Theatre Review – The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré

I’ve coined a word for the US equivalent of Eurotrash, and that is Amerijunk. (FYI, the Canadian epithet is Canacrap.) Unfortunately, Amerijunk best describes the World Stage presentation with the ungainly title of The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré. (Apparently there were issues with the Williams estate over the production.)

I have long been an admirer of New York-based Wooster. The collective has always been in the forefront of multimedia and theatrical experimentation, and certainly deserves its vaunted reputation. Does Vieux Carré show a tired organization out of fresh ideas? Maybe.

Vieux Carré is one of Williams’ later plays. It is, sort of, the sequel to The Glass Menagerie. Think of the character of Tom as leaving St. Louis to go to New Orleans where he will confront himself as a writer, and more importantly, as a homosexual. Williams, in fact, went to New Orleans in the 1930s, and lived in a boarding house at 722 Rue Toulouse, the actual address where the play is set. Presumably, his characters were inspired by the eccentric collection of fellow boarders in this mean streets French Quarter slum. Williams began writing Vieux Carré in the late 1930s but didn’t complete it until 40 years later. In 1977, Vieux Carré opened on Broadway and lasted five performances.

This is another of Williams’ memory plays, so we have a narrator called The Writer (Ari Fliakos). Wooster deals with the large cast by having three actors play two roles, while several others appear by video. The venerable Kate Valk is both the paranoid landlady Mrs. Wire, and runaway, middle class artist Jane Sparks. Scott Shepherd portrays both Nightingale, an aging, gay, lascivious portraitist who takes a strong interest in the Writer, and Tye, Jane’s druggie, bouncer boyfriend. Daniel Pettrow is both the orgy-obsessed Photographer, and the elusive tenant Sky. Kaneza Schaal is Mrs. Wire’s long-suffering housemaid Nursie. Via video, Alan Boyd Kleiman plays both Mary Maude and Miss Carrie, two old lady boarders who are starving to death. Daniel Jackson, Andrew Schneider, Casey Spooner and Ben Williams are minor characters, either live or otherwise.

The later plays of Williams have always been considered lesser vessels in relation to his early classics. They are now, however, coming under revision, and are being mined for the insights they contain by a senior artist. Many scholars now see these plays as standing in their own right, and not merely as the undisciplined ramblings of an old man. Certainly Wooster deserves credit for breathing life into this rarity. My quarrel is with how the Wooster version plays out.

With no intermission, this two hour play is an endless, perhaps, even mindless, bore. The legendary director Elizabeth LeCompte, as suzerain over the creation as a whole, has to take the hit. There is no listed set or costume designer.

First, the set looks like a deranged child’s mechano set with pullies and wires running every which way, not to mention TV screens scattered hither and yon showing both livecam and pre-recorded images. The screens are also hard to see. The playing area consists of several raised platforms covered in detritus. Occasionally, text appears on the back wall, either repeats of what is being spoken, or new text entirely. The technical crew, bathed in garish green light is onstage at the back. What one gets is a chaotic jumble of visual ideas that translate into no meaningful metaphor. One image does stand-out amid the mess, however, and that is Nursie’s face being shown as a cartoon Aunt Jemima figure when actor Shaal puts her head behind the TV screen.

The costumes, presumably chosen by the collective, are modelled on the current trend of dress the characters as personalities, rather than as period correct. So, we get Nightingale sporting a large phallus emerging from his lady-like dressing gown. The near-naked Writer wears a black leather jock thong with various leather strap adornments, and carries a computer keyboard. Mrs. Wire is in a blowsy robe and long ringlets. And so on down the line. And then there is the over-used burst of static sound/light dim-cum-flicker, that follows so-called key lines declaimed by some character or other, or to demarcate the end of scenes. Irritating doesn’t begin to describe how one feels about this all too frequent theatrical device by play’s end.

The gifted Shepherd gives the best performances. His tubercular Nightingale is a soft-spoken, seductive siren who portrays weakness as strength, while the enigmatic Tye is dazed and confused in the truest sense of the word. At all times his portrayals are subtlely nuanced while being clear and precise at the same time. Valk’s Jane is sensitive and intense, but her Mrs. Wire is an overblown caricature spouting an impenetrable mush of words. Fliakos, perhaps the most important character, mails in his performance. He is an absolute monotone bordering on comatose. His main purpose is to pose like a stud in a porno magazine – presumably a metaphor for his new found homosexuality – but over two hours, he becomes a talentless, one trick pony.

Same old, same old? It’s sad to think of the Wooster Group descending into “Damn the torpedoes and art for art’s sake!” (if one can pardon the mixed metaphor). Vieux Carré could be a lot more interesting with less clutter.

