Month: April 2009 (Page 1 of 2)

Daughters, Not Victims

Last week I had the distinct and awesome privilege of seeing Simon Boccanegra onstage at the beautiful Four Seasons Centre. The last few years, I’ve developed a wholly new appreciation for an artform that I wasn’t entirely sure I liked, even though it was thoroughly entrenched in my upbringing from childhood. Hmm, maybe it’s a sign of maturity, or the fact I cover arts and culture for a living, or the fact that I’ve worked in theatre, and know how much time, effort, and skill goes into a production. And maybe it also has to do with the fact that I simply adore the work of the COC. Classy, musical, and deeply thought-full -just some of the ways I’d describe past performances (make that experiences) -and Verdi’s Simon is no exception.

In a nutshell, the story can be reduced to a very simple equation: politics = family, and family is always political. Duh. Seems like that’s the case with much of Italian opera. I’m still on the fence about it all, really; the entirely-gorgeous, crazily-romantic music has a way of drawing me in its spell, even if librettos are frequently ridiculous and maudlin. I mean, come on, throwing babies into fires? Magical love potions? Bitchy Ital-oriental women? That’s not the composers’ fault -obviously -and I realize grand opera, like romantic fiction, was the escapism of its day (and it’s not like Wagner ever attempted realism -or social commentary -either). I tend, like many I suppose, to sit back and enjoy the marriage of music and mise-en-scene, and let the rest go.

But Rigoletto, easily one of the most famous operas ever written (as well as being my own mother’s personal favourite) has always, always grated on me. Yes, the music is breathtaking. But the story… leaves me cold. The idea of Gilda, the title character’s naive, shuttered daughter, being so naive, weak, and idiotic, and so willingly controlled by men… ugh. I know, sign of its time, victim-mindset, etcetcetc. Whenever it comes to shut-in daughters -and indeed, whenever I see or hear Rigoletto on radio or television -I always think of Shylock’s Jessica, who, like Gilda, escapes her father’s stern rules to go out and play.

But unlike Gilda, Jessica knowingly defies her father -for love, but also, we suspect, out of revenge. Shakespeare has it right: young women, especially those who feel their their freedom has been denied (or has, in fact, had it denied) by family or authority figures, are going to go out and find it themselves, in the most rebellious, dangerous, and irresponsible of fashions. So it makes sense that Gilda would take off with her nocturnal madrigal; the fact she’d be actually surprised -and then protest -at her kidnapping, however, is hilarious. The fact she’d be all good-girl over it, and protest his advances -when she probably had the hots for him all along -is beyond the pale. And then later telling daddy all about being … uh, raped? N-O.

Maybe it’s my modern sensibility. But even as a kid, never, for a second, did I ever buy it. The fact she’s pining for the miscreant Duke later on, while perhaps characteristic of a woman who’s been abused by her partner, remains, to my mind, woeful -and sexist. The Duke was never her partner -he was just that guy in the street she sadly trusted. The fact remains that neither she, nor her seemingly-heroic-meets-inept father see the truth of the sickly-karmic world they’ve created; Cordelia she is not. And why does that Duke wind up getting the best tunes, if he’s such a dickhead?

Simon Boccanegra presents another kind of daughter: one who, though committed to her father, nonetheless stands up for her own choices. Okay, so she says she’d die for her man before she’d let her father harm him -*cue eyeroll* -but the fact she’s essentially telling him, “Look, I love this person, and I really don’t care what you think, or whether you like him or not” -is brave, and it was refreshing to see. The fact that, unlike Rigoletto, the daughter in Simon doesn’t actually know her father until she’s an adult does, of course, make a difference in their interaction -it changes the mindset of the character -but unlike Gilda, Amelia never comes off as a victim, despite having been denied knowing her father, and only meeting him later in life.

That sort of reunion holds personal resonance for me. The scene between Amelia and Simon, as they stare at one another for the first time, comprehending everything, was, in the COC production I saw, handled beautifully, with just the right amount of delicacy and drama. Unsure whether to hug, stare, or be with their own thoughts, the pair just gaze in wonder and awe. I know what that feels like. Sometimes opera isn’t so fantastical after all -sometimes, it’s just life, with a beautiful soundtrack.

Play On

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing journalist Steve Lopez about his book The Soloist last year; the film version of his story, involving his unlikely (if wonderfully fated) relationship with musician Nathaniel Ayers had just wrapped, and I was curious as to how Lopez felt about his relationship with his schizophrenic, formerly-homeless friend being portrayed onscreen.

I’ve admired Lopez for a while, because he engages in the sort of journalism I aspire to: socially-conscious, full of humanity and integrity, shot through with passion. He writes about the most marginalized people in our society -people like Mr. Ayers, whose stories, while incredible, might never get told were it not for his bravery and heart. Yes, heart. Some journalists have them, you know.

