Lovers in a dangerous time in China

A well constructed page-turner, Robert F. Delaney’s first novel is for Canadians watching the Huawei affair play out, a timely expose of what it’s like to operate in China as a North American, whether it be as a journalist, an investor or even a spy. The Wounded Muse, published in November 2018 by Mosaic Press, is a fiction based on Delaney’s experiences reporting business news for outlets including Dow Jones and Bloomberg from the mid-1990s.

Jake Bradley, born underprivileged to alcoholic parents in rural Kentucky, has advanced on the strength of his intelligence and gift for languages, to become a business reporter for Toeler News service in Beijing. Schooled in a provincial university, he is fluent in Mandarin, and leads a comfortable life as a plugged-in, semi-closeted gay man in the Chinese capital. He meets Qiang, a Chinese national who has been working in California’s Silicon Valley and has returned to his home country to document the rapid changes and resulting social displacement that has been going on in China with the ramping up of its economic growth and preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In helping Qiang with his video project, Jake falls hard for the Chinese man, and then Qiang suddenly disappears, presumably taken into detention for reasons no one can surmise.

A parallel love story concerns Dawei, a dishwasher in a hotel in Macau, who has drifted there from his poor village, Yongfu, in the far northeast province of Heilongjiang. Dawei meets Zhihong, a Beijing bureaucrat on a recreational visit to Macau, with his boss who runs a section of the government overseeing the film business. Zhihong, it turns out, is married, and after his under-the-bridge tryst with Dawei, quickly drops him. But Dawei, with little money to live on, follows Zhihong to Beijing and gets a job as a courier for a travel agency.

With a minimum of byzantine twists, the two plotlines intertwine as Jake encounters Dawei and befriends him and Zhihong is drawn into the Sun Qiang fiasco, working in an intelligence role in his ministry. Qiang’s sister Diane, employed by a European bank in Beijing, and his former husband Ben, a researcher at MIT in the Boston area, join Jake in trying to extract Qiang from detention. The action plays out in 2007 with flashbacks to 2004 and in between and forms a credible tale of intrigue and human rights abuses against a backdrop of China’s development as a super power, taking its place on the world stage.

Delaney’s prose is serviceable and he ratchets up the tension as Jake gets himself deeper and deeper into trouble, emotionally and politically, in his search for Qiang. He doesn’t spare the details when it comes to men grappling in secret, but the sex is not gratuitous and the dialogue only occasionally forced. In making the transition from journalism to fiction, Delaney has wisely stuck to what he knows and the result is an informative narrative of love and identity in dangerous times.

The King redux

 

Let’s not look at all the ways a 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical misses the mark when measured against today’s views on imperialism, toxic masculinity and diversity. What can’t be challenged is the power of the music. This is what the producers at the Lincoln Center were counting on when they revived The King and I in 2015.

The show is an homage to the original stage and film production with Yul Brynner in the role of the petulant king and Gertrude Lawrence, then Deborah Kerr as the redoubtable Anna Leonowens. The book was based on the novel The King and I by Margaret Landon. It was inspired by a memoir by Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian teacher, recalling her time as governess to the children of the Siamese King Mongut in the 1860s.

Bartlett Sher, resident director at Lincoln Center, earned a Tony Award for best direction of a musical for this production and it’s easy to see why. While anyone trying to fill Yul Brynner’s curly-toed shoes has a tough job to do, Pedro Ka’awaloa’s “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera”s ring true. His stature is not as commanding as might be expected, but he nails the king as a case of arrested development who nevertheless had a desire to lead his country into modernity, if not reduce his absolute power. Ka’awaloa’s voice is not as strong as some of the others’, but he doesn’t have to sing much.

The women characters own this musical. Angela Baumgardner wears Anna Leonowens enormous hoop skirts very well, and has the voice, the hauteur and the love of children to make her governess come alive. She gets the opening number of the show, still on deck of the ship that is bringing Anna and her son Louis (Hayden Bercy) into Bangkok. “I Whistle a Happy Tune” is a full-throated anthem to female independence and courage, qualities that make The King and I a proto-feminist creation. Every woman here surmounts her straitened circumstances.

Paulina Yeung almost steals the show in the role of Tuptim, the slave girl gifted to the king of Siam by the king of Burma. She is secretly in love with Lun Tha, a scholar working in the palace on the design for a temple. Yeung’s rich, warm rendition of “My Lord and Master,” “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” reveals her background as an opera singer.

