Green Gables, revisited

Last Wednesday, author Irene Gammel discussed perhaps the best-loved orphan girl in Canadian literature with two-dozen guests. Gammel, who published [Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery & Her Literary Classic]1 in 2008 appeared as part of the Hart House Alumni Committee’s dinner series.

Born and raised in Germany, Gammel studied at McMaster University on exchange in her second year of university. She researched Anne from 2002 to 2007, publishing Looking for Anne in time for the centenary celebrations of Montgomery’s novel. She is currently an English professor at Ryerson University.

Since it was first published in Boston in 1908, Anne of Green Gables has sold over 50 million copies worldwide, been translated into more than 35 languages, and generated a multi-million-dollar tourist industry. Anne is an orphan girl who is sent to two unmarried middle-aged siblings, who had requested a boy, but decide to keep her. Although Anne is ugly, she is smart, imaginative, and a chatterbox. She eventually wins over her adoptive parents and makes friends in the fictional town of Avonlea, Prince Edward Island.

Gammel’s talk explored several similarities between Lucy Maud Montgomery and her red-headed fictional character. Montgomery was born in Clifton, PEI in 1874. Raised by her maternal grandparents, she married Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, and had two sons. Some scholars argue that her death in 1942, of apparent heart failure, was actually a drug overdose due to her ongoing depression.

Anne of Green Gables became a depository for [Montgomery’s] own childhood,” said Gammel. Montgomery was raised by strict grandparents and suffered loneliness because of the age gap. “[Montgomery] gives Anne the ideal family. That age gap is magically bridged; in fiction the generations connect.” She added that the novel “celebrates that backward glance and is yet a distinct novel on the modern era.”

Phillip Khaiat, chair of the dinner series sub-committee, said he was a fan of the spirited Anne. “My wife convinced me to take her to visit the Cavendish shrine in PEI this summer, and I read every word of the panel describing Anne’s origins,” he said. “It was a great pleasure for me to meet the people [Irene Gammel and Jean-Claude] who had created and organized that exhibition.”

Said another attendee, “We found the images and magazines from the early 20th century that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery’s creation of the character of Anne to be particularly fascinating.”

To be or not to be shocked

The World Stage production of Necessary Angel’s Hamlet, directed and designed by Graham McLaren (artistic director of Scotland’s Theatre Babel and associate artist of Necessary Angel), is a radical re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play.

Upon entering the theatre, the audience sees Hamlet sprawled on a chair onstage in the aftermath of what appears to have been a wild party. The room and table centre stage is littered with champagne bottles and red plastic beer cups. Five elegant golden chandeliers hang above, a reminder that the chaotic setting is a royal castle, not a fraternity. A radio in the corner emits sombre old hymns. As the lights fade, the play begins—Hamlet stands and switches off the radio, signalling that this will not be a traditional production of Shakespeare’s classic.

This Hamlet wears sneakers, a black suit, and a Sex Pistols T-shirt with the phrase “God Save the Queen” (soon to take on a darker, more ironic meaning). His first line, “that this too, too solid flesh would melt” sets the tone for a production characterized by raw sexuality and violence; the characters humiliate, hurt, deceive and debase themselves and each other. This tour-de-force significantly cuts text and characters. The result is 110 minutes of Shakespeare laid bare with sex, drugs, violence, and rock and roll.

These themes are accentuated by the intimate playing space. Audience members in the front row are involved in the action, either hit with beer cans kicked aside by characters or accidentally sitting all too close to a loaded gun. This proximity and the potential for violence creates a sense that anything can happen. The production also leaves nothing to the imagination—Claudius pushes Gertrude up against a table, preparing to fuck her from behind, while Ophelia’s muddy, half-naked dead body is brought onstage and exhibited.

