The Revizor, revised, revamped and reborn as dance theatre

revisor is a parable for our times, adapted in a uniquely expressionistic form of dance and theatre from Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector General (Revizor in the original Russian) by writer/performer Jonathon Young and choreographer/director Crystal Pite. This is the same team (including composer/sound designer Owen Belton and scenic designer Jay Gower Taylor) that in 2015 brought us the brilliant Betroffenheit.

With revisor Young, Pite and their collaborating performers Doug Letheren, Rena Narumi, Matthew Peacock, David Raymond, Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen have raised the bar again, with great inventiveness and spectacle, leading us into a nightmare-in-progress, reflective of the very political deceit, fake news, divisiveness and government corruption that dominate our airwaves today.

Gogol’s 1836 play, both a farce and a satire, trades in the same themes. He developed the play from an anecdote related to him by Pushkin, about the case of a lowly clerical figure sent to a regional outpost of the czarist empire on some minor assignment. The clerk is mistaken for an official of influence and authority and soon has the local department head and others toadying before him. For Young and Crystal, the play presents “a matrix for both voice and body . . .malleable and resonant.”

Inspiration for this adaptation of The Inspector General came from accounts of a 1926 non-naturalist production of the play by the Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940). Meyerhold eschewed method acting for a kind of physical theatre that harked back to commedia dell’arte and expressed the symbolism he found in the text in the physical movements of his actors.

Ingeniously, Young et al created a spoken text that works like a score, the performers mouthing the words as they are heard overheard while performing exaggerated movements as if they were human puppets. These movements tell the tale of deceit, for the emotions they express often belie the words the actors are mouthing.

The performance of the farce in a series of tableaux – with Doug Letheren as Director of the Complex, Jermaine Spivey as the Postmaster, Tiffany Tregarthen (in removable beard) as the Revisor and a blousy, Cindy Salgado as the flirtatious Anna, wife of the Director – opens and closes the piece. What transpires in the middle is a dance deconstruction of The Inspector General, plumbing the emotional depths of the play, while stage directions are voiced overhead. Expressionism reaches its height with the appearance of a figure bearing a huge set of antlers that then get used as crutches.

The movement of the 10 performers is extraordinary, very dreamlike, an effect heightened by Owen Belton’s electronic, industrial soundscape and Jay Gower Taylor’s abstract video projections that trace needle-like paths on the scrim like an electronic circuit gone mad. The words of the text are repeated and broken down into phrases that apply the idea of the revisor to the dance – constantly regrouping, revising the movement, getting down to the elemental level.

All to say, catch revisor if you possibly can, and hope that there’s a chance to see it more than once, for its complexity demands revisiting.

revisor

Created by Crystal Pite + Jonathon Young

A Kidd Pivot Production presented by Canadian Stage

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, until March 16

Photo of Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Doug Letheren, David Raymond, Rena Narumi, Matthew Peacock by Michael Slobodian.

Night travellers take us to our ancestral home

There must be millions of people in the world today who have never and may never experience a truly dark night sky. Such is the effect of urban and rural light pollution, that many will never witness the constellations or the Milky Way. The idea of losing the night came to Saskatchewan choreographer Shannon Litzenberger in 2014 when she took up an artist’s residency at Grasslands National Park, declared a Dark Sky Preserve in 2009.

That experience was the seed for World After Dark, a multi-media exploration in dance and words, of all that our connection to the night can mean, and how fragile our relationship to it has become. Christopher Dewdney’s book, Acquainted with the Night: Excursions through the World after Dark gave Litzenberger the impetus to assemble a dynamic creative team to collaborate in words, music, video imagery and especially dance in an exploration of the metaphors associated with night.

A poetic voiceover narrative — the work of playwright and dramaturge Guillermo Verdecchia, in part referring to and quoting from Dewdney’s text – is key to the coherence of this show. Rarely is speech employed so effectively in dance as it is in World After Dark, in the voiced-over narrations delivered offstage by Irene Pauzer and Dan Wild, and in short bits of spoken by the performers.

