Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Moving (New Blog)

I have probably neglected this space long enough to lose any readers that I did once have, but for posterity/RSS feeds/whatever, here goes

In keeping with my tradition of being 3-5 years late to the blogging party, I've decided to move to Wordpress, and start a new blog there.

I'm not sure whether or not I will import my old archives. On the one hand, I understand the need for continuity and consistency when one is establishing a relationship with readers. On the other hand, I started this blog when I was maybe 16 or 17. I'm not sure I need to carry all of that old baggage anymore.

For now, let this be its own little historical curio: the record of my life from age 16-21. Here's to another glorious five year mission!

Thank you all for reading

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ottawa Fringe - Again

Live From the Belly of a Whale

No one mentions this show without the words "Countries Shaped Like Stars" popping up at some point in the conversation. And for good reason: in 2009, Nicholas Di Gaetano and Emily Pearlman rocked everybody's world with their charming musical-romantic-comedy-fairytale-epic. It was with great joy, then, that everyone greeted the news of their return this year with Live From the Belly of a Whale. So the question is, of course, was it worth the wait? Does it live up to the hype?

I'm going to take an unintuitive tack, and say that it does not matter nearly as much as you might think.

By this, I do not mean to demean the hard work and planning that are apparent at every turn of Live From the Belly of a Whale. What I do mean to say is, like in a fairytale or a fable, the magic of Countries Shaped Like Stars was inside Pearlman and Di Gaetano all along (say it with me now: awwwwwwwwwwwwww...). It really does transcend the show(s). In fact, because of the way these two interact with each other and the audience, it's hard to tell exactly where reality ends and the show begins. I think that's part of what makes their act so compelling: unlike stand-up comedy, or a memoir like Fucking Stephen Harper..., you're not just you, sitting in a seat and watching someone talk; however, you're not being asked to fade away into omniscient nonexistence either, as is the convention in conventional theater. It's the stage equivalent of magical realism, and I love it.

Also independent of the specific show they're doing are the actors. This is the real treat when you go to see Live From the Belly of a Whale. Di Gaetano and Pearlman are extremely gifted performers both. They can sing, they can dance, they can act...and they do all of these with incredible aplomb. Pearlman is in many ways Canada's answer to Felicia Day, and while I haven't found as compelling a metaphor for Di Gaetano yet, he's winningly handsome, and every bit as charismatic as she. I can't put it better than another Fringe volunteer, who said of the pair: "I'd sleep with them. No, either one - I don't really care which. Both, ideally".

Live From the Belly of a Whale is half-story, half-musical (the songs are wonderful. I think the Citizen said "album-ready" and I really have nothing to add on top of that. It's about a brother and a sister, their childhood together, their eventual separation, and a bittersweet re-union (I'll give you three guesses as to where). Their style hasn't changed much from Countries Shaped Like Stars, but that's a good thing. They go from third-person narrative, to in-character dialogue, back to narrative, they do a song, there's some charming pantomime...the varied storytelling devices are not only a breath of fresh air - they're also used to poignant and humorous effect in a few places (the siblings passive-aggressively narrate details of their own story to each other: "Once, there was a girl whose German accent was not so good as she thought it was...").

But, in the end, you're going to this show as much to see the actors as you are the script, or the direction, or the lighting, or any other element. You're paying your $10 (or fringe pass, or whatever) to be entertained by two beautiful, talented performers. And they deliver.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ottawa Fringe Triple Header (Part 1/3)

Retour a Pripyat

I sometimes get sideways looks when I mention the Ukrainian ghost town of Pripyat. For those of you not in the know, it was a city of 50 000 people - all evacuated in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. Apparently, I talk about that place "like it's common knowledge". For what it's worth, Pripyat is well-traveled ground for gamers, who have made expeditions in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (the missions "All Ghillied Up" and "One Shot, One Kill"), as well as the STALKER series (Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, and Call of Pripyat). After all of these virtual outings, I guess you could say I've been left with a kind of morbid fascination with the place. To some extent, I still can't put a finger on what it is that makes Pripyat such a powerful image. I think there's a haunting, apocalyptic quality to a city without any people left in it. Like a car accident on the highway, you just can't avert your eyes.

Retour a Pripyat is, of course, in French. I didn't actually expect to understand it, but the premise drew me in. I ended up understanding about 90% of it - a pleasant surprise - so this review may not be complete. What I will try to do is give you an impression of what the show is like for someone with a high-school level French education.

In Chernobyl, a man sickened and burned by radiation rummages and scrounges amongst the wreckage. He makes his home in an abandoned house, and there he constructs for himself an imaginary family life, speaking to the discarded portraits on the dresser as though they are family. He eats potatoes every day and makes vodka from the peels; he believes it will stave off the effects of the radiation. He has arguments with his imagined wife (portrayed on-stage as a sort of ghost), who wishes that he wouldn't stay out so late (there are wolves in Pripyat).

