Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reviewing the Reviewer: A Response to Bruce DeMara's Attack on Dramaturgy

It’s been some time since Bruce DeMara’s quasi love-hate letter to the Fringe (“How To Spot the Duds at the Fringe Festival,” which essentially ruled out 100% of Fringe shows) was published in the Toronto Star, but reviewing Fringe shows has made me think about it again. And with renewed thought comes renewed irritation, as DeMara proves in his article that, not only has he no idea what Fringe spirit is (if you can have a theatrical experience completely ruined by a somewhat uncomfortable seat, to the point where you eliminate promising shows entirely from your roster, preferring comfort over discovery, then you are officially not relevant to a serious discussion about the festival) but that he has absolutely no idea what a dramaturg is.

DeMara has this odd idea that a dramaturg is there to, I suppose, overthink things; to make the play experimental, obtuse, and boring. To many people, the word dramaturg is equated with pretension. (Well, to many people the equation is actually dramaturg = dramaturge = what is that?) I guess that’s fair – to call back to Avenue Q, the word is scary and German, so “experimental and pretentious? That is German!” But, if a dramaturg makes his or her work convoluted and purely academic, “savagely dissecting” someone’s work, then he or she is not a good dramaturg, which does happen. There are dramaturgs involved in “turgid drama” out there, just like there directors who are dire, playwrights who are just playing at writing and inactive actors. But I have never walked out of a badly written show and thought “That’s it, I’m never watching anything scripted again!” (Except for perhaps John Patrick Shanley’s Romantic Poetry, which was such an abomination that I almost never watched anything again, because I almost clawed my own eyes the way, that show had one writer/director and credited no dramaturg, and it was obvious.)

It’s ludicrous to dismiss an entire profession because DeMara thinks that only pretentious fussbudgets would have a dramaturg for a Fringe show. I, instead, call that treating “even” a Fringe show with the respect and communication it deserves. DeMara posits that a show must be fresh and spontaneous, which rules out the idea of dramaturgy, or, in fact, any careful consideration of the show at all, suggesting that a “true” Fringe show just throws the first thing that comes to mind at the audience. If that is so, the festival should be improv-only, or at very least, allow no rewrites and only one rehearsal from the actors. Rewriting IS dramaturgy. The rehearsal process IS dramaturgy.

The idea that a show should only be dramaturged after its production shows that DeMara seems to have confused a show’s dramaturg with a reviewer. As I’ve demonstrated in this blog, a dramaturg can write reviews – of other people's shows. But dramaturgy, an attempt to ensure a show’s cohesion on the stage, needs to take place before the show opens. It is intertwined with the process; it can’t exist apart from the process. There is a reason that critics aren’t invited in to review a show before opening night. Criticism is reactive, and thus largely useless to the particular production it is about; it’s for the audience, for history, perhaps for the team to think about for their next show. Dramaturgy is, and must be, active.

There is a reason that you get an MA in Theatre, but an MFA in Dramaturgy. That’s because an MFA signifies some sort of connection with the real world (and don’t snicker, I realize that spending money to get an MFA signifies a certain amount of disconnect with the “real world”) as well as an academic background, while an MA can potentially focus on only the latter. The moment I decided that I wanted a degree in Dramaturgy and not Theatre was sitting at the academic conference portion of the show I was involved in staging, and I realized that the active state of translating this academic knowledge into a valid and immediate performance for an audience was what particularly excited me. For an MFA, you have to put your academic background into practice and make it work. You have to work on shows. You have to take a look at the realities of theatre in the current climate. You study season planning, how to create an artistic vision that is also accessible; you study marketing, fundraising, grant writing: distilling a message. You can be as academic as you like at the table read or in the privacy of your own home, but the only things an audience will see out of your production are perhaps a program note and the production itself, not the explanation behind it. So you have to make your intention and message clear and interesting.