Hamlet (Gord Rand) commands attention. He has a raspy voice that ranges from a whisper to a ragged yell. Initially he appears in control, playfully traversing the line between madness and sanity, but quickly this line becomes blurred. He switches from brooding to laughter, from passivity to extreme anger and violence. The most striking moment in the play is when he staggers onstage naked, wearing only one sock, a perfect picture of madness. When he reappears to deliver his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, he is a bit more clothed, wearing blue underpants. In the middle of the speech, he grabs a plastic bag and pulls it over his head, sealing it with duct tape. The few minutes that follow are tense and audience members hold their breaths as he struggles to breathe and make his choice. Unable to follow through, he tears it off, exclaiming: “Aye there’s the rub!” and the audience exhales in relief.

The quality of the performances, however, was inconsistent. Although Eric Peterson captures the fuddy-duddy side to Polonius, he appears too old for this role. His physicality and delivery are stiff and unfocused, and in a Freudian, sexually charged moment with Ophelia, he seems unsure, awkward and unable to commit to the provocative moment McLaren has staged. Although he elicits some laughs, it is only in his role as a foil for Hamlet.

Benedict Campbell seems less like a king and more like a simple man lusting after power and Gertrude, and although his voice exudes authority, his performance does not. However, Gertrude (Laura De Carteret) is riveting to watch. It is clear she is performing a role for Claudius, compromising the dignity of her body and self because the stakes are her survival. Anxious tics reveal the conflict behind her smile, as do the little white pills that she downs. This production emphasizes that Gertrude knows how to play the patriarchal game, but Ophelia (Tara Nicodemo) does not know the rules. Nicodemo masters a variety of emotional registers, from pitiful crying to disconcerting screams, violent anger to gentle singing. At one point, she head bangs to rock music, expressing her inner turmoil. Horatio (Steven McCarthy), in his priestly garb, is Hamlet’s only true ally in a room full of deception. His acting is understated but he has a significant, steadfast moral presence in this atmosphere of amorality.

Evocative music and sound design by Alexander MacSween create an ominous mood and beautiful, discordant notes underscore Hamlet’s actions. McLaren and lighting designer Andrea Lundy play with light to great effect: quick blackouts and the use of flashlights and lanterns cast an eerie ghost-story glow with shadows that play along the walls.

This production makes radical changes, refocusing and revitalizing the classic play. However, despite developing a European aesthetic in interesting ways, McLaren has made some poor casting choices that undermine his presentation of a brutal, warped world.

Hamlet runs through Nov. 29 at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre. For more information, visit
necessaryangel.com
.

U of Waterloo radio goes off the air

The University of Waterloo radio station is off the air after students voted against paying $2.50 per term to support it. According to its website, CKMS 100.3 Sound FM started as a cable station at the university in the 1970s and is Ontario’s third campus FM station. In February 2008, students voted to remove the $5.50 per term fee that went to the station.

“There are 68 on-air programmers and seven [on the] board of directors,” said CKMS vice-president Selene MacLeod. “These reflect numbers of people who paid their membership fee and kept their volunteer cards up-to-date, which I don’t believe is an accurate refection of how many people support the station.”

The station has worked with local business owners and non-profits, supporting independent artists since its inception, added MacLeod.

The vote was close, with 2,005 students voting for the fee and 2,400 voting against. Although 19,000 students did not participate, the referendum had the highest voter turnout in the history of Waterloo’s student union.

“I believe that there are plenty of students that support campus radio and like the rest of us, can’t imagine a campus without a radio station,” said MacLeod. “Maybe the results would have been different if the question being asked was, ‘Is it worth it to you to support the arts, local music, Canadian culture and have opportunities in broadcasting, administration, and governance of a radio station, all for just $2.50 per term?’”

The station’s licence is valid until 2014, and it has been investigating alternative options.

“As long as there is the slightest hope that we can sort out our financial problems, attract advertisers and membership, and keep providing the best in quality, independent radio programming, we’re staying on in some incarnation,” said MacLeod. “I’m frustrated, heartbroken, and deeply disappointed that the students of UW won’t have this resource in future generations—I’m not losing anything, they’re losing a lot.”

Middling Midsummer

Often called Shakespeare’s sexiest comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as imagined by Hart House Theatre, falls closer to raunchy burlesque than aristocratic theatre. The show, directed by Jeremy Hutton, depicts several love triangles that, as the show goes on, shift, transform, and cross-connect.

