Friday, July 29, 2011

Theatre: Railway Children; Wishful Thinking; Next to Normal

So many shows, so little time!  There is so much opportunity for live theatre in Toronto that it is hard to choose what to see.  Including the 8 shows we watched at the Fringe Festival, we're attending 13 different live theatre events in 5 weeks.  Just these past two weekends, we saw "The Railway Children" and "Wishful Drinking" from our Royal Alex subscription and "Next to Normal", part of the Dancap season. 

The Railway Children is playing at the Roundhouse Theatre, which was built specifically for this production.  It is based on a British children's story published in 1906 about three siblings who have to move from their affluent London home to a small cottage in the country when their father is unjustly jailed for espionage.  They fill their days playing at the railway station, waving at the commuters on the trains, making friends with the station porter, getting into scrapes and adventures along the way.

While entertaining, the plot was typical for the children's literature genre and acting was  average.  The main reason to see this show is for the staging which includes the star of the show, a functional vintage 1900s steam engine nicknamed "Vicky" which comes rolling into the theatre at various climatic moments in the story.

The theatre is designed to represent the train station with the seating on either side looking down on the north and south platforms and the real train tracks that run through the centre.  When the action occurs at the train station, the entire length of the long theatre is used as the actors run up and down the platforms and scramble in and out of the tracks.

Scenes away from the station are staged by having "railway men" push out rolling wooden platforms that deftly transformed the middle of the tracks into various locations, including rooms within the London home, the cottage, and the porter's home.

Roundhouse Theatre is built on Roundhouse Park, across from the CN Tower, which is also the home of the Toronto Rail Heritage Centre.  This train museum features an old railway turntable, a historic railway station, a collection of antique but working steam and diesel locomotives run by CP and CNR.  A miniature steam train runs around a track carrying delighted children and their less comfortable looking parents for a ride.

I did not like Carrie Fisher's one woman autobiographical retrospective cleverly called Wishful Drinking.  Unfortunately the title of the show, plus the playful pre-show announcements (Meryl Streep was unavailable for this show so sadly, the role of Carrie Fisher will be played today by... Carrie Fisher) turned out to be the most amusing parts of the show.  This was especially disappointing since Carrie Fisher is known to be a good writer and has a colourful past.

I expected sharp, witty, sarcastic anecdotes that provided good juicy details about her life and acting career.  While we got some of that, I found the narrative and delivery to be weak. Sitting at the back of the theatre, we couldn't hear her whenever she turned away, looked down or otherwise mumbled her words, many times while delivering the punch line.  She used the audience too much as a crutch, repeatedly picking on a few members in the front row to get a laugh, rather than letting her material speak for itself.  We actually left after the first half so maybe the second act improved significantly - we didn't want to stick around to find out in case it didn't.

On the other hand, I loved the Tony nominated musical Next to Normal about a family dealing with the mother's mental illness.  Tony Award winner Alice Ripley gives a searing performance as she plays Diana, who goes through drug regiments, counseling and even electric shock therapy in an effort to find a cure and become "normal".   Her long suffering husband Dan and daughter Natalie struggle to cope, while her "son" Gabriel serves as a mysterious presence through most of the show.

As the side effects of her treatment become more and more severe, Diana starts to wonder whether the cure is worse than the disease.  At one point when she is so drugged up,  she sings an extremely lyrical song about preferring to stay manic depressive than to feel nothing at all - "I miss the mountains .. the climbing and the falling".

Diana and Dan sing dueling songs where she claims that no one knows how she feels, while he sings that he's been there to support her all along.  The frustration, sadness and pain in their voices is heart-breaking.

"Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head?
Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead?
It's like living on a cliff side, not knowing when you'll dive.
Do you know, do you know what it's like to die alive?"