An MFA in Dramaturgy should carry with it an additional designation in Communications, because that’s what it is. You communicate the playwright’s wishes to the director, the actors, the designers, and the audience, and you communicate all of those people’s wishes to each other so that you are all on the same page. A dramaturg isn’t there to laugh at and muddle the audience; a dramaturg is an audience’s advocate in the room. A dramaturg is there to ask why a director has decided to stage Polonius’ famous speech in Pig Latin, to ask a playwright why his character has a sudden, inexplicable change in personality, to ask an actor if he has all the information he needs to deal with a complicated Greek legend, a designer why the entire cast of Hedda Gabler has been outfitted as space pirates. A dramaturg is there to streamline and demystify and to make sure everyone respects each other’s contribution to the project.

Perhaps you don’t like a creative team’s aesthetic. Does that mean the dramaturg is terrible, or are we all individual people and it just might not be your cup of tea? It’s like having a bad experience with a doctor and then declaring that “the job of any doctor is to kill the patient.” The job of any doctor is to save the patient, even if the patient sometimes dies. The basic fact that a dramaturg can be an almost indescribable position because it is so many things to so many people signifies that the profession cannot be lumped together as either homogenous or useless.

Saying that a dramaturg ruins things is saying that research ruins historical drama, that mediation is never necessary between creative minds, an issue DeMara touches on as potentially ruinous in the same article. It’s saying that a second pair of eyes is never helpful (again, DeMara criticizes not having enough people on the creative team), and what’s more, it’s saying that a dramaturg doesn’t care about the audience, which I take as a personal affront, because I absolutely care about the audience, and because, furthermore, I *am* part of the audience, so it’s saying that I don’t even care about my own experience. At this Fringe Festival, I guess I was lucky because I didn’t see any “duds.” I saw a large number of artists telling stories, more or less successfully. I guess it’s true, though, that I spotted one “dud” at the Fringe Festival. I think his name was Bruce.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: Misprint (1st Issue)

As a reviewer, the first commitment you make is to review shows only once you have seen each complete show. The cardinal sin of reviewing is to leave before the performance is completely finished but to submit a review anyway (this happened to a show I was in junior year of undergrad, and it proved the reporter’s eventual downfall). Misprint presents the conundrum: how do you review a show that is presented as Part One of a two-part piece, but one that the team has chosen to present singly, as a first act to an audience paying full price (well, Fringe price) who won’t get the second act until much later if at all? Taking both things into consideration, the answer seems to be to review it as a full show while acknowledging that there is a second act both planned and in the works. In many ways that does not change the initial reaction to the play, though it’s difficult to judge story pacing and thematic import.

has been described as “Archie Comics meets The Truman Show,” and this is the most accurate description I can think of. Perpetually sixteen-year-old Elly (Lauren Toffan, also the show’s co-writer and director) is the only person in the world of Sunnydale (this fictional Sunnydale, sadly, contains no Buffy or vampires) who does not know that her town is actually the artificial setting of a long-running comic strip. The story is an interesting concept, and the takeoff on Archie comics pitch-perfect; as a child who spent too much time and money feeding an Archie Comics addiction, I found the twisted Archie characters were hilarious; all landed with me as adept take-offs. Unfortunately, while the performance was ultimately entertaining, much of the time this show is a triumph of style and archness (no pun intended) over substance.

The show has a strong candy-coloured, cartoon aesthetic; there is a clear director’s vision, but the execution doesn’t always work out. For example, the characters move as if they are two-dimensional, unable to turn as they shuffle sideways, in and out of frame. This is a neat sight gag, but it sacrifices the ability to be fluid in its attempts to land the joke for the rest of the show. The director appears to feel this constraint, as the particular movement is picked up and left off whenever it is convenient, which is jarring.

The music is often entertaining, but many of the lyrics are unfortunately banal (and not banal in the sense that life in Sunnydale is supposed to be banal, just a bit lazy-sounding), and sound like rambling stream of consciousness meditations instead of carefully constructed gems; though the characters are in many cases nervous and losing their grip, and not everyone needs to think in Sondheim, it just seems tired. Slightly more polished lyrics would be welcome, even if it is “just” a Fringe show.

