Theatre Review: Factory & Selfconscious Productions/We Keep Coming Back

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

Factory & Selfconscious Productions/We Keep Coming Back co-created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Nov. 14 to Nov. 25. Tickets available at 416.504.9971 or factorytheatre.ca.

 We Keep Coming Back is a chaotic production that is also absolutely compelling. As proof of the interest that the play generates, after every performance there is a discussion with the cast, and the night I attended, every member of the audience stayed for the talk.

The play is essentially a docudrama that is (mostly) true – their brackets, not mine. Co-creators Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley are drawn to the stories of real people as raw material for theatre, and these real people usually end up in the performance, even though they have no stage experience. Such is the case of We Keep Coming Back.

 As a point of background, Rubenfeld and his mother, Mary Berchard, have a difficult relationship. Berchard is the child of Holocaust survivors. Rubenfeld had the idea that if the two of them went to Poland and visited the birthplaces of her parents, this trip into family history might help bring mother and son closer together. They found Katka Reszke, their translator and guide for the trip, through a Google search, and we see her job interview via Skype. Thus the cast of We Keep Coming Back includes Rubenfeld, Berchard and Reszke, with mother and son tied together by a rope. Director Stanley does not appear in the play, but went along on the trip as cameraperson, archivist, and buffer between mother and son.

The performance itself is a mad scramble propelled by Rubenfeld’s frenetic energy. The other two are far more low key. Apparently there is no written script, the structure being a series of scenes that they perform together. Designer Trevor Schwellnus has created a bombardment of projections that include maps, diagrams, photographs, movies and drawings, many of which the cast write upon for further explanation. Several times Rubenfeld runs to fetch a ladder so he can reach the high places of the projections. A bed detaches to create two seats so it can become a car or a living area. The performance always seems to be in motion.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The plot, such as it is, goes off on many tangents, because, I surmise, there was so much the co-creators wanted to say. We of course get details of the actual trip to the two ancestral villages, as well as the harrowing pilgrimage to Auschwitz, which Berchard’s mother survived. Her father had managed to jump off one of the death trains and was found by the partisans.

An important subplot is about “generation unexpected” – present day Jews living in Poland. In many cases, such as Reszke’s family, their Jewishness was deliberately concealed and children were raised as Catholics, only to have the truth revealed in deathbed confessions. To Rubenfeld, “generation unexpected” is a revelation, including meeting the fetching Magda Koralewska from Poland at a Jewish conference in Montreal. His long-distance romance with Magda is a distraction from his commitments to his mother.

The dynamics between the three on-stage personalities is endlessly fascinating, as are their family histories. We also get philosophical discourse along the way, as well as culture clashes and stories of lives lived. Poland itself is given a kinder mantle, and we are told, for example, that there are more Poles honoured in Yad Vashem, Isreal’s Holocaust Museum, for saving Jews, than any other nation.

Rubenfeld comes across as a total jerk who is so self-absorbed in his own interpretation of events that he continually misses the bigger picture. During the post-performance discussion, he did explain that he and Stanley thought it was important to include his closed mind and constricted world view in the play. Berchard is sarcastic and funny, and castigates her son when she has to. She’s a charmer. Reszke functions as the conscience of the play, attempting to shake Rubenfeld out of his narrow vision. For a non-actor, she seems quite comfortable on the stage, as does Berchard.

Nonetheless, it is the tension and clash of ideas between Rubenfeld and the other two that provides the most food for thought. For example, in the forest near his grandmother’s village, there is large concrete slab that sits over a mass grave of 800 murdered Jews. A large tree has managed to grow through the concrete. For Rubenfeld, the dead Jews are fertilizer for the tree. The other two, and I’m sure the bulk of the audience, including myself, see that tree as something beautiful, as the triumph of life over death.

