Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Off the Shelf: Law & Order, "American Dream" (1993)

Željko Ivanek (left) and Michael Moriarty in Law & Order, "American Dream"

The recent reboot of Law & Order is singularly dispiriting – the writing has as much life as unleavened dough and the acting of the jobbed-in actors rarely rises above the mediocre. The regulars (Camryn Manheim, Anthony Anderson and Jeffrey Donovan as “order” and Sam Waterston, Hugh Dancy and Odelya Halevi as “law”) are working very hard to pretend not to notice that no one has written characters for them to play. Only Waterston has evidently thrown in the towel: he gets more mummified with every episode. I doubt it’s his own fault:  he may be pushing eighty-two, but he just gave the performance of his career as George Shultz in the Hulu miniseries The Dropout.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Self-Renewal: New Tricks by Christopher House

Christopher House in New Tricks. (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Canadian modern dance innovator and Order of Canada recipient Christopher House officially became a senior citizen when he turned 65 in 2020. That’s the age of retirement in Canada and after 25 years as artistic director and chief choreographer of Toronto Dance Theatre, House exercised his prerogative and announced he was quitting the company.

He had planned to have a big send-off – a retrospective season showcasing some of the work he had created over the decades for one of the country’s leading modern dance troupes, in addition to a couple of new commissions made especially for him to dance in. But then the pandemic rudely disrupted what was to have been his grand finale, compelling House to leave his position without the anticipated fanfare.

The curtain never did come crashing down on his dancing career, which in retrospect is a good thing. Without a fixed ending, House has just kept on going, creating, and performing now as an independent solo artist. New Tricks, a multipart work whose premiere took place at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance during the last two weekends of March, is the first choreography he has made since becoming a pensioner, and it's among the best he has produced in years.

Monday, April 18, 2022

The Disintegration of the American Theatre: A Report from the Front

The cast of The Minutes, the new play by Tracy Letts at New York's Studio 54.

This is a review of The Minutes. It includes spoilers.

For the first half of its ninety-minute running time (sans intermission), Tracy Letts’s new play The Minutes (at Studio 54) is an inconsequential but frequently hilarious chronicle of a meeting of the government of a small town called Big Cherry located in an unspecified state. Working on David Zinn’s evocative set, the fine director Anna D. Shapiro – whose Broadway credits include Letts’s August: Osage County as well as The Motherfucker with the Hat and the beautiful 2014 revival of Of Mice and Men – and a flawless cast flesh out the idiosyncrasies, the long-festering petty tensions and the various ineptitudes of this motley group, two of whom (played by Blair Brown and the delightful Austin Pendleton, whose timing is both eccentric and unequalled) have served on the town council for decades. There are three main points of focus. One is the attempt of Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy) to obtain funding for an accessible fountain in the town center, which goes down because hardly anyone in the room has any interest in Hanratty’s spirit of inclusiveness: as Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), the most forthrightly insensitive person in the room, expresses it, the definition of “disabled” is an inability to do things that “normal” people have no trouble with. The second is the proposal of Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman) to institute a game called Lincoln Smackdown for the annual town heritage festival in which attendees try to knock down someone dressed as Abraham Lincoln (who, in real life, had no connection to Big Cherry). Meanwhile the newest addition to the council, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid of the TV series Schitt’s Creek), who missed the last meeting because he was out of town for his mother’s funeral, is struggling to catch up but hits a brick wall: another member has been unaccountably ousted, and he can’t get anyone to tell him why. Equally mysteriously, the town clerk (Jessie Mueller) has not distributed the minutes from the previous week that might explain his absence. Whenever Peel tries to stop the proceedings and address the mystery, the mayor (played by Letts himself) shuts him down on one pretext or another.

