Saturday, November 10, 2012

Comically Bleak/Bleakly Comic: Soulpepper Theatre Company's production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame

Joseph Ziegler and Diego Matamoros in Endgame (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

“Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.”
– Angela Carter, Wise Children (1991)

Without even noticing it, a lot of our life consists of repetitious behaviour. The alarm is set at the same time and we run through the same procedures each morning. We get up and get ready for work. We get to work, start the computer, and gab with our colleagues who have become friends. We probably then all go to the cafeteria for a coffee and breakfast. We enjoy our coffee and breakfast while we gradually dither into our day. The day, for most people especially in an office, is the repeat, repeat, repeat of the mundane activity: creating Excel spreadsheets with the same sort of information day in and day out; obsessive photocopying because we don't trust computers to keep our records; filing those papers; have lunch; discuss how much we hate our job/boss/life. Repeat the next day. Regardless of how important we might think this “work” is, the truth of the matter is it is soul-destroying and, to an alien observing us from another planet, probably high comedy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Neglected Gem #28: Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)

Days and Nights in the Forest
I first saw Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest in 1973, when it played a brief and almost entirely unheralded run in the U.S. (It came out in India in 1969.) I was twenty-two, it was my first exposure to Ray, and I didn’t get it. I think my initial bafflement and subsequent love for it – amounting nearly to worship – may get at why Ray sometimes eludes western viewers at first but often exerts a loyal, even obsessive hold on those of us who return to him.

The title Days and Nights in the Forest echoes the titles of Renoir’s A Day in the Country and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, both movies in which characters venture into the country for a little harmless respite and find their lives are changed forever by what they discover (mostly about themselves). Days and Nights in the Forest works the same way. It’s a film about a journey: four pampered young men from Calcutta drive into the countryside for a few days’ freedom from the pressures and demands of their urban lives. They bring with them a lot of stupid prejudices, a lot of unattractive habits, and a lot of bad faith. They begin by intruding themselves upon a government-run rest house they didn’t bother to reserve, bribing the caretaker and imperilling his job thoughtlessly. (The caretaker’s wife is seriously ill, and Ray shows us what the Calcuttans don’t notice: that this man is poor but honest, and the temptation of the bribe tears him apart.) They abuse the locals; they get drunk and act like fools. And they meet two women, one a widow, also from Calcutta, who lift the men’s time in the forest onto an entirely other experiential plane than they could ever have anticipated.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dance on the Edge: Toronto Dance Theatre's Rare Mix

Jarrett Siddall in Vena Cava (photo by Guntar Kravis)
The body beautiful and the body decidedly un-beautiful are both amply on display in the current program which Toronto Dance Theatre is presenting now through Sunday at Fleck Dance Theatre inside Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. Consisting of four works – all revivals – Rare Mix shows the city’s pre-eminent modern dance troupe flexing its muscles in new and also tried-and-true ways.

The new belongs to a transplanted Frenchman, the Montreal-based choreographer Jean-Sébastien Lourdais, whose work, Etrange, presents the human body through a series of spastic, spit-drooling, limb distorting vignettes designed deliberately to be un-pretty, un-graceful, un-elevating – a dance that debases the human condition as opposed to dignifying it. His approach goes contrary to the initial tenets of modern dance as an art form meant to give divine expression to the human spirit, as described by its early 20th century creator, Isadora Duncan. And precisely for that reason his work, as disturbing as it is, comes across as fresh and exciting. Certainly it is one of the most riveting new dance works out there, as novel (if not as shocking) as Vaslav Nijinsky’s mongoloid movement experiments for Les Ballets Russes. Equally outstanding are the three performers who dance it – Mairi Greig, Yuichiro Inoue and Naishi Wang. You have to see them to experience this as dance on the edge.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Mother of Invention: The Pensive Enfant Terribles

Pensive is a word I would use to describe the superb music found on Enfant Terribles (Half Note, 2012) with Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron. Recorded in performance at the Blue Note club in New York, this release offers music that is free of formality, yet full of musical alliteration and thoughtfulness. The music is played with such spontaneous abandon that there is little thought for what comes next. Enfant Terribles is an ironic title because there’s nothing contrary about it; although in the history of jazz, the musicians on this record would probably considered the so-called “bad boys” of the form. But that was years ago. The experience of challenging an audience, for its own sake, no longer matters to these artists. They play with the utmost simplicity and beauty as an ensemble.

Recorded in performance over two nights in June 2011, the single disc offers us a glimpse into what those gigs were like. Six tracks, all standards, adorn the album. But instead of preparing a list of tunes in advance, rehearsing them and simply tightening up the presentation, the group decided to improvise on the spot and use their perceptive ears to figure out what tune was in play. This is particularly good on “Body & Soul.”
Drummer Joey Baron starts the song as a solo, hitting the drums to phrase the first verse. Guitarist Bill Frisell is then able to identify the song and join in at the bridge, thus allowing everyone to know that what they’re playing is “Body & Soul” and not “Besame Mucho.” The humour of the moment is beautifully captured on this excellent recording.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Rabbi’s Cat: Conjuring Joann Sfar’s Imagined Memories of Algeria

A scene from The Rabbi's Cat

With over a hundred separate titles since he first began publishing nearly 20 years ago, Joann Sfar is one of France’s most prolific graphic novelists. His topics range from the historical to the fantastic, but his most compelling comics remain those that draw on his Jewish heritage, and his mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic background. Many of those titles have been translated into English: all 5 volumes of The Rabbi’s Cat, as well as Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East (the first of a three-part series), and Vampire Loves. A recent documentary currently making the festival circuit, Joann Sfar Draws from Memory, offers a glimpse into the mind and personality of a remarkable artist, and an extremely charismatic individual. Still most famous for his comics, Sfar has more recently turned to filmmaking. In 2010, he wrote and directed a uniquely imagined biopic of Serge Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which mixes fact and fantasy to paint a complex and compelling portrait of one of the most controversial figures of French popular music. Although the movie was not an adaptation of a graphic novel, its production coincided with the publication of Sfar’s sprawling 450-page comic homage to the singer/songwriter, and Sfar’s surrealist-inspired visual eye is evident in almost every frame of the film. In 2011, The Rabbi’s Cat (Le chat du rabbin), Sfar’s film adaptation of his extremely popular series (published in France from 2002-2006, and currently translated into eight languages), was released. It was his second feature film, and it marked the first time he’d attempted to directly translate one of his illustrated narratives onto the big screen.