In Athens, Hermia is determined to marry Lysander, who returns her love completely. Unfortunately, Hermia’s father is equally determined that she marry Demetrius, who claims to love her just as much as Lysander. Meanwhile, Helena, longtime friend of Hemia’s, was formerly involved with Demetrius but recently rejected by him, and has been pining after him since.

In the forest, there is an equally complex dynamic amongst the fairies. Oberon, king of the fairies, is feuding with Titania, his queen, because she refuses to give him a young Indian changeling. He has his servant, Puck, drug Titania to fall in love with an ass, so he can kidnap the changeling.

Finally, there is a band of handymen or “actors” attempting to put on a play. One of these, Nick Bottom, is the beast with whom Titania becomes infatuated.

These storylines are all tied together by Theseus, King of Athens, who has power over Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander, who is a former lover of Titania, and is marrying Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, former lover of Oberon. Their wedding is the reason for the handymen’s play, and the finish of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since it’s a comedy, I won’t be spoiling it by telling you that all loose ends are tied, fights finished, and love triangles sorted into pairs by the end.

Hutton sets the play in the 19th century and depicts the fairies as gypsies. As such, the sets are appropriate—the play opens on a grey afternoon with a single lamppost. The forest in which the fairies frolic features an elaborate caravan and bonfire. Likewise, the costumes are well-executed considering the direction: the Athenians costumes are distinctly English, and the gypsies’ costumes—full, colourful skirts and scarves for the women and intricate tattoos for the men—show Hutton’s particular spin on the characters in a beautiful and effective way.

Hutton portrayed the fairies as gypsies because he felt they shared many qualities: both groups were peripheral to their societies, and fundamentally transient. He represents gypsy culture as “an imagined culture cobbled together from fragments of the music, dance, art, and fashion of a dozen different regions.” The result is eclectic and engaging song and dance, which is perfectly timed and executed by the fairy dancers.

Unfortunately, the portrayal of the Athenians as members of 19th-century society is at times problematic. The play is whimsical, magical, and openly sexual. But this characterization is jarring, given the emphasis on rationality at the turn of the century; it makes the characters’ emotions and carryings-on seem silly, as opposed to light-hearted, and the sexuality seems juvenile, as opposed to edgy.

Despite this, there is excellent acting on the part of most of the performers. Hermia, played by Adrianna Prosser, is a perfect combination of flighty and melodramatic—a true comedienne. Helena, played by Carly Chamberlain, at first gives an over-the-top, one-note presentation of the woman scorned, but comes into her own in the forest, where she is sincere and deep-feeling.

Andy Cockburn and Andrew Knowlton, playing Lysander and Demetrius respectively, do a very good job, especially in changing from upright gentlemen to love-drugged fools. Andrew Dundass as Theseus, and Thomas Gough as Quince, were both perfectly cast—their characterization and execution were dead-on.

However, the show ends on an unfortunate note. The “play within a play,” Pyramus and Thisbe, quickly digresses from silly to ridiculous. It drags on for far too long, and by the end seems much more for the entertainment of the actors than the audience. Overall, the individual aspects of the show are good: the lighting and sound effects are excellent, the music and dancing engaging, the sets effective, and the acting fine. It suffers, though, from poor direction, which makes the characters and content seem silly and trivial.

A Midsummer’s Night Dream runs at Hart House Theatre through December 5.

‘Out in the Cold’ against homelessness

The weather cooperated for U of T’s first Out in the Cold fundraising event Friday evening. Organizers were anxious about whether it would be a wet and muddy night spent raising awareness about homelessness and poverty. Luckily, fears were put to rest with a beautiful November night, just six degrees Celsius, the warmest night the event has ever had.

Founded in 2007 at the University of Waterloo, Out in the Cold is an annual student-run event held every November. Participants collected pledges towards their attempts to stand the cold for a November night. This year, Out in the Cold took place at the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto from 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 20 to 7 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21. All proceeds go to 416 Community Support for Women in Toronto and Lutherwood Families in Transition in Waterloo. The Toronto event was co-hosted by the Underwear Club and the Graduate Students’ Union’s social justice committee.