The lyrics occasionally seem to be deliberately constructed in order not to rhyme; it was hard to tell whether this was to signify that something was wrong, or whether it was an affectation. Though there are enough rhymes to suggest this is untrue and not a consistent thing, it’s particularly strange to the ear when lines which could rhyme are twisted for no reason not to rhyme (not an exact example, but say a rhyme that could have been made with “me” and “forty-three” would be changed so that “me” is “rhymed” with “forty-two”). Lyrics aren't required to rhyme, and there is certainly a place in musical theatre for recitative, but if the lyricist isn't showing us why this piece needs to be in song specifically using the heightened rhythmic language of rhyme, the lyrics have to be particularly well-crafted to stand in their own blank verse. Exceptions that heighten interest in the show’s possibilities include the standout penultimate song, an Elly solo which actually reaches a kind of emotional truth, and a Betty-vs-Veronica duet between happy (future) homemaker Elly and jet-setting Monica with support from a classroom of girls direct from the chorus of Grease. The score’s strong point is its counterpoint melodies, which are particularly difficult to write, but manage to be successful and intriguing, suggesting that composer and co-writer Yan Li has some tricks up his sleeve.

Acting, like the sideways-shuffle-motion, is variable, mostly in the smaller parts where the risk of over-mugging increases; Elly and Monica (Kristen Sehn) are standouts (Monica, in particular, demands attention). The character of Charlie is deeply confusing; is he creepy and awful, just a bad actor (the character, that is), suffering from severe health problems or all of the above? His song, a version of that gospel song included in every ironic musical since Urinetown, is a sincerely off-putting piece about divesting clothing. As usual, the female vocals are generally stronger, but the singers mostly hit the right notes.

The only problem with the Truman Show meets Archie Comics premise is, besides predisposing me towards assumptions as to how the show would unfold, that it is never satisfactorily explained why Elly’s predicament a necessary thing to happen in this world. There is the issue of suspense in this case (not wanting to let on what exactly is going on before the big reveal), but premise can be explained without ruining this suspense. Why is it important or a big selling point that only Elly not know that she is in a comic book, and for this to be a comic book where time is circular and her 16th year is lived over and over? In fact, as far as we know, this doesn’t seem to be a major selling point to the audience; issue sales are apparently way down, and its not strongly conveyed that the audience of the comic knows Elly is ignorant of her situation. It’s also unexplained how everyone remains the same age, though perhaps a certain injection shown early on has something to do with it, and exactly how the comic world interacts with the real world. It’s just so hard to judge character, story, arcs, and particularly payoffs because this is only the first part. Perhaps in issue two?


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: She Said What Happened

It must be deeply irritating to be a female comedy troupe like She Said What. More often than not, the focus of reviews is on your gender; you’ve got to feel like each show is a referendum on whether or not women can be funny. On their website, She Said What recognizes this particular lens through which their art is viewed, saying that they strive to “move beyond that categorization and create comedy that is funny regardless of gender.” However, I’ve seen reviews already that focus on this troupe as showing “female empowerment” or being impressive in terms of making women, and things that are of concern to women, funny, which bothers me. In fact, just by mentioning this concept as a reaction to other reactions, I feel like I’m falling into the same trap and making this review about gender, so I do apologize for that. Leveling a judgment against women as a whole is simply unnecessary. Women can be funny, and women can be not funny. End of story. Sometimes I am funny, and sometimes I am not, but honestly, that has more to do with making an overly-academic pun to a beleaguered audience than my gender.

I feel like the notion of “women’s humour” is a self-perpetuating one that’s hard to get away from; even refuting it winds up referencing it. On the other hand, it’s a ridiculous notion that humour needs to be unaffected by any of our defining characteristics; the way we experience the world naturally affects how we skewer it. What matters to me is whether this group achieved their goal- whether its members are smart and entertaining. And, in the end, they are, though the act as a whole was not as strong as I wanted it to be.