"I am the one who knows you
I am the one who cares ...
And if you think that I just don't give a damn
Then you just don't know who I am"

The daughter Natalie dulls her own pain by taking drugs and pushing away Henry, the boy who loves her.  At one point there is a very powerful song where Diana asks Dan why he stays with her, while Natalie is asking Henry the same question.  The parallel situations are accentuated by the staging with one couple on the first floor and one on the second floor, mirroring each others words and motions.

"Why stay?
Why not simply end it
We'd all comprehend it
And most of the world
would say he's better off that way
To be free and maybe so is she

Next to Normal portrays the issues of mental illness in a raw, realistic manner that shows the devastation that it can bring to all involved.  I was crying unabashedly by the end of the show.

Next up for us will be Lysistrata (a Greek Comedy)  by the U of T Hart House Theatre, and Jesus Christ Superstar at Stratford.  So many shows, so little time...Sadly we ran out of time to watch 9-5 The Musical, Hugh Jackman in Concert and more.  I guess there are worse problems to have!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Toronto Fringe Festival 2011 - Second Week

In my writeup of our first week at the Fringe, I described how difficult it was to determine which shows we would enjoy. For our second week's picks, in order to improve our odds, we went with external reviews from Now Magazine as well as recommendations from other Fringe goers.  We did not get the results we were hoping for. 

Now Magazine gave 4 stars and a rave review to Bursting in Flames which we did not like at all, while it gave 3 stars and a luke warm review to Love Virtually, which ended up being our second favourite show.

We switched our last show to go to a "Patrons' Pick" called Breaking News (another 4 star Now Magazine rating) and ended up hating that one too.  The Patron's Pick is determined by the show that sold the most tickets per venue.  Either all the shows of this venue were really bad, or everyone kept their opinions quiet so that more people could be bamboozled as well!

We were told to buy our tickets early for Patron's Picks, so the first clue that we were in trouble should have been showing up and finding there was no lineup. 

Breaking News again had an excellent premise - How do residents in a fictional small town in Illionois react when they think that Orson Welles' War of the World radio broadcast about an alien attack is real? 

The staging of the show was also intriguing.  Actors on stage played town mayor, his wife and staff, holding a townhall meeting. The audience was actually scattered with actors that were part of the show.  It was surprising when people all around us started to jump up and shout at each other and alot of the action happened in the aisles as opposed to on stage (which made the number of paying patrons even smaller).  Other than a lot of yelling and histrionics, there was not much plot and the ultimate insult (or blessing) was that the show was over in about 25 minutes.  

The worse part of seeing a bad show is not the waste of time and money, but the lost opportunities of watching better shows.  However the joy of stumbling unexpectedly on a great show so outweigh the disappointments of the bad ones that it makes it all worthwhile.
This is what happened when after getting out of one show, we decided to rejoin the lineup for "Love, Virtually", without knowing anything about it, other than the offer of free ice coffees from Big Smoke Coffee for all ticket holders.  "Love, Virtually" deals with internet dating and most of the action and dates happen within a coffee shop (serving Big Smoke Coffee - the cross promotion was brilliant!).


The dialogue was hilarious, especially when the main character, Lauren, reads out the profiles for her potential dates.  As she does this, the men parade out to the front of the stage and complete the descriptions of their goals and hobbies, representing all the typical stereotypes - the nerd, the nature loving sports enthusiast, the pretentious cultural sophisticate, the hockey fanatic and so on.

There is a deeper plot also about getting over a lost past love that plays out as a bit of a mystery, with a flashback scene repeating several times throughout the show, each time revealing a bit more about the situation.  The play also makes so good observations about the impact of the online social networking phenomenon on personal interactions.  And on top of all that, there are some good songs that are blended naturally into the plot, as the cafe has open mike nights and Lauren is a singer by profession.

Our pick of "Tiki Bikini Beach Paradise Party A-Go-Go" was a good safe pick.  This was a musical spoof of the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies, and was every bit the frothy light, entertaining show that it aims to be.  The talented, intentionally over the top actors sang and danced their way through the traditionally paper thin plot of a gang of kids wanting to hold one last beach party before heading back home to school and reality.

