A Blue Christmas pointing me to Elvis’s redemption

The recent Saturday Night Live hosted by Austin Butler persuaded me to watch the recent biography of Elvis Presley, starring Butler.

As we watched, Erika pointed to the similarity between Butler and Elvis, two men who both lost their mother relatively early in life, suggesting that might help his portrayal. Watching Butler speak of his mother during the monologue was the first of three times that I cried (tears but no sobs) during this episode of SNL.

Butler himself teared up while he spoke. I suppose it’s contagious.

The second and third moments with teardrops were really about Cecily Strong, my favorite SNL cast member, whose departure from the show was announced with this episode. She came at it in her usual use of bizarre metaphors. In the Weekend Update segment she spoke in character of going to jail, as a metaphor for leaving SNL. More tears but no sobs.

Later, speaking of her plan to leave her job at Radio Shack (again, a metaphor for leaving SNL), host Austin Butler came out to sing “Blue Christmas”.

Seeing this we decided we would watch the Elvis film, speaking as someone who has done a few Elvis impersonations of my own during singing telegrams. No I’m not as good at this as Butler. In the film he looks and sounds like Elvis. Amazing.

When I speak of “Elvis’s redemption” I mean a new perspective on someone I used as a kind of cartoon character, someone I understood as a dinosaur, a relic of the 1950s mocked throughout popular culture.

For instance who can forget the “Song of The King” from Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?

That’s one of the more dignified versions of Elvis.

Elvis Presley turns up in Forrest Gump, getting ideas from watching Forrest walk with his leg-braces.

Elvis’s voice & clothing were easy to recognize and usually gave people a giggle when I mimicked him. I never challenged the assertions of his importance as one of the innovators in music history, a bridge between white and black culture: although I understood him more as a Pat Boone type, a white guy appropriating black music, rather than someone authentic in his own right. His eventual fate as a target for so many comic imitations suggested that he was also committing self-parody, which I realize is simply unfair. Of course now I’m coming at this after reading Gabor Maté, who links addictions to trauma and without blame.

I think we’re ready for a new take on Elvis.

Because it’s directed by Baz Luhrmann, a director known to be sometimes over the top, one must come at the film with some skepticism. As with the eccentric Ken Russell or the flamboyant Terry Gilliam, I embrace the poetic excess of Baz’s films whole-heartedly. I first encountered this sensibility in Strictly Ballroom (1992), loved the opportunities Moulin Rouge (2001) affords for examining music in film, and was totally won over by his approach to The Great Gatsby (2013), especially when compared to the pallor of the 1974 adaptation.

There were many places where I knew Baz was taking liberties with the truth. No the film has not fully erased my earlier impressions, nor will it really change our understanding of the cultural icon. But I come out of this thinking that Elvis has at times been misunderstood, as he’s more of a victim. In the 1960s and 70s our culture saw fatness as weakness, recalling John Belushi’s imitation of Liz Taylor for example. Drug addiction too was judged in moral terms.

Butler’s superb performance is the starting point, although in the latter part of the film we segue into films of the actual Elvis, as though to authorize what we’ve seen. Frankly I don’t think it matters. This is an enjoyable movie that makes me like Elvis more than I’ve ever liked him before. I’ll have to watch again. At the very least I found I liked Butler’s Elvis, Baz’s Elvis, if not the actual Elvis, whom I’ll never really know.

Tom Hanks is at the centre of this project in his portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker, the man who managed Elvis for most of his career. For the first part of the film we’re seeing the story through the lens of the Colonel. Hanks plays completely against type, in an Oscar-worthy performance although perhaps Butler will be one of his rivals for the statuette. While this is again a symptom of Baz the entertainer or Baz the poet, the facts underlining this are genuine. Elvis was ripped off by his manager, of this there is no doubt.

Baz’s divergence from reality in this aspect of the story is one that I quite like. I won’t spoil the film by telling you, except to say that it reminds me of the scene in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) when the Nazis are slaughtered, a scene I ascribe to poetic justice, the way we might wish the story had ended. If you apply similar justice to Elvis perhaps he would have avoided his eventual lonely fate, but at the very least Baz’s Elvis does acquire some lucidity and freedom, even some dignity. Alas the truth is even sadder.

It’s a fascinating film, wonderful looking and tremendous sounding, worth a look and a listen. I’ll see it again.