Deanna Choi makes a dignified senior wife, Lady Thiang, especially singing “Something Wonderful.” She complements the unbridled playfulness of the royal children (a sampling of the king’s 67 offspring), delightfully portrayed in their topknots and purple silks by CJ Fernanado, Anjali Kanter, Kylie Kuioka, Linder Sutton, Kayla Teruel, Hiroko Uchino and Eliot Waldvogel.

Bern Tan takes on the part of the king’s righthand man/enforcer Kralahome and is suitably forceful, overshadowing the king when they occupy the same space. The role of British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey is a placeholder for British imperialism and male dominance, but Stanton Morales is a good foil for the king and opens up the possibility that Anna has fallen in love with her king.

No sensible choreographer would mess with Jerome Robbins’s original choreography and Christopher Gattelli doesn’t. He enhances the lively production numbers with new moves and preserves the rollicking polka between king and governess, danced to the music of a nine-piece orchestra conducted by David Aaron Brown. This production of The King and I gets its dazzle from the Michael Yeargan’s economic, Buddhist-oriented set design and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, which so well illustrate the east-meets-west theme of the play.

Where this revival of The King and I excels is not in the reinforcement of identity politics but in its honouring of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s intent to show we are all the same under the skin.

The King and I

By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed by Bartlett Sher

Presented by Broadway in Victoria at the Royal Theatre, Victoria until January 6

Photo of Angela Baumgardner as Anna Leonowens with the royal children by Matthew Murphy

Gallery

A dream of a mixed ballet program

 

 

Three cheers for the National Ballet of Canada for bringing Frederick Ashton’s The Dream back into action after 17 years. Sir Frederick Ashton (1905-1988) was an English choreographer whose ballets brought a new quickness, brightness and delight to the form. The National Ballet lists eight of his works in its repertoire, including the audience favourite La Fille Mal Gardée. Even more than most ballet creators, Ashton let the music dictate the shape of his work.

The Dream, set to music by Felix Mendelssohn arranged by John Lanchbery, is a fine example of Ashton’s craft. The violin section that heralds the appearance of dancing fairies leads us into the one-act dance as if we too are enchanted.

Ashton boiled down William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to its essentials: three sets of lovers out of sync with one another. He re-imagined the play, set in ancient Greece, as a royal court in Victorian times, the place being an English wood where fairies rule.

Jillian Vanstone is a regal Titania, queen of the fairies, well matched with a noble Harrison James as Oberon, her king. Their struggle concerns ownership of an Indian changeling boy, whom Oberon would have as his servant. Aramis Gonzalez in a heavy courtier’s costume melts hearts with his every appearance as the Changeling.

Ashton placed the fairy Puck at the centre of The Dream, as he should be. Puck, sprinkling the flower dust that makes his victims fall in love with the first creature they see upon awakening is the change agent who drives the plot and initiates the fun. Skylar Campbell is dazzling in a role that calls for a deft touch, speed and a bit of craziness. He fairly flies across the stage. Second soloist Joe Chapman has a particular challenge as Bottom, the worker whom Puck transforms into a donkey. He must dance in point shoes; Chapman manages, going from delicacy to slapstick with wit and precision and bringing a bit of dignity to the role.

Tanya Howard stands out as Helena, the most sympathetic of the wronged women. She is ultimately to wed Lysander; played by Ben Rudisin, who enters stage right as a comic fop. Chelsy Meiss is a fetching Hermia. She is finally married to her Demetrius, a nimble Giorgio Galli, from the company’s corps de ballet.

Paired with The Dream on this mixed program is Guillaume Côté’s Being and Nothingness, a stark contrast to Ashton, but not without its own sense of play. Appointed a principal dancer in 2004, Côté is also the company’s choreographic associate and has added significant works to its repertoire. Drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical manifesto of 1943, Côté explores ideas of selfhood, free will, the individual versus the crowd and the meaning of sexual congress in some razor-sharp contemporary ballet combinations.

Pianist Edward Connell gets equal billing with the dancers for playing the brilliant score made up of Philip Glass pieces, including Metamorphosis No. 4. The music comes up from the orchestra pit, so the dancers appear to be performing in silence or acting out what’s running through their consciousness.

