Isaiah Bell: The Book of My Shames

Should I have said “The book of HIS shames”? Isaiah Bell’s one-man show is about his shames, right?

But no. He is everyman, every-person, and so these are your shames & my shames too.

I couldn’t imagine a more apt show for PRIDE.  While I was all gung-ho to suggest that one should go see The Book of My Shames presented by Tapestry Opera, it’s over, tonight was the last performance. Sorry about that.

As I sat there watching & listening, I did what I often do when reviewing a show, trying to create a mnemonic to remember everything I might want to say. This fell into a perfect A- B – C.

A for Antinous, B for Book, C for comparison, D for dead.

And early on I was again thinking of G, as in Grand Opera and its dramaturgy. For the second consecutive night I’m feeling that Grand Opera is almost D-for dead. Bell was Antinous in the Canadian Opera Company production of Hadrian, a courageous and expensive attempt to make a grand opera, yet so stiff and limited when compared to the works I’ve seen over the past year that are done on a smaller scale, such as Pomegranate last night or tonight’s The Book of My Shames. I was reminded of my petty irritation at Hadrian when Bell gave the name a four syllable pronunciation (An-tin-o-us), even though some in the cast plus the chorus gave the name a three syllable pronunciation (An-tin-oose). Back at the time, I asked myself “When you’re spending all that money shouldn’t somebody make sure you’re all pronouncing the name the same way?” But now I am just sad as I speculate that it’s all so complex and so big, a grand opera is so impossibly detailed of a thing, a vast machine that’s difficult if not impossible to control.

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Composer & tenor Isaiah Bell

Yet with this one-man show? Okay, nobody said Book of My Shames is opera. Bell’s writing is confessional text with some music, supported ably by pianist Darren Creech & Director/dramaturge Sean Guist. The flexibility on display, the ease with which Bell could connect, have us laughing our heads off? very impressive.

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Pianist Darren Creech

But maybe what Bell originally roughed out at his piano was then taken up by Creech in rehearsal before Guist’s observant eye / ear. The 80 minutes of this piece, some spoken, some sung, some accompanied by piano solo are all coherent minutes, emerging from a clear-headed objective.

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Director / dramaturge Sean Guist

B is for Book. It took me awhile to decide that the book we see is actually a metaphor and not literally true as the book in Bell’s life: because Bell’s presentation was so authentic. For awhile I was persuaded (like the Ghostbusters… my slogan could be “i’m ready to believe you”… and yes maybe I’m gullible) that this funky old book full of pictures was a real album from the youth of this person presenting his life to us, telling us horror stories and silly stories, and laying himself bare. But wow, what a brilliant image, this idea that our bad moments could be collected this way. Forgive me for hitting you over the head with the impact of the show, but it was very effective. This book is us, who we are and where we have been. The opposite of Pride is Shame. To get to self-acceptance one must at least begin the journey through self-judgment and on towards making peace with oneself and one’s past.

C is for comparison, as in, what’s the difference between last night & tonight? Eros (okay we’ll do E in the same paragraph with C) was surely there last night in the lesbian opera, as it was tonight, in the gay man’s one-man cabaret show. I was struck by something I didn’t properly air last night (when I alluded to Erlanger’s operatic setting of Pierre Louýs’s Aphrodite), namely that it’s a huge difference when a man writes an opera about lesbians, and women (lesbian or otherwise) undertake such a project as we saw last night. And when we watched the opening of Act III of Hadrian (if I am remembering correctly… Act III is after intermission, right?),  we see Hadrian & Antinous are in bed together. There were similarities between what we saw last night between the lesbian lovers and what we saw in Act III of Hadrian. Tonight’s solo show had some very intensely erotic recollections, even if there was a great deal of ambiguity in what we were hearing about. I think the key to all of these examples is what happens in our heads, that beauty & eroticism is in the eye/ear of the beholder/listener.

This was the closing performance of The Book of My Shames at Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District . I hope there will be another opportunity to see/ hear Bell’s fascinating creation.  Whatever show he might bring to town, I’ll be sure to go see it.

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