Despite premiering at Cannes in 2011, and winning the César (France’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Animated Film back in February, The Rabbi’s Cat simply hasn’t yet received the distribution it deserves in the English-speaking world. An accident, perhaps, of it coming on the scene in the same year as another much better publicized 3-D animated film also set in colonial Africa and based on a French-language comic, also with preternaturally intelligent animals in tow: Tintin, with the full might of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg behind it, certainly guaranteed that it would get most of our attention in 2011, but The Rabbi’s Cat is as different from Tintin, as, well, cats are to dogs.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Revivals, Part II: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Heiress


Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Amy Morton & Madison Dirks in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

It’s unlikely that anyone will mount a better production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than the one Pam McKinnon has staged for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which is now playing at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. It’s splendidly acted – especially by Tracy Letts in the role of George – and beautifully paced. I think, though, that you can get only so far with Edward Albee’s play before invention runs out and you’re stuck with those self-conscious dramatic arias and the symbolism that’s strewn across the text like boulders you can neither heave out of the way nor leap over. In the half-century since its original Broadway appearance, Virginia Woolf has been considered a classic American play – a withering depiction of a marriage rendered in a modified absurdist style by a satirist whose specialty is the marital habits of middle-aged American WASPs. Albee’s language is often clever and sometimes hilarious, and he’s provided a major workout for the two leading actors. But I’ve never bought this sniping, game-playing, co-dependent couple, the history prof George and Martha, the college president’s daughter, as real partners. I’ve never bought their desperate fiction about the son they could never really have, or the fact that Nick and Honey, the young faculty newcomer and his wife Martha invites for drinks in the wee hours of the morning – after a party her father has thrown breaks up – don’t get up and leave as soon as the insults start flying.

I don’t have any trouble believing that, in Albee’s one-act The Zoo Story, the force of Jerry’s personality could pin the retiring bookworm Peter to the Central Park bench where Jerry ends up impaling himself on the knife he’s stuck in Peter’s hand. That play strikes me as a brilliantly accomplished piece of American absurdism, like LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman (where the battleground is a Manhattan subway car and the warriors are a young black intellectual and a white seductress). But Albee’s ambitions are broader and deeper in Virginia Woolf and they’re beyond his – possibly anyone’s – scope . He wants us to believe that George and Martha’s is an authentic marriage, played out against a realist environment (a household on the outskirts of a small New England college), yet those long, embroidered speeches obviously don’t operate on any sort of realist plane, so whenever one of the characters launches into one, we’re meant to read it purely on the level of symbolism and forget that no one talks in this way. It’s the same problem I have with Sam Mendes’ movie American Beauty, another hate letter to the Yankee bourgeoisie, in which the characters’ behavior makes absolutely no sense but we’re supposed to accept it as code for what’s wrong with the American suburbs. The film doesn’t take place in any suburb that accords with my experience, and I don’t know any academic marriages, or any other marriages either, that are like George and Martha’s (or, for that matter, Nick and Honey’s). And I can’t make that leap to the symbolic level when the realist level that Albee makes a point of establishing isn’t remotely convincing. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Kid Did Alright: Arlo Guthrie, Live at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre (Oct. 26, 2012)

Arlo Guthrie (Photo by Jon C. Hancock)

Arlo Guthrie is the 65-year-old son of legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie. Sixty-five years old! He was just a kid in 1967 when he hit the ground running with his 20-minute classic tale of taking the garbage out one Thanksgiving, “Alice’s Restaurant.” But now he’s 65. Woody was only 55 years old when he passed away the same year Arlo hit it big. Huntington’s chorea was the cause, and Arlo spent a few years wondering if he’d inherited that curse. He looks pretty good, still fairly hippie-like with his long white hair and droopy moustache, but he walks straight, and plays guitar with confidence and skill. And he is one heck of a storyteller.

The week before, Jackie, his wife of 43 years, passed away. Inoperable cancer they said. Arlo was in the middle of a Canadian tour, and while he announced that he would be cancelling some shows and rescheduling others he promised to complete this Canadian tour. He was booked for Brampton, and St. Catharines, as well as Burlington’s new theatre all within a few days, and I wondered what he might be like. Would grief cause him to fail? Absolutely not. He mentioned Jackie only once in a charming story about his first trip from his Coney Island home to California. He was 18 and his mother told him he’d have to stay with family or friends. “We don’t have any family or friends in California!” he reminded her. “Well,” she replied, “You can stay with Jack.” Jack was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Woody was a major influence on Ramblin’ Jack), and what 18-year-old kid wouldn’t want to stay with Ramblin’ Jack? He took Arlo to a rodeo, where Arlo saw the most beautiful girl in the world riding a pony at the head of the parade. A couple years later he married that girl, and they stayed together for 43 years, through thick and thin. Then he sang a song that wasn’t on his set-list for the night: “Highway in the Wind” from that first album. It was a moving moment.