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

Now you see it, now you don’t

“Poetry in the flesh,” said my seatmate at the end of Humans, an artful act from Australia’s Circa Contemporary Circus, performed for one night, November 9, at Toronto’s Sony Centre.

Under the artistic direction of Yaron Lifschitz, Circa is a Brisbane-based company established in 2004. That its 10 performers are Olympic-level gymnasts and skilled acrobats, tumblers, trapeze artists and contortionists is a given.

But Humans is no mere circus act. It’s a 70-minute highly choreographed show with no props, other than a swing and ropes, no scenery, no costumes: just briefs and tee-shirts or bras.

These sturdy men and women are not what we’ve come to expect from champions of the mat or dancers at the barre. Built like discus throwers, they are nevertheless lithe, agile and move like quicksilver.

Never mind the contemplative description of the show: “what it means to be human and how our bodies, our connections and our aspirations all form part of who we are.” Humans is sheer joy from beginning to end.

As we take our seats in the theatre, we see the acrobats getting out of street clothes and into skimpy dance gear; one woman hunched under her coat and trousers like a land tortoise, extricates herself in a funny bit of contortionism.

Soon they are coming and going, each on her own path, entering the stage and exiting and entering again, in a musical and yes, poetic, flow set to tunes as disparate as Blixa Bargeld’s “I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground,” Astor Piazzolla’s “Ave Maria,” Andy Williams’s “The Impossible Dream” and a nostalgic accordion tune, “Waltz for Jb.”

Moving, leaping, tumbling, erecting themselves as human totem poles, spreading across the stage in weird poses that would stymie any yoga expert, Circa calls for maximum attention spans. Stunning highlights stick in memory: one man shouldering five men and women joined in a chain. Bridges made of standing acrobats are walked over, as if heads were river stones. Bodies are wrapped around torsos like so much dead, pliable weight. It may be called “extreme acrobatics,” but Humans, to this watcher, was everything a dance can be, to lift the spirits and take us beyond the flesh.


El Médico cures what ails you

The musical running at Teatro Nuevo Apolo in Madrid’s theatre district makes quite a contrast to West Side Story just up the hill from it. That’s because El Médico El Musical is totally home-grown. Iván Macías composed the tremendous score. Félix Amador wrote the libretto. José Luis Sixto directs.

The show is adapted from the American novel The Physician, by Noah Gordon. The book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and is particularly popular in Spain, where in 1999 booksellers voted it one of the 10 most beloved books of all time. Noah Gordon’s son Michael Gordon, a Barcelona-based literary agent, acted as consultant to the project.

El Médico El Musical has been running to full houses and standing ovations (rare in Madrid) since it opened on October 17. No surprise: this is a good, old-fashioned musical, in which the music and voices dominate, stage technology notwithstanding.

The hero of this quest story, Rob J. (Cole), grows up poor and orphaned in 11th-century London—the Dark Ages by any measure. Rob apprentices to a barber-surgeon, called simply Barber. (Barbers at that time treated the poor and were snake-oil salesmen. Physicians, with a little more medical knowledge, served only the rich.) Rob has an edge on others: he’s always had a strange ability to feel impending death in the sick or injured. When he is 19, he learns from a Jewish physician about Avicena, an advanced doctor in Isfahán, Persia, who heads up a teaching facility called the Madrasa. Rob becomes a wanderer, leaving the British Isles to cross Europe and travel to the Middle East. Along the way he meets a Scottish lass, Mary, in a caravan crossing the desert. Travelling with Jews, Rob takes on their identity, because the Madrasa would not admit Christians, and upon reaching Isfahán, is befriended by the Shah.

Rob eventually meets and studies with Avicena, but not before enduring war, plagues and other obstacles to love and happiness.

El Médico’s 33 performers, accompanied by a 20-piece orchestra under composer and conductor Iván Macías, are a treat to watch and hear in Teatro Nuevo Apolo, a 1,160-seat opera house—intimate by North American standards. Everything in El Médico devolves from Macías’ composition. Drawing on traditions from classical opera to show tunes to popular and Arabic music, his score dictates the direction of the play.

A rotating series of young male and female singer/actors take on the role of the young Rob J. The one I saw was a lively boy with a quick step and a hearty voice. Barber is a lusty, crafty character, embodied wonderfully by Spanish singer/actor Joseán Moreno, singing the first scene’s “El barbero ya llegó” (the barber has arrived), in which Barber and his apprentice pull teeth and charm and cheat the local yokels. It’s odd to see these medieval characters in choreographer Francesc Abós’ kick line, but the scene works.