After being moved up from its December release, the film The Soloist was finally released yesterday. I’m curious to see how it will marry the hugely important artistic sides of the tale with the terrible, sometimes-frightening twin realities of mental illness and homelessness. At the end of reading Lopez’s book, I was moved beyond words, and the only thought I had was to put on Beethoven. I’m sure Mr. Ayers would like that.

Making the Worms Dance

This seems very appropriate for Earth Day:

Use It, Don’t Abuse It

Okay, trite but still, important:

I’ve recently been considering the importance of playfulness, particularly since I was so woefully bereft of it in my twenties. One particular moment, when I first moved overseas, still strikes me as a time when I probably should’ve called up the playful/childlike/imaginative spirit, but didn’t -cowed, I suppose, by insecurity, self-consciousness, and worried what my friend at the time would’ve thought. But once that junk gets cleared away -the need for acceptance, the drive for appeasement -the sense of being a child again is allowed to shine through.

After all, if you’re a kid, do you really care what others think? At a certain point, sure, the self-consciousness kicks in. But before that, there’s a joyous, free time when the world is yawning open with possibility and wonder -it’s the spirit I tend to revel in whenever I engage in any kind of creative activity. Using my imagination in that child-like spirit makes me more productive to plough through adult stuff later on, too. It clears out the clutter, makes me calmer, happier, and more ready to embrace the myriad of people, experiences, and expressions this world has to offer.

So yay Elmo! Going to use my imagination now to sketch, write, and perhaps see about putting together my next painting -based not on a flight of fancy, but on an incredible photograph of women in Afghanistan protesting recently. There’s no way I could’ve even approached this subject matter in the past. Now however, there’s a weird kind of a calm, combined with an inner riot -a sort of neat yin and yang, I guess. We’ll see. I’m staying open to the possibilities, and using imagination, yes, combined with awareness. So far, so good.

Cell Sell Cell

I attended the opening of the new Rick Miller show Hardsell Thursday night. Still not sure what to make of it, really -there are a lot of ideas around selling and advertising, and what that means to not just the wider society that created the selling culture, but to culture as well. Aren’t performers -of any ilk -essentially trying to “sell” you something, tangible and otherwise? I’ll be interviewing Rick Miller next week (Friday morning, in fact), so maybe I’ll get some answers, or at least ideas, about how the show came to be.

Hardsell is another collaboration between Miller and Daniel Brooks. The pair previously worked together on the alt mega-hit Bigger Than Jesus (which a former editor of mine called “a ninety minute religious rant with TVs” -he also added that he liked it, natch). Like “Jesus” and Roberts’ other hit, Machomer, Hardsell mixes improv, Pirandello-esque meta-theatre, sharp observations, role-playing, nods at past conventions, and Miller’s own awesome gift of mimicry. In the show, he accurately imitates (vocally) a wide range of folks, including Morgan Freeman, James Brown, and Richard Dawkins, as well as perform a clever riff as a German marketing expert.

Mainly, though, he plays Arnie, the supposed mirror-twin of Miller himself, a bitter, washed-up entertainer tossing out proclamations, observations, cynicisms, witticisms, fantasies and hard-to-soft pitches. With his clown-like makeup and slick white suite with shocking-red satin lining, Miller gave a nod to the many mimes, clowns, and stylized performers within the cultural spectrum –Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the Joker, Kabuki performer, Mexican wrestler, Godot’s tramps, and even… Tom Wolfe.

And yet, this is the main reference that came to my mind:

Sow, Seed, Screen


The Seed from Johnny Kelly on Vimeo.

This video is courtesy of awesome Irish artist Johnny Kelly, whose work (alongside brother Mickey) you can find here. There’s also an interview over at excellent British site Don’t Panic.

I love the embrace of the playful and child-like with Kelly’s work; he uses a variety of loud colours, big shapes, and playful motifs. There’s nothing poe-faced about it. His work is an expression of true joy, and this video is proof. It’s a fascinating, compelling two minutes of online video. Gorgeous, and perfect for spring.

Surgical Poetry

I’ve started reading a book called Direct Red, by Gabriel Weston. It’s about Weston’s experiences in the world of a hospital; the British author was an arts grad who decided to become a surgeon, so she took the requisite night classes, and years of medical training, to achieve her dream. Direct Red is her account of day-to-day life in her chosen field.

But reading the book, Weston has the beautiful, flowing wordplay of a poet:

At medical school, while studying pathology, I was charmed by the names of the colourful dyes used to stain tissues for clearer microscopic viewing. Crystalline as jewels, primary as food colourings used for cake icing and egg painting, the names of these elixirs seemed brighter in my mind than the substances themselves, the Platonic hues offset by their arcane prefixes. And through a process I cannot chart, every time I feel sick in theatre, I summon a rainbow collage of these names to mind. They stimulate my ebbing consciousness and usually call me back from that strange physiological precipice to normal function.