Côté also dramatizes an opposition of subject and object. Being and Nothingness is structured in seven parts: The Light, The Bedroom, The Door, The Sink, The Living Room, The Street, The Call. The spaces are designated with a door, a bed, a bathroom sink, and a telephone on the wall, perhaps indicating a higher, determinist power. The Street is represented by 11 dancers in men’s suits and hats, as if they’d been borrowed from Joe, Jean-Pierre Perrault’s monumental 1983 ensemble piece.

Greta Hodgkinson, centred, controlled yet emotive, anchors the piece. Rolling through on the repetitive Glass piano arpeggios, are a series of duets, solos and ensembles, illustrating aspects of Sartrian existentialism. Most notable is Siphesihle November, the South African dancer who joined the National Ballet last year. He is shaving at the sink and whirls into a muscular solo. Côté’s work is very physical, but what strikes one most about Being and Nothingness is the grace and fluidity of the movement and how it all flows into a satisfying experience.

The Dream

By Sir Frederick Ashton

Being and Nothingness

By Guillaume Côté

A National Ballet of Canada production at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, until November 25

Photos of Greta Hodgkinson, Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James by Aleksandar Antonijevic

The Monkey Queen springs to life in a new drama

The story of the Monkey King is probably the best known legend to come out of China. Like many such stories, it is about transformation. For The Monkey Queen, playwright Diana Tso switches the gender of the shape-shifting mythic monkey and simultaneously tells the story of how a Canadian-born girl finds her Chinese roots.

Hong Kong-born Canadian dancer/choreographer William Yong directs a show that is equal parts dance, storytelling, acting and singing. He is also listed as dramaturge, choreographer and scenic designer.

Young actor and recent theatre school graduate Nicholas Eddie plays opposite Tso, more or less mastering ballet moves he was never trained for.

The 65-minute show, staged in the small space at the Theatre Centre, is surprisingly easy to follow, given all the roles that Tso and Eddie must shift in and out of.

The Monkey King, the warrior Sun Wukong, grew out of legend and is the hero of a 16th-century epic novel, The Journey to the West. According to the novel, he was born from a stone, possesses supernatural powers and is a trickster. The warrior monkey  demonstrates Taoist practices, fights off demons and is imprisoned by the Buddha.

Tso loved the Monkey King stories and always wanted to play him but would never be cast in a male part. So she made her own adaptation. Monkey Queen, like her gender opposite, is a warrior of immense strength and is equipped for speed; she skips continents in a single somersault.  Born in Canada, she travels east to China to discover her origins.

Yong remembers the Monkey King stories as cartoons on Hong Kong TV when he was a small boy. In partnering with Tso, he drove her to expand the performance possibilities of her play.

First you need a set that can adapt to worlds only imagined, as the characters move through time and space, legend and reality. This is done with a zig-zagging catwalk above the stage floor, so that the players are either flying or sinking below earth level.

The warrior queen’s travels take her to a shaman woman. Eddie dons a wig to impersonate this spirit guide. He also plays a demon and the Buddha. Exceedingly tall this young actor is also pliable, so he can lift Tso and move like a dancer.

Tso, alternating between the queen and the girl growing up in Canada, prances with lightness and grace, all the while telling her story.

The frequent transformations mean conveying the image of a carp in the bottom of a lake, a blue heron and a polar bear. The allegory here refers to a threatened natural world. Lighting designer Rebecca Picherack and sound composers Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia greatly assist in the more than usual willing suspension of disbelief required to enjoy The Monkey Queen.

The Monkey Queen

By Diana Tso

Directed by William Yong

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, until Dec. 2

Photo of Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie by David Hou

A journey to the past that keeps us in the present

A funny show about an unfunny subject. An interactive, very present performance about something that happened in the past. A talky, text-heavy show that relies on song, dance, video and mime to make its full impact.

All of these statements apply to We Keep Coming Back, which opened last week at Factory Theatre. In other words, easy to enjoy, even as the play explores some painful truths.

The performers and their equipment and props are sitting on stage as we enter the theatre. Funk music plays. Michael Rubenfeld performs as himself – it is virtually impossible to separate his acting from his actual, often explosive, behaviour. Michael is a Winnipeg-born Jew of Polish descent. He can act, dance, sing, do stand-up. Mary Berchard, an untrained actor, is his real mother and, it appears, is actually suffering poor health. As the lights go down, Michael and Mary tie a long, thick rope around their waists; it ties them together for the duration of We Keep Coming Back, even as one  performs while climbing a ladder or the other remakes her bed.