We Keep Coming Back is not a new play. It has been touring Canada and Poland for three years. Yet there are two sections that should be excised from the play forthwith, and it’s surprising that they are still there. At two points, the house lights come up and Rubenfeld asks the audience a specific question. The moments are awkward and embarrassing and add nothing to the performance. In fact, judging from some of the answers, audience members were irritated.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The first question is, should Rubenfeld use the trip to visit Magda, or should he remain committed to the promise he made to his mother that they would see Poland together. The second question is in questionable taste. Rubenfeld is arguing with Reszke about whose “Jewish” experience is more traumatic – Rubenfeld as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, or Reszke’s accidental discovery of her “fake Catholicism” and real Jewish identity? As one audience member sharply pointed out – “Should this be a win or lose situation?”

We Keep Coming Back raises significant questions about the past, present and future of Judaism and Poland, which makes the play a worthy theatrical experience. My companion and I certainly talked about the performance all the way home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dance Review: National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame (An Homage to Norman McLaren)

Dance Review: The National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame directed by Robert Lepage & choreographed by Guillaume Côté

Photo: Karolina Kuras

The world premiere of the National Ballet of Canada’s Frame by Frame left me stunned and speechless, the former due to the work’s eye-popping, even mind-boggling, visual assault on the senses, the latter because words can’t possibly capture the piece’s immense canvas of creativity. In short – Frame by Frame is a work of genius (directed by Robert Lepage and choreographed by Guillaume Côté) about a man of genius (Norman Mclaren).

The ballet is an homage to McLaren (1914-1987), the great film pioneer and founder of the animation department of The National Film Board of Canada, who made the name of the organization famous throughout the world. In fact, there is an oft-repeated belief in Hollywood circles that whoever is accepting an Oscar for best animated short subject, it is probably a Canadian.

I realize it is bad journalism for the writer to impose herself as first person into a review, but for this production, I can’t help myself. Viewing Frame by Frame is an intense personal experience. At the opening night, the bond between the stage events and the audience was so strong it was palpable. We were willing and able, so to speak. Our job was to react, and we did with enthusiastic response throughout the dance. The audience was totally alive, and I’ve never seen its like before at the ballet. We energetically clapped at the end of each scene, and tossed in whistles and whoops when we really, really liked something, not to mention our wholehearted laughter at some of the more humorous elements.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

The work itself is built around a succession of short vignettes devoted to a McLaren film, and usually highlighting one of his many collaborators. For example, we see McLaren (Jack Bertinshaw) and Evelyn Lambart (Greta Hodgkinson) portraying, in movement, their innovative technique of creating images directly on filmstrip for Begone Dull Care (1949), while behind them is projected an explosion of colours from the film. In fact, several of McLaren’s famous movies are actually recreated on stage, notably Neighbours (1952) and A Chairy Tale (1957). Some scenes also focus on McLaren’s personal life such as his relationship with his life partner, actor, director, producer Guy Glover (Félix Paquet). Clearly, this ballet has made second soloist Bertinshaw a star given his luminous performance, and the young dancer was inundated with a rousing chorus of cheers during his solo bows.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

At over two hours without an intermission, the piece is overlong, and at some point, my inner clock was telling me that Lepage needed a ruthless editor. Lepage, however, has always taken his own sweet time when it comes to showcasing his creative imagination and critics be damned. And to be truthful, just which of the divine cameos would you throw out? – and the answer is, absolutely nothing. Each of the scenes is a gem, bursting with a radiance of imagination that demands to be seen.

Lepage is one of Canada’s theatrical superstars with a world-wide following. His name is also synonymous with technology, and Frame by Frame is a tour-de-force of the astonishing images that can happen when lighting, video and projections meet live action. The play with light and shadow on a dancer’s body is eye-popping. Particularly fetching is when this production actually copies McLaren’s animation techniques and out does McLaren at his own game! At times it is even impossible to tell what is real life and what is recorded. Each vignette has its own breath-taking singularity. One prime example is the scene where NFB founder John Grierson (Tomas Shramek) meets with McLaren and Glover to invite them to join his organization. The three men are seated at a table while an overhead camera captures on a big screen their lively conversation portrayed by the patterns made by three pairs of hands. (See what I mean? These words just don’t cut it in describing the brilliance of the vignette.)

