Tag: European

Inside Looking Out

The latest offering from Soulpepper Theatre Company‘s venerable Academy is the lovely, whimsical work Window on Toronto. With a mix of movement, dialogue, and music, the show is a brisk 50-minute dip into the world of the Big Smoke through the eyes -make that window -of a hot dog vendor parked at Toronto’s City Hall.

While director Laszlo Marton states in the program notes that “I love Toronto” and the show has its focus in the Canadian city, in watching the work, it’s entirely conceivable that the series of scenes and vignettes presented could be from any large urban area. There’s a beautiful universality to the range of people and experiences that Marton and the Academy present to us, from the surreal to the gross to the touching; everything one might experience over the course of a day, a month, a year, in a city is here, if only we look.

A big part of this emotional resonance comes from the huge range of characters the eight-member troupe play: flirty girls, corporate Bay Street types, homeless people, workmen, yuppies, activists, musicians, immigrants, eccentrics, even friendly fast-food competition. They’re all here, refreshingly free of predictable stereotypes. The choice of using the music of Aram Khachaturian further conveys the international flavour of the work. After all, there are any number of local, beloved bands that could’ve stepped up (Broken Social Scene, anyone?) but with Marton at the helm, Window On Toronto takes on a uniquely worldly air. Yes, it is intended to be squarely in Toronto, but… it’s really everywhere.

The show maintains the Hungarian director’s European flair for timeless imprecision -which, in turn, gives Toronto a kind of European quality (take that, Montreal!). The famous “Saber Dance” is played a few times as cast members hurriedly move back and forth, in circles, up, down, and whirling into pace, within the frame of the vendor’s window, though the show starts simply enough, with raindrops covering the window. Marton adds a nice, meta-theatrical touch, by having the vendor himself (Jason Patrick Rothery, named, appropriately, “Jason”) sit in the front row seat, in effect becoming the audience to a continuous cavalcade of drama, comedy, and absurdity that unfolds before him over the course of a year.

That cavalcade includes a series of recurring, and deeply fascinating, characters. These include a Korean immigrant (played by Ins Choi) who befriends the vendor, and regularly comes around, first to introduce his wife, and later, his baby. There’s a braided flirty girl who loves sauerkraut (Karen Rae). There’s a quietly menacing man on a bike who comes to the window, looks around the window, silently takes notes, and rides off (Gregory Prest). There’s a lawyer-type who keeps our fearless vendor apprised of the ever-changing social situation, and leaves with a mantra-like “call me!” (Brendan Wall). There’s a hungry-looking woman in a hijab with a baby in her arms (Tatjana Cornij). There’s a protestor with hurting eyes (Ryan Field). There’s a potential love interest (Raquel Duffy) whose own pregnancy offers a quietly poignant moment. There’s a gay couple (who display remarkable “skating” skills during the winter scene, which comes complete with Strauss music to accompany). There are also impressive musical interludes performed by the cast. Touching on mime and even commedia traditions, these interludes aren’t so much diversions as they are vignettes in and of themselves. The play of colour, light, and shadow in these moments is truly inspiring, and offers some poetic grace amidst the urban hustle, in the same way that stopping and sitting on a park bench in Nathan Phillips Square -or any piazza – might.

Director Marton, together with designer Ken Mackenzie, gracefully make use of the small square in the middle of the stage, utilizing all manner of colour, texture, light, and shape. Faces, bodies, and various objects (except, interestingly, food or money) are placed in and around the frame, offering us a small peek at the world. White gloves pop up in one vignette, with thumbs and forefingers acting as hungry mouths. Eyes peek from around the top sides. What’s shown is every bit as interesting as what isn’t; bikes go by, people rollerblade, there are shouts and laughs and various bits of drama that remind us about all the untold stories in any given urban area. With one small window, Mackenzie effectively conveys the vast expanse of the space around City Hall through one heck of a great design that incorporates a number of different elements. For instance, when a piano is (mistakenly) delivered to the vendor, it’s conveniently used in that particular vignette, and in subsequent scenes, both within and without the frame proper. Its music echoes past the walls of the set, going past a visual experience of theatre and embracing an intimate aural one. Never has the music of the city seemed so obvious or lovely.

Along with noise and energy, there are moments of quiet and contemplation. There’s something enchanting in these moments -past the comedy, the chaos, and the bustle. It’s like a reminder to all of us who rush between emails, Starbucks, meetings, and bars: just stop, sit, listen, and look at the world around you. Maybe you’ll chomp on a hot dog. Listen, look, feel. It’s so simple. That is the magic of Window On Toronto, and indeed, of urban life everywhere.

Production pho
to (middle) by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Freaky-Good Frites

Yesterday’s cooler weather inspired in me a desire to make stew. However, my inspiration changed as the grey skies cleared in the afternoon. After a spate of domestic-y work & long-overdue gardening, I felt like something less…stewy. Also, starting a stew at 7pm is never a good idea. So I decided on steak frites. The steak part -fine, easy-peasy; I had a nice clean BBQ to grill them on, which made things even easier.