The third character on stage is Katka Reszke. She is a Polish-born U.S. resident, a writer, filmmaker, researcher, photographer – but not an actor. She tells her story, in Polish mostly (subtitles appear overhead) and performs it, all the while using a video camera that gives simultaneous footage of all the proceedings, projected on the blackboard behind the action. Also on stage at the side is stage manager Adam Barrett, operating a video camera on a tripod.

This is the essential plot: Michael Rubenfeld loves his mother but can’t stand being with her for very long. She feels the same way about him. But she needs some care at this point in her life. Mary, a daughter of holocaust survivors whose Polish family were mostly murdered by the Nazis, has a dream about Warsaw. Maybe she is ready to go to Poland and trace her family origins. Michael would like to go too, to find his roots. They make a contract. Katka is brought in as someone who can interpret Polish speakers for them, and document their encounters. She is also going to act as a buffer between mother and son.

Rubenfeld has another role: he’s the guy who steps to the front of the stage and addresses the audience about what’s going on. He introduces the participants, including his unseen collaborator, director Sarah Garton Stanley. He hands out bowls of his favourite Polish candies, which just happen to be named Michael. In a couple of other instances he polls the people in the seats about events on stage. “Whose trauma is worse?” he asks us, meaning his or Katka’s. We Keep Coming Back is not therapy (it may be that too); it’s pure entertainment, thought-provoking and joyful. From the moment when Rubenfeld draws a chalk outline around himself and his mother – she mimes that he’s made her too fat – through the long, once postponed, journey to Poland, to the villages where Mary’s father and mother came from, to the wedding of Rubenfeld and his Polish wife Magda and back to the Toronto stage, we are awed by, even amazed at  this multivalent performance.

We Keep Coming Back

Created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, until November 25

Photo of Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke by Jeremy Mimnagh

A Haida artist animates an old fable

Christopher Auchter, creator of the brilliant Haida short film The Mountain of SGaana has strong words of gratitude for his Auntie Shelley, who gave him the opportunity to attend high school in Victoria. For medical reasons, she had moved to the city from Haida Gwaii, where Christopher’s secondary school had only 145 students. His aunt’s invitation to move in with her led to graduation from Oak Bay High School, where he’d advanced his art and woodworking skills and gained admission to Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. There he focused on hand-drawn animation techniques. A year in the computer animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario gave him the 3D digital skills that the market was then looking for.

Auchter got a foot in the door with the National Film Board when he was hired to do the charcoal drawings for the short animated film How People Got Fire (2008) directed by Daniel Janke. His career was launched.

Completed in 2017, The Mountain of SGaana is a wordless depiction in delightful hand-drawn imagery, of a Haida tale told to a fisherman by Mousewoman, a favourite Haida creature from the spirit world. Mousewoman knits a blanket that illustrates the story of sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat and his beloved Kuuga Kuns. SGaana (Haida for killer whale) captures the hunter who has been taking his prey and takes him to the underwater world. Kuuga Kuns dives in to save him.

“In the original tale, it is the wife who is captured and Naa-Naa-Simgat who saves her. “I switched the roles,” says Auchter, “because I was surrounded by so many strong Haida women, especially my Auntie Shelley. I wanted to show that strength in my telling of the story.” Having made the choice to eliminate dialogue from his film, Auchter brought in music. Another of the strong women in his life, his sister Nikita Toya Auchter, sings a Haida song to accompany the animation.

What makes this short so distinctive is the incorporation of Haida motifs. Auchter is the great-great-great grandson of Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920), the carver most associated with the preservation of Haida art forms, which had nearly disappeared after European contact.

The Mountain of SGaana has done well on the festival circuit and on Wednesday at the Capital 6 cinemas in Victoria it is coming home. Through an arrangement with the NFB, the Capital 6 Indie Film Series will present a short ahead of its feature film. Auchter’s short will precede a screening of This Mountain Life, a documentary directed by Grant Baldwin.