The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, Harbourfront World Stage, (featuring Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk, Daniel Jackson, Alan Boyd Kleinman, Daniel Pettrow and Andrew Schneider, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte), Fleck Dance Theatre, Mar. 28 to 31, 2012.






Dance Review (Reprint) – Wayne McGregor|Random Dance/Entity

This review of Wayne McGregor’s Entity originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Feb. 8, 2011. The performance took place at the Grand Theatre in Kingston ON before moving on to Ottawa and Montreal.

Entity is back in Canada, appearing at the Fleck Dance Theatre as part of Harbourfront World Stage, Feb. 28 to Mar. 3, 2012.

England’s Wayne McGregor, and his company Random Dance, produce works of immense depth, and his fusion of dance and technology have made him one of Europe’s hottest choreographers. McGregor’s intriguing full-length piece Entity (2008) is currently on a three-city Canadian tour, and contemporary dance doesn’t get more sophisticated than this.

Entity is a quintessential example of McGregor’s intellectual and artistic inquiry. On one hand, he’s fascinated by dance as science, or how the mind and body work together to produce movement. On the other, cold experimentation goes hand in hand with images of stunning beauty.

McGregor sets his thesis right from the start with a grainy movie of a running dog, which looks like an experiment from the work of motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. The dog is an entity, a body viewed in the abstract, and so are the bodies of the 10 dancers that follow. Through a series of solos, duets and ensembles, they are entities moving through space. The way McGregor works the body, and combinations of bodies, however, is a fascinating process.

But Entity is not just cool science. Abstract though his movement is, little stories seem to be happening to individuals, to couples and to larger groups of dancers. The humanity of the entities cannot be suppressed. The movement is also living sculpture, beautiful in its conception and striking in its visual impact.

McGregor’s signature is a body that seemingly has no rigid interior structure. In the Q&A that followed the performance, words such as double-jointed, boneless and extreme were used in an attempt to describe McGregor’s physical calling card.

The basic McGregor body, with a nod to Bob Fosse, has the shoulders back, the chest and pelvis thrust forward, with the deep concave arch of the spine raising the buttocks to almost impossible heights. The limbs pivot through the sockets at unbelievable angles. Movement travels through the body as fluid waves. No matter how distorted the position, the body is always limber and supple. Nothing jars the lyrical flow.

In terms of partnering, bodies combine in such convoluted ways that often, one can’t discern which limbs belong to which dancer. In trios and larger groupings, the individual actions of the dancers become almost impenetrable. The quicksilver physical changes are a kaleidoscope that moves too quickly to allow the eye to rest on one detail for any length of time.

Hand in hand with the movement are the visuals. The digital video of Ravi Deepres is projected on a curved mesh screen designed by Patrick Burnier. Burnier’s costumes begin as unisex white T-shirts and black briefs. In the latter stages of the dance, the men are bare-chested while the women wear black halters. This increased exposure of flesh becomes the landscape for Lucy Carter’s arresting lighting.

The mostly black and white videos are fleeting abstracts of algebra equations, bar codes, DNA spirals and microscopic cells. Numbers hurl by at dizzying speed. Mathematical calculations and laboratory specimens are superimposed upon one another to blur the focus. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of body parts. The tools of hard science have been rendered into video art that is beautiful in and of itself.

The original music by Joby Talbot and Jon Hopkins is very dramatic, more cinematic soundscape than dance accompaniment. Whether edgy electronica, melancholy strings, lyrical pastorals, or nerve-wracking scratchings, the score is always atmospheric and evocative.

In the finale of the dance, the image of the running dog returns, but this time we look at the entity differently because of McGregor’s choreography. We can isolate the rippling muscles, see the gorgeous symmetry of the legs in motion, and be aware of the effortless beauty of a body pushed to the extreme.

(Wayne McGregor|Random Dance appears at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Feb. 28 to Mar. 3, as part of Harbourfront World Stage.)

A New Addition to the Website – Interviews

I’ve now introduced interviews into the mix on my website. The first interviewee is Harbourfront’s Tina Rasmussen, artistic director of World Stage. Please click on Interviews. Tina was most gracious in talking about this all important international theatre and dance series.

I feel the interviews give the right tone of gravitas to the website. They are also wonderful backgrounders to Canada’s performing arts.


Review of Everything Under the Moon (Harbourfront Centre World Stage)

Just in time for Family Day, World Stage kicked off with, Everything Under the Moon, a collaboration between Toronto visual artist Shary Boyle and Winnipeg composer Christine Fellows.