Somehow, this shimmering language describing hues, shapes, shadows, forms and memories reminds me so much of a favourite poet I’ve recently rediscovered: Seamus Heaney, who is currently being feted in fine style by the RTE (and beyond) on account of his 70th birthday. More about him, and his poetry, in a future post.

For now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy Weston’s beautiful, imagistic work; by bringing the poetical into the surgical, she marries the worlds of science and art in a way that hasn’t been properly explored since Da Vinci.

Official Iscariot

A couple posts ago, I blogged about the greatness of a current production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot on now in Toronto.

During the production’s rehearsals, I had the chance to speak with a few of its performers, as well as its director. Here’s the official feature.

Enjoy!

Art Heals

The Brand Library Art Gallery & Art Center in Glendale, California is currently hosting an exhibit entitled Man’s Inhumanity to Man: Journey out of Darkness. To quote Mark Vallen, an excellent blogger and one of the forty-four artists taking part, the exhibit “examines human rights violations that have occurred around the globe – the 1915 Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, repression in Central America, current atrocities in Darfur, and more.”

Looking through the various pieces on the website brought to mind my experiences working for Amnesty International when I lived in Ireland in the late 90s. A number of people who had suffered human rights abuses in other countries were working out of the offices, and a great many were talented artists -painters, musicians, dancers and writers. At Christmastime, some offered their services and painted pieces that were later sold in the Amnesty store; others opened their homes to invite us to experience the joy of their culture. It was about sharing their lives as much as it was about using art -and others’ experience of their art -to heal their wounds.

As the co-curator of the Glendale exhibit says, “Art is a powerful agent in society with the ability to awaken our consciousness, transform our minds, and ignite a desire to bring about change… this exhibition aims to do all of these things.” Get thee to Glendale if you can.

Painting: Project 1915, by Sophia Gasparian.

Hey Judas

Toronto’s Birdland Theatre is re-mounting their much-acclaimed 2005 production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in the Fermenting Cellar, located in the heart of the Distillery District. The Stephen Adly Guirgis play is a sprawling, wordy affair, populated by both real and mythological figures.

Sigmund Freud, Mother Theresa, Pontius Pilate, and Satan all make appearances in the courtroom setting Guirgis has set up as the play’s basic construct. Is Judas guilty of the greatest betrayal in human experience? Should he suffer eternal damnation? Or is he allowed to experience the unconditional forgiveness the ministry of Jesus Christ represented?

It’s challenging theatre, to be sure, with Guirgis’ predilection for philosophical flights of fancy and long-winded backstories, but there’s something eerily prescient about its timing, too. Back in 2005, the play was an obvious indictment of Bush-era policies and measures; now, with the pain of the financial mess -and itinerant anger toward the corporate corruption that contributed to it -the work asks its audience how much we’re willing to forgive, both of ourselves and others. How long do we hang on to old enmities and grievances? Should we?

Questions around justification of choices and motivations abound, and director David Ferry keeps things moving along nicely, with the whole cast onstage, moving around sets and sitting as courtroom jury and observers. This makes the audience complicit in Judas’ fate as well, giving the work a slight meta-theatre feeling (though not of the gauche variety, whew). Gorgeous lighting -sometimes with flashlights -and a gorgeous diorama between the acts give the piece a wonderful industrial-meets-impressionist look.

And the performances are magnificent too. Ferry has cast some of Canada’s top actors in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. As Pilate, Obsidian Theatre Artistic Director Philip Akin channels the spirit of General Petraeus (Roman quality and all), combining military harshness with liberal slabs of charm and male bravado. In the dual roles of Judge Littlefield and Caiaphas the Elder, Ted Dykstra is manic, moving, and magnetic; his exchange (As Caiaphas) with defence lawyer Fabiana Cunningham (Janet Porter) is one of the best theatrical moments I’ve experienced all year. In the title role of Judas, Shaun Smythe is heartbreaking; he plays the betraying apostle as a man with a good core but torn by the screams and howls of a needy ego. His acute sense of abandonment by Jesus (Jamie Robinson) is most keenly sensed in their heated, emotional exchange, and for those versed in scripture, echoes of “Oh my Lord, why have you abandoned me?” will ring loud (particularly this weekend, natch).

If you like your theatre challenging, chalk-full of ideas, people, concepts, and well, loads of talking (in other words, if you’re a Shaw fan) get down to the Fermenting Cellar. Bonus? It’s very near to a number of great wine bars, and perhaps the best cup of hot chocolate in the city. Nothing like cocoa, fermented grapes, and talk of purgatory to complete a weekend.

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