Thursday, May 16, 2024

Water for Elephants: Big Top

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Broadway circus musical Water for Elephants, culled from Sara Gruen’s 2007 bestseller, assembles a cast of thirty singers, dancers, acrobats and puppeteers, some of whom have performed with legitimate circuses, some with the Cirque du Soleil, some with the Montreal artist collective The 7 Fingers (known in Canada by its full-length French title, Les 7 doigts de la main). I’ve never had such a good time reading the cast bios in a playbill. The smart, snappy book of Water for Elephants is by Rick Elice, who wrote Peter and the Starcatcher; the songs, the best of which are roisterous and infectious and have a folky twang, are by Pigpen Theatre Company, which created the delightful offbeat fairy tale The Old Man and the Old Moon. Jessica Stone’s production is simultaneously expansive and intimate; Takeshi Kata’s set is a series of scaffolds backed by a cyclorama with projections by David Bengali. The show is mixed-media in the truest sense – the choreography of the musical numbers by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (who is also credited with the circus design) always incorporates gymnastics and puppetry.

Friday, May 10, 2024

New Sensations: Gauthier Dance Reinvigorates the Stage

Marie Chouinard in Le Chant du Cygne: Le Lac (from Swan Lakes). (Photo: Jeanette Bak)

Gauthier Dance//Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart recently made its Toronto debut as part of the 2023/24 Torque season of contemporary dance at Harbourfront Centre. The April 18 opener marked a brilliant homecoming for artistic director Eric Gauthier, a former National Ballet of Canada dancer – originally from Montreal – who spent years as a soloist with the Stuttgart Ballet under the direction of fellow Canadian Reid Anderson. Now 47, Gauthier transitioned into choreography before founding the company that bears his name in 2007. And that company is a delight – jaunty, versatile armed with a sense of humour, and charismatic. The 16 multinational dancers effortlessly connect with the audience, shattering the fourth wall with ease especially when (as happened in Toronto) they invite spectators to join them on stage for an immersive experience of shared joy and movement.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Cry Me a River: The Sweet Sorrow of Film Noir


“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but a comedy when seen in the long shot.” – Charlie Chaplin

Melodrama: the essential link between classical tragedy and ‘dark film’. “Suffering, with style” is the succinct and totally apt way that Turner Classic Movies curator Eddie Muller characterizes this unique mode of film noir storytelling: “The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy and revenge, which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul crushing despair and a few last gasping breaths in a rain soaked gutter. But damned if these lost souls don’t look sensational riding the Hades Express. If you’re going straight to hell, you might as well travel with some style to burn.”

From the moment the term film noir or dark film was first employed by advanced French critics in the post-World War Two global culture, there was also an instant debate about what it encapsulated so vividly. Muller, who is also an author of crime fiction himself, further defines the concept as being about a protagonist who, driven to act out of some desperate desire, does something that he or she knows to be wrong, even understanding what dire consequences will follow. Karma always looms large in noir.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Christopher Durang, 1949-2024

Christopher Durang and E. Katherine Kerr in Laughing Wild, in 1987.

It’s hard to imagine a more tragic-ironic fate for the playwright Christopher Durang than the disease from which he suffered for the last eight years of his life, logopenic primary progressive aphasia, which renders its victims unable to find the words they need to express what they want to say. (He died of complicated from the illness on April 2.) Durang was one of the great wits of contemporary American drama. His plays are outrageous and uproarious. In terms of style he’s an absurdist, but his work isn’t like that of any other absurdist; itis wildly playful and manically inventive, and it runs on pretzel logic. In Beyond Therapy the two protagonists are a newly formed couple whose road to happiness is blocked as much by their shrinks as by the man’s inability to give up his gay lover – his shrink is a bona fide fruitcake while hers has been sleeping with her. One of the main characters in Betty’s Summer Vacation is a serial killer. The characters in the two-hander Laughing Wild wind up in overlapping dreams:  she dreams that she has murdered and then replaced the talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael and he dreams that he shows up on her talk show dressed as an obscure Catholic figure called the Infant of Prague.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Singing Drunks: Days of Wine and Roses