The show begins with each cast member dancing frenetically onstage and attempting to generate applause. While the dancing is amusing and the high energy great to see, most of the audience seemed to be at the show on the strength of review, as opposed to fans watching a known quantity. If the performance is at a regular haunt, to people who are clearly already won over, this is a gambit that can really succeed in creating excitement. However, in a less comfortable situation, I find that any comedy group’s show tends to come off better when it opens with a blisteringly funny sketch and THEN introduces itself for audience applause. This rule works for any comic, musician, or performer: show us something first to get us pumped up before demanding approbation. The show and the audience seemed to get off on the wrong foot, and that’s possibly why my reaction was less cheery than I wanted it to be; the audience was for some reason flat and largely unresponsive. Audience is a huge factor when it comes to comedy, and it’s possible the troupe just had some bad luck here.

However, some tired staples of comedy are still occasionally present: that is, that women must always be bitchy and fighting with each other and gossiping behind each others’ backs –it’s the basis of their entire onstage persona in this particular outing. Other than the genuinely self-deprecating bits at the beginning, where we find out exactly what they have *not* achieved, the show’s weakest points, like the opening, (except for a puerile celebrity impression skit with timing issues that tries to wring big laughs out of Justin Bieber shitting himself) are when the troupe tries to “be themselves” –well, a version of themselves.

In any case, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, because they have some very sharp pieces; it’s a worthwhile experience when they step past stereotype and right outside the box. Some of the more stereotypical humour actually helped me appreciate the subversive pieces better, as a kind of “compare and contrast” exercise. The hockey moms sketch, while well-worn ground, has some nice rhythmic and vocal work and is a stitch; the constant cajoling to the children to pick themselves up from the ice as they get progressively more injured builds to a nice twist ending. Napoleon and Josephine star in a properly bent look at their crumbling marriage and gender dynamics, particularly when the boots come out. And the horrors of ballet are taken to a very unexpected place, musically, as the ballerinas show a sharper edge. The performers are talented, Emma Hunter in particular. Her snappy timing, some great accent skills and a commanding stage presence were a great combination.

She Said What really speaks when it goes to the oddball, bizarre and goofy. The gleeful, barely-restrained mania displayed by these comedians is an appealing strength. A bit more focus, and focus on the juxtaposition between an old concept and a new angle, and I’ll definitely want to hear more.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: Awake

Awake is a show I felt I needed to see. I wrote my undergraduate thesis play as a somewhat delayed reaction to the spate of gun violence in Toronto that some dubbed “the summer of the gun,” that ended in the Boxing Day shooting at the Eaton’s Centre. Though proud of my work, I realize that my background of privilege and personal experiences mark me as an outsider to the world that I was partially writing about; it’s no wonder that I found it easier to get inside the head of an accomplished, fairly well-off student and her community than I did young male gang members and the community that shaped their lives. Therefore, I was really excited to see a show that did what I, in my shyness, had failed to do – take a real incident, this time the gang-related shooting of two young black men, the latter at the former’s funeral, and actually interview the community to create portraits of preachers, mothers, cops, and the young men and women who are trying to get out of poverty and despair one way or another.

Awake took place in the Walmer Baptist Church, a place I had never entered, but its beauty added much to the almost religious experience that was occurring between the impassioned speeches, emotional impact and the beautifully-sung music, particularly the gospel. Though the environment was somewhat stifling in the summer heat, conscientiously-placed palm fans both provided some respite and added to the atmosphere. The clearly real coffin on stage gave the proceedings an appropriately solemn air. The entire space is used well; Fringe organizers clearly knew what they were doing when they gave this site-specific venue a chance.