You know a show has hit the mark with children when they are absolutely quiet, and both the younger and older members of the sold-out audience sat in rapt attention. On the other hand, the little girl behind me asked her father: “What are they flying off to find?” In other words, Everything Under the Moon has a lot to recommend it, but there are also problems in clarity.

Told through song and shadow puppets, the story is about Idared, a honeybee, and Limbertwig, a little brown bat, and their joint quest for a way to save their species. (The story is ripped right out of environmental headlines. Apparently both honeybees and brown bats have been disappearing since 2006.) Unfortunately, because the ideas are expressed in song, the message of the plot is muddy. I didn’t have problems following the stages of the quest, but I did have trouble as to the why of it. There has to be an introduction of some sort to state the case, as it were.

Fellows’ music is charming and gentle, with beautiful harmony. The composer (keyboard, ukulele) did most of the singing, supported by Alex McMaster (cello, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, keyboards) and Ed Reifel (percussion, vocals). Fellows does not have the best voice in the world, but it is pleasant and heartfelt nonetheless.

Boyle’s images are a delight, whimsical and humorous by turn. They employ all manner of shadow puppetry –stick, projected images and human body etc. – against a riot of colour. This variety lets the imagination fly, and the characters that the honeybee and bat meet on their quest, including a chain-smoking Inuit trapper, a woolly mammoth, and an ancient Inca sacrificial child, are never clones. Each has its own look. However, the performers (including Boyle’s two assistants, Emma Letki and Amy Siegel) were decked out in some kind of indeterminate creature costume by Heather Goodchild that had no definition.

Alas, there was no director, and the performance could have used an outside eye to help with comings and goings. Fellows, for example, would disappear behind a monitor from time to time. We heard her voice, but didn’t see her, which made no sense at all.

There is certainly a show in Everything Under the Moon. It just needs refinement. It is clear, however, that the children were entranced by the visual images, and lulled by the pretty music.

Everything Under the Moon, created and performed by Shary Boyle and Christine Fellows, Harbourfront Centre World Stage, Enwave Theatre, Feb. 18 to 23, 2012.

An Interview with Tina Rasmussen

Tina Rasmussen is director of performing arts, and artistic director of World Stage at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. In the latter case, she walks a fine line programming Canadian and international artists for one of Toronto’s premiere series.

Calgary-born, Rasmussen graduated from the University of Alberta in Edmonton with a degree in theatre, winning the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts Gold Medal. She worked at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre and Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company before coming to Harbourfront. Independent of Harbourfront, she runs Culture Shark, a small artist development and special projects atelier. Rasmussen is a frequent member of international arts juries and panels.

With the opening of World Stage on Saturday, Feb. 18, sat down with Rasmussen for a wide-ranging discussion including the raison d’être behind her WS programming.

Your first job put you right into the big league.

That’s right. I joined Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre both as an actor and a general management intern. Iconic director Robin Phillips was head of the company and it was exciting times.

How did you get to Toronto?

At the Citadel, I met Albert Schultz. Albert needed an assistant to help out with his various projects so I drove across Canada in 1994. When I arrived in Toronto, I didn’t know anyone. I helped Albert and the other 11 charter members to start Soulpepper. I always said that there were really 14 founders of Soulpepper, with me and producer Diane Quinn being the extra two. We were in the background, but we did a lot of work. It was a tumultuous experience.

But you left Soulpepper a few years later.

Albert was a one-man show. It was Diane who encouraged me to get out from behind his shadow. I joined Harbourfront in 1999, and I haven’t looked back. At first I was on a six month contract, but I became full time in order to assist Don Shipley, then manager of performing arts. That included working on World Stage 2000. I also helped Bill Boyle, Harbourfront CEO, to produce World Leaders: A Festival of Creative Genius in 2001 which honoured 14 cultural icons such as Harold Pinter, Pina Bausch and Bernardo Bertolucci. You could say I was at the right place at the right time.

There was a lot of disappointed when Harbourfront dropped the international dance series.

Dance was one of our signature series, but it was a matter of money. The performing arts are very expensive, particularly when tickets are subsidized to keep down the cost. We ultimately decided to merge dance into World Stage. Harbourfront is an entrepreneurial enterprise. It was a way of tightening our belts. Remember, in 2005, we lost the du Maurier money when tobacco advertising was banned.

The World Stage that exists now went through various phases.

