A birds-and-the-bees message

Field Zoology

Created and performed by Shawn O’Hara

Animalia Productions

Downtown Activity Centre, Victoria Fringe Festival, Victoria, BC

Mon Aug 29, 6:00pm; Wed Aug 31, 8:00pm; Fri Sept 2, 6:30pm; Sat Sept 3, 4:15pm

 

A leading incubator for Canadian talent of all kinds – think Steve Nash, David Foster, Silken Laumann, Eric Metcalfe – Victoria boasts a fringe festival remarkable as a showcase for emerging artists. Shawn O’Hara, creator of the Fringe show Field Zoology, is a fine example of the above.

Whether it’s because we’ve all had teachers like Dr. Bradley Gooseberry or because O’Hara is a fiend at engaging an audience, he had us at the first “stand up, please” (immediately followed by “now sit down”). All willingly stood, faced east and repeated  the zoologist pledge: a promise to respect all animals – with the exception of the mongoose (“they know what they did”).

In his Indiana Jones hat, fake moustache, polo shirt and all-important cargo shorts (over bare, hairy legs in socks and thick-soled Blundstones), Dr. Gooseberry gives us a quick account of his beginnings as a zoologist in the Amazon. The Amazon central warehouse in Petaluma, California, that is. His zoological career began among the rat inhabitants, a study that included an investigation (don’t ask) of “rat gonorrhea.”

O’Hara’s humour is both physical and cerebral. Using an overhead projector, Gooseberry displays crudely drawn animals and titles sometimes running off the page to illustrate his lesson. (“These transparencies are expensive. Don’t use permanent marker.”) Manipulating them before our eyes, he gives us animated action, slipping transparencies over each other to demonstrate one creature devouring another.

A master of deadpan, O’Hara runs a steady patter that keeps his audience in stitches. You will be marking your own papers, he informs us. “I’ll be damned if I give up my weeknights to grade your horseshit essays. It’s my time to watch ‘Bachelor in Parasdise’.” He veers wildly from sarcasm to the absurd, weaving in a major theme in zoology: seduction. Porn, he advises, can be found “on your father’s laptop in the secret folder called ‘work graphs’.” Admitting to his own proclivities, Gooseberry alludes to the arousing features of “a curvaceous water fountain in my apartment.”

A Q&A session that ends the piece features Gooseberry answering questions submitted by the audience. “Why do female lions do all the hunting?” he reads from an index card. “Because it’s 2016.” Touché.

The Victoria Fringe, featuring 53 shows from all over, runs through September 4 in seven venues.

 

Austin C. Clarke 1931 – 2016

Austin Clarke has died. My family and I have lost a dear and constant friend. English literature has lost an unstoppable talent.

Clarke died of cancer in St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto on June 26. He would have been 85 on July 26. Born in the St. James parish of Barbados and sent to Combermere School, Austin Chesterfield Clarke, known as Tom, was a mother-raised boy who quickly excelled in school, earning top marks and outpacing his classmates as a barefoot runner and long jumper. At Harrison College, he was earmarked for the higher education, which for young Barbadian men at the time meant emigrating to the U.K. or the U.S. Clarke earned admission to the London School of Economics and to Oxford; he was also accepted into black universities in the U.S.

But at the Coleridge-Parry Secondary School for Boys where Clarke was teaching, he was denied study leave. When another teacher advised him to look into study in Canada, Clarke applied to McGill University and was admitted. But on the flight that took him to Montreal he had this niggling thought – why was he enrolling in a university in a French-speaking province? Clarke stayed on the plane and got off in Toronto, where he applied the next day to the University of Toronto. He became a student of Trinity College, where the stone buildings and student garb of suits and robes gave him the sensation of an Oxbridge life.

He lived in a UofT dormitory and paid his school fees through serving in the Trinity dining hall and working summer jobs that included faking experience to be hired by a land surveyor. On more than one occasion, for lack of a transit fare, he walked the distance from work in Scarborough to the St. George campus.

Clarke’s writing talent had been underplayed in Barbados, where he once said, “To be an artist at that time had the very sneaky, negative implication that you were gay. Men did not play with paint and pencils and did not write poetry.”

But he soon distinguished himself in Trinity College literary publications. He earned a prose prize of $30 on one occasion. By then he had proposed to Betty Reynolds, an accomplished nurse whom he’d met in his first summer in Toronto. The prize money bought a bottle of rum and mix to serve at their engagement party.

It was Betty, mother of his daughters Loretta and Janice, who made it possible for Austin to spend more time on writing. She went to work and he became a stay-at-home dad. But his early working years were tough times for a young father. He did the Christmas rush in the post office and other menial and morale-destroying tasks. He was a natural as a journalist though and bluffed his way into a job as a reporter in Timmins, Ontario, a long wintry train ride north.

