Saturday, September 9, 2017

Fizzling Out: Burn All Night at Club Oberon

As I walked out of Burn All Night, a new musical running at the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon, I found myself feeling oddly upbeat about the fact that I’d just seen a thoroughly average piece of immersive mainstream theatre. As I’ve written before with regards to the ART’s production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, this increasingly popular style of staging plays in such a way as to draw the audience into the dramatic action offers at least one potential answer to the question of how theatre can distinguish itself as it competes with a myriad of entertainment options for audiences’ attention. Contrary to the title, this latest offering won’t set the world on fire, but there are elements of its music and staging that partially counteract its glaring weaknesses as a play.

Burn All Night ultimately tries to make a statement about the impending global cataclysm that, thanks to our poisonous politics and abuse of the environment, seems at times almost inevitable. However, the real disaster here is Andy Mientus’s book, which follows the romantic entanglements and personal conflicts of four young people. The main character, Bobby (Lincoln Clauss), is a stereotype, the wide-eyed naif who ditches the stifling atmosphere of Real America for the boundless possibilities of New York City. The backward, provincial hellhole from which he escapes? Pittsburgh. I’m no Steelers fan, but I’m still not clear on what’s so awful about this metropolis of western Pennsylvania, and Mientus doesn’t help matters by giving Bobby a series of phone conversations with his widowed mother that mostly make you feel bad for the poor woman, who’s stuck worrying about her absent son while the world ends.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Agony and the Artistry: Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway

Photo: Robert Capa/Magnum.

“At some point in the unfolding of his brilliant career, a tragedy began to take shape”: so begins Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (Knopf; 738 pp.). What follows is the history of that tragedy. More, perhaps, than any previous Hemingway biography – save Paul Hendrickson’s harrowing Hemingway’s Boat (2011), which is more a psycho-factual exploration of selected themes than biography per se – Dearborn’s is a chronicle of physical and mental agonies, some fateful, others self-inflicted. In this telling, as tragedy takes its shape, it misshapes the life. It’s a more than valid view of this particular figure. Even in his prime, when he was kicking ass and taking names, beaming out from front pages and basking in celebrity, Hemingway was moving toward a violent end almost too easy to see, with hindsight, as predestined. The end seemed foretold in family dysfunction – suicidal father, mother whose outsize presence and personal ambition both influenced and infuriated her son. It was encouraged by ego, money, and acclaim after the first stunning short stories and history-making novels. It was urged from the 1930s onward by alcoholism, physical self-abuse, and a tendency to disastrous accidents. It burgeoned in the lengthening depressions, cognitive degeneration, and inferior work of his last decade. And it came, finally, in the early hours of July 2, 1961, when Hemingway took his life with a shotgun in an isolated house in the mountains of Idaho, three weeks short of his sixty-second birthday.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Inventory Management, Vol III: Indie Darlings

Sonic Mania was released by Sega on August 15.

Sonic Mania is the ultimate exercise in nostalgia. Sonic the Hedgehog never escaped the 1990s the way his rival Mario did, so it only makes sense that he should give up his decades-long struggle to invent a new identity and just return to his roots instead. Sega – Sonic’s irresponsible, absentee parent – made this happen this year in such an unusual, unlikely way that it would have been an interesting story even if the result weren’t an absolute delight.

The name Sonic Mania hints at more than just the excitement of Sonic fans' seeing their favourite gaming mascot back in the limelight (in a positive way for once). One of those very fans, developer Christian “Taxman” Whitehead, took it upon himself to design and program a Sonic game that both recreated and expanded upon the original Sega Genesis titles from his childhood. Whitehead was given the extraordinary chance to present his prototype to Sonic series producer Takashi Iizuka, who reworked Whitehead’s proposed title “Sonic Discovery” into something that reflected the singular nature of this passion project, something that was “by the mania, for the mania.” With help from indie developers Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, and with the blessing and bankroll of both Iizuka and Sega, Whitehead’s dream of creating a Sonic game that was worthy of the original series actually came true.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Criss-crossing Abbey Road: Dreaming The Beatles by Rob Sheffield

When John Lennon released his solo album Plastic Ono Band in 1970, he concluded the record with a tune called “God.” The song laments everything he no longer believed in, including “Beatles,” which he stutters out at the end of a long list of disenchantments. “The dream is over,” sings Lennon, and while that may have been true for him at the time, months after the break-up of his band, it wasn’t the case for the millions of fans who adored The Beatles and believed in them. The current crop of believers can be easily found on YouTube as they compile so-called Beatles albums from the Lennon, McCartney-Harrison-Starr solo years in the early seventies. The notion isn’t without merit, as many of the songs on the early solo records were being written in the final months of the band’s career. One such compiler, in a nod to the red and blue Beatles compilations issued by Apple in 1975, has created his own “orange” and “green” albums. Another fan by the name of Marc Bridson has created The Beatles fantasy albums featuring the Fab Four’s solo tracks, collected in an effort to preserve the band in ways they never expected. Strangely, it works . . . but only for dreamers.

