Much to my horror, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get to see this before it closes on Sunday.
I’d been so anxious to catch this particular play, especially since it features two of my very-favorite actors: the amazing Nicholas Campbell (who you might know from the long-running TV series Da Vinci’s Inquest) and veritable force of nature Maria Vacratsis (from Little Mosque on the Prairie). The two-hander work is directed by the utterly-talented Phillip Riccio, who makes up one-half of the ridiculously good Company Theatre group; the other half is the brilliant Allan Hawco, star of CBC TV’s Republic of Doyle (I’m hoping for a Q&A with him in the coming months -stay tuned), who appeared with Campbell in the company’s last production, a jaw-dropping production of Festen, that, even two years on, remains seared into my brain for its sheer…genius. Three words for the Company Theatre: they kick ass.
I had the amazing good fortune of interviewing both Campbell and Riccio a couple weeks back, amidst the madness of the Toronto International Film Festival. With all the starry/film-y chaos ensuing, there was something weirdly soothing about speaking to thee two talented men about a little-known (if awfully good) theatre work; it was like standing still on solid ground after so many days of trying to jog in an earthquake. Their insights on the play’s exploration of male-female relations, something I’m continually fascinated by, was especially enlightening.
That sense of displacement vanished as soon as the pair left the studio, and I’m sad to say I haven’t been able to see their production of Through the Leaves, which closes October 3rd. With more madness on the near horizon, I’m hoping to make time. The Company Theatre always demands that -and rewards with memories that last forever. No kidding.
Apparently plenty, according to the young protagonist of Jonathan Garfinkel‘s intriguing work, The House of Many Tongues, currently running at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre through to this Wednesday. Playing since the end of April, this magic realism-esque piece touches on sex, family, history, politics, fantasy, art, age, and… uh, toilets. All at once. It’s a tall order indeed, and it doesn’t always succeed, but it makes for some interesting, challenging viewing nonetheless.
The plot revolves around fifteen-year-old Alex, a sexually curious Israeli living with his ex-Army-officer father, Shimon. Alex thinks he has found a fail-proof method to bring peace in the Middle East: Jewish men should go down on Palestinian women, and Palestinian men should go down on Jewish women. He wants to test his theory on his cousin, Rivka, who’s set to enter the Israeli army. She doubts Alex’s theory and suggests he hold her instead, to which he earnestly responds, “Why?” (which elicited some telling guffaws from the male members of the audience). Into their lives comes the Arab Abu Dalo, who claims he once owned their house, and eventually, his angry fiften-year-old daughter, Suha. Before you can say salaam (or is that shalom?), the four are attempting a co-habitation, as Dalo methodically types out Shimon’s history, eventually incorporating the ugly bits he’d rather his son didn’t know.
The House of Many Tongues is clever on several levels; its title plays on the twin puns of oral sex and linguistics, and its writer, Garfinkel, has anthropomorphized the house itself -into the person of actor Fiona Highet. The house “speaks” to various characters without sides -it simply offers suggestions and ideas. House also seems particularly delighted by Dalo’s appreciation of her/its genuine cedar toilet seat, noting that few, if any, ever appreciate such trivialities. Enter a talking camel who tries to woo House, in the form of actor/musician Raoul Bheneja, and a bit about traveling to Paris that is shown via video clip. Camel has his own theories about peace, family, and love.
It’s all very cute, if equally disjointed and disconnected, and some of the best bits involve the scenes between Shimon and Dalo. Actors Howard Jerome and Hrant Alianak, (respectively) give wonderful, heartfelt performances, playing men who’ve been bent and twisted by tragedy and loss, and who only want the best for their children. As Suha, Erin MacKinnon captures all the spitting venom and aching rebellion of a daughter desperately seeking her father’s love and attention, while actor/playwright Daniel Karasik is deeply charming and affecting as the curious, probing son who is relentless in his pursuit of the truth about his past. Bheneja and Highet share a few memorable scenes, their flirtation a kind of dance for the ages, though with Bheneja’s considerable musical gifts, I sort of wished he’d been given more instruments with which to woo. Alas.