Back in Toronto, Clarke parlayed his storytelling gifts into a freelance career. At the CBC he became a regular radio contributor, most notably landing an interview with Malcolm X in New York – after promising his producers he’d get a sit-down with James Baldwin. CBC literary producer Robert Weaver recognized Clarke’s talent and helped him get his first short stories published, but when Austin sent him a poem, Weaver advised him to “stick to prose.” His first book, The Survivors of the Crossing, published by McClelland & Stewart in 1964, was set in a sugar cane plantation just before Independence in Barbados. (Because Clarke felt he would appear too much a late bloomer with this first book, he pushed his birth date forward by three years.) Among Thistles and Thorns, his first story collection, came out the following year.

Clarke, inspired by Caribbean writers published before him, notably Sam Selvon and George Lamming, at first wrote the Barbadian experience. But soon he was carving out new territory for Canadian fiction, with stories of “Wessindindians” such as the immigrant in “The Motor Car”, whose big dream is to own a Ford Galaxie, or the title character in “The Green Hornet.”

It wasn’t until The Origin of Waves (M&S, 1997) that Clarke hit his stride as a novelist. The book, a chronicle of two Barbadian men on a walk through Toronto revisiting their shared memories, earned him Cuba’s Casa de las Américas prize. With The Polished Hoe (Thomas Allen, 2002), Clarke really captured the poetry of the Bajan dialect. It is a big sprawling tale from the times of slavery on forward, told through the eyes of an indelible woman protagonist, Mary-Mathilda. He won the 2002 Giller Prize, the Trillium Prize and the Regional Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for The Polished Hoe, which was translated into several languages and even won an award in Italian.

          It was only after 2002 that Clarke could earn a living off his writing alone. Up until then, he always needed a supplementary income. His early interest in the civil rights movement and African American life earned him spots at Duke University and Yale as a lecturer in the new field of Black Studies. Nothing if not adaptable  ̶  and self-inventive – Clarke turned to politics in the 1970s, running as a Progressive Conservative for an impossible-to-win provincial seat. He scored more votes in York South than any PC had earned before. Later he held appointments as a cultural attaché in the Barbadian embassy in Washington DC, then, in 1975, as general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation’s Barbados station. His experience there gave him the material for The Prime Minister (General Publishing, 1977). Other positions, on the Ontario Film Review Board and on the federal Immigration and Refugee Board, brought the only dry spells in the life of this highly prolific author.

In the last years of his life, Clarke turned to poetry and proved Robert Weaver wrong. A long narrative poem published by Guernica in 2013, Where the Sun Shines Best, was nominated for a Governor General’s literary award. The valedictory poem is based on an incident in Moss Park, across the street from Clarke’s home in what he called “the ghetto” in which soldiers killed a homeless man.

From 2000 forward, the honours poured in. Clarke was admitted to the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, granted honorary doctorates by York University and three other universities and won many awards for his writing, including the 2015 Harbourfront Festival Prize. The honour that no doubt meant the most to him was his meeting with Queen Elizabeth after he won the Commonwealth prize. Judging from the photograph that hung in his living room, it was a moment that she enjoyed as much as he did.

Raconteur, host, excellent cook, a public speaker beyond compare, a generous literary mentor, Austin Clarke was many things to many people. His books and broadcasts ensure that he’ll be with us for a long time to come.

He is survived by Betty Clarke and their daughters Loretta and Janice, his daughters Darcy Ballantyne and Jordan Clarke, his Barbadian siblings and cousins and his many close friends in Canada and abroad.

Toronto Star photo by Colin McConnell

 

Gallery

Sharing their culture – with song, dance and heart

Every performance of the Le La La dancers repeats a form that goes back thousands of years. But it takes this Victoria company and its director George Me’las Taylor to make the Kwakwaka’wakw (kwa kwa key wok) songs and dances new again.

Taylor’s willingness to share his culture is powered by a prodigious talent. He’s a showman. He’s a singer and drummer and knows how to wear a mask and animate it.

Last Saturday on the stage of the Victoria Aboriginal Cultural Festival, Taylor, born in Alert Bay, B.C., was in full voice, singing, drumming and introducing the dances.

“We perform these dances,” he said, not just for spectacle, “but because they belong to us.”

He meant “belong” in both a cultural and a family sense. In the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, a dance and the mask that identifies it is the property of a particular family, passed on by inheritance or marriage. That means at any occasion that demands a potlatch, such as a birth, death or marriage, the family members can enact the dances they own. Some dances are considered sacred and are witnessed only in the context of a potlatch.