Because it is based on interviews, Awake sounds honest and raw; not to the point where it isn’t still lyric, but it certainly bears the mark of authenticity. It doesn’t hurt that it is extremely well-cast. All the actors are very strong, to the point where I’m legitimately sad that I haven’t seen more of their work, but they also all project the right physical and emotional centres to fill their characters. The cop (David Shelley) has the build and walk of a cop, the mother (Quancetia Hamilton) an astounding amount of emotional gravitas mixed with a warm laugh; the young mother (Beryl Bain) an impressive mix of vulnerability, self-assurance, and self-awareness; a drug dealer (Peyson Rock) convincingly and simultaneously tough, funny, and sympathetic. Though the cast is strong, there’s an occasional sense of the amateur, a feeling of “let’s put on a show!” - but I’m not sure that hurts the production; it may help it.

The show is also impressive in that writer/directors Lauran Mullin and Chris Tolley intercut the interviews with a very specific narrative in mind. The plot moves forward as we move backward and forward in time; there is little fat, although when there are seams and bits of confusion - like a scene set in a club where the explanatory words were lost in the cavernous church and the resulting performance didn’t make sense - it’s jarring. Words were often an issue and were actually exacerbated by the cast being miked. Though projection is difficult in a large space, at least there would be no distortion; because the show’s strength is its immediacy, reality, and connection with the audience, having that layer of distance is distracting and counterproductive.

Music is a source of real beauty in the piece, and serves as an effective framing device. The only music that doesn’t quite work is that of rapper U.R.V.: unfortunately, due to the space, many of the words didn’t carry. Even if they had, the artist seemed piloted in, like a cameo in a rap video that seemed entirely engineered to promote her own career, as she was name-dropped more than once to an audience somewhat confused by her presence. The cast worked so well together, and were such an organic unit, that the only reason to have a two-scene “outsider” would have been to have the character actually be, deliberately, an outsider. The outsider in this show is the police officer, and even he is painted sensitively and allowed meaningful interaction with the rest of the cast, so it seemed strange. Even the cast members who are in the show as dancers still have well-defined roles within scenes.

I appreciated how the show fought against stereotype, and fought against picking a villain, whether it be the authority figure or the gangs. Everyone is given a fair chance to tell their story, and to tell it while being treated with respect. It would be easy to blame someone, when there are a host of contributing factors, none of which are easy to solve, and the show is not afraid to get complex, though answers are in short supply. There’s an overarching air of sadness and resignation to the show, but also one of hope, aided by the glorious harmony of hymns- how many Fringe shows have an organist? I hope Awake’s funeral has a second life elsewhere.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: Gravestone Posse

One of my final projects in my second year of grad school (the last year of classes) was to produce an hour-long radio show with my three fellow dramaturgs, who, luckily for me, all happened to be folks of the awesome persuasion. I dubbed it “MFA FM” because I’m clever like that, and our nine playwrights collaborated on three short pieces that were all genre send-ups: an unusual housewife solving 15-minute mysteries, a hard-boiled cop walking his gritty beat, and a teen drama about high school where one of the cliques just happened to be comprised of zombies. The highlight of the show came in its actual production, where our sound man had to not only use the trademark tiny door for entrances and exits and make gunshot sounds, but was required to create a zombie flesh-munching, bone-crunching sound that, as I remember, included celery and jelly. While the show was recorded for Columbia’s university radio station, the fun was really had by the live studio audience, which was there to “watch” radio and sound.

It was with this mindset that I went to watch The Canadian Space Opera Company’s Gravestone Posse, set, appropriately enough, at another university’s radio station (University of Toronto, this time).

Gravestone Posse has all the hallmarks of a classic Western thriller, only the villainous gunslingers are more undead than usual. There’s James Pitt, the outlaw with the heart of gold who keeps the piece, the saloon owner Doc Watson and his virtuous daughter Effie, the town drunk Stumpy McReady, sultry singer Ulla, prissy Priscilla Farnsworth, Temperance advocate, the angry young upstart, increasingly Nasty Norman Entwistle, the sheriff and his nebbish civilian deputy, and of course the band of rogues up to ruining the town. Only this time, the bar owner is a living Wikipedia, the singer is a fish-obsessed Norwegian, and the rogues are zombies.