The event started with an information session at Sidney Smith hosted by community worker Ann Fitzpatrick of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Fitzpatrick shared statistics regarding what Toronto’s underprivileged currently face. The session highlighted that there is both a visible and an invisible homeless problem that has been developing for years in the city, and has only worsened this year due to the country’s recent economic hardships. Families have been hard-hit by the recession, and food bank use is at a record high. With rent continually on the rise, Fitzpatrick stressed that some Torontonians spend between 70 and 90 per cent of their income on shelter.

After Fitzpatrick delivered these sombre statistics to the crowd, the participants were ready for a night filled with discussion and revelry.

At Hart House Circle, the group was greeted with their bedding for the night: cardboard boxes.

“Safety is a focus for us, we want the fundraisers to stay warm and let the night evolve organically” explained Jenna van Draanen, who organized the event, as she bustled from group to group.

In the last three years, Out in the Cold has raised over $8,500, Nick Petten proudly pointed out. With events now taking place at both campuses, the positive momentum is keeping the group motivated. Petten and van Draanen, both Waterloo grads, were confident that they would each raise over $200 dollars each. Another $250 was raised at a pub night event at O’Grady’s Tap and Grill, hosted November 18.

For more information on how to get involved, visit outinthecold.ca.

The all-glowing Bob

Walking into this year’s production of The Bob at Isabel Bader Theatre, I was greeted with a pre-show that featured recorded jazz music and KoLOLas, a down-under takeoff of the infamous LOLCatz. Cute jokes coupled with cute photos ensured laughter in the half-filled theatre even before the lights dimmed. The group behind me started taking bets on the nature of jokes that would be made throughout the evening. I was already hopeful that this was going to be a good night.

The comedy troupe behind The Bob, Victoria College’s annual sketch comedy show, rehearsed for two months to prepare their eclectic, at times shamelessly random selection of sketches. This year’s production was directed by Brandon Hackett and assistant directed by Chris Berube, two veterans of the show.

The title of the production, The All-Knowing Bob, bore little relation to most of the 20 sketches, but did allow for an opening song that effectively smothered the humour of the preshow. Neither overly funny nor catchy, the tune featured a pitchy performance by the cast who missed at least one cue. Multiple members of the cast also experienced projection issues and were difficult to hear even for those seated in the middle of the theatre.

Laughter thankfully returned to Bader with the next sketch, “Snack Attack,” which satirized CBC Kids’ programming and involved a dishevelled Chris Berube screaming to a MIDI version of “Back in Black” as he bounced around the theatre. One of the funniest moments of the night, it helped the show recover from a shaky beginning.

No subject was spared as the sketches unfolded: beauty pageants, rural Ontario, and even David Naylor were targeted throughout the evening. The show was not afraid to take risks, occasionally pushing the envelope with jokes verging on offensive. In the second sketch of the evening, about a time machine, one actor commented that they went back in time and “punched Hitler in the face, but it just made him hate the Jews more.” The show also saw jokes about bulimia and the intolerance of same-sex marriage in beauty pageants.

The humour was still tame compared to the jokes popular at Yuk Yuks or Second City, and some jokes proved cringeworthy because of poor timing or for posing too stark a contrast to the bubblegum “university” jokes that dominated the show’s two hours. Still, it was refreshing to see the group challenge the U of T audience with humour that occasionally fell outside the bounds of political correctness.

Some of the highest points of hilarity in the show were the “bloopers.” The second sketch, “Time Machine,” saw the accidental knocking over and subsequent exploding of a beer bottle. “Theodore Pervert” in the second Act saw the accidental shattering of a wine glass over the stage.

Particular congratulations must by awarded to first-time Bob participant Kieron Higgs, a first-year student from Waterloo who has performed in the Sears Drama Festival and the Canadian Improv Games. Near the end of the first act, he energetically portrayed The Mad Hatter, one of the night’s most memorable characters—only to make a second appearance (to the crowd’s wild cheers)—near the end of the show.