Since I first saw them perform in Toronto in 2006, Le La La (it means travelling from here to there) has only grown stronger at a kind of storytelling that’s at once specific to the spiritualism of the Kwakwaka’wakw and universally understood. Taylor’s nation has inhabited the northern tip of Vancouver Island, nearby islands and coastal inlets for millennia. Two of George and Melanie Taylor’s sons, Jason, 32, and Jarid, 29, have always danced with Le La La. Today the company also includes nephews and grand-nephews and grandson Lason Taylor, who is 5 years old. Melanie is the company manager.

The Kwakwaka’wakw are renowned artists whose reputation extends back to the time of Contact and includes important carvers such as the late Mungo Martin and his grandson Chief Tony Hunt. The full intent of the masks is only revealed when they are danced. Introducing Wild Woman of the Woods or Dzunukwa, Taylor tells the story of a haunting character represented with a mask featuring a hook nose and big red lips. She’s known as a bringer of wealth, but like many a mythical creature she has a dark side. Children were warned not to wander into the woods in case Dzunukwa might be abroad. She likes to snatch up young ones and take them home to eat. A Le La La dancer in a fur suit, wearing the magnificent mask, bears a cedar bark basket on his back – all the better for carrying home small children.

Bukwus, the wild man of the woods, possesses great strength and can make himself invisible. One interpretation has it that Bukwus might offer food that a wise person would refuse, because it is Bukwus’ habit to consume the souls of the living. Bukwus might also be an aboriginal interpretation of Big Foot.

Le La La’s Bukwus enters the stage in an outfit that looks like moss; he is truly scary. The transformation dance is an opportunity to see how dancers really do take on the identity of the animals and spirits they depict. On Saturday, 18-year-old Calvin Charlie-Dawson performed this dance with great agility, surrounded as he transformed himself by dancers Ethan Taylor and Jarid Taylor, wearing button blankets.

As a director at large of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia, George Taylor has an official role as an ambassador for first nations culture. And ever since establishing Le La La in 1987 he has been taking the message of friendship and unity around the world, from Europe, to China and Mexico and all points of the North American compass.

“My father always told me to be proud to be first nations, and I am proud. But I am also a proud Canadian,” Taylor tells his audience. He means it and he lives it. In fact he says it again.

Family, pride, love, respect, harmony and peace. These are the values that Le La La stands for.

Photos, clockwise from top left: Haida chief Lance Baker, George Me’las Taylor, Jenna Lancaster; Calvin Charlie Dawson as the Raven with Jarid Taylor; Ethan Taylor dancing the Nun the bear; Lason Taylor; Andy Everson of K’ómoks First Nation and Ethan Taylor.

See George Taylor at the prow of a canoe at the opening of Victoria’s aboriginal cultural festival: http://www.cheknews.ca/aboriginal-festival-kicks-off-traditional-canoe-landing-189217/

For more about the company go to www.lelaladancers.com

 

Gallery

Hands across the water

Watching first nations’ artists carve their works is nothing new for Victoria, where Thunderbird Park, around the corner from the legislative buildings, was the site of a carving shed from its opening in 1941.

But it’s not every day that a Coast Salish artist sits down for a demonstration with carver friends from the Iatmul tribe in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. Elaine Monds, founder and director of Alcheringa Gallery on Yates Street in Victoria, has been facilitating such cross-cultural interactions for a number of years.  And it was on her premises that three carvers were at work with their tools on Saturday, showing visitors how it’s done.

This was the fourth visit to Vancouver Island for Claytus Yambon, who is well acquainted with artist John Marston of Ladysmith. In 2009, the two of them participated in a project called Hailans to Ailans which paired Papua New Guinea aboriginal artists and their Northwest Coast counterparts. Near Marston’s home, Yambon and Marston carved a magnificent red cedar war canoe called “Bummdianmari” (one mind, one people), that features a prow with female image and a stylized alligator. The sides of the canoe display carvings integrating the motifs of both cultures.

“It was the most unexpected thing that ever happened in my life,” said Yambon of that first venture into another Pacific art tradition. He was whittling away at a swamp hen, a creature that is central to the Iatmul way of life. “They are what we survive on.” Beside him, Marston was in the early stages of carving a mask out of a large disk of alder. For him too the exchange with the Papua New Guineans, which took him to Yambon’s village in Sepik, was a life-changer.  “It expanded not only my art practice but my life’s horizons. Witnessing a culture that is relatively intact from ancient times to today was pretty moving for me.”

