Sunday, March 29, 2015

Where Dreams Don't Go to Die: John Lennon's "God" and The Beatles' Love

Eight months after The Beatles broke up in 1970, John Lennon released Plastic Ono Band, named after his new group. But rather than being a utopian vision from a collection of musicians shaping the future of a Seventies counter-culture, it was instead a solo autobiographical record which began as a stark recollection of Lennon's traumatic childhood. One listen to the album’s intensely austere songs made it clear that the world of possibility Lennon once heard in Elvis Presley's ‘‘Heartbreak Hotel,’’or the inclusive spirit he once proclaimed with The Beatles on ‘‘There’s a Place,’’ he was now refuting. Lennon stripped the songs of their quixotic power for the purpose of discovering the naked truth about himself. ‘‘Mother’’ opened the album with the peeling of funeral bells, as Lennon ranted angrily at the father who abandoned him as a boy and at the mother who was killed soon after. ‘‘I Found Out’’ expressed his angry contempt for religion and the pop culture The Beatles helped inspire. ‘‘Working Class Hero,’’ a mournful old-fashioned folk ballad, despaired of an authoritarian society that stripped its citizens of their souls. Critic Albert Goldman, in his controversial biography The Lives of John Lennon, compared the theme of Plastic Ono Band to The Who’s rock opera Tommy. ‘‘For what is the famous rock opera about?’’ Goldman asks. ‘‘A boy traumatized by his mother’s cheating loses all his senses but the most primitive, the sense of touch. He employs this mute yet passionate faculty to become a pinball hero—a symbol of rock ’n’ roll. Acclaimed by the world’s youth as a pop star, he continues to evolve, becoming first a guru and ultimately a saint. There is the legend of John Lennon to a T.’’ On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon set out to reveal himself as a new man who was reborn.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Representation: Disabled Theater at Harbourfront's World Stage

At the beginning of Disabled Theater, which is playing at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre as part of Harbourfront’s World Stage, the 11 members of the cast enter one at a time and stand centre-stage, in silence, for one minute. Then they exit and the next cast member comes out. That’s well over 11-plus minutes of silence, which can be pretty challenging for an audience, and also for the cast members. But Jérôme Bel, a Swiss director and choreographer living in Paris, is not afraid of a challenge. (Even the show’s title is somewhat controversial, as became clear in a pre-show chat session, in which one person drew applause when she objected to the term “disabled” as inherently divisive and demeaning.) In this work, a co-production with Zurich-based Theatre HORA, is designed to present people who “are not represented in the public sphere,” Bel says in the program notes. “If one is not represented, one doesn’t exist. And representation is my job.”

Friday, March 27, 2015

iZombie: She Is What She Eats

Rose McIver in iZombie, on The CW.

iZombie is a blast. When I first heard of The CW show's Millennial-cum-zombie plotline, I immediately developed some clear, but entirely mistaken, assumptions about the series. But two increasingly entertaining episodes later, iZombie has already wormed its way into my heart (as well as into my thankfully still skull-ensconced brain.) At its core, iZombie is a light crime procedural with a fantasy conceit – a fresher-faced cousin to ABC's Forever, which also follows the adventures of a medical examiner with a secretly personal connection to death who sometimes partners with a homicide detective – and with its clever writing, charming cast, and a strong female lead with genuinely interesting relationships, iZombie has demonstrated more potential than many longer-running series.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Scenes From a Marriage: Kaeja 25

Kaeja d'Dance (photo by Aria Evans)

Wedding dresses sparkle and shimmer in Taxi!, a new work by Karen Kaeja whose world premiere took place at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre on Tuesday night. Significantly, at least one of the gowns was worn by the choreographer’s husband, Allen Kaeja, who earlier in the evening unveiled a world premiere of his own, .0 (point zero), a wonderfully unpredictable work about unpredictability. The wedding dress prop instantly telegraphed that Taxi!, at least in part, is about marriage, an arena of human experience which similarly could be characterized as being fraught with uncertainty. There are highs, lows, and never ending piles laundry. Taxi! could be described a mirror of a life lived. But it is also a reflection of mating rituals in complicated times. Its spunk, subtle poignancy and unmistakeable sense of humour make it a keeper.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Carrion Discomfort: Buzzard

Joshua Burge stars in Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard.

