Theatre Review: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – Gertrude and Alice, conceived & created by The Independent Aunties

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Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

It might seem self-serving that Evalyn Parry, the artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, has opened up the 40th anniversary season (“40 Years of Queer”) with her own play, but when a vehicle is brilliant, I say flaunt it. Gertrude and Alice was a giant hit in 2016 and is always welcome.

The play about long time lovers Gertrude Stein (Parry) and Alice B. Toklas (Anna Chatterton) was written by Parry and Chatterton, and dramaturged and directed by Karin Randoja. The three women come together from time to time to make theatre projects under the umbrella name (which I love) of The Independent Aunties. In fact, the eight members of the creative team are all women, which is just terrific from my point of view. (The others are Sherri Hay, set design; Michelle Ramsay, lighting; Ming Wong, costumes; Aleda Deroche, sound; and Christina Cicko, stage management.)

But back to the play. It seems that Gertrude and Alice have come back from the dead to tell their real story. Gertrude, in particular, wants to know if her books are still being read (and is quite dismayed to find out how few in the audience have tackled her canon). The bleacher seating is on two sides with the action in the middle, and so it is an intimate encounter between Gertrude, Alice and us. The audience has also been given a wonderful, annotated souvenir cahier of the timeline of their lives that is absolutely worth keeping.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The sheer brilliance of the play is the very sophisticated script. As well as their original dialogue, writers Parry and Chatterton have incorporated the words of Stein and Toklas from their books, and it is this fusion of the actual and the imagined that allows the real women to emerge. Clearly, their research has been monumental. The dynamic between the two characters is palpable, and the acting absolutely believable. We also get to hear about all their famous friends who frequented their Paris salons such as Picasso and Hemingway (who was apparently a pill). The modern art collection that Gertrude amassed is like another character in the play.

In the case of Stein, her famous (or infamous) circular, repetitive, elliptical “play on words” and bizarre punctuation (or lack thereof), that mirror the construction of a modernist painting, is first and foremost in her dialogue, and many of her most famous quotes make an appearance (“There is no there there”; A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose). We also get a cogent explanation from Gertrude herself about her literary philosophy, in particular, her desire to smash down the very conventions of what constitutes good writing. (“Commas are servile”.) Parry swans around the stage like a queen, sporting her short-cropped hair, cocooned in her padded costume to give her figure girth, her rich, plummy, affected voice filling the stage with grandeur.

Chatterton’s Alice, replete with the famous moustache, funny “s” sounds, humped shoulders, and servile walk, is there as Stein’s apologist, and to set the record straight when Stein veers off course. Her devotion to Gertrude is the focal point of her life. She even converted to Catholicism because that religion embraces an afterlife, and she wanted to join Gertrude in death. (Jews don’t have that belief.) Chatterton, however, never portrays Alice as weak. She is as strong as Gertrude in her own way, and is capable of a dogged feistiness when needed. After Gertrude’s death, Alice manages to fill the stage in her own right.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

There have been two important changes from the initial production. Contemporary artist Sherri Hay has crafted a series of colourful, whimsical sculptures and mobiles that festoon the stage and represent the art collection. These pieces also contain surprises. Lift up one, and Alice’s cooking ingredients are revealed; lift up another, and it is her typewriter. They also have parts that twist off and become a cup, for example, or a funnel that releases the sands of time. The second innovation is that dramaturge/director Randoja has composed a score that literally accompanies the play. At times it is cinematic, a burbling, gurgling electronica backdrop that fits the eccentric natures of the women exactly. Randoja also uses the music for emphasis. Strong chords, for example, underline Gertrude’s declamations.

In short, sometimes all the theatrical elements align to create perfection, and such is Gertrude and Alice. Bravo Parry for bringing back the production.

Gertrude and Alice, written by Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry, directed by Karin Randoja, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Sept. 15 to Oct. 7, tickets 416-975-8555 or buddiesinbadtimes.com.

Dance Preview: Catching up with Matjash Mrozewski – the choreographer/director has two premieres

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Introduction to Matjash Mrozewski

The next two weeks feature two Mrozewski premieres. Future Perfect Continuous, created with Anna Chatterton, (ProArteDanza, Nov. 1-4), and Abiding, a solo for Evelyn Hart (Older & Reckless, Nov. 10 & 11).

Mrozewski graduated from the National Ballet School in 1993. During his career as a dancer, he performed with the National Ballet of Canada, Le Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, and Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Early on he had shown a penchant for choreography, and his promise was revealed in the widely acclaimed A Delicate Battle created for the National Ballet of Canada in 2001. That year he stopped dancing, and given his enormous gifts as a dancesmith, it was expected that he would launch a successful international career. The proof lies in his creations for over 13 ballet companies that span the globe. He also choreographed for films, flash mobs, galas, classical music concerts and musicals. The road ahead seemed very clear – a lauded career as an international choreographer.