Austin Butler sings to Cecily Strong on SNL, the reason we watched the film.
Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Popular music & culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Gustavo Gimeno’s First TSO-TMC Messiah

The surest sign the city seems to be returning to something like normal, is Handel’s Messiah performed all over. I’m seeing many friends on Facebook either reporting that they’re singing it or feeling left out because so many others are doing it.

There’s Tafelmusik in their historically informed approach, Soundstreams / Crow’s Theatre offering their Electric Messiah, or even the award-winning Messiah / Complex you can now find online from Against the Grain Theatre. Yes it’s that time of year, and we could feel that eagerness in a packed Roy Thomson Hall.

You may recall that last year the Toronto Symphony offered an 85 minute version, which was the best option available at the time, given concerns over our hygiene.

Tonight I went to hear the first of five 135 minute Messiahs the TSO offer this year under the leadership of Gustavo Gimeno. I’m excited to hear a longer version but also delighted at the opportunity to see another side of GG, watching our new Music Director take on something a bit different from what we’ve heard from him so far in his brief tenure.

TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno

The stars of the evening were the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, prepared by Jean-Sébastien Vallée, who, like Gimeno, is also new in his role as Artistic Director.

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Artistic Director Jean-Sébastien Vallée

The choir were often very soft, particularly in the early portions of a piece such as the Hallelujah Chorus, building throughout. Their phrasing was impeccable, undaunted by the acoustical challenges of a bigger space such as Roy Thomson Hall. I loved the quick tempi they took in “All we like sheep” or “Lift up your heads”, each word distinct. It was a team effort, between Gimeno or Vallée shaping the phrases of the chorus with the orchestra building to spectacular climaxes again and again.

In the past I’ve noticed the TSO responding to Gimeno’s leadership, and tonight saw the TMC similarly inspired.

The four soloists (soprano Lauren Fagan, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Wake-Edwards, tenor Michael Colvin and baritone Elliot Madore) were superb. I was especially impressed by Colvin’s dramatic readings of the Part Two tenor solos, powerfully moving and very musical.

Tenor Michael Colvin (photo: Eloise Campbell)

The TSO – TMC Messiah continues with four more performances on consecutive days from Sunday Dec 18 (a matinee) to Wednesday Dec 21.

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Mother Sorrow: workshop December 9th

I was privileged to observe an open rehearsal of a new creation titled “Mother Sorrow.” The creative team is large, but I should mention director & choreographer Jennifer Nichols, Composer and music director Adam Scime and librettist (combining new words with existing text from the Pergolesi Stabat Mater) David James Brock. We saw performances from a very capable team including dancers Evelyn Hart, Nicholas McClung, Tyler Gledhill, Jarrett Siddall, Brayden Cairns, Rodney Diverlus, soprano Lindsay McIntyre, counter tenor Christian Masucci Facchini, and a baroque ensemble including harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger and a string quartet: Cristina Zacharias, Patricia Ahern, Brandon Chui & Keiran Campbell. I hope my descriptions don’t dishonour what they have been making. We saw some remarkable choreography, heard some beautiful music, and discovered something new created from something old.

I was seated among a small group of invited guests. Gianmarco Segato was beside me.

I was one of the fortunate ones to get a program that included explanations. When you’re seeing & hearing something new, it’s sometimes puzzling, difficult to understand what the piece aims to do, alongside what it’s actually doing. I make that distinction between aims & actuality because that’s arguably one of the chief tasks of a critic. No matter what I think the piece is doing, we should try to understand what it’s aiming to do. Clearly this project is doing something quite original, and has the decency to explain itself for us.

The first two pages explain a great deal of what was presented to us yesterday. The procedures in play are complicated, but only important if you’re a nerd trying to understand everything they’re doing. If one simply watches and listens they can revel in the beautiful music and the lovely movements. There’s lots to enjoy.

I’m currently thinking a lot about theatre history and criticism:
a- after reading Simon Banks’ excellent history of Opera,
b- after seeing & responding to Red Velvet at Crow’s Theatre, a meditation of theatre history if ever there was one. Spoiler alert (given that there’s still a week left of this excellent show): while the theatres were jammed full for the two performances by Ira Aldridge, the first black man to portray Othello onstage in London, in 1833, he was not permitted beyond that. A series of behind the scenes machinations were at least partially triggered by critics’ notices. Whether the critics reflected the racism of the time or only served as a pretense isn’t clear (is it ever?). The point is, until the advent of recording technologies, theatre history was entirely in the hands of the eye-witnesses. Critics were the ones whose observations have lasted until now, even if (ha ha ha) they may not always be reliable.