There was a mix of old summer beach songs such as "I Think You Think" from Beach Blanket Bingo, as well as a few specifically written for the play including the title song, which was catchy and fun.  There were some original uses of props and staging including a raunchy sight gag with a surf board, a dance with hula hoops, and the simulation of palm trees.

Another pick which was right up my alley was "Mickey and Judy", a one man show where a very talented Michael Hughes sings Broadway tunes as he tells amusing anecdotes about his childhood about growing up with a love for musicals and Judy Garland.  He weaves in songs like "Dressing them Up" from Kiss of the Spider Woman to describe his predilection for cross-dressing, which landed him in the psych ward, and "Make 'Em Laugh" from Singing in the Rain, where he talks about trying to use humour to avoid getting beaten up because he was different.

Michael Hughes has a beautiful singing voice and an engaging, endearing manner of speaking that made you want to run up and hug him as he talks so earnestly and humorously about persevering and following his dreams of reaching Broadway, and how his admiration of Judy Garland helped him through it all.  He sings a medley of Judy Garland songs as a tribute and ends appropriately with her most famous song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

Now that the Fringe Festival is over, the shows voted to be "Best of Fringe" will be playing encore performances at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (formerly the Ford Centre in in North York), so if you missed it, there's another opportunity.  Given that all 5 of the shows that we really enjoyed (Kim's Convenience, Love Virtually, Living with Henry, Mickey and Judy, Tiki Beach Bikini..) all made the cut.   Our final tally was 5 out of 8.  In baseball terms, we'd be all stars, so I think we did OK in our picks this year.. looking forward to next year.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Summerlicious at Luma

Showing movies outdoors is becoming more popular in Toronto with regular summer showings at Yonge Dundas Square, Harbourfront Centre, Downsview, Riverdale Park, Amsterdam Brewry and David Pecaut Square (aka Metro Square), etc.  Large portable film screens show movie classics while the audience sit on lawn and folding chairs, or bring blankets to camp out on the grass.

This year, TIFF is showing classic movie musicals, such as Singing in the Rain, Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins,  every Wednesday night at the David Pecaut Square.  

We went to watch a 1964 French musical called Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  A very young Catherine Deneuve plays  seventeen year old Geneviève who is in love with Guy.  When he leaves for military service and she finds out she is pregnant, she must decide whether to wait for him or accept the offer of marriage from another man.  The phrase "a bird in hand ..." comes to mind.

This musical was unique for its times in that all the dialogue was sung.  This did not come into vogue in English speaking musicals until later, with Andrew Lloyd Webber leading the charge (Joseph & Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar).  The soaring music was written by Michel Legrand, who also wrote one of my favourite songs, "Windmills of your Mind".  The song I will wait for you from the movie was nominated for an Oscar and sounded very familiar, since the English version has been covered by many artists.

Prior to the movie, we had a Summerlicious dinner at Luma, the restaurant in the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  My first two courses were a Saigon salad and steak with mash potato, which were really good but not extremely original.  My dessert though was quite different - called a chocolate jelly roll, it was like dark chocolate jello covered with sour cherries, crunchy caramel bits, flower petals and a caramel toffee tuile.  As always, I like having different tastes and textures in my food.  I found the mixture of sweet and sour, chewy and crunchy, as well as the presentation to be very appealing. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Toronto Fringe Festival 2011 - First Week

The Toronto Fringe Festival presents over 100 offerings of live theatre, performed at small venues, featuring plays that are avant garde, non-mainstream, innovative and sometimes just plain weird. With such a large number of eclectic shows to choose from, its always a crap shoot what you end up watching.  We've seen some amazing, extremely entertaining  plays, and some that leave us scratching our heads, wondering what that was all about.

This year, I've picked 7 plays, and after watching the first 4 this weekend, I am currently 50% in my selections.  I've seen two excellent plays, one that had a great premise, but came across as amateurish and not well scripted, and one that I wish I could go back in time and reclaim the lost hour of my life.