While the dance pathway is still very much in his life, Mrozewski has also added a new skill set. In 2016, he graduated from the two-year York University/Canadian Stage MFA program, whose focus is large-scale theatre direction. Subsequently, he has directed Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors in High Park, and Jordan Tannahill’s Botticelli in the Fire, which won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Production, and netted Mrozewski an Outstanding Direction nomination, which joins his two Dora nominations for Outstanding Choreography.

Mrozewski’s world premieres for ProArteDanza and Older & Reckless, which debut over the next two weeks, reflect both his choreographic and theatrical hats. (Note: in the next few months, he also has new dance and/or theatre pieces for Ryerson University, George Brown Theatre School, the George Randolph Academy, and a Secret Shakespeare performance.)

The Interview (where upon Mrozewski, now 41, talks about his MFA and his two new pieces).

Let’s begin with your going back to school. That was a big bite of two years out of your life.

I had been a dance professional for 20 years, but at that point, I felt I needed to take stock of where I was in my career. I needed different challenges. I had a hunger to learn something new – to step away from the obvious track. A lot of needs were colliding together, and the MFA program seemed to provide a solution.

Why stage direction?

I had always had an instinct for text, and I felt that this MFA course would put me in touch with the tools I needed to work with language and dramaturgy – to develop my theatrical side. It would also open doors to the worlds of theatre and opera. My main motive was a desire to become an opera director – it still remains a strong interest.

How different was it to work with actors?

I love working with actors, because I really enjoy analyzing text. With dancers, you guide them from the outside. With actors, you give them clues to manifest ideas internally. Words are concrete and can get to the heart of things, while movement deals with abstract states. When I started the MFA program, my eye was strong but my ear was weak. The greatest lesson I learned was how to lift the text off the page – to develop a point of view about what the playwright is trying to say. I was clear in my mind on the “why” of the text, but I had to learn to articulate these thoughts in words.

Your ProArte piece, Future Perfect Continuous, is certainly text driven, which is a departure for the company.

Artistic director Roberto Campanello wanted to push his dancers in new directions, and he thought they were ready for that kind of stretch – the marriage of text and movement. In truth, the performing arts are all playing in the same zone. The walls are blurring between the disciplines, and I had been moving in this direction. A recent work I did for the National Ballet School included a long spoken monologue, while a new piece for Ballet Kelowna used the dancers’ voices.

How did you come to work with playwright/librettist Anna Chatterton on Future? She’s a really creative force in both the theatre and opera worlds.

A mutual friend suggested her, and I saw her work Quiver at Buddies. She’s certainly very versatile. We met for dumplings and really got along. In our first workshop, it was inspiring to watch Anna toss around language and text.

What is your point of departure for the piece?

Anna and I started with a discussion about the future – what in our lives were we most concerned about? For both of us, the question was, how do hope and optimism cope with denial and ignorance? We discovered that the place of hope was high in both our lives. It was important, however, that we not make the work a lecture. The dancers are not on a soapbox. We wanted to leave room for the audience to reflect on the subject, to relate to the dancers in their feelings of frustration and inadequacy, to think about the concerns we raise. Things are not tied up neatly.

 

Just how much text do the eight dancers have to deal with?

 

It’s 35 minutes long, and contains about 25 minutes of spoken word, which includes monologues and conversations. The dancers are really meeting the challenge of moving and talking. The audience is going to need their ears opened as much as their eyes to catch what they’re listening to.

What’s the choreography like?

It’s not classical dance, but there is still formality in the structure. It’s very physical – ritual-like gesture, floor work, contact partnering. It’s fluid, responsive and quite earthy.

What about Anna’s text?

The dancers are seen working out their frustrations about the future in both rage and hope. As the size of the problems facing them grows, the text descends into doubt and vagueness and incomplete sentences. It’s very human. It’s about life. There is also humour, which is one of Anna’s trademarks.

Did you fit in music with the text?

The underscore is an orchestral version of songs by the alternative British rock supergroup Minor Victories.

Let’s talk about your Older & Reckless piece for the great ballerina Evelyn Hart, although in terms of dance, she’s a senior citizen.

Claudia Moore, O & R’s artistic director, wanted Evelyn on the program, and she thought of me as choreographer. Like Evelyn, I’ve had the experience of ups and downs. The solo is a character study of a woman of a certain age, which utilizes Evelyn’s remarkable skill as a dramatic actress. I’ve set it to a luminous Handel aria.

Is Evelyn still a perfectionist? She used to demand a lot from her choreographers and dance partners.

We spent ten hours in a rehearsal room, meeting once a week. Dancers are trained to make choreography work, but with Evelyn, if something didn’t fit right, we fixed it. She’s very organic, quiet, delicate and powerful. Abiding is about her in this moment. Because it’s a piece for Older & Reckless, time has a bearing.

ProArteDanza, Fleck Dance Theatre (Nov. 1-4); Older & Reckless #40, Harbourfront Centre Theatre (Nov. 10 and 11); both shows are part of Harbourfront’s Next Steps Season (www.harbourfrontcentre.com/nextsteps).