Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unanswered Questions: The Riddle of the Topical Song

"Every folk song is religious in the sense that it is concerned about the origins, ends, and deepest manifestations of life, as experienced by some more or less unified community. It tends to probe, usually without nailing down definite answers, the puzzles of life at their roots."

–  John Lovell, Jr., Black Song: The Forge and The Flame.

Some years back, while I was in high school, FM radio still held the promise of surprise, along with a keen sense of artistic danger always lurking. There was the prospect of discovering something you might not have the good fortune to hear again. Late one night, on Toronto's CHUM-FM, I first encountered Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Effigy" from their 1969 album, Willie and the Poor Boys. This epic song, which concluded the first side of their fourth LP, described an act of mob violence without identifying the mob (or the subject of their anger), and it had all the insistence of a news bulletin interrupting regular programming. With a portentous melody built upon the foreboding chords of a dirge, "Effigy" carried some of the same apprehension that the news reporter's commentary did in Orson Welles's famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast just before the Martians started vaporizing the citizens of Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Listening to "Effigy" that evening before bed, I kept expecting the song to conclude just like that news reporter's broadcast did – with death – where the mob would ultimately catch the singer before he could finish documenting the crimes he was witnessing. Songwriter and singer John Fogerty continually outpaced the urgency of what he was seeing until all that was left in his dying questions was why this was all taking place. His chiming guitar, with the clawing force of a chainsaw, soon cut through those questions just like the Martians' vapour ray did through Grover's Mill. His fears quickly faded into the long night as if he'd been finally caught and silenced by the mob. And I never heard "Effigy" on the radio again.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dancing With Puppets and Pulling the Strings: James Kudelka's Malcolm

 James Kudelka (right), and Malcolm. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

James Kudelka danced with a puppet this year. Malcolm was his name and while their dance wasn’t quite a pas de deux there was no mistaking theirs was a unique partnership. Kudelka might have seemed in control of the movements, but it was more Malcolm pushing him into new theatrical territory. With a puppet quite literally in his hands, no strings attached, Kudelka has moved beyond the boundaries of traditional dance performance, eschewing the kinetic to focus more on the art form's more subtle, expressive side as well as it's capacity for creating an empathetic relationship with its audience. It's something of an emerging trend right now. On the West Coast, choreographer Crystal Pite has been incorporating puppets into her work of late, including her re-interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest – The Tempest Replica – which Canadian Stage presented in Toronto in April. In Quebec, Robert Lepage has long used Japanese-inspired puppets in his theatrical productions. On Broadway, War Horse created a sensation last season with machine-driven puppets which helped to tell a story of loss of innocence and the brutality of war. Today's puppets, in other words, aren't just child's play. With Kudelka, to get back to the point, the puppet is a conduit for intimacy, stuffed cloth made substantial, and in more ways than one.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blues For Mr. Happy: Remembering Robin Williams

Robin Williams as Parry in The Fisher King.

In The Fisher King (1991), which has the distinction of being the movie that Terry Gilliam was put on Earth to direct, Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a rich, successful radio shock and aspiring sitcom actor who, with his sexual magnetism, long-haired, piratical look, and penthouse apartment, is like the Howard Stern of Howard Stern’s dreams. After goading a regular phone-in caller who proceeds to shoot up a Manhattan bar, Jack’s life and career fall apart; he’s too guilt-stricken to continue what he’s been doing but too cynical and bitter to imagine how to change. He stumbles across a chance for redemption when he meets Parry (Robin Williams), a crazy homeless man who used to a professor of classics until he lost his wife in the massacre at the bar. Parry has fallen in love with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a mousy accountant he’s never met but who he scuttles after as she slogs to and from the publishing house where she works. Jack decides that if he can get the two of them fixed up, he’ll have repented for his sins and can get back to his rightful place at the top of the fame ladder.

It’s Bridges’ job to keep the audience hooked from the first frames to the last, by being convincingly nasty and self-involved at the start so that Jack’s search for redemption seems like enough of a challenge to be dramatic, while also being sufficiently compelling (and attractive) that nobody watching him will simply say, “Fuck this guy.” But it’s the actor playing Parry who has the greatest potential to send the movie hurtling off a cliff at any minute. He has to get his laughs without making it seem as if the movie is holding someone mentally ill up to ridicule; he has to make the fact that Parry is stalking a total stranger seem moonstruck-romantic, and never creepy. Happily, the role is squarely in Williams’ wheelhouse. He’s able to use the fast-talking, free-associational style he developed doing stand-up comedy—the style that the name “Robin Williams” automatically brings to mind—and fold it into the character, using it as the high-speed ranting of a literate crazy person, whose tongue is racing to keep up with the speed of his mind.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Poignant Magic: Erin Fleck's Unintentionally Depressing Children's Tales

Playwright Erin Fleck.
If you are one of those already well-versed in the world of fairy tales, you're well aware that their purpose isn't to provide a thinly-veiled metaphor to lift your spirits. Quite the contrary. Sometimes these magical stories show us the ways that life doesn't always work out happily-ever-after. Humour goes a long way though in providing the proper dose of absurdity to make life's hardships easier to take – and maybe even transcend. With the deft employment of shadow puppetry, projection and stop-motion storytelling, playwright Erin Fleck of Caterwaul Theatre has created for the Toronto SummerWorks Performance Festival the aptly titled, Unintentionally Depressing Children's Tales. Through a series of six puppet tales, Fleck and director Maya Radinovich take audiences inside a blanket fort built to the scale of their performance space where they completely immerse us in a world of whimsical tragedy and foreboding comedy.

