Nov 30, 2015

Try A Little Tenderness

Full cast of King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair 
King Lear is one of my favorite plays. The 1606 work examines ideas of family, responsibility, motivation, and obligation in a cutting way few other theatrical works do. The premise is basic: Lear, wanting to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, asks them to express their love. Goneril and Regan go over-the-top in their declamations, while the youngest, Cordelia, says she loves him "according to my bond, no more, nor less." The former are rewarded for their proclamations; the latter, banished for her honesty. Therein ensues a monumental family tragedy, one that incorporates another family's drama (a nasty one involving two sons, each from different mothers), and a dance of damaged children and hurting parents that spirals toward an inevitably tragic conclusion.

In light of my mother's passing earlier this year, I wasn't sure that seeing Lear live wouldn't be a slightly painful ordeal. The dramas, the breakdowns, the unseemly machinations and manipulations, the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia happening too late and being all too brief – Shakespeare's great work was difficult for me to contemplate watching live. And yet something pulled me in the direction of Theatre Passe Muraille when I heard about the Watershed Shakespeare Festival Collective production

Ostensibly set in Upper Canada in 1837, director Rod Carley uses the theatre's intimate surroundings to incredible effect, with a pared-down cast, simple set design (by Frank Vona), dramatic lighting (by John Batchelor) and sound effects (by Brian Nettlefold), creating a deeply moving portrait of a family in crisis. The tensions between the characters are brought to vivid life via stellar ensemble work, particularly the growing animosity between sisters Goneril (Maureen Cassidy) and Regan (Jennifer Ritchie), and their overall disgust with younger sister Cordelia (an endearingly earnest Kelsey Ruhl).  Joshua Bainbridge, who plays Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester (a fantastically earthy Charlie Tomlinson), offers a deeply fascinating portrait of deceit, using a combination of easy joviality and wide-eyed "integrity" to convince his father that legitimate son Edgar (Ethan Chapman) is up to no good. Hume Baugh is a bitingly angry Fool, frustrated as much with his master as with his own failing health (Carley's production simply, powerfully answers the lingering question of what happens to the Fool), and nicely contrasts with Ethan Chapman's sparky take on Edgar's "Poor Tom" disguise.

David Fox as King Lear and Hume Baugh as the Fool. Photo by Anthony Leclair
The chemistry between the cast is indeed electric, a feeling intensified by the close quarters of the performance space itself; when Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Jeff Miller), goes to forcibly remove Gloucester's eyes, one winces more than usual — the players are only mere feet away, after all, and though there is no blood or gore, there is a visceral sense to the proceedings made all the more keen because of the immediacy of the players, their words, their conviction to the text and to the world director Carley has placed them in. This is a King Lear that feels very real, its family dramas and power plays disquietingly close, both literally and figuratively.

What powers much of this intimacy, outside of the space itself, is the central performance of David Fox, an actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of school teacher Clive Pettibone on the television series Road to Avonlea. His portrayal of Lear, by turns spitting orders and then stumbling over words, standing over an intransigent Earl of Kent (Tim Nicholson) and then doddering barefoot along wearing a crown of branches later, is shattering. Fox, who is 74 years old, uses his own gangly physicality to complete advantage, standing imperiously at the start of the work, and fumbling in a wheelchair by its end. He plumbs the depths of Lear's failing health, mentally and physically, and bases much of the character's outrage on a very real and palpable sense of damaged pride.

David Fox as King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair
This is, as many with aging parents will know, a very big thing with the elderly. Dealing with pride amidst failing health is no small matter. There was something so utterly familiar about the mix of vulnerability, confusion, shame, and theatrical show of pride in Fox's performance of the old King, that more than once I found myself gritting teeth to control tears. A companion who joined me at the performance said something at the intermission about the ungrateful daughters needing to "humour" Lear, but, as I watched the second half, with each appearance of Lear revealing more and more of his fragility, all I could think was, tenderness is key. It is everything in dealing with a failing parent. Tenderness is what Cordelia offers, in abundance; the expression on Ruhl's face as she interacts with Fox brims with this very quality, even as her character must swallow the deep grief at seeing his deterioration. We remember how our parents used to be, and it's hard, if not impossible, to reconcile that with the small, sickly person before us; no matter how large a parent might've loomed in our lives, the fact they shrink, literally and figuratively, bowed before age and infirmity, is heartbreaking. This is what Cordelia deals with when she sees her father again, after he's been rejected by his elder daughters and has wandered the heath in a storm. Time has sped up, only to be stopped, mercifully, in order for the two to beautifully, poetically reconcile. Seeing who he is, past the physical, and embracing it, as opposed to rejecting it, manipulating it, making a play based on personal want, is what makes Cordelia such a unique and moving figure.