Madrid-born Adrián Salzedo is the grown-up Rob J. He’s a musical artist who’s appeared in Spanish productions of Beauty and the Beast, Dirty Dancing, Aladdin and Madagascar. He makes a terrific match with Mary, played by Sofía Escobar, who toured in the international production of West Side Story and was Christine in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera over multiple seasons.

These two bring home the romance in some lovely harmonizing in Act II. The Shah is a multi-tasking Alain Damas, a Venezuelan who performed in Madrid productions of the operas La Celestina and Lady Macbeth. Andalusian-born TV, stage and film actor Ricardo Truchado projects gravitas as Avicena, the Persian physician.

The show boasts a terrific ensemble of singer/actors on a minimalist stage that rotates and is re-set to depict desert dunes or the shah’s palace thanks to the stage designs of Alfons Flores and the sound creations of Olly Steel.

El Medico makes for a great night in the theatre. Would that an English translation is in the works, so that Noah Gordon’s North American readership can see it.

El Médico, El Musical

Based on The Physician by Noah Gordon

Music composed by Iván Macias

Libretto by Félix Amador

At Teatro Nuevo Apolo, Madrid

Photo with Victoria Galán as young Rob J and Joseán Moreno as Barber by Nacho Arias

The Royale gets you with a one-two punch

“This is the time for this fight,” says Max, boxing match promoter, to Jay “The Sport” Jackson, a fictionalized Jack Johnson. And this is the time to put on this play, for the issues explored in The Royale, set in the early 20th century, are as urgent as ever. The Royale is a story of black pride and white prejudice.

American playwright Marco Ramirez, who has written for TV series Orange is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy, based his play, premiered at Lincoln Center Theater two years ago, on the story of Jack Johnson. In 1908, Johnson was the first African American to earn the heavyweight boxing title. He beat a Canadian named Tommy Burns. Caucasian Americans were outraged and the search went out for a “great white hope,” to recover the heavyweight title. In 1910 James Jackson Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson before a crowd of 25,000.

Ramirez’ play is about much more than a fight. Under the excellent direction of Guillermo Verdecchia, The Royale takes on multiple meanings and is nimbly choreographed to run us through six rounds that recount the lives and the struggles of the different characters, including Jay’s sister Nina. All of it takes place in a boxing ring. (Soulpepper is selling tickets to patrons who wish to sit ringside.)

Dion Johnstone is a heavyweight in size and acting ability. He plays Jay. Christef Desir, equally fit, plays Fish, Jay’s sparring partner. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design has them move to the clap-clap-clap or stomp-stomp-stomp rhythms of hands and feet, urged on like flamenco dancers. They don’t actually box each other.

We see them, punching and gripping each other, but separated, facing the audience, it’s as if they’re shadow-boxing. One is thrown against the ropes; the other places a deadly punch and we hear their inner thoughts, as in Fish’s utterance, “watch out for that hook.”

Verdecchia deftly manoeuvres the characters and the narrative, signalling round’s end with a blackout. Michelle Ramsey’s lighting design includes a double row of klieg lights that flash at us, as if to alert us to something alarming.

And Nina and her story are certainly that. Sabryn Rock as Nina wears a stern look to go with her prim outfit of high-necked blouse and long skirt, her straightened hair wrapped up on her head. Nina enters the ring to surprise Jay, who hasn’t seen her for a while. She brings with her memories of the past, both his and hers. Rock’s performance is open to several interpretations; there’s a possibility that Jay was her protector and laid out Nina’s husband.

Diego Matamoros as Max the fight promoter is often our story guide. He operates as a referee, as Jay’s manager; he’s also a carny, gathering an audience for the big fight. Max wants Jay to fight a retired heavyweight champ named Bixby. But Max opposes the deal Bixby offers: he wants 90 percent of the box office. Jay has no problem with that. Wynton, Jay’s coach (powerful performer Alexander Thomas) lets us know that Jay might have confronted Bixby for free.

Wynton also gives us the reason for the play’s title. The Royale was a bar where a brutal fight took place; Wynton was part of it.

True to the dreamy flow of The Royale, Bixby is boxed but not seen. He’s a ghost. The outcome of the fight is unclear. All this occurs in a very short 90 minutes.

The Royale gives us theatre as it should be: poetry in motion, demanding all that our imaginations can embrace.

The Royale

By Marco Ramirez

Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia

Soulpepper production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto until November 11

Photo of Diego Matamoros as Max and Dion Johnstone as Jay by Cylla von Tiedemann