Erin Fleck has written and performed other original work with Mixed Company Theatre, at Theatre Passe Muraille’s BUZZ Festival, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s HYSTERIA Festival, the Toronto FRINGE! Festival, and Tarragon’s Spring Arts Fair as a playwright. She is an alumna of the Stratford Playwright’s Retreat, Factory Theatre’s Natural Resources, Theatre Passe Muraille’s Upstarts, TheatreKairos’ Writer’s Circle and Nightwood Theatre’s Write from the Hip program. Fleck toured her popular one-woman show Those Who Can’t Do... to Victoria B.C. and New York City since the show’s premiere at Theatre Passe Muraille. 

Erin Fleck spoke to us at Critics at Large earlier this week about the excitement and challenges of Depressing Tales

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bogus, Dude: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

A review of Jonathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is essentially useless. If you’re a TMNT fan (whatever that means these days) then you already know what to expect, and chances are you’ve already bought your ticket. If instead, you feel an intense pulse of intracranial pressure at the mention of this incredibly dated brand, then likewise you already know that this isn’t the film for you. So instead I’ll do my utmost not to waste any more of your time than necessary by comparing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), to see if two decades is enough make a difference in quality in the origin story of these… well, the titles say it all.

The plots of both films are perfunctory. Four normal turtles are transformed by radioactive ooze into a team of fighting, pizza-loving brothers (named for Renaissance artists), and taught the art of ninjutsu by their rat sensei Splinter. Shredder, an evil dojo master, wants the Foot Clan to rule New York City. The Turtles must stop them because… they must. And there’s a sassy reporter named April O’Neil who wants to get the scoop. That’s it. TMNT (1990) and TMNT (2014) handle these blisteringly engaging plot points in different ways, and there are pros and cons to both approaches. The material isn’t incredibly robust, but that just means there’s less to screw up. Or it would, but in the latter case, following the grand tradition of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, audiences are instead treated to new and exciting ways that already-trite material can be made unbearable.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Visit as a Musical, Design for Living as a Drawing Room Drama

Chita Rivera (right) in The Visit. (Photo: Paul Fox)

The musical based on Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt’s The Visit currently on the mainstage at Williamstown – book by Terrence McNally, songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb – has been floating around for years. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago produced it successfully in 2001 and the critically acclaimed production was set to go to Broadway, but those plans were cancelled in the aftermath of 9/11. The Public Theatre was supposed to mount it in 2003 but financing fell through; it was staged in Arlington, Virginia in 2008 but the only chance New Yorkers have had to see it was in a concert version in 2011. (Ebb died in 2004.) So most musical theatre buffs have only heard about The Visit and perhaps followed its tortuous journey through the years. Chita Rivera has always been attached in the leading role of Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, who returns to her poverty-stricken home town and offers to donate an astronomical sum to resurrect it, contingent on the public execution of her old lover (called Anton Schell in the musical), who abandoned her and her baby and blackened her reputation. (The role was written for Angela Lansbury, who withdrew from the original production when her husband died.) The current version, directed by John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, is a full-length one-act with a pared-down ensemble of sixteen.

I’ve always been intrigued by this venture. A dark, expressionistic fable about the inescapability of the past and human susceptibility to greed and conformity, The Visit doesn’t seem like a likely choice for adaptation to the musical stage, and I wondered how McNally might have altered it. The answer is: hardly at all, though he certainly deserves credit for slimming it down and reshaping it as a libretto without diluting its sinister power. It is, I think, a brilliant musical, and it boasts one of Kander and Ebb’s best and most evocative scores.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Old Country: Starz's Outlander

Caitriona Balfe stars in Outlander on Starz.

Last night, Starz – the cable network most famous for Spartacus (though in my opinion should still be best known for Party Down) – broadcast the first episode of Outlander, and fans of the network were in for a bit of a surprise. Based on Diane Gabaldon's best-selling book series (the first book was published in 1991 and the most recent, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, came out just this past June), the first hour of Outlander sets the stage for a cross-genre epic: historical drama, time travel/fantasy, with a heady dose of romance. Set primarily in 18th century Scotland (and filmed on location), Outlander has already exhibited something recent ambitious television rarely offers: patient storytelling. Though it may come with some 21st century sensibilities regarding violence and sex, the tone of the show feels like a refreshing trip back in time for the viewer – ethereal music, lush scenery, longer scenes, and a comfortable pace that makes the series novelistic in more than its origins. Set for a sixteen-episode first season (with eight episodes airing now through mid-September and the remainder scheduled for 2015), that sober, languishing pace that is currently its most interesting feature may turn out to be its greatest weakness. Still, its first hour is well worth your time, especially if you are still recovering from Game of Thrones' fourth season.