Tenderness is the slow, gentle engine that allows great if quiet love to make itself known. It means putting our own ego wants — what we think the parent should be saying or doing or believing or choosing — aside. Tenderness only asks for and manifests in loving presence, little more. Anyone who's experienced the deterioration of a parent, whether through illness or age (or both), will tell you it isn't the easiest thing in the world, not by a longshot; one has to have Herculean levels of patience and fortitude, and, being only human, none of us can manage to be saintly 100% of the time. And when that parent has a moment of self-awareness, and asks for your forgiveness, as Lear does with Cordelia, there is really little to be said or done, but to hold hands, gently, and to simply be there, tenderly, as they make their way into another realm. King Lear reminded me of the importance of tenderness, earlier this year, and now, and moving forwards. All hail, King Tenderness.


Nov 22, 2015

Playful Punk Opera

David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabo in Tap:Ex Metallurgy. Photo by Dahlia Katz
Amidst the many serious features and interviews I've done lately, it came as something of a pleasant surprise to be reminded of the very real importance of play  — even when the notion comes wrapped in some challenging dressing.

The occasion was a creative collaboration between Canadian punk band Fucked Up and Toronto-based opera company Tapestry, which specializes in new works. Following previous collaborations involving electronics and Maria Callas, as well as a daring re-envisioning of the Medea myth this past summer, Tapestry have demonstrated they aren't exactly shy when it comes to pushing the boundaries of opera as an artistic form. Artistic Director Michael Mori has ably, creatively demonstrated his commitment to moving opera into the 21st century, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways; a recent fundraiser for the company featured a mix of Mozart and contemporary composers, while their latest work, which paired members of Fucked Up with mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo and tenor David Pomeroy, conveyed a clear desire to challenge audiences in big ways.

Tap: Ex Metallurgy, as the evening was called, was staged at the company's homebase for operations, located in Toronto's historic Distillery District. Amidst the rumble of not-so-distant commuter trains and the din of highway traffic, the evening's first half unfolded as a kind of meditation on loss, with Szabo and Pomeroy singing the roles of two parents grieving the recent loss of a child. A deeply theatrical work staged with elegant economy, Jonah Falco's music and a libretto by Mike Haliechuk and David Hames Brock offered a heart-full take on a painful subject. Production designer David DeGrow's lighting, a panoply of strong, changing colors, conveyed more than mere mood, but painted a psychological portrait of suffering, in all its myriad forms, while Mori's simple, powerful staging featured musicians assembled onstage leaving, one by one, until the only two figures left, Szabo and violinist Yoobin Ahn, performed a kind of conversational duet that ended in quiet grace.

Fucked Up's Mike Haliechuk in Tap: Ex Metallurgy. Photo by Dahlia Katz
It was hardly the stuff one associates with the bald aggression of punk, but the contrast between the actual experience and the perceived cliche was powerful, and the experimentation behind it was a thoughtful sort of playfulness that forced one to re-think boundaries between musical genres. Haliechuk's guitar effects had a kind of loud if soothing effect that was both ethereal and grounding at once — kind of like the best-sung opera arias.