The show is full of puns and cheeky innuendo, although it turns out that the “pelvic massage” might actually be…a massage concentrating on the pelvis. The story and characters are necessarily predictable (to the point of “hoary old chestnut” status), but do have enough twists to keep things interesting even if the writing isn’t comedy gold, and occasionally not even comedy bronze. The jokes, again, run to the silly and punning. Many of them are quite funny, but there are some real timing issues that cause others to whimper and peter out. A strength of a fake radio show is always its ludicrous commercials, and these ones, at least, don’t disappoint.

Many in the cast do some fine voice work, those playing Stumpy, Priscilla, and Ulla/Norman in particular, but others are less confident and there is one particularly weak link in the cast who cannot hold an accent, a fatal attribute in radio.

The show attempts to play with some of the conventions of radio, but doesn't go far enough in its exploration. One thing that caught my attention was the lack of doubling. The cast was quite large, with only a couple of double roles. Double (or triple) roles for voice actors is one of the greatest attributes of radio – it signifies a clear difference from a staged reading. Perhaps some further employment of this concept would have resulted in a tighter, more interesting show. The more the hallmarks of radio are acknowledged and lampooned, the more worthwhile the show becomes as both radio performance piece and commentary.

The sound effects were ably performed, and one important radio tradition was given its due when the effects artist became responsible for aurally creating an extremely elaborate fight scene that we only hear described. It’s in poking fun at these customs that the show finds its feet. Sometimes the best moments are when a show loses its footing, though; for the last shot, the gun didn’t go off. Startled, the effects artist just said, “BANG.” The magic of live radio.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: Tyumen, Then

Adam Underwood’s Tyumen, Then, (Too-MAIN, if you were wondering) an extremely black comedy, is a study in effective contrasts. It features one of the most amoral, self-preserving characters you will ever meet, who is driven to the brink of insanity by even the thought of selflessness. It’s grotesque and chilling. But then, it also has an ice-skating-obsessed Vladimir Lenin rising from his coffin in a “Kiss the Cook” apron, so you be the judge.

Two Russian soldiers stand in a boxcar, guarding what nobody will tell them but what they suspect is the body of Lenin, being spirited from Russia in order to avoid possible desecration by the Nazis. One, Dimitri (Lyon Smith) is an annoying but completely guileless individual, particularly for a soldier during WWII – you wonder if it’s his first day on the job, marvel at his ability to keep up constant inane chatter, but eventually melt for his continued na├»ve optimism. He is a kind of winningly annoying Dr. Pangloss, who, though met with constant pain, continues to believe in the best of all possible worlds. His compatriot, Ivan (Kevin MacDonald) is his polar opposite and is having none of his friendly overtures. When the boxcar screeches to a halt with no hint of whether or not it will ever continue its journey, survival mode kicks in for Ivan and Dimitri is a willing dupe.

Meanwhile, we wonder, is it Lenin, on ice, or Lenin On Ice? The charismatically loony Adam Lazarus is clearly having the time of his life playing Lenin post-mortem with increasingly whimsical props. At first he can only be seen by Dimitri, as he complains of memory-inflicted head pain, asks to be taken skating and spouts prophecy, but he intrudes more and more into the world as things go off the rails (metaphorically, that is).

The play is a (sickening) riot. With its seemingly absurd and light tone, the eventual violence comes as both an inevitability and a shock. However, once the horror threshold is breached, though one hopes for the best, one knows there is no turning back and all bets are off. This certainly makes things more exciting; the show manages to create enormous suspense in its willingness to irrevocably harm its characters. The dialogue (at times, monologue) is in turn hilarious and interminable, a sort of combination between Questions and Who’s On First? Though this seemingly-endless back-and-forth interaction and the stopped boxcar initially give the play the impression of a Russian train-based version of Godot, things change: the characters do move – and cut, and strangle, and skate.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: Limbo

I've been falling down on the Fringe reviewing because I have been way too concerned with getting everything perfect. I realize the following several reviews are rather late, but perhaps they will be of some use to someone!

