Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fan's Folly: Jennifer Tarver's What Makes a Man?

I went to the theatre expecting a play but got instead a cabaret, and with bad acoustics. Talk about dashed expectations. I also went hoping to see what Jennifer Tarver would do to establish further her credentials as one of the most innovative theatre directors working in Canada today, but ended up walking away disappointed if not decidedly under-whelmed. What Makes A Man?, an original piece of theatre used to launch her tenure as director of Toronto’s Necessary Angel Theatre Company, is a great idea gone wrong. Known more for her incisive interpretations of Samuel Beckett, Tarver has radically changed tack in sourcing the prodigious songbook of living legend Charles Aznavour to shape a production that is about, well, who knows what.

The 70-minute performance, which opened at the Berkeley Street Theatre on Thursday night with performances continuing through Nov. 2, lacks a clear focus so it is hard to tell what the message is. The medium itself is also fuzzy. It’s a piece of theatre and yet it’s not a play. There is no storyline. Aznavour, himself, could have provided one – born in Paris in 1924, the son of Armenians who had fled the Turkish genocide, a multilingual and multitalented singer-composer with an uncanny knack for turning people’s stories into gripping, narrative driven songs. But no, his life is not on the stage to admire. Tarver, who admits to not having discovered his music until three years ago (the idea boggles: dubbed the French Frank Sinatra, the man has appeared in sixty films, composed a thousand songs, many of them Top 100 hits and covered by everyone from Johnny Mathis to Elvis Costello, and at ninety is still doing concerts), has let the lyrics in the twenty-three songs selected for the occasion do all the talking. Maybe because she only recently discovered them is why she is besotted by them. At least they appear to have blinded her to a sense of purpose. What Makes A Man? is less Tarver as innovator, and more Tarver as fan.

Delivering the songs in the show’s repertoire are Kenny Brawner, a master pianist/vocalist known for his Ray Charles tribute shows in his native U.S., Andrew Penner, a singer/songwriter in the Canadian alternative country band, Sunparlour Players, Louise Pitre, the award-winning Canadian actress/singer known for her star turns in Mamma Mia! (both the Toronto and Broadway productions), Les Miserables, and Piaf, and Saidah Baba Talibah, the daughter of Canadian singing sensation Salome Bey who is a powerful jazz vocalist in her own write. Each in turns sings with credible passion and conviction an Aznavour composition, some in English, some in French, some a melange of both languages. But that’s basically it: they just sing the songs. In her program notes, Tarver explains that she wanted four performers – two male and two female to embody what she determined were the four types heard in Azanavour’s songs – the Entertainer (Brawner), the Poet (Penner), the Lover (Talibah) and the Survivor (Pitre). And, really, you have to read the notes to know that. But if that was the original intention, then it goes nowhere.

Other than sing songs that embody those ideas, nothing else is done with them. The performers perform, climbing one-by-one on to Teresa Pryzbylski’s steps-leading-to-a-two-tiered-platform set design, to articulate the words in Aznavour’s novelistic lyrics. While one sings, the others sit apart – the loneliness of the long-lunged performer. The atmosphere is dark, moody, bathed in Kimberley Purtell’s indigo lighting design – la vie en bleu. There’s a piano on the stage and Brawner plays it. There’s also a suitcase doubling as a drum and Penner, playing a busker, kick-starts it into action. (Marie-Josée Chartier did the choreography.) Pitre is barefoot in jeans and a man’s jacket which she peels off as she becomes increasingly emotional in her delivery. Talibah is in a red dress and she opens her legs provocatively when singing about kissing. So there’s a bit of a theatrical tease going on, but it ultimately is just that – a tease.

Louise Pitre, Saidah Baba Talibach and Andrew Penner (Photo by John Lauener)

The audience at Thursday’s premiere was at first unsure of how to react. Should they treat this as a symphony concert, where the pauses are meant to be respectively sat through in anticipation of a dramatic build to the finish? Some clearly thought so as the applause following the first few songs, among them Azanavour’s classic "Yesterday When I Was Young," was sparse and hesitant. But when it soon became obvious that there was no narrative flow – no plot and no real characters to know or care about, either –then it was whoa! yeah! whistle-roar-clap-stomp, just like in a rock concert. (Which was annoying.) People had just figured it out for themselves, that this was a revue and not an insightful work of drama, and so switched gears, silencing their doubts to have a good time. A case of making do. Except, the six-piece jazz band put together for the occasion by musical director Justin Ellington – consisting of the engaging Dave Restivo on piano, Roger Travassos on drums, a thumping Marlon Pennant on bass, Andrew Craig on keyboard and Heather Crawford and Rich Grossman on guitar (tight as it was) – tended to compete with the voices on stage. A case of making undone.

The title song, "What Makes A Man?," a once controversial song, first recorded in 1973, about a drag queen which Penner sang with muted drama and attention-grabbing sincerity, was among the only times when the evening felt like it had found its groove. But when the song was over it was over. Tarver chose, inexplicably, not to build on the moment. A lost opportunity, for sure. And so is this show. The review in brief? Buy the record.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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