Fifty years after the release of Sgt. Pepper and another forty-plus years after the break-up of the world’s most popular rock band, Rob Sheffield’s timing couldn’t be better. In his recently released memoir, Dreaming The Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World (Dey St.), Sheffield turns the story of the Beatles on its cultural head. Rather than write another chronological history of the band, leaving that task to scholars such as Mark Lewisohn, Sheffield tells the story of the group from his unique perspective. He literally begins at the end when Paul McCartney says, “Thanks, Mo” at the conclusion of “Get Back” on Let It Be. For Sheffield it’s a great place to start because it captures a “quintessential Beatle moment” when the band calls it a day and the fans get to enjoy the meaning of their musical and cultural impact. Looking back as a fan, Sheffield says, “The Beatles’ second career has lasted several times longer than the first one . . . The world keeps dreaming the Beatles, long after the Beatles themselves figured the dream was over.” Clearly, timing is everything.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Podcast: Elspeth Cameron on Hugh MacLennan (1981)

Author  Hugh MacLennan in 1984.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1981, I sat down with Canadian biographer and poet Elspeth Cameron, whose biography of author Hugh MacLennan had just been published.

Cameron would go on to make a career of writing about Canadian literary figures, and Hugh MacLennan: A Writer's Life was her first book. (The biography was nominated for a Governor General's Award that same year.) She followed it up with, among others, biographies of Irving Layton (1985), Robertson Davies (1991), and Earle Birney (1994). In 1997, her memoir No Previous Experience: A Memoir of Love and Change won a W. O. Mitchell Literary Prize.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Elspeth Cameron as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Poetic Absurdity: The Genius of Beatrice Lillie

Beatrice Lillie (aka Lady Peel) in Exit Smiling (1926).

There’s a tradition of eccentric English actresses who made improbably triumphant careers for themselves in the twentieth century. One was the great high-comic technician Gertrude Lawrence, who couldn’t sing a note without quavering yet became a musical-comedy star, performing songs by Noël Coward, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Another was Margaret Rutherford, who embodied a kind of British dottiness – an unassailable uprightness and forthrightness, like that of a nanny shepherding her charges through the park – even when she was playing Agatha Christie’s sleuth Miss Marple. But my favorite was Beatrice Lillie, who was born in Toronto in 1894 but became a star in the West End twenty years later and performed on stage and occasionally in movies and on television for just over half a century. (Her final appearance was in the ill-advised 1967 musical film Thoroughly Modern Millie, in the role of the white-slaving villainess Mrs. Meers. It was hardly a worthy valedictory, though she did get to wear chopsticks in her beehive hairdo and execute a modest tap dance to get a stubborn elevator moving.) Canadian she may have been by birth, but no one could have captured so acutely a specifically English brand of silliness, though possibly the fact that she was officially an import from elsewhere in the Dominion may partly explain the fact that her portrayal of English aristocratic hauteur was always parodic – even though in real life she married a baronet (she was Lady Peel) and lost a son, a naval officer, in World War II.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Stripping Away the Cobwebs from Castle Bran

Bran Castle is situated on the border between  Transylvania and Wallachia.

Castle Bran, purportedly the inspiration for Castle Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, is less than 200 kilometers from Bucharest. On a major holiday weekend in August, our tour bus set out from the capital to drive us through Transylvania to this magnificent thirteenth-century edifice, whose foundation seems an extension of the rocky ground with a palace emerging from it. Unfortunately, Romanians gathering from near and far blanketed the mainly two-lane highway, preventing us from reaching our destination until early evening. Nonetheless, I was excited to visit this historic site that has spawned so many misconceptions. While our guide – one of the best during the tour – rightly acknowledged that Stoker never visited Transylvania, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and that the connections between Bran Castle and Stoker were tenuous at best, he did think that the fortress Poenari, 200 kilometers away in Wallachia, the domicile of Vlad Tepes, the fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler, was associated with Stoker’s novel. While he was right about the one-time owner of Poenari, he was wrong about its link with Dracula. His mistake is understandable given the plethora of disinformation about the subject.