So that’s why I took this very seriously. I am not sure I fully appreciate what they have accomplished, not daring to say too much. I don’t know the Pergolesi Stabat Mater (having heard it awhile back but not having studied it at all). I know the Rossini a wee bit, having sung the tenor solo “cuius animam” (and no I no longer have the high notes to sing it). I re-read the text as preparation.

I was very intrigued by some of the text from David James Brock, There’s some new spoken text that makes a fascinating kind of gloss on the old work, reminding me of old biblical texts that might include commentary in the margin beside the text. It’s the medieval version of metatext. There is a quality to some of this writing reminding me of the multiverse, as though there are different realities implicit within The Bible stories of Mary and Jesus, perhaps implicit in the multiple versions we encounter (such as the four Gospels). It’s powerfully suggestive without seeming to deconstruct or fight with the original. I use that modern word but want to emphasize that it’s not modern, not anachronistic, or fighting the ancient quality of the Biblical story. There are overtones of something very spiritual, as though we might be watching Mary encountering ghostly or angelic versions of her son, especially when we include the different bodies performing, multiple persons to portray a single character (a strategy i really love). I am reminded of a medieval gloss because it seems to exist in parallel, like a meta-reality or commentary, rather than in any sort of opposition or competition with the original.

There are advantages and disadvantages in the baroque and classical period, when you have numbers / segmented construction. While a storyline gets broken up in opera by this kind of construction, it’s apt for a mass such as a Stabat Mater, a Requiem or a prayer text. While the back & forth dynamic between recitative and aria interrupts the staging of a story and interrupts characters –who have arias or ensembles to reflect on parts of their story—that’s not a problem in a mass such as a Requiem, a Stabat Mater or indeed, an oratorio such as Messiah. When we are meditating or of a prayerful mind it’s a whole different kind of presentation, and not at all a problem to have the work segmented. Stabat Mater is a series of moments, a series of meditations or prayers like stained glass images or paintings. I’m recalling the choice by Opera Atelier’s artistic director Marshall Pynkoski to follow the poses and implicit movement vocabulary of the baroque images from paintings; they defended it at a lecture by professor Benoit Bolduc (formerly of University of Toronto, now in NY as far as I know). Or think of the way we look at stained glass, that encourage a genuinely symbolic understanding of stories and Biblical personages. We’re in the realm of stasis and frozen poses rather than naturalistic story-telling. The show-off aspect of baroque singing fits this idea really well, so that we decorate/embellish the static meditations of the moment. No wonder Messiah is so popular, as it’s perfect in its construction, as a reflection of the Biblical texts. To add dance to this seems like the most natural and organic thing in the world.

I mention all this because parts of this workshop are baroque in sound, while sometimes the texture deconstructs that surface, with a series of modern explorations of the story and the characters. It’s ambitious, it’s daring, and in places I found it very exciting. I repeat, I may be the wrong person to comment because I don’t know the Pergolesi well enough to know what’s being reproduced and what’s altered. We saw and heard some marvelous performances, and I’m very grateful for what I enjoyed. But I’m not going to talk about that, as my main responsibility is to look at the workshop as an exploration of text.

What might be missing for me is something that likely would seem alien to the participants in this project. Rossini’s “cuius animam” is a proudly celebratory piece, bold and confident, an attitude you don’t find in the piece we heard yesterday. To the participants, I must sound totally out of touch, in what I’m saying. I’m also recalling such pieces as the “hostias” or the “ingemisco” in Verdi’s Requiem, both pieces that show vulnerability and anguish but also something triumphant and affirming.

I believe the intention (expressed by Nichols in her introductory talk) was to explore ideas of trauma and suffering in Mary and in Jesus. I should mention also that I’m currently reading the recent book by Gabor Maté The myth of normal: trauma, illness and healing in a toxic culture. His latest opus exploring the relationship between trauma and disease seems really timely under the circumstances (I say that having read fewer than 100 pages). I suspect there has been a great deal of exploration of subtexts by Jennifer, Adam and David working with the cast and the musicians, that went into what we saw (now in the third week of the workshop): but I can only speculate.

There was lots to admire, lots of beauty in this workshop. I hope we get to see it in its next incarnation.

I chose this image from Jennifer Nichols’ Facebook page because it suggests the energy without showing the faces: a perfect metaphor for what we saw (photo:  Mike McClung)
Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Simon Banks’ Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World

For me Christmas came early, when I got my hands on Simon Banks’ new book Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World. I mention that because this is the ideal gift for anyone you know who loves opera or who wants to learn more about the medium. It’s a perfect embellishment to decorate the coffee table.