The House of Many Tongues is interesting for the ideas it presents in terms of the Middle East -some funny, some profane -but it isn’t the kind of show to bring your Gran to (unless she’s one of those really cool grannies). It also asks a bit of patience, a lot of suspension of disbelief, and an open heart with which to absorb the poetry and flow of Garfinkel’s words and ideas. Director Richard Rose gives a nice soundtrack to accompany while you’re chewing over the possibilities. There’s a lot that could still be done with a work like this -somehow, it doesn’t feel finished -but starting down the road feels like a good first step. It’s true in life, as in … um, oral sex, that the destination somehow isn’t as important as the journey getting there. Right?
Over at the wonderful theatre blog cleverly titled Tynan’s Anger, the idea of the intersection between art and commerce is examined, specifically through the lens of theatrical production. Ethan, the blog’s author, writes:
If you’re in theater, even using the term “commodity” in referring to theater will make you cringe. Yet, the fact that this cringe is nearly universal is a unique thing to theater, in terms of business and even in terms of the arts.
Maybe this is the problem the arts in Canada have: people who stomp about decrying the wasteful spending of their tax dollars see artists turning away from commercial models, from things like Dirty Dancing, Jersey Boys, and The Sound of Music. Sure, on one level, it’s apples and oranges comparing those sorts of shows to, say, something from Passe Muraille or the Tarragon or even Soulpepper, but still, those inside the arts community -not all, mind, but some -turn up their noses, and, to quote Jeremy Kushnier (who’s in Jersey Boys), regard musicals as the dirty cousin of the stage. Hello, unity?
Without getting into an argument about what constitutes either culture or commodity, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised at the amount of shock coming from artists over the cancellation of the National Portrait Gallery. Is it really that surprising? Culture is not on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s priority list. Right or wrong, like it or lump it, it isn’t there. Period. That isn’t going to change.
Ergo, the onus is on us to promote our work in unorthodox, inventive ways. This is an opportunity. It means more than ever, arts companies -including theatre companies, of course -need to be more aggressive than ever to get the word out there -about who they are, what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. To quote an arts journalist friend who has covered this issue extensively, most voters who object to public funding of arts projects have a/ little to no idea of funding structures, and b/ are unaware that funding is less than half of the total operating budget of any project or company.
What does this mean? See above.
To quote Ethan again, “most theater people are introverts” -but it’s time we came out of our collective safety shell of our familiar community and started courting those people coming out of the Royal Alex. Call me naive, but I think it’s worth a shot, particularly since culture isn’t about to be promoted by our own government anytime soon. Just as I refuse to bitch and whine about the arts’ collective victimization in this country, I refuse to believe all hope is lost. It isn’t. Let’s go.
I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed puppet theatre until I saw Famous Puppet Death Scenes, put on by Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, last year. It was bizarre, it was gross, it was moving. It had moments of extreme insight, and others that wallowed in the most deliciously macabre humour. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and some of the powerful images it presented. Puppets may just be “blocks of wood”, as Old Trout puppeteer Judd Palmer told me last week, but what they convey in the hands of such skilled masters is something far past the corporeal. To quote my first PlayAnon interviewee, they’re “show(ing) us who we really are.” Quite an achivement for mere blocks of wood. Run, don’t walk, to see one of the best pieces of … well, whatever you want call it. The pseudo-kiddie skit “Das Bipsy and Mumu Puppenspiel” is worth the price of admission alone.