The meditative nature of Metallurgy's first half contrasted nicely with the evening's altogether lighter second half, which featured Szabo and Pomeroy playing out the various stages of a relationship. At one point the tenor even offered his own unique take on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love", complete with impressive solo on a flying V guitar placed nearby. There was something so refreshing, so powerful, so gorgeously alive about the simple if highly effective (and entertaining) portrayal of the work's "love-at-first-sight-over-a-lifetime" theme, one that lent itself nicely to operatic expression. The work, by librettist David James Brock and music by Ivan Barbotin, neatly captured the intense ups, depressive lows, and inevitable mediocrities of a long-term relationship with grace, power, and a stylish staging that made nice use of the electric chemistry between Pomeroy and Szabo. The maniacal grin on Pomeroy's face as he wailed on guitar offered a hilariously bald contrast to Szabo's patient, amused/unamused expression, and the air was deliciously electric with a crackling audience excitement feeding off this interaction. Between this moment and the big. bold very punk-like sounds of Fucked Up members Jonah Falco, Mike Haliechuk and Josh Zucker, one could almost hear audience thoughts: this is opera? YESSSS! 

As a disco ball spun overhead and the small, packed space filled with a million little shiny beads of light, I couldn't help but marvel at the importance of play in opera; maybe the medium needs more of it, more than ever. opera really isn't as poe-faced as everyone thinks it is — especially to those who work closely within or beside it. Sometimes it takes a punk band to bring that playfulness out, but the willingness has to already exist. The joyous moments of musical playfulness, whether actualized by kicking down musical boundaries or offering moments of audio abandon, feel too few and far-between, and really, that doesn't need to be the norm in an artform as inherently theatrical and dynamic as opera. Thanks to Tapestry for pressing "play" — and really, really meaning it, maaaan.

Nov 18, 2015

Sex, Power, Freedom (and still no happy endings)

Lucia Cervoni as Julie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Happy endings are yearned for, but they are increasingly rare.  Things don't end well all the time; it's this ugly fact Hollywood and the advertising industry don't usually (if ever) acknowledge. And yet happy endings in culture are not, as some studios might have you believe, the perennial norm. Many of the best works in music and theatre have dire endings that, with the right production and handling, make one feel something by the closing of the curtain: sadness, wistfulness, a kind of quietude, an absolute tumult. Miss Julie, the 1888 play by August Strindberg, provoked shock at its premiere. At the closing of its operatic adaptation in Toronto lastnight, there was that same sense of shock, as well as confusion, sadness, disturbance. It's that distinct mix that makes the chamber opera such a powerful work, and well worth seeing.

Sharleen Joynt (Christine, L) Lucia Cervoni (Julie, R)
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Director and Canstage General Director Matthew Jocelyn has brought Philippe Boesmans' Julie to North America in collaboration with Soundstreams (an organization dedicated to programming new music), following a highly successful tour of the piece through Europe in 2009. As well as offering a night of dark laughs and deep thoughts, the work is a meditation on the nature of power between the sexes, and a fascinating portrayal of desire that, when mixed within the toxic boundaries of history and class structure, can be deeply destructive. The titular heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine is more appropriate), passionately performed by Canadian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni, is celebrating St. Johan's night (also called St. John's Eve, or Midsummer) by dancing and flirting with her servants, specifically the valet Jean (Clarence Frazer), who is engaged to the maid Christine (Sharleen Joynt). Julie and Jean eventually consummate their flirtations, and later plan to run away together, but don't; the psychological machinations and manipulations between the two escalate, and the work ends with Julie committing suicide.

The work, which uses elements of naturalism, was influenced by elements of social Darwinism, though it has been interpreted in various ways onstage, through the lens of the American South (at CanStage in 2009) as well as the indigenous experience. The play lends itself well to explorations of power, both overt and subtle, and it's here that composer Boesmans and director Jocelyn find their most compelling expression onstage. The scenes between Julie and Jean, in Christine's shabby kitchen, are shot through with a heat that isn't coming off any stovetop; the two alternate between seducing and slapping, insinuating and insulting,  coercing and commanding. Performers Frazer and Cervoni play off these contrasts nicely, seamlessly blending singing and acting into one satisfying whole. Boesmans' jagged, icy score offers a beautiful contrast to the sexual heat, one that heightens the drama without sacrificing momentum, and utilizing a rhythmic interplay that propels the action forwards. As Music Director Leslie Dala notes in the program notes, Boesmans "creates a remarkable amount of contrast with only 18 instruments." These instruments blend perfectly with the sparse, almost Baroque-like score (which was complemented by Alain Lagarde's spare set and Michael Walton's plaintive lighting), and more than once, the conversational nature of Boesmans' work brought to mind Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna, recently performed at the far larger Four Seasons Centre as part of the Canadian Opera Company's Pyramus and Thisbe production.