The goal of Banks’ book is to examine how we find ourselves reflected in opera, literature and painting. These arts have been telling our story for centuries. Banks’ unlikely ambition is to summarize and paraphrase all of that into western culture’s life story: the history of the world.

I felt I need to put this preamble onto my review of the book concerning its goals, both because it is highly original (I was gob-smacked when I saw the table of contents) and fascinating in the execution. In passing I feel the need to observe how Banks is simultaneously studying opera, and writing a media history of the west, composed in words and images. This is a beautiful book, delightful to hold, full of pictures.

It fits nicely into a week when I’m obsessing about theatre history after seeing Red Velvet, a wonderful play reflecting on the discourse about our experiences in the theatre and its relationship to the world outside. I find the nerdy exploration of details in the background of a piece of theatre (operatic or otherwise) endlessly fascinating.

I should mention that I’ve seen other books with a clever concept, a unique pathway into the operas they study: where I was seduced by the concept, grabbed by the title: and then disappointed in how it was executed. In fact this also describes some opera productions I’ve seen, where the concept works for some scenes while failing in others. And so, while I quibbled momentarily against Bank’s bold pathway, I was hooked soon enough, especially by the combination of Banks’ analytical texts and the images he includes as corollary. Paintings portraying his subjects remind me of the smoking gun Banks would show us as evidence, as though from the scene of the crime.

It’s no surprise to discover that Banks has taught art history at the University of St Andrews, given the skillful matching of images to the essays. We’re thinking in multiple media, which is refreshing. I’ve written about inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary creators as the most exciting artists of our time. But opera has always been a hybrid, not just music, but theatre, design, drama, spectacle.

Presumed portrait of Lucile Desmoulins, wife of the French revolutionary Camille Desmoulins (Louis-Léopold Boilly c 1790; Musée Carnavalet, Paris).

In the chapter on The French Revolution, for example, we see the above portrait, with the following caption:
Putting political principle first: presumed painting of Lucile Desmoulins by Louis-Leopold Boilly of 1790. She loyally followed her husband Camille to the guillotine in 1794. Her self sacrifice is reimagined in the fictionalised heroines of Giordano’s ‘Andrea Chenier’ and ‘Massenet’s ‘Therese’.

I’m reminded of something I saw as a teacher, that any subset of a discipline can become a lens for looking closer. Yes the study of film music shows you music: but it also offers you a new angle on film. A history of actors onscreen lets you study actors: but with a history of film as a kind of accidental by-product. Any of these lenses are useful, both in narrowing the purview (because the topic is too vast otherwise) and thereby offering a tighter focus. We go from generalization to the kind of specifics we need if there is to be proof.

Similarly with what Banks was doing, as he explains:
There are two timescales in this book. Firstly there is a single historical narrative, one book-long journey through history beginning with the earliest mythological stories and moving onwards towards the present. Each chapter begins with a table listing clusters of related historical events. The 36 chapters are arranged in broadly chronological order.
But there is also a second timescale. Each of the 36 chapters takes its own mini-journey through the 400 year history of opera

So it’s not so odd that Banks’ history of opera ends up being the autobiography of our culture. It’s poetic and at the same time useful.

I don’t think it would be controversial for the writer seeking to tell the story of the 21st century to devote some of their time to examining how we reflect upon ourselves in television, film, music, social media. For the period from 1600 to 2000, before our modern mass media, we must rely on opera for that kind of reflection.

The history of the West was largely a transition from monarchies towards alternatives such as democracy or dictatorship. That narrative was sometimes dictated by the church or the state, the artists never as free to simply tell their story as what we often enjoy nowadays. No wonder then that opera functions as a kind of barometer, capturing both the aspirations for freedom and the various repressive frameworks against which artists were pushing.

So in other words Banks’ objectives are grand in the tradition of opera itself.

The plan of two time-scales suggests an inter-disciplinary approach, history & opera explaining and informing one another. I can imagine a graduate seminar, not quite sure whether it would more properly belong to or be taught by professors of “history” or “opera”, recognizing that at least for the time being, it would be more apt for the students of drama, music or art than history, even if I believe history students need this too.

There are a few caveats to mention. Opera in the purview of this book really means the text being set by a composer. We’re less concerned with singers or staging, and when we speak of composers we’re mostly using the composer to identify a work, even if the focus is mostly on the libretto, not the music.