Austen for the Attention Impaired is a comedy that compresses all of Jane Austen's novels into one hour.  We thought it would be like "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" which was hilarious.  Instead the acting was stilted and many of the jokes fell flat.   It started out promising with a funny rap but went downhill from there. 

Bursting into Flames was an even worse experience for us.  Reviewed as a high energy "blisteringly funny" comedy by a master story teller, and winner of the best of Fringe in  other festivals, this sounded like a slam dunk.  Unfortunately, the manic style of this comic did not appeal to us.  We found he just rambled on and on and was not funny at all.  Luckily it was just a 60 minute show and only $10 so the investment was not huge.

These are the chances you take with the Fringe, but when you pick a gem of a show, it makes it all worthwhile.

My first great pick was a musical drama called "Living With Henry" about a gay man named Michael who deals with contracting HIV/AIDS.   In the past, AIDS was an automatic death sentence as depicted by movies like Streets of Philadelphia and musicals like Rent.  This play deals with the issues of having to live out your life with the fears, complications and stigma of this disease that is now controllable with medicine.

What makes this show unique is the early reveal that Henry is actually "Henry Ignactius Virus", the personification of HIV.  Henry is played to perfection by an actor dressed all in black who gives off just the right mix of creepy dread and menace.  Henry clings to Michael and acts both physically and emotionally as roadblock in some of his interactions as he reveals his illness to his lesbian best friend, his mother and his lover.  Eventually when Michael finally comes to terms with his life with the disease, Henry softens and becomes more like a companion than an enemy.

Being a musical about such a serious topic, there were the expected and dramatic songs about fear and pain and acceptance.  But there were also humorous numbers including a dance by the two main ingredients of AIDS medication, and a hilarious bathhouse ballet that featured the gawkiest "Swan Lake"-like lifts ever choreographed.

The dialogue is raw and poignant and has an air of authenticity since the author of the play is also HIV positive.  Some of the action is a bit risqué, but this powerful play is a perfect example of what you can see at Fringe that is less accessible in mainstream theatre.

Kim's Convenience has been heavily hyped and is likely this year's version of "The Drowsy Chaperone" which is now famous for being picked up by David Mirvish for a professional run in Toronto and then went on to Broadway.

50% of tickets to each show are sold in advance and the rest reserved for sale 1 hour before the show.  We knew we were in for something special when the advanced tickets to our show sold out days in advance and when we arrived at the theatre over 1.5 hours early, there was already a lineup for tickets.  We got ours just in time as all tickets sold out shortly after.

Kim's Convenience is about a Korean family that runs a convenience store in Regent Park, Toronto. The familiar story of a father trying to leave his legacy to children with  dreams of their own, is brought to life with a stellar script and excellent acting.  A huge decision needs to be made when the patriarch is given a substantial offer to sell the store.

This play won the 2011 Toronto Fringe New Play Contest and is extremely funny for the most part but has some touching moments.  The immigrant Korean father with the heavy accent, stern demeanour, wearing white socks and open toed rubber sandals, is played to perfection by actor Paul Lee.

His witty repartee with various customers and his feisty daughter made the audience roar with laughter.  We still discuss in amusement the conversation where the father tries to teach his daughter how to detect shoplifters by describing different demographics and genders as "Steal or No Steal or Cancel Combo".  And when the father rebuts every word the daughter says by throwing it back at her ("Stop" - "You Stop";  "Please" - "You Please"), the daughter tricks him into saying things like ("Calyptus" - "Eucalyptus").

Brief dialogue with his wife, spoken totally in Korean, gave the play a feel of authenticity.  Although you had no idea what words were spoken between them, it was obvious exactly what they were talking about.  Scenes with the wayward son, played by the playwright Ins Choi, tear at the heart strings and made more than a few eyes moist including mine.

This play deserves a professional run in mainstream theatre so let's hope David Mirvish or his people have gone to see it.