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine and Roses. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

At first Days of Wine and Roses, written by JP Miller, was a ninety-minute drama on Playhouse 90 in 1958, at the height of the era of live TV drama, starring Cliff Robertson as a corporate drunk and Piper Laurie as the woman he falls in love with and turns into a fellow alcoholic. The tragedy is that while he finally gives up the bottle and gets his life together, she can’t stop – she winds up choosing booze over both him and their little girl. At this point not many viewers remember the original, which is distinguished by Laurie’s complexly delicate performance. (You can watch it on Prime.) But the 1962 movie, directed by Blake Edwards, is justly famous, for the performances of Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as the couple, Joe and Kirsten Clay, and Charles Bickford, repeating his role as Kirsten’s rough-hewn Swedish papa, is quite fine. The narrative is a conventional addict story but its unadorned quality lends it a certain authenticity, and Lemmon isn’t as showy as he is in other dramatic roles; he may be responding to Remick, an underappreciated actress whose modesty is one of her virtues.

In the new stage musical, adapted by Craig Lucas with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, which just closed on Broadway (it premiered at the Atlantic Stage Company last spring), Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara played the sodden Clays, and it’s hard to imagine two actor-singers who could have been more effective in the parts. James gets Joe’s hail-fellow-well-met affability but with an understated desperation that’s there from the opening party scene, where, as head of public relations at the agency where he and Kirsten both work, he’s expected to supply not just liquor but also women for clients; there’s a subtle suggestion that he imbibes not just to have fun but so he doesn’t have to think too much about the seedier side of his job. Drinking loosens him up but when, in the early days after their daughter Lila (Tabitha Lawing) is born, Kirsten eases off and he feels he’s lost his playmate, it can also make him angry. He explodes in the scene – famous in Lemmon’s version in the film – where, when he’s convinced her to cheat after a domestic near-disaster has kept them sober for a couple of months, he can’t locate a bottle he’s hidden in her father’s greenhouse. Partly because as an actor James has a sweetness and gentleness, his fury in this sequence, which takes in the boss who fired him for drink-fueled irresponsibility, is surprising and upsetting.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Subtly Scintillating: The National Ballet of Canada’s Winter Season Triple Bill

Koto Ishihara in UtopiVerse. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada's Winter 2024 program — at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, March 20-March 24 — presented a dynamic blend of tradition and innovation, showcasing three distinct works that push the boundaries of contemporary ballet.

Leading the charge is William Yong’s Utopiverse, a world premiere exploration of alternate realities and the human quest for utopia. It is a first classical dance commission for Yong, a Hong Kong-born independent choreographer whose Toronto-based Zata Omm Dance Projects is known for creating interdisciplinary eco-conscious works that merge dance, technology and other art forms for creative explorations.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

In Passing: The Enigmatic Paintings of Janna Watson

 Air Signs Talking, 48 x 48 in.

“Tantra is a technique that allows you to connect with your inner energy and experience transformation. One can visualize energy moving through the body with each and every breath.” – David Frawley

“Wu wei invites spontaneous and inevitable behaviors to happen naturally. Rather than painting a pre-planned idea, I let go of the ego in order to unify myself with the environment.”Janna Watson

Tantric diagrams. The visually compelling paintings of Flesherton-born and Toronto-based artist Janna Watson, usually produced on sensual birch wood panels, represent a significant development in what has been called biomorphic abstraction. With their energetic dance-like forms coming together, gently colliding and receding apart, they also provide an added visual bonus of taking gestural abstraction itself to new heights of emotive splendor. Viewing her colourful and almost calligraphic work offers us a chance to vividly remember a time when our tired retinas, less lulled by flickering digital pixels, were much more open to being transported out of ourselves and into the open-ended narrative that great painting always invites and provides.