Midway through, the original owner of the house - a shoe repairman - returns, shambling like a zombie into his former home. While he and the looter initially distrust each other, they eventually come to an understanding. He relates the story of how he came to Pripyat, only to have his life fall apart after the accident forced him to leave. The imaginary wife, conjured from the abandoned pictures, is revealed to be his. Flashbacks ensue, showing us a time of brief happiness and contentment, before the meltdown. Then, it's back to tragedy: we learn that the "child on the way" that the intruder imagined in the opening minutes of the show also belonged to the shoe repairman. The child died before it was even a year old.

It's a bleak show, and the wife/ghost punctuates the moments between scenes with real-life quotes from "Liquidateurs", the term used to apply to those people who received extreme doses of radiation during the accident and subsequent cleanup. A number, the program reminds us, that remains inexact to this very day. The set design is perfect: not too much, not too little. The bits of disused furniture are festooned with the plants that have begun to retake the city in the humanity's absence. Candles are always burning - of course there's no electricity to run the lights!

And there you have it. Retour a Pripyat: watching broken lives through the broken window that is my broken French.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Fringe Review 3

Fucking Stephen Harper: How I Sexually Assaulted the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada And Saved Democracy

In response to some obvious initial questions: 1) No, he didn't actually fuck Stephen Harper; 2) The Sexual Assault wasn't intentional (and, indeed, that charge was dropped); 3) Yes, that is really the title of the show (and the accompanying book, only $15!)

"Civility", or at least some semblance thereof, is all the rage in the House of Commons these days. With that in mind, perhaps Rob Salerno should consider a career in federal politics. At this point, you may be glancing back at the title of the show, thinking "what the fuck?", but bear with me - I promise I will make myself clear in due course. The title of Fucking Stephen Harper... is about as vulgar as the show ever gets. Therein lies what I believe to be the show's greatest strength, but also a potential weakness. Left-leaning partisans looking to exorcise their post-election ya-yas will quite likely find the show bereft of hoped-for vitriol, and I fear that similar expectations may lead the Harper faithful to give the show a pass altogether. Put another way, the people who will want to see this show may not need to, and the people who need to see this show may not want to. It's a shame because I really, really like the title; it's provocative in the way that a political-comedy Fringe show ought to be. Unfortunately, I wonder if it does not suggest more partisanship than is really at work.

Before the show proper even begins, there is a powerpoint presentation cycling through anti-gay quotes from Conservative Members of Parliament, including Mr. Harper himself. It's blunt, but I enjoy that Salerno is not putting words in anyone's mouth. In fact, that's something I don't recall him doing once during the show. Even after he appears on stage, the powerpoint presentation continues as a visual aid to the show, with relevant articles popping up to underscore important points. Again, he's generally letting the content speak for itself. When he wants to illustrate that the Harper government has done something harmful to GLBT communities in Canada, he brings evidence. He does not rant and rave about any "hidden agenda" - in fact, the anti-gay policies of the Harper Conservatives prove to be anything but hidden.

Now, when I say this, I may be putting words in Salerno's mouth. I enjoy a subtle message he conveys about openly (and not-so-openly) gay members of the Conservative party. It isn't that these candidates are "not gay enough" (in one instance, the Conservatives alleged that Vancouver's Xtra newspaper had said as much). It's that they are members of a party that condones and facilitates the treatment of GLBTQQ* people as second-class citizens in this country. Whether or not gay conservatives are okay with that kind of treatment, it's not what Salerno (and, I would imagine, most gay people?) are going to vote for. He points out around this time that, under regulations brought in by the Conservatives, Cabinet Minister John Baird is not allowed to save lives by donating his organs (you can even join a Facebook group for that). Additionally, under the criminal code of Canada, anal sex still has a different age of consent in ~5 provinces, and all the territories (the others have found the law to be in violation of the charter of rights and freedoms). As he says, it is legal for a 40 year old to have hours of vaginal sex with your 16-year-old daughter in Winnipeg - but not for two men, ages 17 and 21, to consummate a long and committed relationship. Understandably, he does not link a John-Baird related Facebook page on that particular issue.

*Sorry if I left out any letters!

This might not sound very civil, but the whole show is presented very matter-of-factly, and not without some measure of balance. In the opening minutes, Salerno does go out of his way to point out that Stephen Harper's Canada is still in many ways more gay-friendly than the (perceived progressive) Obama's America. He does not froth at the mouth, does not accuse the Conservatives of wanting him dead, and calls them no names worse than "bible thumping". He's not without bias, but he presents his agenda clearly and up-front. He says that if people take away any message from his show, it should be to get involved in politics, and to get more people to care about gay rights (as a subset of human rights, viz "first they came for the gays, and I did not speak up...").

As for the story and the dramatic component of the show, they definitely take a back seat to the political lessons of the show. That being said, Fucking Stephen Harper
has the strongest emotional core of the three plays I've seen thus far, all of them very grounded in facts and figures. Salerno's motivations are not incredibly complex, but they really don't have to be. It's easy to understand how Salerno - as an aspiring journalist - would feel driven to great lengths to get answers from the man who threatens his livelihood (and, by extension, all our livelihoods - see the last parenthetical note). As he is stonewalled at every turn, frustration builds to the point where the now-infamous ambush becomes inevitable.