Both his parents were carvers, said Marston, as is his brother Luke. “We work with alder when its green, as it dries it gets harder and changes colour. This mask will be dark brown when it’s finished.” The smooth face, which will ultimately incorporate both female and male aspects, showed a remarkable serenity.

Edward Dumoi, also from Sepik, was carving a cat. It was his first time in British Columbia. “I’m self-taught,” said Dumoi, noting that his father who died when Edward was young had been an artist. Dumoi’s work bridges the traditional and the contemporary. Domestic cats are a favourite subject, carved with the same panache as his totemic finials for houseposts. He can see the effects of the cultural exchanges that have been going on across the Pacific. “After John had been to visit us, I noticed that he’d used some of our stylings in his work. Maybe I’ll do the same,” he said, with a broad grin.

 

Lavinia: what’s in a name? Lots

Lavinia

Created and performed by Jon Lachlan Stewart

Uno Fest, Metro Studio, Victoria

May 25 to 26, 2016

The references to Shakespeare’s women in this compelling drama, created by quick-change artist Jon Lachlan Stewart, are simply the underpinning to the contemporary issues the show raises.  Lavinia is a victim of a brutal attack in which her hands were chopped off. She’s the outspoken one in a support group for women who’ve suffered physical and sexual abuse.

Shakespeare’s Lavinia appears in Titus Andronicus. She is the daughter of the Roman ruler, a virtuous woman who is raped. Stewart’s Lavinia is a punkish teen with long, straight, pink-tinted hair under a black wool toque. She introduces us to the other members of the support group (represented in framed silhouettes hung from above): Silvia, her best friend, named for Shakespeare’s character in Two Gentleman of Verona; Helena, blogger and Youtube celebrity, from Shakespeare’s unloved Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Lady Macbeth, who has a streak of violence; and the not-to-be mentioned, now absent Ophelia.

Stewart, a member of the Montreal troupe Surreal SoReal Theatre, is a fascinating performer. Tall and limber, he skips between two wigs mounted either side of the stage, transforming himself before our eyes. One wig is Lavinia’s; the other shiny hairpiece makes him handsome Proteus, best friend of Valentine (the other gentleman of Verona) and pursuer of Silvia, Valentine’s fiancée. As in Shakespeare, Proteus has a girlfriend too: Julia. While in character as Lavinia or Proteus, Stewart also impersonates others, notably deep-voiced Linda, leader of the therapy group, who’s given to dancing Elizabethan jigs and repeating words like conducive, as in “that behaviour is not conducive to recovery.”

Lavinia, an uncontrolled brat in group and a self-appointed voice for her friend Silvia, drives the script. “I don’t want to survive,” she says. “I want to live.” Proteus, on the other hand, is calm, poised and very capable of dissembling, especially when covering up a crime against his friend’s loved one, Silvia.

The show deftly raises issues familiar from the case against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi: what constitutes assault and how sexual assault is handled in the courts. A talk-back session is scheduled to follow the Thursday 8 pm performance of Lavinia. The play and the performance provide much  material for discussion.

Also recommended  ̶  before Uno Fest’s close: ana, from Victoria’s Impulse Theatre, on from Thursday through Saturday,  and  A Chitenge Story, a work-in-development  by Makambe K. Simamba of Calgary, at Intrepid Theatre Club on Saturday at 4:30.

 

 

 

 

Telling it like it is: inside the joint

Circus Incognito

Created and performed by Jamie Adkins

Intrepid Theatre’s Uno Fest, McPherson Playhouse, Victoria

May 21, 2016

Inside/Out

Written and performed by Patrick Keating

Uno Fest, Metro Studio, Victoria

May 24 and 25, 2016

Jamie Adkins was trained in the clown tradition, and so was Patrick Keating. But Adkins didn’t have to go to jail to find his calling. A native of San Diego, where he became a street performer at 13, Adkins added a lot of skills to his repertoire as he made his way from California to Montreal, where he joined Cirque Éloize.

On Saturday night, he delighted youngsters and adults alike with Circus Incognitus, a show of astounding variety. Adkins  is one funny guy, with a talent for surprising us. From an opening scene with a flashlight in the dark, to the “grande finale” involving a tightrope and a pair of ladders used like stilts, Adkins never skipped a beat, rolling from one routine to another with a light heart and true engagement with his audience.  It takes a great performer to look like a klutz doing things worthy of a trapeze artist.

A deft mover, Adkins  made a dance partner out of a wooden chair, over-balancing and tipping it on its edge. He juggled with ping pong balls that he later pushed into his mouth to make grotesque faces. He caught oranges thrown at him — on a fork held in his mouth. He dressed up and dressed down in his Buster Keaton suit and borrowed a few expressions from Charlie Chaplin in a mostly wordless act. One word Adkins did announce, with a child’s expression of wonder: “magic.” And magic this show was, from beginning to end.

