Month: May 2009 (Page 1 of 2)

A Taste of Peace


Oral sex and peace. What do the two have in common?

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?

Able. Willing… ?

Know the anxious, wearing feeling you get when you really want to do something outside your usual comfort zone, but this little gnawing voice inside you keeps whispering, in that tiny, tinny, maliciously-snickery way, “you can’t… you can’t… ” ? You know that going through with whatever task it is will, in some way, be an important step in terms of development, but there’s that constant voice – mocking, questioning, criticizing –making you question your judgment and motivation, making you weight the outcomes, blowing the putrid stench of fear all over your best intentions. It doesn’t matter whether the task is big or small; usually those tasks, for everyone, involve a display of vulnerability.

Vulnerability is scary. It implies openness. And within that openness, a willingness to go forwards, into the unknown. The best kind of creativity –and certainly, my favourite sort of live performance –involves artists confronting their own vulnerability. With performance, the fact this quest is done within a public sphere makes the journey all the more thrilling, involving, and yes, important. We need to see that bravery, so we can embrace it in ourselves and go forwards.

The Book of Judith is Michael Rubenfeld‘s attempt to wrap his head around his relationship with disabled advocate Judith Snow. As he told me when I interviewed him about the work on Take 5 recently, he met Snow through a friend who was working as her personal assistant. Snow has no qualms about displaying her vulnerability for all the world to see; then again, she doesn’t have much of a choice. She is a quadriplegic. She depends on others for her survival. She has had to make peace with her vulnerability being a fact –publicly and privately –for all of her fifty-plus years.

Rubenfeld was inspired to write a work around her when he was asked if he knew anyone who might want to be her lover. The Book Of Judith is his personal odyssey to create a work around Snow related to this most distinct of inquiries – but in so doing, he finds something much greater, something I suspect he hadn’t thought he’d find when he first started out. He finds the lines between “able” and “unable” dissolving; he finds definitions of “normal” and “abnormal” fading, and perhaps most importantly, he find a whole new way to embrace his own vulnerability –thus allowing us to embrace ours. Several times through the play, we’re asked to make eye contact with our fellow audience members, share food, sing, clap, cheer, and relate not just to what’s unfolding before us, but to what is being revealed within us.

I’ve always had mixed feelings around personal memoir-style theatre; much of it tends to fall into the gutter of self-indulgent preaching, and here, Rubenfeld walks a fine line; while he claims knowing Snow made him “a less arrogant prick,” he displays a stunning male bravado, full of ferocious cheerleading and sloganeering. That all falls away, however, when he realizes Snow had, in fact, wanted him as a lover. The fervent gospel-style preaching he’d indulged in earlier morphs into guilt, angst-ridden justifying, fervent bargaining, self-loathing, and finally, the kind of vulnerability that might make more staid audiences shift uncomfortably. Yup, he gets his kit off. The fact he so willingly uses his own body as a palette on which the audience may paint their own prejudices, sketch their own fears, and project their own vulnerabilities, is remarkable –it’s a brave choice, but it’s also the right one.

The Book Of Judith is a good reminder of the healing effects of connection, one of those being the community created through art. Judith Snow has written that “living in this way challenges and extends our courage, our love, our empathy for others and our creativity. We see and hear what others miss entirely.” That’s a good metaphor for artists. And Snow is her own kind of artist –the kind who accepts and in fact, loves her vulnerability. The voice we hear saying “you can’t” is one she’s turned into “I have… and I am.” Hallelujah. Praise be.

Watch, Then Get Outside Already

You read the blog, now watch the video.

There’s just way too much good stuff on right now in Toronto -much of it closing either this weekend or next.

In addition to Eternal Hydra, there’s The Book of Judith (inspired by quadriplegic Judith Snow), Tuesdays With Morrie (let’s hear it for the wise Jewish profs!), The House Of Many Tongues (who says cunnilingus can’t solve world peace?), I, Claudia (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Bulgonia), The Shadow (proving that shame & opera ARE perfect bedfellows) and Doubt (nuns ‘n priests ‘n God, oh my!).

Oh, and next Saturday (June 6th), the GTA Rollergirls kick off their new season.

Don’t let the rain hold you back. Go out and DO something.

Doubt Is Good

Doubt is good -not just the play, but the concept. But the play proves the concept, and vice-versa. Doubt matters. It’s important. Some would say it’s vital.

The play is currently being presented by the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto. My video interview, in which I chat with director Marti Maraden and star Seana McKenna, is now up.

Photograph of Seana McKenna and David Storch by Cylla von Tiedemann.