In the end, Fucking Stephen Harper is worth seeing. The story is good, the wit is dry, and the political humour plays well in Ottawa.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ottawa Fringe Reviews 1 and 2

Every Story Ever Told and Einstein's Bicycle

Telling stories within or - similarly - about stories is a trope as old as the hills. From the more modern examples of Inception and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!), back to Hamlet's play-within-a-play, the Thousand and One Nights, and that one whole season of Dallas, storytellers seem to agree that, when it comes to layers of narrative...

Both Every Story Ever Told and Einstein's Bicycle fit into this spectrum of meta-fictional/meta-referential storytelling. True to its name, Every Story Ever Told is a one-man show in which the protagonist (?) attempts to rattle off, uhh, every story ever told. Starting, of course, with War and Peace. Ryan Gladstone makes a heroic effort to remember an interminable litany of Russian names, even if he stumbles once or twice. Since he's playing overambitious/insecure, it's hard to tell to what extent any of the slip-ups in the show were scripted or not - and therein I think lies a certain genius. Gladstone is, to some extent, trying to communicate the futility of his own enterprise, any mistakes he does (appear?) to make seem to underscore the message, rather than contravene it. As for the 4th wall, it's never really there to begin with, so there's nothing for him to break.

About halfway through the show, he decides to make the switch from telling every story to telling one archetypal story ("the perfect story"), in the vein of Campbell's monomyth (which he does mention - albeit briefly). This is, I think, the weakest part of the show. Gladstone solicits input from the audience, and weaves a tale of heroic adventure starring a fictionalized version of an audience member (in this case, the young woman sitting to my direct left). He inter-cuts this story (actually quite deftly) with examples from fiction of each of the many stages of the hero's journey. He has a really funny part here where he uses EVERY ROCKY MOVIE to explain a different segment of the monomyth. The didactic interludes are all, in fact, quite good; it's the audience's story that's weak. Gladstone's improv-fu needs work; he'll stumble over the details, and his story didn't always cleave to the very promising premise of Love amid Chaos (inspired by that viral photo of a couple kissing amongst the recent Vancouver riots). To his credit, Gladstone does know when and how to keep things going if there's an awkward pause.

Every Story Ever Told almost feels like it should be a lecture, instead of a show. That's something I'll say about Einstein's bicycle, as well. Maybe a TED talk/performance is closer to the mark. Both seem to be an awkward balance of education and entertainment. Both deal in a measure of fact and fiction (or, in this case, facts about fiction), but neither seem to draw much of a conclusion on either front. In any show - I think - either the facts or the fiction should serve to make a point. The most powerful Fringe shows I have ever seen have been centered around the emotional deconstruction of one or more characters. They (and we, the audience), get to discover who the characters really are as their worlds are turned upside-down, and their illusions are stripped away. This is a principle well-known in science and technology: destructive testing/analysis. Both ESET and Einstein's Bicycle have a specimen clearly in their sights, but refuse to scrape off the skin to find what lies underneath. Gladstone's conclusion - factually- seems to be that our stories are both multitudinous beyond count...and yet reducible to sets of common themes and plot elements, but it says nothing controversial. On the emotional side, he doesn't really delve too deep into the psychology of the storyteller, specifically himself. Beyond "wanting to end his Fringe career with a bang", he doesn't examine his own desire to tell all these stories, nor even the reasons behind the (very human) need to tell stories in the first place.

Einstein's Bicycle is actually a collection of 6 short plays. Taken together, they're the stage-play equivalent to the all blue entry on TVTropes. Practically every line is a quote from somewhere, or a reference to something - to the extent that the program contains copious footnotes for three or four of the sub-plays. All in all, it's an enjoyable experience, but in being a synthesis of so much information from so many sources, it sometimes runs the risk of saying nothing itself.

I think the first two short plays are my favourites. In the first, a science reporter and a manhattan project engineer have a chance encounter on Bikini Atoll - just prior to a nuclear test. The dialogue is fun and flirty, but slowly reveals a more sinister underlying reality. In SF, it's often altogether too easy to examine the impact of new technologies in alarmist, reactionary ways. What I like about this first play is that it seems to address the fundamental change to our reality wrought by the development of atomic weaponry without bludgeoning us over the head with symbolism and the spectre of mass human suffering (all the while conveniently omitting the fact that the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden were, by far, worse atrocities in that regard). The second is a young Lois lane and Clark Kent preparing to canoodle in a Rocket '88, as Sputnik ("Spoot-nik", they say) orbits overhead. "Can they see us?", the young Americans ask each other, repeatedly, as if Stalin himself has become a cosmic voyeur. I admit I have less of a solid grasp on what this one is supposed to mean, but the innuendos stay on the thin line between funny and sexy, and the leads have the chemistry to sell it all.

Some Rights Reserved

Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.