Four shows down and three to go.  Keeping my fingers crossed that my last few selections will be as good.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Canada Day Celebrations at Queens Park and Bell Lightbox

There were so many celebratory activities to choose from for the July 1st Canada Day holiday.  We decided walk down to the Bell Lightbox to watch a free viewing of National Film Board Canadian animated shorts.  

En route, we passed by Queen's Park just in time for the ceremonial twenty-one gun salute.  From two blocks away, it sounded like a bomb explosion and took us a couple of seconds to realize what it was we heard.  As we approached, it was clear that the young children in attendance were not impressed, as many of them were crying from fright at the loud noises.  It was fun to watch the formal drill involved in loading and firing the cannons.  After several tries, I managed to capture a photo of one just as it fired.

At the Bell Lightbox, we watched a series of old Canadian classic short films, several of which really highlighted our country's culture and history... very apropos for Canada Day.

"The Sweater" was about the young French Canadian boy who suffered the horrible shame of having to wear a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead of the beloved #9 Canadians jersey of his hero Maurice Richard, which all his friends on his hockey team wore.

Log Driver's Waltz is a whimsical musical short based on a Canadian folk song.  It  starts out with live footage of men guiding timber down a river, but quickly cuts to animation.  The song describes the appeal of the log driver to young women who like to dance, since no other professions ("not doctors or lawyers or merchants") are as nimble on their feet.
A strange cartoon called "The Big Snit" featured about a couple (who looked like Wallace and Gromit characters) arguing over Scrabble.  This brings back memories of my own grudge-Scrabble matches with Rich.  Watching the man shuffle his tile full of 7 "E"s made me laugh and remember my own "Old MacDonald" tile, consisting of "EIEIOEE" .. so I knew exactly how he felt!

The finale was the old favourite "The Cat Came Back" with the familiar tune that was recognizable within the first few tuba notes.  "Old Mr. Johnson had troubles of his own, He had a yellow cat that wouldn't leave his home" no matter how hard he tried, and did he ever try!

All but one of the shorts that we saw are available on YouTube, but they were still fun to watch on the big screen.
We also looked in on the new TIFF exhibition called "Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions".  It seems mostly focused on La Dolce Vita with separate displays dissecting and explaining the motivations for each of the famous scenes, like the one at Trevi Fountain, and the Jesus statue dangling from the helicopter.  Since we had recently visited a much more comprehensive Fellini exhibit in Barcelona, we didn't spend too much time in here.

It was also Pride Weekend and although we didn't get to the parade this year, we did walk around the Church and Wellesley area one evening to take in the vibe. 

During our Canada Day walk we saw this sign at the Church of the Redeemer that said "We all Belong", as well as a huge Pride flag hanging from the ROM.  These demonstrations of acceptance made me proud to be a Torontonian.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

AGO - Abstract Expressionist New York: Masterpieces from MOMA

Huge canvases of chaotic paint dribbles, a painting that appears to be entirely black, or one that is entirely rust coloured, except for a single thin verticle orange stripe .. what makes these works be considered not only art, but priceless masterpieces?  That's the question I set out to answer for myself when I went to see the AGO's latest offering - "Abstract Expressionist New York - Masterpieces from the Museum of Modern Art".  This is one of the only times a MOMA exhibition has been allowed to travel.

The Abstract Expressionism art movement developed in New York starting in the late 1940s.  Influenced and scarred by the traumas of the Great Depression followed by World War II, artists were no longer satisfied with painting traditional subject matters like landscape or still life or portraits.  They wanted to invent a fresh new style that conveyed their emotions to the viewer.

In 1951, Life Magazine wrote an article called "Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight Against Show" about the group of American artists who led this charge, including iconic names like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, William De Kooenig, Ad Reinhert, Clyfford Still, and Robert Motherwell, all represented with art in this exhibition.  Prominent in the photo but missing from the AGO show is the lone woman in the group - Hedda Stern.