It’s “Mine”

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately -the ways we use it (or don’t use it) and the importance it has to some of us, particularly those in the arts. Communication is what every artist attempts through a chosen medium. Whether it’s dance, film, music, writing or acting, every creative act is an attempt to communicate something to someone else. Within that chosen form of communication is a myriad of ideas and influences, not all of them original -some are sifted through the rough grains of hard-won experience, others are left unfiltered for consideration and conversation. When it comes to presenting a work of art, who can really say what is wholly original?

The question becomes all the more cloudy in the world of words, where research and source material often become intimately intertwined with the writer’s own opinions, approach, and sometimes, life work. History is fraught with examples of works that, while considered utter genius, are suspect in their originality at least, and acts of plagiarism at worst. Think of playwrights like Shakespeare, whose works were frequently based on other (popular) tales floating around, or the Bible, a collection of tales written and re-written through the centuries to suit the age and ruling classes.

Anton Piatigorsky tackles the huge questions swirling around authorship, originality, voice and its relationship to identity, and what makes art … well, art, in his play Eternal Hydra, now on in Toronto at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. This Crow’s Theatre production brings together the same acting/directing team from last spring, when the work was workshopped before an audience for a week. Originally starting out life as a one-act play at Stratford’s Studio Theatre, the work has been greatly expanded and explores larger notions of historical detail, authenticity, and what it means to really “create.” He uses the image of the mythical hydra -the scary monster Hercules fought with the multiple heads -as a metaphor for the writing process itself. Just when characters -and audience, in fact -think they’ve figured out what links writer Gordias Carbuncle’s work to past sources, another connection presents itself that renders theories incomplete. Throw in notions around race, gender, and religion, and you have one hell of a heady night of theatre.

That doesn’t mean Eternal Hydra is cold, however. It’s heady, but it’s also full of heart. Cast members Karen Robinson, Liisa Repo-Martell, Sam Malkin, and David Ferry, as the self-hating maybe-genius Gordias, all give fully-fleshed out performances that make you feel something beyond intellectual wonder. Piatigorsky’s piece is Stoppard-esque, no question, but it’s also fascinating for its mix of the epic and the intimate; the scenes between Robinson, as impoverished black writer Selma Thomas, or Repo-Martell, as the smitten researcher Vivian Ezra, and Ferry’s Carbuncle, are moving, enlightening, disturbing and challenging. Throw in some evocative lighting, where characters frequently move in and out of shadow, as well as multiple plotlines, where characters fall through time, and frequently blur lines between eras and realities, and Piatigorsky’s work is suddenly about a whole lot more than historical appropriation. It’s about life, art, and yes, communication -how we do it, and more importantly, why we do it.

Artists get communication: we’re just not sure if what we’ve produced is actually ours at the end of the day, or simply another screaming head. I mean really, there’s so many of those around already, competing for our attention, demanding time, energy resources, or sometimes, just perhaps, whispering something incredible.

Hey Joe!

Yesterday I was out all day doing video shoots for upcoming theatrical productions in Toronto. One of the interviews revolved around a soon-to-open Soulpepper production of Joe Orton’s satirical play Loot.

What I’ve always found so interesting about Orton is the way his work has aged since he wrote it; some of his lines are still as stinging and nasty as ever, while other stuff -dialogue, ideas, concepts -really aren’t so shocking in the twenty-first century. In a contemporary sense, Orton’s play, which features two burglars who try to hide a corpse (among other farcical elements), doesn’t seem all that surprising or shocking. Indignities to a human body? Whatever. Some might be outraged, but it doesn’t last. Go to any number of weird news sites; they’re not hard to find. Some of the stories might be kind of icky (for instance, anything involving corpses tends to provoke a sour face) but the ease with which to find such oddities has made our collective sense of outrage over such a thing much less pronounced.

Still, there is something to director Jim Warren‘s comment that Orton was “an anarchist” -and it wasn’t just the fact Orton and partner Kenneth Halliwell had a predilection for defacing library books. Orton may have been writing in an England that was brutally classist and deeply homophobic, but in this age of smugness about our perceived permissiveness and laissez-faire-anything-goes attitudes, there’s a real smack of hypocrisy and meanness. Carry Orton’s ideas through on sexuality, and apply them to, say, older people (“Grandparents have sex lives? Eww! Disgusting! Gross!“), and you still find the same boring close-mindedness as existed in 1960s England. Viewed this way, Orton is more fresh, daring, and possibly anarchist than ever.

Go Madge

There’s something really, really cool about Madonna unabashedly dancing with herself, telling her man (in her head, through her hips), “Seriously dude, this isn’t on.” It has resonance for me, and I would imagine, for many women.

My Definition …

This is very inspiring.

And I think Michelle Obama is absolutely correct. I hope we get a Canadian politician in power making the same statement soon.

I, (insert name)

“That is my very favourite Canadian play.”

