford reading, four actors gave beautiful, subtle performances. Richard Monette, the Festival’s Artistic Director, transformed into a pained, clumsily gallant Tennessee Williams. Steve Cumyn’s Assistant was performed with brilliant clarity and precision and Allan Hawco gave a beautiful performance as the charming male escort with an unexpected heart of gold.

Near the end of the play, the Young Man asks the playwright why critics have such power over the success or demise of a play. It’s a question I’ve asked myself again and again. If I tell you that having seen this play performed without all the technicalities that usually constitute a show it was still one of the most exciting and fascinating pieces of theatre I have ever seen, will that cause the lot of you to jump on an airplane to attend the premiere, fully staged version of this play at the Arts Club Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver? The playwright tells the Young Man that the theatre is his church and art is his god. MacIvor has said that he believes this as well, and so do I. Like any other church, I shouldn’t have the power to make or break someone’s beliefs, someone’s dreams, and yet I take so much pride in sitting in my own humble pulpit- a laptop on a desk on a blog on the Internet- to spread the word about the magic I witness, the experiences that fill me with light and love and hope and faith. His Greatness was one such moment.

His Greatness by Daniel MacIvor runs at the Arts Club Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver until November 10th, 2007. Granville Island Stage. 1585 Johnston Street. Call 604 687-1644 or visit http://www.artsclub.com/ for tickets.

Four Vocal Powerhouses. One Edgy Show.

sara farb & eric craig

Like most musicals of the past decade Pasek and Paul’s show is reminiscent of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World and The Last Five Years. The music feels current, it’s catchy, yet strikingly beautiful, and it flies, belts and rocks to the very end. What sets edges apart distinctly is that its target audience seems to be the twenty- something crowd- a group poised on the brink of continual massive shifts in their worlds as they try to figure out which path to take, where to go, what to do and how to do it. There are few answers on this road to self-discovery, but the questions, the issues, the experiences seem to unite the entire room in an instant.

Man #1 sings: “I’m only working at this Pizza Hut to pay my way through college.” Woman #1 and Woman #2 sing: “I wish I had my sister back, my stupid, ugly sister back” and in those two lines the audience has recognized this journey of awkward connection and insecure decisions- that moment when we really don’t know who we are.

Producers Sara Farb and Gabi Epstein have set their production of edges up as a staged reading to give their audience an introduction to Pasek and Paul’s charming show with the intention of developing it further. The reading feels like a well-rehearsed piece, the performances are electrifying, heartfelt, poignant, and leave the actors charmingly vulnerable, a sensation many musicals don’t have the courage to explore.

Jordan Bell’s eyes frequently sparkle- the emotional journey of his character ignited with enthusiasm and tenderness. He has one of those beautiful voices that make audiences wish they could curl up inside it and have it wash over them like a blanket. Eric Craig shines especially in the wildly funny “In Short” which shows off not only the breadth of his acting talents but also the range of his beautiful voice. Gabi Epstein, with her gorgeous belty voice and delightfully expressive face, is especially heart wrenching as the young Haley who grieves her older sister’s entry into adolescence. Sara Farb, with a voice I would liken to a young Idina Menzel, radiates a mixture of joy and pride which she infuses into each song perfectly. The keyboard played by Reza Jacobs is flawless and fittingly animated, as well as the percussion played by Jamie Drake.

One of the most interesting things about attending a reading of any sort is the fact that the actors drift in and out of themselves, and therefore it is easy to catch glimpses of something real amongst the songs and the characters and the stage. As intrigued as we are about actors and theatre, what tends to be more captivating is the curtain call, the blooper, that shining moment of truth among artifice. Watching the actors watch one another with their smiles, and shining, supportive eyes, it is clear how much this show was a labour of love to produce. The audience leaps to its feet and applauds steadily, the actors look sheepish- almost surprised- this project they care so much about has exceeded their expectations. That is a truly lovely and rare thing to bear witness to onstage.

Jordan Bell, Eric Craig, Gabi Epstein, Sara Farb. Write their names down. I expect that we will hear great things from them in the future. And for now, there’s always Facebook.

Gaze and Look: Seeing What We Want to See in The Elephant Man

geraint wyn davies, brent carver & kate trotter

There is a moment in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man when Dr. Frederick Treves begins to shout about the restrictive, repressing Victorian culture that has them all ensnared. While sitting in the newly renovated Bluma Appel Theatre watching the Canadian Stage Company’s production of this play I felt very much like I had been transported into a Victorian theatre. I felt as though I was watching the characters from a privileged and distanced point of view, but it was restricted and contorted, like a body in a corset, and I wasn’t able to break free from constant manipulation to just sit down and bear witness to a simple, pure, human relationship.