Andrew Bailey, of Victoria’s Atomic Vaudeville, comes to the Toronto Fringe riding his own personal cyclone – the solo show. The show is sold based on Bailey’s incredible problem-solving skills: that is, he solves the meaning of life in the first minute and then spends the rest trying to un-solve that. Bailey delivers on his promise, and his premise for life’s meaning seems sound. I don’t really want to spoil it for you, even if it’s revealed within a minute. The rest of the show is how Bailey came to that initial conclusion, and how he suffers to find it.

When a show’s description invokes a near-death experience, most people think of a car accident, or a heart attack. Few expect to hear the line, “The first time I was possessed…” Bailey’s touching and disturbing story involves mental illness from childhood, an incapacity to remove “bad” thoughts and a tendency to self-blame to the point of obsession. Then there’s the possession thing. The show is full of the unexpected, leading to a narrative that is at times fascinating. It relies on stories from youth that are alternately hysterical and sad, and its strength is the ability to be relatable to an audience that has varying degrees of experience with mental illness, particularly a pathology that is a little more unusual than, say, depression. Its other strength is visceral imagery that really helps us enter his world, which is extremely helpful in a bare-bones solo experience.

Bailey’s story is not perfect; some jokes don’t land, some stories seem a bit too digressive or uncomfortable, and his voice and delivery take a little getting used to. He manages to balance humour and cringe-worthy personal confession, but this isn’t a show for those afraid of soul-baring. It’s very honest and there’s a real interest in audience connection. Not to say audience participation, but it’s very hard to hide emotionally from what he has to say. Of course, if you’re trying to hide emotionally, then what are you doing in the theatre?


SummerWorks review: Zugzwang

Last night I enjoyed my inaugural SummerWorks 2011 show, a short play called Zugzwang by Michael Atlin which I suppose I can call a "chess piece." 

For some
reason, I have never managed to whip myself into the same furor of excitement for SummerWorks as I do for the Fringe. In many ways, that makes no sense. Many of the theatres are the same, though there aren't as many in the middle. The plays tend to be about the same length, mostly bite-sized. And it's juried, which means that a watcher is much less likely to watch the unwatchable. But that's where the magic of Fringe comes into play. As a dramaturg, the most exciting thing about Fringe, aside from its sheer volume (my program guide every year looks like I'm planning some sort of military action) and the experience of desperately running from one theatre to the next and sliding in one minute to curtain, is the ability to skirt the dangers of the lottery and be one's own jury. In a way, I love the anarchic aspect. To be fair, I don't like watching painfully bad theatre, and, as such, I've gotten remarkably good at picking the good shows, figuring out from descriptions what theatre companies have aesthetics that complement my own, at riding the buzz to victory.
there's the cheap aspect. It is absolutely unfair, particularly this year, for me to criticize SummerWorks' pricing - Summerworks is cheap for theatre. But my ticket still cost about double what I'd pay at Fringe. The large Buddy Passes at the Fringe practically force you to marathon theatre, careening from one show to the next, and for less than $8 a show I find my buoys my spirit of adventure. There are only a few Summerworks passes available that come close (maybe next year I should try to snap up one of the 30 10-play passes, though I imagine they're gone in minutes).
None of this is to say
SummerWorks should change. It is a fabulous festival. But it reminds me of New York Fringe in a lot of ways. It's like a cross between Toronto and New York Fringe, I guess. I think I would be absolutely crazy about SummerWorks if Fringe hadn't been my first love, and wasn't first every summer. The main cause of my less-enthusiastic attendance, I suppose, is burnout (as you can tell from my slow, slow reviewing right now). I mainline Fringe for two weeks and then I'm done. It's an all-or-nothing feeling; I feel like to be part of the spirit of SummerWorks I need to see as many shows as I did with Fringe (which I guess would be more than half of the festival). I need to start making more of an effort to stop worrying and love the festival, and also I need to live closer to downtown so it doesn't take forever to get to Factory or Passe Muraille. Back to Factory Theatre, and inside it, Zugzwang.
Zugswang takes place in an Etobicoke Jewish Community Centre (at the "Seventh Bi-Monthly" tournament), and the set (designed by George Quan), complete with clip-arted "no smoking" flyers, certainly looks the part. Besides setting and character names, the script is remarkably free of stereotypical Jewish-related humour, which is refreshing and unexpected. That's because this script is far more interested in an exploration of chess and the people who love, or at least tolerate, it.