The show is excellently curated and makes great use of multimedia to provide insight into the artists' motivations and techniques, as well as provide general knowledge about painting terms and methods.  Audio and video clips, made by the chief curator of MOMA, describe selected works and sometimes included historic commentary from the artist himself.

Even more interesting were videos where an art educator demonstrates how artists like Pollack, Rothko, Franz Kline and Ad Reinhardt actually created their paintings using each of their unique artistic styles.

Included for the admission price, a docent gives a guided tour of the exhibit daily at 1pm.  Our guide admitted that this was her first tour, and then proceeded to dazzle us with her in-depth knowledge and passion for the subject.  Not only did she give us new perspectives with which to view the art but also regaled us with fascinating anecdotes about the artists.

The highlights of the show were obviously Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, each with an entire room dedicated to his work.  While viewing their famous works up close was thrilling, what interested me even more was seeing their earlier efforts and hearing their personal stories.

Jackson Pollock started out as more of a surrealist before he developed his infamous dribble style of painting.  He was a high strung alcoholic who helped revolutionize the art world by turning his painting style into performance art, almost like a dance.

Through it all he was supported by his artist wife, Lee Krasner whose work is also displayed in the exhibit including this pink and purple explosion of colour which she named Gaea.  After hearing about his life and tragic death, I was inspired to rent the movie "Pollock" starring eery look-alike Ed Harris, in order to gain more insight.

Mark Rothko's acclaimed "field-colour" paintings consist of horizontal blocks of colour which on closer inspection are actually multiple layers of paint of different shades and thickness.

We heard stories about his ego including how he expected people to weep with emotion when viewing his work, and how he withdrew his paintings from a commission for a restaurant because people were busy eating and talking rather than admiring his art. But before all that, he created this lovely whimsical tribute to his new found love with his second wife.  An audio clip by his son describes his vivid  memories of this painting, which was hung prominently in Rothko home as he was growing up.

Franz Kline used common house paint to create abstract black and white images which interpreted his feelings towards concrete objects that he saw.  This painting named "Chief" reflects his memory of a beloved locomotive from his childhood.  The various shades of black on white on black on white invoke thoughts of raw speed and power.  His agent tried to get him to switch to "more refined types of paints" but he determinedly stuck to his house paints.

Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman reduced the colour spectrum even further by each experimenting with "black on black" paintings.  A video about one of Ad Reinhardt's painting explained though that if you stare at it long enough, you will find it is not actually black at all but very very dark shades of reds, blues and greens.  The video also demonstrated his technique for creating these paint colours.

During the tour we heard an amusing story of how Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman were involved in a lawsuit over who first came up with the concept of black on black painting.  One of them even continued this battle to his death, declaring on his death notice that he was indeed the originator of this concept.

Barnett Newman was more well known for his "Zip" paintings, consisting of canvas in one shade, with a single thin vertical line of a contrasting colour which on closer inspection is sometimes painted on a strip of masking tape that is still on there.  He named this line a "zip" and even created one painting of the zip by itself.

In addition to the paintings, there was also a small sampling of "Abstract Photography".   The black and white photos convey shapes and images that are cropped in a manner to obscure their context, in order to produce the same feeling of abstract expressionism that the paintings strove for.  I found these photographs exciting since unlike the paintings, here was something that I could personally try to emulate and experiment with, so I found them much more relatable.

I noticed that many of these artists were tortured, depressed individuals who died at relatively young age, through car crashes, suicide, heart failure and so forth.  It was interesting to ponder whether it was it their disposition that fueled their genius, or the intensity of their artistic passions that led to their dispositions and common fates?

Ultimately beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I'm not sure that I fully grasp the depth of emotional resonance that this body of work is trying to convey to me.   However I did walk away with a greater understanding of the artists' intentions and an appreciation for the deceiving complexity of what they have achieved.  This is an excellent exhibition and well worth the admission fee.  Hats off to MOMA for creating such a great show, and to the AGO for making it available in Toronto.