Photo: David Leclerc

Which brings us to choreographer Côté, the National’s choreographic associate, who has covered himself in glory with this ballet. His modus operandi is a combination of McLaren’s actual movement from his films and Côté’s own original steps. In the latter case, he has come up with unique movement for each vignette and there is never a hint of repetition. Completely delightful, for example, is the choreography for McLaren when he is in the throes of imagining a new animation technique. Bertinshaw’s body shimmies and shakes with supple ease while his arms twirl in circles. He is literally a whirling dervish with every part of him breathlessly alive and alert. He is the quintessential cartoon character with a light bulb over his head. Because Côté intimately knows the National’s dancers, he is able to cast judiciously, and in return, the company does him proud. In summary, Côté’s choreography is at the heart of the piece as it embraces McLaren as creator and collaborator. Solos, pas de deux, ensembles – every movement detail seems a perfect proportion of expression.

During the curtain calls, and there were many, I counted 19 performers and 13 members of the creative team. I don’t have the words to convey the triumph of the score, sets, costumes, and particularly the lighting and video designs. To do these elements justice would be an overwhelming task. Lepage always works with an army of collaborators when he is developing a new work for his Ex Machina company, and clearly, for Frame by Frame, he brought along his A-team.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

Collectively, Lepage, Côté et al. have created one of the greatest ballets ever made in Canada/fait au Canada. It is a masterpiece.

Frame by Frame, The National Ballet of Canada, directed by Robert Lepage, choreographed by Guillaume Côté, Four Seasons Centre, Jun. 1 to 10, 2018.

 

Link to Frame by Frame tickets: https://national.ballet.ca/Productions/2017-18-Season/Frame-by-Frame.

 

Theatre Review – Canadian Rep Theatre/How do I love Thee? By Florence Gibson MacDonald

how do i love thee 2 The passionate love match between Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett has been well-documented in plays like Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Virginia Woolf’s novella Flush. MacDonald’s play How do I love thee? shows us a completely different side of the couple post elopement. Barrett, it seems, was a drug addict, chained to laudanum, morphine and ether. While the drugs allowed her to give free reign to her imagination, money concerns and his wife’s addiction created a writer’s block for Browning. It is a very dark side to what has long been considered a storied romance.

MacDonald certainly has a flair for language. The first act deals with the lovers’ correspondence and meeting, and is written in an impressive heightened poetic style. The problem is, the play is overwritten, and the language itself becomes a burden, weighing down the act. If there was ever a case of less is more, it is the first act of this play. It doesn’t help that the actors seem to be all on one note.

how do i love thee 1The second act, however, is compelling theatre as the relationship begins to unravel. MacDonald has provided many opportunities for mood changes which create the rising tension and conflict so necessary to fashion good theatre. Apparently the play has been extensively re-written since its debut in Calgary in 2010, and it would be interesting to see that script in light of this production. Was it less is more?

Where the play excels is in its theatrical values. The cast is superb – Irene Poole as Elizabeth, Matthew Edison as Robert, Nora McLellan as Elizabeth’s maid Wilson, and David Schurmann as Elizabeth’s cousin John who is also a patron of the arts. Poole, in particular, gives a performance of a lifetime as the troubled Elizabeth with her rollercoaster up/down existence. She is truly one of this country’s greatest actors. Edison’s changeover from passionate lover to conventional husband is deftly executed, while old pros McLellan and Schurmann play their secondary roles with taste and refinement.

how do i love thee 3Ken Gass’ direction moves seamlessly through the shifting scenes and time progressions. He has been particularly clever in the first act as the couple recite their letters to each other, criss-crossing through designer Shawn Kerwin’s clever set using the same writing table and chaise lounge in a choreography of near misses.

The play is certainly interesting material. It just needs a good editor to pare down the first act.

(How do I love thee? runs at the Berkeley Theatre Upstairs until Feb. 22.)