“Take a moment to let your eyes adjust (to the dark),” a narrator advises as the lights gradually come up on Linnea Swan, the personification of night. A goddess of darkness, she appears outfitted in designer Alexandra Lord’s black silky jumpsuit covered in shiny, spangly stars, as if she was wearing the night sky. Curled up on the floor in fetal position is Louis Laberge-Côté, our Everyman urbanite, as Swan takes us on the progress of night across the globe (courtesy of Elysha Poirier’s video projections on the upstage scrim). The night covers the Earth in darkness, as “dripping time passes . . . No trace of her is left on you.”

Aroused, agitated, Laberge-Côté voices a fragmented, disoriented shout of orders and numbers: “Six. . . Five . . .Rules . . . Sorry . . . This is the policy. . . I’m sorry . . . these are the parameters.” This is a desperate man, a bureaucrat trying to impose order, struggling against the darkness encroaching on him. Four figures in drab dungarees pull him down to the ground and remove him.

In the next scene, Ms. Night, relating the discovery of fire and the consequent light brought to early Earthlings, is our hostess at a disco bar or nightclub, where downtown workers seek the night to reinvent themselves, leaving behind their dreary occupations for more exciting identities on the dance floor. Syreeta Hector, Emily Law, Nikolaos Markakis and Kathia Wittenborn more or less depict themselves, as Swan continues her presentation. “Only losers will go to bed alone tonight,” she says.

And so it goes, with a voyage into the night forest in which our Everyman, fearful yet intrigued, recovers a connection to nocturnal creatures, including a mothlike being beautifully articulated in a solo by Wittenborn. There’s a brief sequence set to the text of Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book, Goodnight Moon, and a beautiful monologue from Laberge-Côté about sneaking out of the house on summer nights to envelop himself in the darkness.

The choreography, with assistance from dance dramaturge Gerald Trentham and creative advisor Marie-Josée Chartier, is compellingly original, emerging organically from the story line and synched to John Gzowski’s haunting sound design, presented to advantage through Ken MacKenzie’s light and set design.

A huge creative effort went into the making of World After Dark and one only hopes it has a life beyond this premiere at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, perhaps in some dark sky preserve.

World After Dark

Concept, choreography and direction by Shannon Litzenberger

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, March 6 to 9, 2019, Toronto

Photo of Linnea Swan and Louis Laberge-Côté by Lyon Smith

A poignant love letter to a Vietnamese Mom

“I’m not Chinese. If I were Chinese I’d look a lot like this but less Vietnamese. . . My last name is “Nguyen” and not New Yen. Vietnamese is a tonal language. You need a special muscle to hit that “Ng” sound and that muscle is called “tolerance”.

With this bit of gentle confrontation, actor and comedian Franco Nguyen opens Good Morning, Viet Mom, playing now at Toronto’s Aki Studio in Daniels Spectrum. It is a very clever show, Nguyen holding his audience in his affectionate grip with a script he wrote himself.

First produced at the 2017 Toronto Fringe and the 2018 Next Stage Festival, Viet Mom is freshly mounted by Cahoots Theatre with a bigger production team. Director Byron Abalos has sharpened the edges of the show with choreographed movement by Andrea Mapili and Kevin Matthew Wong’s video and still projections, some displayed in a monitor shaped like a suitcase.

Good Morning Viet Mom is a love story. It came into being on a trip Nguyen, a Second City alumni and sketch comedy artist, made with his mother Dieu to Vietnam around 2012. It was his first time there, his mother’s return after 28 years, and the purpose was to visit Nguyen’s elderly grandmother.

Nguyen saw for the first time how much his mother had sacrificed for him after bringing her son, a babe in arms, to Canada. She worked in a factory in Toronto, generously sending money back home, even as her Winnipeg-born teenager – whose Vietnamese is too basic to really converse in a deep way with his mother – would be demanding a flashy pair of the newest Nikes. And getting them.