As Marty, the title character of Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard, Joshua Burge has the bantamweight build and long, skinny face of a classic smartass, urban American type—a synthesis of James Woods, Richard Belzer, and Steve Buscemi for the post-slacker era. His eyes are alternatively heavy-lidded and wreathed in boredom or as huge and searching as a baby’s; his sarcastic asides and random outbursts of disgust (“Taco Bell sucks!”) are delivered in a husky, nasal voice that seems to weigh more than his body. Marty has a temp job in the mortgage department of a bank, but he spends all his time at work running petty scams, such as ordering expensive office supplies that he then steals so he can lope over to the supplier’s nearest branch store and pocket the case returns. In the movie’s long, transfixing first scene, the camera holds him in close-up as he dully instructs a bank clerk to cancel out his checking account, then announces that he wants to open a new account, so he can collect the fifty dollars the bank is offering as a come-on for virgin customers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Everything in Its Proper Place: Patrick Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things

“Some places had names. Some places changed, or they were shy about their names. Some places had no names at all, and that was always sad. It was one thing to be private. But to have no name at all? How horrible. How lonely.”
It was dangerous for Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicles novels, to release a side project in the midst of a highly-anticipated release schedule – something that fellow fantasy author George R.R. Martin knows all too well, being constantly hounded by fans to quit lollygagging and finish his own long-awaited series. The risk these authors run is to alienate loyal fans left unfulfilled by an incomplete narrative – a “what’s this new book, and why isn’t it the sequel we’ve been waiting for” situation – which is a valid concern, but one that I think devalues the creative spark which led to the work that fans crave in the first place. Authors, like any artist, are led by the collar by their own inspiration, and must follow where it leads. It’s not hard to imagine that after inhabiting the same world, the same characters, and the same story for years on end that their brains would cry out for creative release in any other direction.

The vocal minority, unfortunately, directs the ebb and flow of narrative trends (just look at popular Hollywood films for proof). The problem is that the vocal minority is just that – the smaller group – and doesn’t really represent what many people want. Formulaic “excitement” has a short shelf-life, and risky, unconventional fare can be surprisingly successful based on the needs of this silent majority. It was uncommonly brave for Rothfuss to take the risk he took and devote a novella to a side character of little significance to the Kingkiller series’ plot. It speaks to his love for her, and his willingness to go wherever his creative instinct takes him. Auri had things to tell him, and he had the presence of mind to listen. That he had to interrupt his blockbuster bestseller series in order to transcribe her tale speaks to his strength as an artist, and his remorse at keeping the vocal minority waiting (with apologies to his fans spilling out both online and in the liner notes) speaks to his fine character as a person. The Slow Regard of Silent Things, then, is a gift – not asked for, but gratefully accepted both for its own beauty and for the peace of mind it doubtless brought its creator.

Monday, March 23, 2015

On the 20th Century: Spiffy Ride

On the 20th Century, the 1978 musical currently being favored with a gold-standard revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is adapted from one of the great Hollywood screwball farces of the thirties, Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur based their screenplay on their 1932 Broadway show, which had begun life as an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Milholland called Napoleon of Broadway, but the Hawks movie is better than its source. (The Roundabout produced the straight version in 2004, with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.) The 1934 film Twentieth Century is often labeled a romantic comedy, but really it’s a hard-boiled comedy like Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page and Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime; the only love affair the two protagonists, down-on-his-luck showman Oscar Jaffe and his ex-wife and one-time star Lily Garland, now a movie celebrity, conduct is with themselves. Twentieth Century is perhaps the most extravagant and hilarious display of narcissism in the history of movie comedy, and the incandescent spectacle of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as the dueling egotists – who suggest utterly heartless counterparts to the hero and heroine of Kiss Me, Kate – hasn’t dimmed in the intervening eight decades. The picture is called Twentieth Century because almost all of it takes place on the gleaming art deco train, a landmark of its era, that carries Oscar and Lily from Chicago to New York. Oscar and his hard-drinking sycophants, his press agent (Roscoe Karns) and business manager (Walter Connolly), have thirty-six hours in which to save their wobbly producing enterprise, battered by one expensive, misbegotten flop after another, by convincing Lily, who walked out on Oscar long ago, to sign on for a new show with him.

The musical hasn’t been produced on Broadway since its original 1978 run, when it was directed by Harold Prince and starred John Cullum and Madeline Kahn. (Kahn’s performance on the cast album is remarkable, but she dropped out after only nine weeks and was replaced by Judy Kaye.) The show ran for a year and a half and toured the country, yet despite its success and despite the first-rate book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (among their best work) and the robust, tuneful and varied Cy Coleman music (his best score except for City of Angels), it’s never enjoyed the reputation it deserves. The Roundabout production, directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, showcases what’s so special about the musical. The David Rockwell set – a beauty – and Donald Holder’s glistening lighting design even manage to replicate, more or less, the complicated stagecraft of the 1978 version (with its much touted Robin Wagner setting), which includes not only a series of cross-sections of the train but, at a climactic moment (the mid-second-act ensemble number “She’s a Nut”), turns it around so that it travels toward the audience with the “nut,” a devout Baptist named Letitia Peabody Primrose who’s been masquerading as a millionaire philanthropist, implausibly but uproariously strapped to its front.