The Young Centre, where you’ll find the Old Trouts’ puppet show, just came off a successful run of shows in their first-ever cabaret series, sponsored by Canwest. With roughly 150 artists ranging from gospel (Jackie Richardson) to world sounds (Waleed Abdulhamid) to classy jazz (Patricia O’Callaghan) and much more, the Canwest Cabaret Series, was, by all accounts, a smashing success. I was able to take in the Cabaret’s Kurt Weill Songbook Saturday night, pre-Nuit Blanche-ing, and I must say, it had some of the best performances of Weill I’ve ever seen. Peppered with a range of interpretations and styles (including beautifully lyrical readings by Mike Ross and Sarah Slean, sexy, classic renditions by O’Callaghan, and decidedly scatty, quirky performances by Mary Margaret O’Hara), the Kurt Weill Songbook was a great example of an important idea: bringing supposedly “high” and/or “obscure” art to the masses -as in, to the ordinary grubs (us, that is) who happen to love it. Just days before, German songstress Ute Lemper had captivated a sold-out crowd at Roy Thomson Hall with her Dietrich-esque readings of Weill, and while the dressy crowd surely ate it up, the audiences assembled Saturday at the Young Centre were definitely more casual -in jeans, sipping beers, chatting with others at the numerous little tables set up in the Bailie Theatre so as to give a club-like feel. It was intimate, casual, and smart.
Monday night I attended the evening of skits and sketches put on by national political theatre group The Wrecking Ball. Made up entirely of pieces written only in the past week, and having had only one rehearsal, the show was part of a national effort to bring attention to the arts cuts that have so coloured the lives of Canadian artists these past few months. Along with clever work by Rick Roberts and Pierre Brault, the evening also featured work by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, whom Kelly Nestruck, the Globe’s Theatre Critic, rightly says is “swiftly turning into Canada’s David Hare.” Dead on. My favourite, however, was Teresa Pavlinek’s tale of two ordinary people who share a bus ride, along with stationery, and eventually, their dreams and ambitions. Called “The Road to Ordinary”, it was perhaps the least partisan piece of the evening, but for me, it was also the most moving, notable for the subtle ways in which Pavlinek showed how culture has the power to change lives. Great acting too, from Ieva Lucs and Hardee T. Lineham. Best Speech of the Evening Award went to Michael Healey, who reminded the packed Tarragon that, despite what we may think of him, Prime Minister Harper is a patriot too. It was brave, good, and ballsy. Kudos, Michael.
The last word goes to Northrop Frye, again, taken from The Educated Imagination. I like this one, because, based on the artists I’ve spoken with, including my next PlayAnon interviewee, artists of various disciplines in this country didn’t really speak to one another until the arts cuts were made public. What a way to foster discussion. Still, there’s a long way to go in terms of cultivating those connections. So, without further adue, Mr. Frye’s thoughts…
… just as it’s easy to confuse thinking with the habitual associations of language, so it’s easy to confuse thinking with thinking in words. I’ve even heard it said that thought is inner speech, though how you’d apply that statement to what Beethoven was doing when he was thinking about his ninth symphony, I don’t know. But the study of other arts, such as painting and music, has many values for literary training apart from their value as subjects in themselves. Everything man does that’s worth doing is some kind of construction, and the imagination is the constructive power of the mind set free to work on pure construction, construction for its own sake. The units don’t have to be words; they can be numbers or tones or colours or bricks or pieces of marble. It’s hardly possible to understand what the imagination is doing with words without seeing how it operates with some of these other units.
An interview, that is.
Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched is considered to be one of the finest pieces of Canadian drama. Everyone, from audiences to critics alike, agree it’s an important, vital, and deeply moving work.
The Dora Award-winning Scorched examines issues of war, family, and identity, and is on now at Toronto’s famed Tarragon Theatre, where it runs until September 28th before heading out on a nation-wide tour.
Tomorrow morning on Take 5, I speak with actor Sergio DiZio (best known from the television series Flashpoint about his role in the play, as the troubled, amateur-boxing son Simon Marwan.
Sergio and I will be discussing Mouawad’s work, as well as the playwright’s soon-to-be-famous letter on the recently-announced arts cuts.
Support Canadian culture and tune in, just after 9am!