Sharleen Joynt (Christine) & Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
There's a power in conversation, whether it's with one's own self or with another; putting that conversation to music in a way that clearly, concisely conveys situation and emotion, and indeed, marries the two in a dramatic embrace, is an art, one Boesmans has mastered, whether in his 1993 opera Reigen (based on Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde) or 1999's Wintermarchen (based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale), another work concerned with power that lends itself to various onstage interpretations. So much of Boesmans' work is powered by a sense of intimacy coupled with the dramatic, and here, Julie's three performers rise to the challenge, combining a strong sense of timing, compelling physicality, and very good singing to create a powerful and intimate operatic experience.

This sense of intimacy was aided in no small way by the venue. With its cozy design and seating for roughly 800 or so, Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre offered an immersive and immediate experience of Boesmans' work, making the evening's final image (a hanging staged in silhouette) all the more disturbing. Certainly, some unfamiliar with the Strindberg weren't expecting it, especially in light of the dark laughs the piece had enjoyed just moments before. Others, possibly, were so taken with Cervoni's passionate portrayal of the character, in all her dazzling contrasts — sexual power, timid girlishness, haughty snobbery, begging desperation, loudmouth demands, soft admissions — that it seemed a pity to lose her.

Lucia Cervoni (Julie) & Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
But that unease is, I suspect, rooted in an audience desire for happy endings, something Strindberg has violently denied. Rather, one is never allowed to get too comfortable with the characters, the situation, or the work's swirling sub-themes of erotic submission and sadomasochistic power plays. Jocelyn effectively uses this discomfort by consistently underlining sharp contrasts (between characters, reactions, even visual textures) and utilizing effective blocking that highlights the character's relationships to both each other and their surroundings. With a drum consistently beating, the quiet staging of the ending — certainly unhappy but also entirely inevitable — offers a final statement that is at once disturbing, poetic, profound. Justice, or just a waste? Unlike Armide (who has her own unhappy ending of sorts), Julie isn't changed by love, or the experience of it, but rather, seems destroyed by the awareness of its harrowing absence. Her choice at the end is driven by an outside force, a symbolically male one she's always looked to and given her power over to, for validation, acceptance, a strange sense of what she thinks of as freedom. Julie may be powerful in play, but she's not power-full in life. This, perhaps, is Julie's greatest tragedy, though the opera suggests that making peace with the sharp and contrasting desires of life and our human desires is not the easy, blissful path we may believe, much less actually want. Happy endings? No, merci. Harrowing drama? Oui, encore!


Nov 16, 2015

Finding Grace

Dancer Piotr Stanczk in The Winter's Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
The recent opening of The Winter's Tale at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto was preceded by an announcement that the performance would be dedicated to the victims of the Paris attacks, which had occurred just one night before. The National Ballet of Canada's winter season was off to a sombre start, though the beauty of the Christopher Wheeldon-choreographed piece shone through mightily.

Adapted from Shakespeare's 1611 play The Winter's Tale (on now through November 22nd) focuses on Leontes (Piotr Stanczyk), King of Sicilia, who accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione (Hannah Fischer) of being unfaithful with his friend Polixenes (Harrison James), King of Bohemia. Hermione gives birth to a girl, but she faints at the shock of seeing her son, Mamilius, fall dead at her trial. Despite the pleas of Hermione's friend Paulina (Xiao Nan Yu), Leontes orders the baby girl to be abandoned in a remote place; the child is found by a shepherd and his son, and is raised in Bohemia, where, sixteen years later, unaware of her parentage, Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) becomes engaged to Prince Florizel (Naoya Ebe), the son of Polixenes. The King violently objects to the union, thinking Perdita a mere shepherdess, and the pair flee, with Polixenes in hot pursuit. The couple wind up in Sicilia, where they are sheltered by Leontes, who only learns of Perdita's identity through an emerald necklace he'd once given Hermione, one his daughter now wears as a gift from her fiance. The two Kings are reunited, and the pair are married. As festivities die down, Paulina leads Leontes to a statue of Hermione, one that proves to be considerably warmer than mere stone.