Viet Mom is Nguyen’s response to his loving, generous mother, saying in a poignant piece of theatre what he could not say in her language. The actor deploys his stand-up chops to describe frequent visits to Honest Ed’s, one-stop shopping for his mother, an emporium that looked like “a clown had sex with Dollarama.”

With self-deprecating humour, Nguyen tells of his coming of age as the son of an Asian immigrant, giving himself the hip-hop handle of Nip Dog. The laughs fall away as the performer segues to a tearful memory of profound gratitude when, as we see in his videos, Nguyen takes a journey of the heart to find out who his mother and his Vietnamese family really is.

This mom, just back from a visit with her journalist daughter in Hanoi, is grateful to have witnessed, through Canadian-Vietnamese eyes, all that a cross-cultural family can mean.

Good Morning Viet Mom

Written and performed by Franco Nguyen

A Cahoots Theatre Production

At Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto, until March 3, 2019

Photo of Franco Nguyen by Dahlia Katz

A bravura bear for our times

A one-man monologue, a song-and-dance routine, mime, performance art and, above all, storytelling, Bears has a unique charm that possibly only Sheldon Elter could realize.

This bear of a man of many talents is Floyd. Narrating his own tale in the third person, he identifies with the big grizzly bear, whose habitat in tar sands country is under threat. Floyd is accompanied by a chorus of seven fairy-like creatures – Shammy Belmore, Karina Cox, Skye Demas, Lara Ebata, Zoë Glassman, Gianna Vacirca and Kendra Shorter — who illustrate Floyd’s story, their words either echoing his thoughts or making a running commentary as they make like sleeping bears, butterflies, alpine flowers or prairie gophers.

There’s a lot going on in Bears, which earned MacKenzie several awards, including a Dora for Outstanding New Play. He wrote the play to reconnect with his family’s Métis, Cree and Ojibwe heritage on the North Saskatchewan River. He might have had Elter in mind as he wrote, for Bears displays elements common to Elter’s hit show Métis Mutt. A stand-up comedian, actor and very entertaining guy, Elter took us from laughter to tears in that intense performance, as he does in Bears.

Bears runs from high seriousness to banality to profanity, often within one or two sentences.  When Floyd muses about grizzlies, referring to “frolicking in alpine meadows,” then tranquilized, then reduced to art installations of “their shellacked bear droppings,” the chorus chimes in with “like, shitloads.” Elter plays his dual role well. One minute he’s an indigenous man complaining how “the Feds cut our funding” for a project. The next he’s a would-be bear ravaging the forest floor for wild strawberries or chatting with woodland chickadees.

The humour ranges from satire to farce. (The bear’s sense of smell is so good “he can tell which squirrels are menstruating.”)  The chorus also indicates mood, an assist to the audience, for the script can be confusing. Monica Dottor’s choreography is quite challenging for young performers who don’t appear to have had much dance training, but the dainty, shape-shifting choristers can be amusing.

Would that the playwright had made more of the role of Mama, played by fine Cree actor Tracey Nepinak, last seen at the Belfry in a revival of The Rez Sisters. She is the calm centre, and she’s especially moving when speaking in Cree. But for chunks of the 80-minute show she’s on stage with nothing to do.

Bring your imagination if you’re coming to see Bears, for it’s a thoughtful play that requires careful interpretation. T. Erin Gruber helps that process, having created a minimal set of shiny, reflective shapes like mountains and clouds that dramatically re-engineer the space with some brilliant lighting.

Beyond avalanches, desecration of the environment and a tale of a golden eagle drowned in a toxic tailings pond, there’s a home truth to convey, a statement that applies to all communities: “We must stand together for justice in this world.” Mama says so.

Photo of Sheldon Elter and chorus by David Cooper

Bears

By Matthew MacKenzie

An Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre production

At the Belfry Theatre, Victoria, until February 24, 2019

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

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

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