When he was 13, Patrick Keating was a speed freak, on his way to heroin addiction. His first time behind bars was in juvenile detention, a hell hole for children. Keating was in and out of prisons in Quebec and British Columbia for nearly 10 years. Gallows humour informs his amazing monologue, as revealing a depiction of prison life as any memoir, but much more entertaining. His timing is impeccable.

Keating enters bearing a banker’s box of belongings, like a man just released from the joint. “It was my choice,” he says. Incarceration, that is. A judge offered him the choice of rehab or prison and he chose sentencing. “Life on the instalment plan,” is how he terms his lengthy stint.

A shy kid from an Irish Catholic background who grew up in east-end Montreal, Keating first earned respect after a school yard fight. Not yet a teenager, he became the drug dealers’ guard with a 12-guage shotgun aimed at the door. Soon this rather slight man was getting big sentences for armed robbery that meant penitentiary time. There he needed all his smarts just to survive. Keating’s tales bring to life characters such as the transgendered Madot, who sews her boyfriend a three-piece suit out of prison greens; Noel, the fearless Rastafarian; or Buddy, the car fanatic who had his pedal  foot nearly blown off by a cop.

There’s much wisdom in Keating’s show, about how loyalty and generosity are developed in prison and how the arts, theatre in this case, can be a way to true rehabilitation. Keating performs Inside/Out again at 8:30 Wednesday in the Metro Studio.

Uno Fest takes off

The Unfortunate Ruth

Written and performed by Tara Travis at Uno Fest

Metro Studio, Victoria, BC

May 18 – 20, 2016

 

Shylock

By Mark Leiren-Young

Performed by John Huston at Uno Fest

Metro Studio

May 19 ­­­­­­­– 20, 2016

 

Victoria’s 19th Uno Fest, an annual event produced by Intrepid Theatre, is off to a terrific start to 10 days of performance of 14 solo shows.

The running gag in Tara Travis’s The Unfortunate Ruth, is “I have a hunch,” a line delivered by the Ruth, a buck-toothed hunchback receptionist in a white coat. Ruthie, her Doppelganger, is also a receptionist – in a clinic that performs ultrasounds on pregnant women.

I have to admit that I didn’t quite get this show, which grew out of Travis’s fascination with “identical twins, parallel universes, the work of Mind of a Snail and a particularly rare medical condition called fetus in fetu.”

Buck-toothed Ruth has a fetus in her hump that makes its presence known by gripping Ruth’s heart with its legs. Ruth calls the fetus Cordelia, Cordy for short. The other Ruth, known as Ruthie (a quick on-stage costume change takes place), has a fetus growing in her abdominal cavity. She could see it herself with her ultrasound wand, if she cared to. Then, just to complicate things, there are talking cartoon fetuses projected on a screen behind each Ruth. In one video scene, one fetus eats the other. There’s a confusion of names: who knows where the fetus Gertrude fits in? what about this unicorn and the ashes in the urns? And which of the Ruths is the one who survives surgical removal?

Travis, a Vancouver performer who brought this show to the Vancouver Fringe in 2014, gets off some good lines and disports herself with aplomb, puzzling as her show remains to this viewer.

                Victoria playwright Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock is the stuff of great solo performances and John Huston is the actor to do it justice. Essentially a lecture, this Shylock soliloquy is a literal undressing as an actor bares his heart before his post-show audience.  Huston is John Davies, an actor trained in the classical tradition (think the Stratford Festival as run by an Englishman), and currently embodying a villainous, obnoxious Shylock in a festival’s controversial production of Merchant of Venice. He enters — swarthy, dirty, costumed with a hawk-like nose, grey page-boy wig and full Elizabethan accoutrement  — and delivers his most memorable soliloquy. “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute . . .”

                This Shylock is either a victim of anti-Semitism, or a reason for inciting it. In his one-sided “talk-back” address to the audience,  Davies, Jewish himself, answers his critics (“you must be a Jew-hating Jew,”) and makes a plea for returning to theatre that is about art and not about pandering to patrons or protecting the public from things they’d rather not acknowledge. Davies believes Shakespeare was an anti-Semite; Shylock is his villain, not someone with whom we need to sympathize.

As he’s raising issue after issue, eloquently displaying the power of “dangerous words,” the actor is wiping off his make-up, removing his wig, working down to his leggings and stocking-feet.  Huston holds our attention every minute. (He performs  an adaptation of  The Screwtape Letters at Christ Church Cathedral, Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 pm.)