These words were spoken by a friend Friday night as we came out of I, Claudia, Kristen Thomson‘s one-woman tour-de-force, now on at the Young Centre in Toronto.

The work is a mix of mask, mime, comedy, tragedy, and Thomson’s biography. It concerns the experience of one Claudia, who is, she tells us, “twelve-and-three-quarters” and struggling with her parents’ divorce. She hides in her school’s basement, where she makes up a fantastical world of her own devising, sharing her worries, torments, and passing thoughts with us (not to mention her ill-fated science project). Thomson plays Claudia with a big-cheeked mask, red beret, and uniform kilt; her body language is awkward and gawky, but she imbues Claudia with a bright, shining light of hope and playfulness. Thomson also takes on the roles of the school’s “Bolgonian” caretaker, Claudia’s paternal grandfather, and Tina, Claudia’s new stepmom. Each is given their own unique masque -the grandfather’s, long and wizened, the stepmom’s tight and over-make-up’d. Again, Thomson fully inhabits each of the characters physically, giving each their own unique life.

Developed with Chris Abraham of the lauded Crow’s Theatre and first performed in 2001, the work is breathtaking in its emotional scope and creative presentation. With a small gesture -a turn of the head, a shrug of the shoulder -Thomson suggests a world of hurt, loss, and yes, hope within the lives of the characters she portrays. We’re never in doubt about the fact that Thomson is taking us on a purposely-theatrical journey, changing between scenes and bopping to musical interludes, showing the funny, strange, sad lives of a diverse group of people and the common threads of humanity that bind them. The intimate, twisted relationships between children and parents are deftly, delicately explored, with great care and grace. You get the feeling when Thomson’s janitor refers to a son who lives in the United States, then quickly adds, “we won’t talk about that…” that there’s a mountain of hurt there that doesn’t require explanation.

Since the work is based on real events in Thomson’s past, I was curious to see how Claudia might represent her own hurt little girl within; it’s a personal theme I found myself relating to, on several deep levels, more than once through the evening. As a child of divorce myself, the feelings of abandonment, rage, loss, and confusion were easily recognizable. To publicly share one’s hurt over such events is incredible; to translate that into a piece of theatre, and in so doing, allow for a possible healing, is miraculous.

I, Claudia might just be my own favourite Canadian work too.

Sing & Dance & Run & Jump

Thanks to Twitter, I came across a wonderful op-ed piece in the Amherst Bulletin about the importance of arts funding. There’s certainly been no shortage of wonderful news relating to the arts this week: the appointment of Rocco Landesman to head up the National Endowment for the Arts, the White House arts evening, and even, if you can believe, the Seattle Opera advertising their position for a young person to see and report on the Wagner Ring cycle they’ll be producing in August.

But then there’s the bad news: in Canada, several important arts institutions are facing funding shortfalls. With the wonderful chaos of June approaching (Luminato, NXNE, the Toronto Jazz Festival, Pride), the issue of cultural relevance is that much more pungent. There’s also the depressing fact that Canada’s art galleries and museums are falling apart , meaning that many younger people -as well as visitors from overseas or across the border -may never be able to see the incredible cultural legacy of this country.

Would any of this happen if there was a real balance of arts and academia in childhood? I was lucky to have been educated in the arts outside of school; going to operas, symphonies, museums and galleries was plus normale for me growing up. But not every kid was blessed with an arts-loving mother. And so, it falls to schools to often provide what kids can’t or don’t get at home. That usually includes everything from proper nutrition to social interaction to basic manners.

What irks me is that whenever schools are facing funding shortfalls, the first thing to go is always, inevitably, arts programs. Yup! They’re frilly! Arrgh. I used to make a face and wonder why physical education wasn’t cut instead (spoken by a true non-athlete), but I realized, in starting to appreciate the cultural place sport has in society, and the benefits of movement, that phys-ed has every right to be taken as seriously as arts-ed. And vice-versa.

To quote Mindy Domb, in the Amherst Bulletin:

Art and music teach our children how to think critically, take risks, make and correct mistakes, “fail,” and recoup. They give our children a frame of reference for understanding not only our world, but also offer an appreciation and understanding of the different perspectives, approaches and ways of communicating each of us brings to the human endeavor… Cutting physical education while the public health community urges additional opportunities for physical activity for children seems regressive and backwards. Physical education might look like an easy mark, a target that can be tapped for funding without ill effects. This, however, dismisses the needs of our kids to be active and to learn from play. It also ignores the call of the public health community to provide more physical education for young children, not less.

These times we’re in seem like the perfect opportunity to start making investments, not pulling away in fear. The investment in a lifetime of good health and positive relationships seems like a good one.

Related: If you haven’t read Christopher Knight’s take on Landesman’s appointment to the National Endowment for the arts, you really should. It’s excellent.

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