Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Walking Wounded Looking For the Walking Dead: Judith Thompson's White Biting Dog

In the late 90s, my acting coach, the exuberant David Switzer, described the characters in modern plays as "the walking wounded looking for the walking dead." It's not the perfect description of modern playwriting that he favoured in our Scene Study class, but it was often the best description he had for difficult plays. White Biting Dog, by the extraordinary Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, which debuted in 1984, was one of those plays that, after careful study, fit the Switzer definition.

A new production opened Thursday at the Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto and it was quite the emotional rollercoaster ride. It's the story of Cape Race, played very well by Mike Ross, a young lawyer tending to his sick father at home. Stressed out by his work and his broken marriage, Cape decides to end it all by jumping off a bridge. But just before he falls, the voice of a small, white dog is heard telling him to stop and that his mission to re-unite his divorced parents must be fulfilled. This throws Cape into a spiral of frustrated angst as he struggles with his own feelings surrounding his mother, gagging on the word itself, and reconciling with his ill father whose fears of dying and his regressive memories have driven him crazy. In the mix is the character of Pony, beautifully played by the engaging Micheala Washburn. Pony is an ex-ambulance driver looking for salvation in the big city. At first glance she is the Ying to Cape’s Yang, a happy yet doubtful young woman who comes looking for her dog. (Cape assumes it’s the white one.) But Cape is soon to discover that Pony is not the good omen he thought she was.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Afflictions of Time: Criterion's DVD Release of The Music Room & The Makioka Sisters

In the opening scenes of Satyajit Ray's flawed, yet intimately haunting, The Music Room (1958), an aging Bengali feudal landlord (zamindar), Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), sits with his back to us in a large chair on the roof of his dilapidated mansion. He puffs away on his hookah, lost in time, while time is clearly running out on his era of wealth and power. Set in the late 1920s, the zamindar's only connection to the comforts and pleasures of his class privilege is the music concerts he presents in his home. The music room, which holds within it the fleeting power of nostalgia, transports Roy from the afflictions of time to the more nobler moments in his past, while his present life decays around him. (It is perhaps a rich irony, not lost here, that it was the feudal classes, so influenced by the West, that actually kept Indian classical music alive.)

The Music Room, which Ray made between the second and third films of his justly acclaimed The Apu Trilogy, may (as critic Pauline Kael once suggested) reflect the same themes of cultural futility as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. But if that's so, The Music Room is The Cherry Orchard seen through the gothic sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Music Room (which Criterion has just released this summer in both regular and Blu-ray) is about how a once powerful aristocrat stubbornly clings to the past through his opulent staging of musicales. But, in doing so, he destroys his family and his life.

Chhabi Biswas as Roy
Since Ray is one of the great humanists among major film directors, he doesn't take a churlish view towards this innocently infantile lord. Rather, as he would later do in Devi (1960) and The Home and The World (1984), Ray brings a sophisticated understanding of the psychological dynamics at work in the story. As with any great dramatist, Satyajit Ray skillfully illuminates the folly of the zamindar rather than examining him objectively, or simply condemning him on our behalf. He achieves something empathetic and similar to what Visconti did with the ageing, much more noble Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) in The Leopard (1963).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Absurdly Real: Eugène Ionesco's Exit the King at Soulpepper

Oliver Dennis & Karen Rae
In 1962, at the age of 53, playwright Eugène Ionesco thought he may be dying. In an attempt to come to terms with these feelings of mortality, he crafted the play Exit the King. The play centres around King Berenger the First, who, at 400, is dying, but he just doesn't know it yet. His retinue is divided into two groups. The first, his Doctor and Queen Marguerite (his first wife), are the rationalists. In a calm, logical manner they are determined to let him know that, “you are going to die in one and a half hours. You are going to die at the end of the play.” In the other camp, are his kind Nurse and his second (trophy) wife, Queen Marie. She is determined to not tell him. Queen Marie is his favoured wife (he sees Marguerite, and all he can say with a sneer is, “oh, you're still here.”) and has over the years coddled him and told him whatever he wanted to hear.

It is not just the King who is dying, so is his kingdom. In his vigorous youth, he lorded over millions of people, successfully battled thousands of enemies, did everything from single-handedly splitting the atom to inventing the car and computer, and he could even control the weather. It would not rain unless he said so. Now, as he is dying, his kingdom is literally vanishing. The people are all gone, his achievements are forgotten, and the land itself is shrinking and shrinking. His castle is a slanted ruin and a gigantic crack is splitting it in half. The irony here? Ionesco was far from dying. He recovered and lived until 1994.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #22: Allen Ginsberg (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Neglected Gems #5: The Good Thief (2002)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Another EarthBallast) acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Marriage Musical: Stephen Sondheim's Company


For Stephen Sondheim aficionados, Company is beloved as the watershed musical that established him as a musical-theatre innovator. In a number of his early musicals he supplied the lyrics for the music of older, established composers (Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, Jule Styne on Gypsy, Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz?). His professional debut as a composer-lyricist was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, but that was an old-fashioned vaudeville along the lines of Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse  and bizarrely, though the score was ingenious, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove’s libretto received all the attention. (His other solo effort, a strained, distinctly sixties satirical farce called Anyone Can Whistle, closed after 11 performances. The Encores! series of concert-style musical revivals at New York’s City Center staged it two seasons ago with a superlative cast, but engaging as the production was you could see exactly why the show had bombed in 1964.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Far More Than Shushing and Checking Out Books: For the Love of Librarians and Public Libraries


My name is Laura and I am a librarian.

Upon revealing my profession to strangers I am almost guaranteed the following reaction: “Oh, but you don’t look like a librarian.” Yes, many have extremely strong, and learned, stereotypes about these professionals and the places they work. Many probably assume that their local librarian is a shy, shushing, anal-retentive, nerdy bookworm who lives with several cats. She probably likes knitting, wears cardigans, collects and categorizes things, and has sensible shoes. (Note: I tend to refer to a librarian as a “she” because the profession does seem to attract the fairer sex. In my library program we outnumbered the dudes about ten to one. I still do not understand why more post-undergraduate straight men don’t take advantage of this opportunity.) With regard to these stereotypes: okay, I’m busted. I’m guilty of most of those characteristics. (With the exception of the cats and the sensible shoes part.) The problem with the librarian and library stereotypes, though, may not be that we do not possess any of these characteristics, but that we possess so much more.

Librarians, in fact, are not-so-quiet, super-interesting, super-educated, and technologically savvy professionals. To practice in most libraries you have to acquire a Masters degree in either Library or Information Management. Many librarians – particularly subject specialists, the innately curious, or the overly ambitious – may have multiple graduate degrees and even PhDs. Yes, these poor folks you see at your local branch are actually hot shit, but, for the love of humanity, they are toiling to service patrons such as yourself.