The frites? Not so easy. I’d never made them, if you can believe it. Perhaps it’s because I was never a spud person (though living in Ireland, I became one more out of necessity) and indeed, still am not entirely one -but the crisp, hot, carby goodness felt just right to end an afternoon of laundry, cupboard-cleaning and weed-pulling.
The response to my frites-making exploit on Facebook was so positive, I thought I’d share the recipe. I used one posted online as well as my own good common sense. Try it if you have a chance -easy, and yes, very good. This serves two people (or one very-hungry woman, natch).

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 20-25 minutes

You will need:
4-5 medium-sized organic potatoes (Yukon Gold is best)
4-6 cups of ice water
roughly 2.5 to 3 cups canola oil
1 cup olive oil
sea salt
+ a whack of paper towels for blotting

Method:
Scrub potatoes and julienne. You want the shape to be long and skinny (do cut chunkier, a la pub style, if you like ’em that way, but mind they take longer to cook).
As you chop, place the julienned pieces in a big bowl of waiting ice water; mind the edges of the bowl are filled near the top, with plenty of ice (and keep adding cubes as you add the cut potatoes). I used a metal bowl to keep the temperature nice and cool.
Once you’re done chopping and your taters are in the bowl, leave them to soak for 15 minutes. (Make something else, or pour a glass of wine to enjoy whilst admiring your garden handywork…)

At about the 10-minute mark, heat the canola oil in a large, broad pan on the stove; place on medium heat.

After 15 minutes, drain the potatoes from the ice water in a colander. Discard any ice cubes, leaving potatoes in the colander. Give a gentle shake. Spread paper towels out on a flat surface, then spread the potatoes on them. Cover with another paper towel and gently blot.
Turn the heat of the oil up to medium high.
Place half the potatoes in the hot oil. They should sizzle on contact (test with one if you’re not sure). Mind that the oil covers them entirely.

When they’re semi-done (yellow but not golden), remove with a broad slotted spoon or tongs (carefully) & place on fresh, dry paper towels. Gently blot.

Check to see if there’s enough oil for the second batch of potatoes, and add as necessary. Again, you want the oil to cover the potatoes entirely. Repeat as before, removing the potatoes when they start to yellow and placing them on fresh, dry paper towels. Blot carefully.

Add the olive oil to the pan, and turn the heat down to medium. Wait about a minute (so it heats up), then place the first batch of potatoes in; shake the pan. Follow by placing the second batch in with the first, and shake again. The oil should be bubbling merrily, with the potatoes bouncing around inside.

Cook about ten to fifteen minutes, shaking the pan every few minutes or so.

When the potatoes turn that happy golden colour, your frites are ready. Using tongs or a broad slotted spoon, carefully remove them to a dry colander. Sprinkle liberally with sea salt and gently toss with your fingers.

Now… serve with your favorite accompaniment and enjoy.

Gracias, Lhasa

It was with great sadness, and more than a little shock, that I learned of Lhasa de Sela‘s recent passing. The gypsy-esque, European-influenced singer has become a favourite of mine, with her hauntingly sensual low voice, poetic, surreal lyrics, and open embrace of various cultural sounds, from Latin-influenced to Eastern European, and all genres – folk, rock, electronica, klezmer -in-between

I remember being excited and little nervous when I interviewed Lhasa last spring about her new album. After the rich, gleeful sounds of 1998’s La Llorona, and the world-folk sounds of 2003’s The Living Road, she wasn’t sure people would be prepared for the moody, stripped-down atmosphere of her newest, self-titled offering, recorded entirely live. Our conversation ran the gamut, from background to influences to singing styles. We tossed around the benefit and drawbacks of analog and digital technologies; we talked about soul music, and since visual art played a big part in her albums, we talked about the relationships between music and visuals. I’ll never forget what she said: “music is a conversation; art is just for yourself.”

Lhasa’s music defiantly (fabulously) rejects any easy categorization or definition, in the same manner that many of my favourite artists do, including, notably, Gavin Friday. In these days where pop, rock, dance, rap, hip-hop and country are both more loosely defined and yet more rigorously defined (and defining) than ever, Lhasa’s music was (and remains) a breath of fresh air. Curiosity, passion, and an indefatigable spirit to explore new-meets-old sonic territory in unusual, challenging ways is a hallmark of good artistry, and a demonstration of commitment to one’s craft (or muse, if you will). Lhasa was committed. Her music doesn’t always make you comfortable; it makes you think. It takes you to places where you’d rather not venture, but can’t say “no” to. Her voice was a call to stumble, trance-like, up a hill, in the dark, knees bleeding, hands scraping at dirt, and then stand at the edge of a windy cliff, not merely admiring the view but wondering at horrors you left lurking below, and distorting them into shapes you could at least live with -until the next siren song, anyway.

Losing her is upsetting for so many reasons: she was so young; she hadn’t found the kind of acclaim at home that she’d found overseas; there’s still so much she had to give the world. Lhasa had an uncanny ability to pull her own experiences through the intricate, beautiful webs of tone, timbre, syllables and symbols, rendering the intimate epic, and shrinking the absolute to lacy uncertainty. As she told me in the spring,

That’s one of the wonderful things about music: you can say very intimate things, and they become universal – other people can relate to them. If it was just me singing about me, then I would feel embarrassed. I feel like I’m searching for the grain of something other people can understand.

Ultimately, art is about connection. Getting the chance to connect with Lhasa for twenty minute was a treat I’ll always cherish. “Now that my heart is open / there is no way it can be closed or broken.”

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