Everything in Victorian England was about pretenses, allusions and proper form. As an audience member watching this performance I didn’t get caught up in messy emotional connections or involvement, which turned the performance into something slightly exhibitionist. The play focused a great deal on the idea of the gaze, the way different members of society saw this disabled man, John Merrick, and how they shaped him, civilized him and turned him into something that could be seen and accepted. In 2007, we are automatically set up to be judgmental of the treatment suffered by outsiders in the past and we are often haughty in our conviction that we are better than our ancestors. There are also layers to the goldfish bowl effect. All the characters are judged in this way, and Brent Carver, who gives a riveting performance as Merrick, is watched with awe and wonder as he contorts his body and transforms almost magically from man to “elephant man” before our eyes.
The play itself has a striking lack of conflict, and therefore the audience has to shift its focus to critical thinking about relationships and themes rather than waiting to get swept into the action.
Of course, this Victorian distance runs the risk of alienating its audience to the point of them not caring about the characters or the story being told. The lovely moments of connection between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal (played beautifully by Kate Trotter) are the threads upon which the audience’s emotional investment hang. It is a pity that Mrs. Kendal does not remain onstage throughout the latter half of the show.
The direction by Robin Phillips seems as uncivilized and unshaped as the atmosphere is controlled and stifled. I hesitate to attempt to ‘civilize’ it by creating order for myself by calling this a “choice”. The use of song, projected photographs and masks each seems like an underdeveloped idea, which clutters the overall vision of the show. At the same time, Geraint Wyn Davies’ performance as Frederick Treves does not seem to follow a journey that justifies a break down in the second act. That said, as a form for a superior, distanced audience to voyeuristically watch and scrutinize human behavior, Phillips’ direction works well for fostering debate.
In 2007 do we really need another story that rallies the audience around an outcast and didactically reiterates the Dr. Seussism “a person’s a person no matter how {you fill in the blank]”? Is The Elephant Man at Canadian Stage trying to do something else here? Has it succeeded? Spending two hours in an emotional corset, The Elephant Man raised more questions than it solved- maybe the tension wasn’t supposed to be in the play, but in the sense of unfinished business that permeates our superiority and follows us home from the theatre.
The Canadian Stage Company’s The Elephant Man runs until November 3rd, 2007 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street. For tickets call 416 368-3110 or visit http://www.canstage.com/

Crowds Roar and Shout for More as DanCap’s Drowsy Shows Off

andrea chamberlain & company

Whether the flashy conventions of the Great White Way cause your heart to sing or groan, The Drowsy Chaperone uses the guise of musical theatre to present a comedy that overtly makes fun of its own stereotypes and dose of extra cheese. The making of the musical has become part of Broadway folklore as in its original form it was staged as a wedding present for Second City performers Bob Martin and Janet Van de Graaff, naming the two lead characters after the bride and groom. Seeing its potential, Bob Martin immediately became involved in creating this pastiche on musicals of the 1920s that they all loved. Martin’s role developed into the show’s narrator Man in Chair, a role he plays with absolute perfection and charming candor in the DanCap production, having played the role on Broadway (he won a 2006 Tony Award for the book of the show), at the Toronto Fringe, Theatre Passe Muraille and the Winter Garden Theatre. Martin’s dialogue with the audience is current, witty and appears totally spontaneous as though the entire theatre has been invited into his flat to partake in a ritual envisioning of his favourite musical. Within seconds, Martin has captivated the theatre and drawn it seamlessly into his imagination.

Man in Chair’s comedy exists on two levels. For those in the audience who sit on their own chairs with cast albums, tap dancers and monkeys on pedestals, each passionate burst of emotion and excitement resonates with charming-and sometimes sheepish- truth. For those who don’t identify with this erratic neurotic man, his antics are so hilarious that a worn-out CD of Cats is not required to “get it”.

Stepping into the role made famous by Tony award winner Sutton Foster is Andrea Chamberlain, who does not disappoint as Janet Van De Graaff. She captures with grace and poise the 1920s ingénue whose charm captures the sensual duality of the innocent girl next door and the daring, cart-wheeling, high kicking “modern woman.” Nancy Opel plays The Drowsy Chaperone fraught with delicious tributes to Merman, Garland and Minnelli, as she weaves layers in her performance of the distinguished Broadway actress masquerading as a role she loosely plays in a persona on a stage in a musical. Other memorable performances include the brilliant Vaudevillian performances by the identical duo Paul and Peter Riopelle and the dithering, spittaking Mrs. Tottendale played by the brilliantly funny Georgia Engel.

The Drowsy Chaperone has everything a good musical glorifies, exactly what real life can’t provide, a world filled with music, dance, and joy where things just seem to fall into place. Man in Chair, like the director’s commentary on a DVD, undercuts it- injecting the perfect amount of cynicism to thrust the show into today’s jaded world, while still keeping the charm of the perfect happy ending we’re still longing for in reality.

The Drowsy Chaperone plays at the Elgin Theatre until October 14th. For tickets either visit http://www.dancaptickets.com/, or call 416 644-3665.

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