The actor of the evening, though, was without a doubt Brandon Hackett. A Classics and English student planning to graduate in 2010, Hackett’s swan song with The Bob saw him assume the roles of Professor Henry Higgins; Roy, a racist virgin still living with his parents who makes an online dating video; and even a dinosaur doing stand-up comedy. After watching his portrayal of Tyra Banks, in which he donned a dress that revealed enough leg to put most girls at the Brunny to shame, it was unfortunate that the reserved audience did not give him a standing ovation.

When the show ended, the group behind me was upset—many of the jokes they had bet would occur did not make appearances. But my biggest regret regarding The Bob is that by the time you read this review, the show will have already closed. The Bob is unique on campus for its provision of sketch comedy that takes risks and is, for the most part, funny and enjoyable. Sure, the production was a little rough around the edges. But next year, I would encourage you to give Bob a chance.

The Painter’s touch

Of all the techniques a skilled painter must possess, perhaps none is so fundamental as his or her ability to master the art of light and dark. The Madonna Painter is a prime example of this notion, dramatized. Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, in its English-language premiere at the Factory Theatre, is a carefully shaded composition that is both deeply funny and acutely tragic.

Set in a remote Quebec town in 1918, The Madonna Painter tells the story of a young, handsome priest (Marc Bendavid) who commissions an Italian artist (Juan Chioran) to paint a fresco of the Virgin Mary for the town, believing that the work of art will invigorate the town’s faith and help ward off the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. The arrival of the painter, however, has the opposite result as his presence becomes the catalyst for a number of surprising turns of fate resulting in a crisis of faith for the people of Saint-Coeur de Marie.

The play is refreshingly rife with complex female characters, and the actors in Factory Theatre’s production rise to the challenge of Bouchard’s script, perhaps none more so than Jenny Young as Mary of the Secrets, the troubled town outcast who becomes a most reluctant muse and model to the painter. Young carefully crafts a Mary that is at once melancholy and mysterious and achingly vulnerable, and it is this vulnerability that allows the audience to invest deeply in Mary and her journey. Young and Chioran also share an electrifying chemistry and keep the audience well-engaged whenever they share the stage. Miranda Edwards and Shannon Taylor as Mary Frances and Mary Anne, respectively, also give delightful performances. Edwards’ delivery of a monologue mid-play is nuanced and heartbreaking.

Though Taylor occasionally falters with the dramatic material, particularly at the beginning, her “audition” for the painter is by far one of the most hilarious moments of the production, and her performance grows much stronger from thereon. Of the women, only Nicola Correia-Damude as Mary Louise struggles consistently with the language. Though Correia-Damude clearly respects Bouchard’s script, the formality of her delivery is filled in a sense with an excess of reverence for the poetry in her lines. She is thus at times inconsistent in tone with the rest of the cast, who more successfully balance the richness of the language with the demands of creating empathetic characters. Bendavid, too, has some difficulty, delivering from within a rather repetitive vocal range and cadence that changes little from the play’s start to finish, and detracts somewhat from the overall impact of the young priest’s emotional journey. Bendavid comes alive, however, in his scenes with Taylor; a particular scene showcasing the two towards the end of the play even left some members the audience gasping.

The sound is mostly live, adding to the immediacy of the audience experience. Some of the prerecorded sounds, then, can be rather jarring after one gets used to the frequency of the live sounds being produced. Sue LePage’s set is minimalist: a sky of stars, a forest consisting of tall gold geometric cones topped by branches, a table and chairs on a raised platform in the centre functioning as the set for indoor scenes is simple, effective, and all that is needed to create the world of the play. The ornate gold proscenium at the Factory is cleverly and subtly lighted, giving one the impression of a gilded picture frame.