As an opera enthusiast one might quibble with some of Banks’ choices. Why this opera and not that one? There are a great many operas in this book, not limited merely to the popular ones. I’m finding Banks’ book tremendous fun to explore, even as he raises some intriguing questions about history and historiography, that slippery question that underlines the relationship between the story being told and how you decide to study / tell that story.

It needs to be said that opera’s relationship to society was very different in the 20th century than before. I’ve often alluded to that seminal year 1927, when talkies are about to appear, when opera’s last popular works premiere. Before this time opera was popular, after this time, film becomes a far better litmus test for western culture. In blunt terms, opera has been on its death-bed since this time, only occasionally twitching since then. That 33 of 36 chapters in Banks’ book concern the period before 1900 is a perfect reflection of opera’s dwindling relevance in the 20th century. Opera isn’t dead, but comes to resemble a dim memory, a mere hobby rather than a preoccupation, an influence rather than a central element.

Banks’ prose does at times resemble an autobiography, flowing smoothly from opera to opera. The many pictures in the book literally illustrate Banks’ ideas, persuading us through another channel, additional evidence to underline what’s in the text.

It’s a perfect Christmas gift idea for the opera lover you know.

Who is Banks?

Author Simon Banks with Oscar, Spring 2022

Simon Banks taught art history at the University of St Andrews and had a career in qualifications management with Cambridge Assessment. Since 2019 his publications include articles in Opera magazine and programme notes for Wexford Festival Opera.

And now he’s written a remarkable book. I suggest you find it and read it (here’s a useful link). While I don’t agree with every word, I know I’ll be coming back to it. It was fun reading.

Posted in Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Red Velvet history lesson

I feel the need to frame my testimony, reviewing Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet at Crow’s Theatre, in the admission that Ira Aldridge, the first black man to portray Othello onstage in London, is almost completely unknown largely because of the way he was reviewed and received.

Lolita Chakrabarti @Lolitachakra

Yes theatre history is full of gaps, an elusive construct distilled from the subjective experience of performance that is only captured in diary entries or eye-witness reviews.

Please don’t hate me because I’m a reviewer.

In her program note Director Cherissa Richards asks
Why is Ira’s legacy largely forgotten?”

Perhaps the play tells us. We open with two people speaking European languages we can’t easily understand. The German-speaking stage-hand stealthily brings a young woman backstage, a Polish writer seeking to interview her father’s hero: the great actor Ira Aldridge.

Nobody seems able to understand anyone for the longest time, an apt beginning for a fictional play about inter-cultural communication. Written by an English woman of Hindu parents Red Velvet shows us change and a variety of reactions to it.

The play bears a content warning:
This production contains themes of racism, and the use of racial epithets — including racial slurs.

The play stirred up powerful feelings in me. At times I was furious.

Yet the story is de facto evidence of the possibility of change even if it’s like an oxymoron. Yes we see Ira portray Othello, and the outrage stirred up in response back in the 1830s. That we are in 2022 watching a brilliant performance and applauding this piece affirms that change is possible.

Red Velvet may be fiction but it’s like a theatre history seminar featuring examples of anachronistic stage devices and overdone histrionics that we don’t see anymore. In a season of excellence Red Velvet is an affirmation of the power of live theatre, the best thing I’ve seen yet.

Allan Louis brings a larger than life presence to the stage as Ira Aldridge, both as the sensitive man backstage and the tragic player creating the first black Othello on the London stage of 1833, sometimes showing us reminders of Ira’s American roots.

Allan Louis and Ellen Denny (photo: John Lauener)

Ellen Denny plays Ellen Tree, the actress who would eventually marry actor Charles Kean. Whatever the facts may be, in this fictional story Ellen has been playing Desdemona opposite the great Edmund Kean, who is taken ill in 1833, creating the opportunity for Ira to step into the role of Othello. We watch the remarkable chemistry of their first rehearsals together.

Jeff Lillico is very strong in the thankless role of Charles, son of the great thespian. Inevitably he’s the strident voice of negativity and convention, never admitting any jealousy while watching his fiancée playing opposite Ira.

Invisibly serving tea in the background, Starr Domingue is one of the key players as Connie. Throughout the play she has been the only person of colour present while members of the company debate Ira’s casting, as though she weren’t even there. Her silent witnessing reminds me of Peter Hinton’s idea to put a silent group of Indigenous performers onstage during Louis Riel. In her brief scene alone with Ira we are again watching two people struggling to communicate, as she castigates Ira for Othello’s violence towards Desdemona (conflating actor and personage), and tries to prevent him from reading his reviews.