The Arbiter, Simon (Andy Trithardt) starts us off, not telling us in song that he knows the score, but in monologue detailing his love for the game and a strategic trap that's often used to lure new players into defeat. A fabric chessboard mounted on the wall is a nice visual that he uses to illustrate the hypothetical game. In an entertaining twist, he assures us that "it's not a metaphor for anything;" except, perhaps, for the script, which likes to keep us on our toes by subverting our expectations.
Zugzwang likes to wear its heart on its sleeve; it's light and funny with some nice character moments, not particularly aspirational in the metaphor department, and that's okay. The opening does, however, seem designed to bait the dramaturg, as the starting non-metaphor does sort of like the gun that's not allowed to go off. Karl (Josh Reaume) and Igor (Dylan George) are roommates (in college, one assumes); the first, a dedicated and deeply sexist chess nerd, the latter, seemingly drifting without direction. Sidney (Ephraim Ellis), a stylish, proper gent with organization-focused OCD, seems locked in an eternally frustrating pick-up game of life with the anything-but-stylish or proper, vulgar Bob (Matthew Gorman), whose headphones are always in use; only a shared addiction to cigarettes seems to unite them. (Having music blare from only one speaker whenever Bob removes them was a fun directorial choice [Frankie Hall], though it speaks volumes that when I first heard it, I was positive someone's cell phone was going off.) The players are rounded out by an unseen nine-year-old girl, a homeschooled prodigy with an apparently creepily dead-eyed teddy bear, and Susan (Nora Smith) whose female presence threatens Karl's concentration, which may ruin Igor's chances of a new friend.
The play mixes genuine affection for chess and its bizarre adherents with a storyline that would encourage very few to pick up a rook and join in. In particular, it reaffirms stereotypes of players as emotionally stunted nerd-men, and is unafraid to push all the sexism buttons with little repercussion; though Susan manages a small amount of extortion, her authority-sanctioned punishment for having the audacity to come play chess while being female is perhaps a bit much, frustrating while amusing. The actors all embodied the roles well; no matter how much they were given to work with character-wise, each one of them at least had a small acting treat. In particular, a rhythmic section featuring only the noises of the tournament building on themselves was seamless and joyful, a slightly absurd moment in an otherwise very naturally-built world. I found myself interested in what drew each player to chess, because the characters seemed richest in that interpretive direction. For Sid, it seemed to be the organizational aspect, for Karl, the winning and rules-lawyering (definitely a person who always needs to be right even while cheating). Igor seemed like he was playing out of inertia, to continue a long-standing tradition with a friend. Susan, perhaps to prove herself. Bob, possibly for the gambling potential, though I found myself wanting much more of his story. In fact, there were many stories that I thought could have been deepened, to create side characters who were more well-rounded and less a label or collection of tics.
This wasn't a play for introspection, though; that was made clear. It was a game, and a fun game, at that. The play's focus on the dynamics between pairs, and the strategies they used on one another to get a desired result, was very fitting for its thematic subject. Hey, maybe there was a metaphor in there, after all.