Though The Madonna Painter is set 90 years ago, the production feels fresh and contemporary. Bouchard’s writing is poetic indeed, but that poetry is also economic and rarely feels indulgent (a testament to the actors who speak it), and is complemented by sharp, witty dialogue and turns of phrase. And despite it drawing heavily upon Catholicism, The Madonna Painter is accessible for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

With the H1N1 epidemic at the forefront of the contemporary audience’s conscious, the panic and frenzy surrounding the Spanish Flu of 1918 is instantly recognizable and relatable. We find ourselves engaging with the characters not as historical relics, but as people struggling through crises of humanity not at all dissimilar to our own. Above all, Bouchard’s Madonna Painter explores the chiaroscuro of faith—faith in institutions, faith in love, faith in art, and faith in faith itself—skillfully capturing its lightest lights, and its darkest darks and, ultimately, asking us to consider what we would do when we suddenly find ourselves in those bewildering moments of grey.

The Madonna Painter runs at the Factory Theatre through Dec. 13.

Runaway train

Multimedia dance-art show Displacement has enough force to successfully pull the heavy weight of its subject matter, dislocation. Held at the Fleck Dance Theatre as part of Harbourfront Centre’s Next Steps Dance Series, it closed last Saturday after a four-day performance that combined film, musical, visual art, and contemporary dance. Curated by three acclaimed Canadian artists, all immigrants themselves, the show explores the human condition of being uprooted, placed, and displaced.

The show was headed by Vitek Wincza, artistic director of the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts Dance Company, who firmly believes that “stories of displacement are all around us.” With this all-encompassing openness native to Canada, the show explores the immigrant experience and benefits from the rich experience that the three creators bring. When it opened two years ago, Gary Smith of the Hamilton Spectator commented that the performance “assaults the comfortable notion of what dance, art, and music ought to be.” True to these words, Displacement is one part dance performance, one part theatrical expression, and the rest emotional release.

Displacement features choreography by Robert Glumbek accompanied by scores written by U of T music prof Christos Hatzis and played by the Penderecki Quartet. The show is set against a backdrop of film and art installations by Vessna Perunovich.

Glumbek, a graduate of the Bytom State Ballet School in Poland, echoes the words of Wincza when he states, “all of us have been displaced at some point.” It is through this acute sense of empathy that his emotionally charged choreography is born.

While the use of the suitcase as a prop symbolizing the itinerant nomadic fate of the dancers seemed a bit trite, Glumbek’s choreography easily overcomes the pitfalls of the play’s clichéd movements. He does this by weaving in the stifling feeling of not belonging with the urgency of a boiling kettle. The fantastic red elastic bands serve as props of entrapment that the actors must fight hard to break away from. The tug-of-war that erupts between those who want to remain settled and those who are desperate to escape resembles the up-bow down-bow motion of the violinists performing in the music pit below.

The burden of history hangs heavily in the air. When the dancers yell out each other’s names, this piercing sound feeds the steady stream of suspense that is built throughout the performance. The theatre’s small scale affords the intimacy of seeing a trickle of sweat on a performer’s cheek and hearing the dancers gasp for air.

The moves are reminiscent of the whirling dervishes of Turkey and also the Afro-
Brazilian-influenced capoeira forms. As bodies tangle, embrace, and are torn apart, music composed by Hatzis only adds to the suspense.

Hatzis himself was born in Greece and many of the influences in his music mirror the Canadian immigrant experience. The first string quartet, titled The Awakening, provides strong references to Inuit throat singers and to the locomotive engines echoed in Perunovich’s visual artwork. This influence can be traced back to Hatzis’ personal childhood memories of riding the rail in Volos, his in Greece, with his father who worked as a railway engineer, seeing people on and off the train as it snaked in and out of cities as the main mode of travel.

The second string arrangement, The Gathering, involves chiming Islamic timbre. Although the oriental influence tries to slow down the music — much of which was composed during the war in Kosovo and the bombings in Belgrade — the violent force of the rhythm ignores this intervention and continues to charge forth.

Accompanying the composition and the choreography is Perunovich’s visual art installation, which evolves around the ideas of immigration, separation, and transition. Upon leaving the former Yugoslavia in 1988, Perunovich watched as her home country was broken up into seven different states, culminating in the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, which in turn, has left much of her work coloured by her personal narrative of displacement.

The dancers fall gracefully onto the floor, wilting like flowers, after a powerful performance. Certainly, Displacement succeeds as a truly thought-provoking show.