Ellen Denny, Amelia Sargisson, Starr Domingue (photo: John Lauener)

Amelia Sargisson plays another sort of quiet observer. I’ve mentioned the framing scene with the young Polish reporter Halina Wozniak, whose enacted frustration at the beginning and end of the play mirrors Ira and perhaps the position of the playwright as well. Sargisson also plays Ira’s wife Margaret Aldridge.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about the role of Pierre Laporte, played by Kyle Blair. He seems to be an ally to Ira, taking a big risk to get him cast against opposition even if he gets caught up in the politics. The two men have been good friends, and have some lovely moments together.

The text of Chakrabarti’s play is so perfect in its construction that I can’t imagine removing a word. The two + hours fly by.

We encounter another fascinating sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne including powerful musical passages adding to the intensity of our experience.

Any student of theatre history must see this play, at least to be reminded of how difficult and elusive that history can be. Tempting as it may be to kill all the reviewers (after you shoot the lawyers and politicians), without us there would be little or no theatre history. Of course I might be a bit biased.

Red Velvet continues at the Guloien Theatre until December 18th.

See it!

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Profoundly Creative Requiem for a Gumshoe

The body count is higher than any superhero movie. But there’s no CGI, no fancy effects. Your imagination is engaged as never before. It may scare you, seeing so much death and contemplating the end of the world in Eldritch Theatre’s new show Requiem for a Gumshoe.

Rick Fischmascher is a rumpled private detective and warlock for hire, haunted by the death of his son, and entrenched in the arcane murder of a troubled opera singer.
And he’s the chief suspect.
Requiem for a Gumshoe is a weird-noir, hardboiled mystery, re-telling the Norse legend of Ragnarok in the pulpy style of Raymond Chandler infused with the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft.

In a very tiny theatre we confront profundities, the end of the world, terror of creatures mythic, morbid and magical. Perhaps they’re all just inside his head, spurting luridly from the madcap imagination of that narrator. Is it real or is he just acting out psychotic fantasies?

You tell me.

Mairi Babb, Lisa Norton & Eric Woolfe

That ambiguity is exciting. When I speak of a delicate razor’s edge it’s sometimes literally true, a sharp blade to divide the quick and the dead, reality from fantasy.

Eric Woolfe is the playwright and the actor portraying Rick, also the designer & builder of the puppets who populate the show. His imagination underlies all of it.

From time to time Eric performs magic that’s as skillfully built into the story as if Eric were composing an opera to show off his voice. To call them “tricks” doesn’t properly honour their contribution.

I lost count of how many characters we meet, created by Mairi Babb and Lisa Norton plus Eric’s many puppets.

There’s a whole team behind Rick /Eric, to help persuade us, taking Eldritch Theatre to a higher level than ever before. Director Dylan Trowbridge, set & costume designer Melanie McNeill, sound designer Verne Good and lighting designer Gareth Crew ensure that we’re engaged, that the craziness grabs us and won’t let go.

I laughed a lot.

I’m asking myself: who should see this? The people I know who love Wagner opera would be boggled by the alliterated lines about Norse gods. I understand Woolfe’s choices as loving and respectful of anything he brings into his story-telling.

Anyone who recalls the similes of Raymond Chandler will enjoy Woolfe’s writing and the way he delivers the lines. Try googling “Raymond Chandler similes”. I found lots, including the following:
• As cute as a washtub.
• As much sex appeal as a turtle.
• As cold as a nun’s breeches.

Woolfe takes it to the next level, expertly sending up the author’s overblown style.

We’re watching virtuoso performances. I didn’t want the show to end. Full disclosure? I’m perhaps as mad as Rick, a devoted fan of Eldritch Theatre and everything they put forth (Frankenstein’s Boy, Doctor Wuthergloom, Space Opera Zero. I dimly remember Eric’s Madhouse Variations, with help from the faded t-shirt I purchased). I’m fascinated by the cathartic interface between laughter and terror.

Requiem for a Gumshoe continues at the Red Sandcastle Theatre until December 4th.

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Popular Tchaikovsky at the TSO

Handel speaks from beyond the grave to remind musicians how he helps pay the rent in a meme.

Ballet companies owe Tchaikovsky a similar debt, when families flock to the theatre for The Nutcracker.

Popularity can be problematic when it comes to critics, but thank goodness the public don’t really care. We’ll go see La Boheme or Carmen at the opera, just as we’ll see Swan Lake or Nutcracker, or indeed the last 3 symphonies of Tchaikovsky, overflowing with passionate melodies.