Yes. When the crisis of 2005 happened, we did a SWOT analysis – that means an in-depth look at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats –  to determine the future of World Stage. In the meantime, we mounted a bridge festival in 2005 called Flying Solo featuring one-person shows. That was the last of the original format World Stage that was strictly theatre and tightly programmed. The new World Stage that emerged in 2007, modelled after BAM’s Next Wave festival, was a multidisciplinary season that ran from September to May. Now it runs from February to May. In experimenting with the model, it was decided that the shorter season was better in terms of marketing. It’s now an international performing arts series, much like Festival d’Automne in Paris, or London’s Barbican Bites.

You were appointed director of performing arts 8 years ago. What special qualities do you bring to the job?

I have an incredible love of artists. For me the performing arts are all about the artists and their work. I understand their struggles. I also realize that Harbourfront is a big institution with a brand, so I see myself as bringing the two together – Harbourfront and the artists.

But love of the arts is not enough to hold a prestigious performing arts position.

That true. You need other assets. First, I’m not resistant to change. Secondly, I am culturally curious. I’m always on the look out for the new and the different. I travel to see a lot of shows, and I also search the internet. In a way, I don’t have a life outside the job. I’m known for sending my staff emails at 4 in the morning.

What is your mantra in terms of programming?

I don’t believe in themes. I compare programming to building with fragrances, and World Stage is an amalgam of perfumes. I’m interested in work that starts a conversation, that’s stimulating for both audiences and artists, with a judicious balance between theatre and dance. I also have to work around our specific facilities. I choose local and Canadian companies that are ready to be programmed within an international cultural context. Commissioning original work is also important. Programming is not just taking pieces at will. I’d say our choices are thoughtful and considered, but not mainstream. We exercise out muscles here. We take chances.

I understand that World Stage is more than just performance.

That’s right. Because we are a permanent site, we can have a long-term relationship with artists. That’s one of Harbourfront’s strengths. There is a lot going on behind the scenes in terms of nurturing and mentoring. Besides working on development of local talent, we invite presenters to Harbourfront so that Canadian artists can create an international profile through touring. We can change their lives.

How would you describe World Stage as a totality?

Inviting. Cheeky. Personal. Evangelical. And conceived with love.

(What follows is Rasmussen’s rationale for choosing the eight shows that make up this year’s World Stage. As she says: “There is so much choice, that it’s exciting to create the program.”)

Everything Under the Moon, Canada (Feb. 18 to 23)

This was designed to be a family show and is a wonderfully imaginative cross-discipline collaboration between visual artist Shary Boyle and composer Christine Fellows. We’ve had an eye on these artists and their magical works for a while. This was a Fresh Ground new works commission.

Entity – Wayne McGregor|Random Dance, England (Feb. 28 to Mar. 3)

McGregor is one of the hottest choreographers in the world right now. The National Ballet had a huge hit when they first presented Chroma, and the fact that they are remounting the piece this season is a real help to us. We’re catering to the sophisticated dance audience with McGregor’s full-length Entity.

The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, United States (Mar. 28 to 31)

Toronto and New York have a strong connection. Wooster Group is a company that deliberately put aside the well-made/proscenium arch play to become one of the most influential and experimental theatre companies in the U.S. Director Elizabeth LeCompte has taken a very radical approach to Williams.

Ajax & Little Iliad, Canada (Apr. 4 to 8)

This is a world premiere performed by local artists. Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O’Connell have taken on the epic Greek format of Sophocles to create a political arena where art meets war. It’s also a dialogue about citizenship, and everything that the word means.

Paris 1994/Gallery – The Dietrich Group, Canada (Apr. 25 to 28)

Toronto choreographer D.A. Hoskins is ready for the next plateau.  His works are all about risk and vulnerability. His visual arts components are as good as anything out there. He should be better known. We’re helping him rework his website and do follow-ups with presenters.

Agwa/Correria – Compagnie Käfig, France/Brazil, (May 2 to 5)

Algerian/French choreographer Mourad Merzouki has elevated hip-hop to high art. He does evangelical work which is right up my alley. For this piece, he went to the shantytown favelas of Rio and found 11 dancers. The program represents a perfect fusion of ethno-cultural diversity and contemporary expressions.

The Shipment – Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company, United States (May 9 to 12)

Lee is a rising star of American theatre – a young woman who riffs on the Afro-American experience by talking about uncomfortable things. What she has to say about race borders on scandalous, but she is very brave, protected by the safety of theatre.

Dance Marathon – bluemouth inc., Canada (May 18-19)

We commissioned this piece for the 2008-9 season through Fresh Ground new works, and it has gone around the world, which is a great payoff for us. We’re bringing it back as a fun way to end the season. It’s participatory theatre as the audience becomes the contestants in a dance marathon. It’s a high for both the dancers and the viewers.