Friday, April 8, 2022

A Rejuvenated Sleeping Beauty at the National Ballet of Canada

Harrison James and Heather Ogden with artists of the National Ballet of Canada in The Sleeping Beauty. (Photo: Teresa Wood)

As a harbinger of spring, the National Ballet of Canada’s recent presentation of The Sleeping Beauty was an especially happy occasion. The first lavishly designed full-length ballet to open on the Four Seasons Centre stage since the March 2020 lockdowns, it burst on the eye like a garden of suddenly blooming flowers. Oh the sumptuousness of it all. And how sorely such choreographed extravagance, the ultimate in escapism, has been missed during the bleak days of the pandemic.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

A Dance to the Music of Time: 4-Dimensional Sculptures by Joachim Waibel

Nude portraits of antique clocks without their hands, silently holding their vigil and thus calmly reminding us of Henri Bergson’s bold 1911 admonition: “Time is invention, or it is nothing at all.”

“For reasons not at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that before we really know where we are, we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careening uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.”  – Anthony Powell, 1955.

When the French novelist Marcel Proust finally published his long-awaited seven-volume magnum opus In Search of Lost Time in 1913, after labouring meticulously, some would say obsessively, over his work for almost as many years as there were volumes, he was sharing with us the culmination of his devotion to memorializing not just memory but the actual passage of time itself. He had attempted and clearly succeeded in producing almost a balsamic reduction of himself and his reveries in words that are at once poetic and precise. Further, he had achieved a landmark, not only in literature but in the poetics of psychological introspection, coming in the end to almost perfectly embody the ethos of poet Wallace Steven’s definition of poetry: the search for the inexplicable.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Street Dance on Stage: In My Body by Bboyizm/Crazy Smooth

 Bboyizm dancers in Crazy Smooth’s In My Body. (Photo: Jerrick Collantes)

Hip hop is a ruthlessly athletic dance form that pushes the body to the limits. The acrobatic moves, requiring immense stores of physical prowess and stamina, are so demanding that break dancing is set to become an Olympic sport when the games resume in Paris in 2024. The fast footwork, head spins, aerial flips and floor drops take a toll. Not for nothing are break dancers called b-boys and b-girls, names connoting the youthful vigour needed to pull it off. Crazy Smooth, aka Yvon Soglo, knows.

The Benin-born, Gatineau-based break dancer has been involved in hip hop culture since 1997, going on to form Bboyizm, an award-winning street-dance company that has been instrumental in the preservation and proliferation of street dance in Canada since its founding in 2004. Today, at age 41, he’s still a b-boy, but a b-boy with knee problems and a middle-age crisis on his hands. How to keep dancing when the spirit is willing but the body is getting weaker with each advancing year? It’s a question that drives In My Body, a thrilling interactive street dance work whose Toronto premiere took place at the Bluma Appel Theatre, inside the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, on March 17.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Under the Radar: Charlatan, All Hands on Deck and Dream Horse

Ivan Trojan and Juraj Loj in Charlatan.

Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan is based on the little-known story of Jan Mikolášek (an authoritative performance by Ivan Trojan), a Czech herbalist and faith healer who was arrested by the Communist government on a trumped-up murder charge in the 1950s. As a young man in the 1930s (played by Trojan’s son Josef), Jan is trained by an aging healer (Jaroslava Pokorná) to interpret the ailments of the sick by “reading” their urine; his apprenticeship is in direct defiance of his farmer father, who locks him in his room to keep him at home. Jan takes a hatchet to the bedroom door – and almost uses it on his father. When the old woman, Mühlbacherová, dies, he takes over her practice and his herbal treatments become so famous that during the war he is even called upon to dispense curatives to high-ranking Nazis. He gets in hot water from both sides: a Czech Gestapo officer (Joachim Paul Assböck) whose little girl he couldn’t save arrests him and beats him, and after the war he’s charged with collaborating. His protector is the Czech president, Zápotocky (Ladislav Kolár), who is one of his patients. But after the president dies Jan and his assistant, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj), are put on trial as charlatans and murderers.