Tonight the Toronto Symphony offered the first of four concerts featuring his 1st Piano Concerto and the Symphony No.6.

The well-known concerto was given a highly original reading by Sergei Babayan, our soloist. He has a remarkable dynamic range, playing many parts softer than I’ve heard them before yet boldly bringing out the passages with fast octaves that conclude the outer movements.

Pianist Sergei Babayan

Dalia Stasevska was the guest conductor of the TSO, leading a brilliant reading of the orchestral part, to match Babayan’s delicate playing.

Conductor Dalia Stasevska

We began with Paradisfaglar II (Birds of Paradise II), a shorter work by Andrea Tarrodi.

Composer Andrea Tarrodi (photo: Jonas Bilberg)

While sometimes one finds composers putting clever titles with no apparent connection to what we hear, that’s not what we experienced this time, both in the colours of the orchestra and the occasional solos from violin and cello that seem to imitate bird-song, somewhere in the middle ground between music and noise. Tarrodi’s short piece made a magical beginning to the concert.

It may be heresy but the Pathetique symphony always reminds me of Glenda Jackson in The Music Lovers.

Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers

The film’s over-the-top style matches the emotions lurking in the music, sometimes exultant, sometimes darkly depressed. Stasevska led a very quick reading of the symphony that thrilled the audience even if it wasn’t entirely to my liking. The TSO play wonderfully well these days, undaunted by whatever a conductor asks of them, very impressive.

The first two movements were superb, but I found that the last two movements were too quick for my taste, leaving little space for the nuances one has in a slower more thoughtful interpretation. But it’s still very exciting, and the audience ate it up.

The program is repeated Thursday-Friday-Saturday November 24-25-26.

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Pre-Democracy with Lucio Silla

I had an epiphany watching today’s presentation of Lucio Silla from Opera in Concert in the St Lawrence Centre.

In my review of the opening night of Hannah Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy (that opened at the Tarragon Theatre last Thursday) I included reference to the series Succession, noticing how both the play and the tv shows take us into the creepy family politics of the rich & powerful.

It hit me that the next thing I saw is the 18th century’s version of the same story, even if we’d think of Lucio Silla as “Pre-Democracy” rather than “Post-.” Ditto for works such as Abduction from the Seraglio or La Clemenza di Tito, operas created for a wealthy class as though to reassure the public that tyranny isn’t really that bad.

The families in Moscovitch’s world or in Succession are truthful representations, which is to say, fraught with corruption. Now imagine if they were to emulate Giovanni de Gamerra, Mozart’s librettist: in crafting a happy ending. Of course theatre has become more sophisticated, audiences have stopped swallowing this idea that the aristocrats are really okay, that we just have to let them show us their soft fuzzy side. Daddy Warbucks too is a distant relative, a plutocrat created for and by another era. Now that the guillotines have been misplaced, the masses inured via social media, Donald Trump and the plutocrats don’t need to learn how to fake niceness.

So at least I must thank OIC for bringing this opera back to Toronto. I’m fortunate to have seen Opera Atelier’s production over six years ago, when I was blown away by the inventiveness of the 16 year old Mozart.

We may on occasion miss the sets and the costumes watching concert performances: but this wasn’t one of those times. Music Director Suzy Smith and Chorus Director Robert Cooper made sure that Mozart was well served. We heard some lovely piano elaborations during the recitatives, passages where the intensity can let down if one isn’t thorough. Smith was especially impressive in the last ten minutes of the opera, pages that seem to be ferociously difficult to play: but were executed flawlessly.

Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of Voicebox Opera in Concert

I’m sad that it was just a single performance, wishing I could see and hear them again, grateful to OIC General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin for having assembled this remarkable cast. There are no small parts in this opera.

We began with Cecilio and his friend Cinna, sung by Holly Chaplin and Julia MacVicar, two coloraturas smoldering with dramatic intensity. Then we meet Celia and Giunia, sung by Vania Chan and Amy Moodie, also singing remarkable passages including more coloratura with Chan adding a comic dimension to the proceedings. Tenor Owen McCausland in the title role steps forward with enough testosterone to balance the four high voices, a dictator worthy of the name: even if he will abdicate at the end.

(morning after thoughts:
Did this opera fail to catch on because it challenges so many singers? too many challenging coloratura voices at one time? or does it challenge the audience, failing to differentiate sufficiently, not enough variety? The performance was blissful for us, grateful to hear so many excellent voices)

The soloists, the chorus and the piano all sounded wonderful.