The Mountain of SGaana

Drawn and directed by Christopher Auchter

Screening Wednesday, November 14, 7 p.m. at The Capital 6, Victoria, BC

Dancing the agony of Anna Karenina

Any North American today attempting to read Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina, published in 1878, would need help understanding the class distinctions, the political milieu and most of all the family relations among Anna and her brother, her in-laws and her husband Alexei Karenin, in thrall to his political career.

No surprise then, that John Neumeier’s reimagining of the book as a contemporary ballet, set in the present day, is fraught with difficulties for the audience.

The choreography and the cast who performed Anna Karenina on opening night in Toronto can’t be faulted. Neumeier, long-time artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, has created a dramatic spectacle with very emotive dancing, beautifully executed by the National Ballet of Canada.

Svetlana Lunkina takes on the challenge of the title role with style and precision. (For other performances Heather Ogden and Sonia Rodriguez will perform Anna Arkadyevna Karenina.) Her situation as the unhappy, neglected wife of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin is clear from the opening scene in which Piotr Stanczyk is seen as Karenin at a political rally in St. Petersburg. In navy suit before waving signs and supporters, Alexei is oblivious of Anna while at the podium and remains so in the spacious living-room of their home.

Stanczyk masters the choreography, set to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem, but this angular, violent, contemporary movement sits at odds with the 19th-century music and the dance steps are arresting or jarring, depending on how you read them. When Stanczyk’s pas de deux with Lunkina involves a lift that has her upside down, head to the floor, the idea of a marriage in trouble is pretty clear. Tanya Howard has an ambiguous role as Karenin’s assistant Countess Lidia Ivanovna. Howard’s erect stature makes her a steady beacon in a storm of events.

Anna’s sole consolation in the marriage is her son Seryozha, performed by Spencer Hack in a role that has him in short pants carrying a teddy bear or playing with toy trains, looking like an adolescent case of arrested development.

The Karenins are not the only couple in a failing marriage. Anna gets summoned to Moscow by her brother Stiva (Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky), performed with aplomb by Naoya Ebe. Stiva wants Anna to help him recover his wife Dolly (the incomparable Xiao Nan Yu), who has caught Stiva cheating on her with the governess Miss Hull (Kathryn Hosier).

This is where things get tricky for an audience, because the dance is occurring in real time while depicting events that may be in the past, in the imagination or in the telling. So we see Anna on stage while in a chamber created by one of scenic designer Heinrich Tröger’s shifting rectangular boxes with doors in them, Dolly catches Stiva in bed with Miss Hull.

Neuemeier’s interpretation of Levin, the aristocratic landowner in pursuit of Dolly’s sister Kitty (a spritely, charming Antonella Martinelli) is puzzling. Félix Paquet dominates the stage as Levin, a strong-like-bull farmer in a red plaid flannel shirt and shiny vinyl skin-tight pants. If the idea is to show how off-the-mark lunky Levin is in imagining Kitty as his bride, then we can understand.

For Kitty, back in Moscow now–the trips are signalled with a toy train chugging across the front of the stage–is betrothed to Count Vronsky. And it’s at their engagement party that Anna and Vronsky discover their mutual, fatal attraction. It must be noted that a series of flowing, boldly coloured dresses created by AKRIS designer Albert Kriemler have a lot to do with Anna’s characterization.

Harrison James, always dressed in white or ivory, makes a distinguished Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a colonel in the Russian army. His and Anna’s passion, in secret and in exile, is played out in some pas de deux of an extravagant nature. Anna’s passion always seems more intense, which is as it should be for her demise to make sense. Anna throws herself under a train, a scene depicted quite abstractly before Lunkina disappears through a trap door in the stage that becomes the grave where Vronksy mourns her.

Along the way some briefer scenes, such as Kitty enjoying a day in the country with Levin, are set to the music of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, catchy tunes such as “Morning Has Broken”. Elsewhere, when inner lives are in turmoil or a lacrosse game is underway, the choreography is accompanied by the 20th-century, often dissonant, compositions of Alfred Schnittke.

It would take repeat viewings to get a grasp of Neumeier’s three-hour-long Anna Karenina, which premiered in Hamburg, Germany in 2017, and is a cooperative production with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi Ballet. And if that means more tickets sold, then the show has to be counted a success.

Anna Karenina

Choreography, sets, costumes and lighting concept by John Neumeier

Inspired by the Leo Tolstoy novel

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto until November 18

Photo of Piotr Stanczyk and Svetlana Lunkina in Anna Karenina by Kiran West