The work, while categorized as a comedy, is, like many Shakespearean comedies, less of a laugh-out-loud experience and more of a thought-provoking dramatic meditation. The adaptation beautifully, imaginatively captures the heaving emotions that run throughout the original, whether expressed in grand design (Bob Crowley's sail work, together with the silk effects design work of Basil Twist is especially inventive) or intimate lighting (by Natasha Katz). Wheeldon's choreography pulls no punches when it comes to portraying Leontes' rage and suspicion; the King's wild imaginings are presented in a way that clearly, forcefully implies an unhinged fear sitting at the heart of his character, one that is ultimately very destructive in both the real and spiritual senses. I thought about this rage expressed through movement, as Stanczyk stalked around the stage, expertly tossing Fischer this way and that in a perfectly executed pairing that brilliantly married skill and emotion. He, and his fine colleagues, are just as much actors as they are dancers. This makes the piece as much of a theatrical event as a dance one, as many of the best ballet works often are. In this instance, the seamless marriage of the two is poetic and deeply moving.

What's more, for all its fantastical elements and outlandish The Winter's Tale has real-world corollaries. Who among us hasn't felt distrustful? Or suspicious? Who hasn't done or done things they later deeply regret? The piece asks us to consider these questions, as we observe the expression of so many deeply recognizable emotions manifest entirely through that frail, entirely vulnerable vehicle, the human body. The choreography presents a clear narrative and even clearer emotional weight, allowing the movement to accentuate the inherent tragedy of the piece, and heightening the emotional gravity of its conclusion.

Dancers Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
The Winter's Tale left me with many questions, particularly in light of the previous evening's horror, one that wasn't, I suspect, very far from the thoughts of cast, crew, and audience members as well. Witnessing the rage of Leontes, and then Polixenes, the unfounded fears of each, the anger so horribly manifest, was enough to give one pause. Where does it comes from, this rage? Why does it stay? How does it grow? What ways does it manifest and then fester through the ages? These questions haunted me as I sat at the Four Seasons Centre, a mere twenty-four hours after the horror of the bombings, as losses were still being counted and fingers of accusation were being pointed. How do we find grace at such moments? The ballet's closing scenes, of Leontes realizing Hermione has been alive this whole time, and her actually forgiving him his rage, inspired breath-holding, tear-welling, and finally, a long, deep sigh. Joby Talbot's jagged, propulsive, Glass-inspired score gave way to Bernstein-inflected romanticism and Debussy-esque impressionism, and Wheeldon's keen footwork, together with the clever staging of Jacquelin Barrett and Anna Délicia Trévien, made this intimate, holy moment between Leontes and his wife a moment to cherish, both within the piece itself and outside, to carry around like Perdita's emerald necklace. I want to live in the state of grace Leontes has so clearly found in that moment.

Finding that grace isn't easy, however. Amidst horror, we can't simply grab a handful of goo labelled "grace" sitting in a tin on a dusty shelf, stuff it in our pockets, walk out the door, and think that by the stains on our trousers and the trail we leave behind we're doing any good; that isn't how grace works. Likewise forgiveness, grace's nearest sibling: it takes a big heart to admit wrongs done against us, acknowledge them, and move past our pain. One may not fully accept the atrocity committed against them, their friends, their city, their country — indeed, one may never accept, much less understand — and in no way does forgiving mean forgetting; rather, it is a tacit agreement to absolve hurt, freeze it cold, break its giant, Kraken-like body apart into a thousand pieces, and finally brush it away like so much unwanted dust. That hurt, while palpable and needy in its infancy, eventually grows into an unwieldy monster that serves no purpose and prevents forward momentum. Only forgiveness unties its chain, turns it to stone, and breaks it apart; grace is what happens when you can look at your dust-covered hands and smile.

Dancers Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
The Winter's Tale feels like the perfect piece for our times; wordless but saying so much, fragile but with so much anger, forceful and delicate at once, it is proof positive that culture is one of the things that makes sense amidst an age bereft of logic. There is no rationale for horror, but there is always a place for beauty. These sharp things we feel and experience as humans — rage, hurt, confusion, fear, remorse — are things culture captures and expresses and explores so well. We would do well to heed the idea that art has the capacity to heal, now more than ever.