I dream of this work finding its way into the standard rep. At least we have OIC to remind us of the possibilities.

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Post-Democracy at Tarragon Theatre

Theatre sometimes takes us into worlds we don’t like, showing us people we’d avoid, situations we might never encounter otherwise. In some respects theatre is like a conceptual hazmat suit, a way to taste poison without dying. We may cower before horrific headlines but drama lets us really see what’s involved.

Chantelle Han and Jesse LaVercombe (Photo: Mike Meehan)

Hannah Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy opened tonight in the Tarragon main space, putting four people onstage for an hour of sparring, groping, sniping, that sometimes got us to laugh when we were not cringing.

I read the playwright’s urgent words in the program, when she says

“We talk a lot about the 1% who hold and exert power in in our culture. We don’t get to meet them much. They are being helicoptered above us, or they have bought out a whole floor in a hotel we couldn’t afford, or they’re staying on a secluded “Jeffrey Epstein ” island offshore somewhere that they own. I hung around with the 1% for a while in my 20s. I listened to how they talk. I saw how they live. I want to show them to you.”

I think I’m as concerned about the world we live in as she is, upset to see our Premier building a highway for his pals, making new rules for governance to ignore the will of the people, while he and the mayors run everything via a few phonecalls. We’re on the cusp of a post-democratic world, under the thumb of corporations making enormous profits while the average person struggles.

I’m very impressed with the quality of the dialogue, with superb performances by four actors (Chantelle Han, Rachel Cairns, Jesse LaVercombe and Diego Matamoros) and with the sensitivity of director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. It’s an hour of well-crafted theatre.

Chantelle Han and Diego Matamoros (Photo: Mike Meehan)

Yet I wonder if the playwright has seen the series Succession, as what I saw onstage tonight seemed like an episode from that show. I won’t spoil anything by making comparisons except to say that I hope Moscovitch hasn’t seen the show and is merely coming up with parallel plot twists to the ones in the series. Perhaps that’s merely to be extrapolated from the corrupt dynamics of any rich family.

All the same, it’s very well done. Jesse LaVercombe is especially unsettling to watch, creating someone truly creepy so believably. It helps that his part is very well written. His relationships are well thought out, the timing of his behaviour very sensitively crafted.

There are some fascinating moral questions lurking in the text. It’s a short play, taking us into a dark place. It feels authentic throughout.

Post-Democracy runs until December 4th at Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace.

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Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay

It’s a funny week, even if nobody seems to remember what “funny” means anymore.

I didn’t laugh at Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue. I walked out of the room during the big announcement the other night (one too many lies) even if I remember Trump’s presidency as a brief golden age for comics.

Tonight not only did I need to laugh, but I needed to feel okay about laughing. Thank God I got my fix, watching Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay, a gay for pay production in association with Crow’s Theatre: where tonight was opening night. It’s a Fringe Show getting a well-deserved revival, written by Daniel Krolik and Curtis Campbell starring Jonathan Wilson and Krolik, directed by Campbell.

Jonathan Wilson and Daniel Krolik

The premise is that we in the audience are a bunch of straight male actors, looking to get work in film or theatre, taking a training seminar with two gay actors showing us how to be gay. It’s not such a crazy premise when you recall that gender and modern life are totally performative nowadays.

One of the great things to notice about Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay is that, wow, being gay is so normal now that we can joke about it, about the sex, the body parts, the clichés.

Or so it seems.

But I’m looking through the filter of some of the other questions of representation that I’m thinking of lately. There’s Kent Monkman’s indigenous drag-queen persona, regularly confronting me with the question “is it okay to laugh at this”? On the weekend Dave Chappelle seemed to be an angry separatist uninterested in any kind of reconciliation.

Tonight’s show was magical, as we segue from this ongoing laughter, possibly improper and even sexist, to gradually noticing that there’s some very serious questions underlying the show. We get to have our cake (laughter) and eat it too (the serious politics underlying the show). No guilt.

Forgive me if I sound too serious in writing this. But I laughed through most of the show, while many around me laughed even more than I did. This is a show that deserves to be seen and heard. Opening night was made up of people who knew about the show and came ready to laugh.

If you need a laugh, if you want to feel okay about your laughter, or if you’re just an actor who wants to find out how to play a gay man? see Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay, at Crow’s until November 27th.

There’s a bonus if like me you’re hesitant about being in a theatre without a mask. This show requires the audience to wear masks.

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