Stuff about live stage theatre.

[Review] The Bacchae (2.1)

On the 28th of January, I went to go watch UBC Theatre’s production of The Bacchae (2.1). As I have never seen a Greek play, I was intrigued to see how it differed from more contemporary plays (i.e., 19th-20th century works). The style is radically different, to say the least. Main page for the production here.

May the wrath of Dionysus fall upon you. Source: UBC Theatre

The first thing I learned is that Greek plays appear to be… very expository. Taking a look at the scripts of both the original and the modernised version, characters (even the chorus) have obscenely long monologues. Most of it tends to be flowery language, text that would most certainly be cut down in more modern plays. I personally dislike this style as it was more “tell” than “show.” At times, it felt more like a sermon than an engaging story. I do not come to plays to be lectured, but to be amused and feel; from those latter two things do I learn.

The re-imagination seemed to be both more philosophical and more ideological. In the original, Dionysus was a flawed, vengeful character that wished to be recognised as a god–specifically a son of Zeus, and in order to do so, carried out a scheme to kill his cousin, Pentheus, the king of Thebes as any worship of Dionysus was banned. The remake featured a Dionysus that seemed to be divorced from reality and challenged one’s perception of where masculinity is demarcated from femininity by dressing up in conventional woman’s garb and near the end of the show, swapped for something more masculine. The incarnation in the remake appears more passive and less overtly confrontational though one could argue that Pentheus and his aides got riled up by his influence. This is one of my pet peeves when someone is making an ideological argument; creating a character that is hot-headed and generally unlikeable (the strawman) and another which is more rational and presents his or her arguments in a cool, logical manner. The way in which the characters are portrayed subliminally pushed to make the viewer feel more sympathetic to Dionysus rather than Pentheus.

Charles Mee, the playwright of the remake, decided to adapt it to make it more relatable with a modern audience. I question his success in doing so, as I felt the nuances behind the modernised touches were too subtle at first and required the audience to put effort in analysing his choices; these touches did not serve to push the plot forward or meaningfully enrich the setting–the setting was plain enough as is, and a time and location did not really come to mind–they only displayed a veil of symbolism that viewers who were curious enough to analyse it at a deeper level would appreciate to some degree. For example, the suits that the “civilised” characters (Pentheus and his aides) wore were contrasting solid black and white, forcing morality, gender, and other concepts into binary systems without any middle ground and using non-vibrant colours invokes a sense of routine, staleness, and lack of expression. The clothes hugged the body snugly (or rather, not loose) and covered most of it (save for the head and hands), acting as a shell that restricts the wearer’s expression. Dionysus and the women, on the other hand, wore less restrictive clothing, which translates to freer expression of self and room for self-improvement. Lively colours (tangerine and earthen colours) invoked senses of nature and creativity. Near the end of the show where the climax occurs one of the women appears to be wearing a long, red, wooden erect phallus, something that I believe was used to question the requirements of gender.

In the second half of the show, Pentheus decides, at Dionysus’ suggestion, to sneak into the abode of the wild women in order to ready himself for an assault against them. In order to so, he decides to dress up as a woman to blend in. What happens in the span of 2 minutes is Pentheus stripping out of his suit and putting on an elegant evening dress, high heels, and a wig. I asked at the talkback after the show the significance of choosing that costume and the costume designer replied that it represented Pentheus’ idea of how the ideal woman looks and behaves. It is also around this time that Dionysus swaps for more masculine clothing, maintaining a duality in gender presentation on the stage.

As Pentheus eavesdrops on the women, he grows to become more sympathetic to their thoughts. Throughout most of this scene, he remains silent, an observer, much like an initiate in a movement.When he is discovered, he is quickly accepted as he listens to more of their tales. By the end, he has successfully been converted and he is accepted into the group. Eventually only he and one other woman, Agave, remain on centre stage. As Pentheus lies on Agave’s lap and is gently stroked, his wig comes off and she flies into a rage that a man has managed to breach her inner sanctum and proceeds to kill him. The twist is revealed when Cadmus, Pentheus’ grandfather, enters the scene and woefully divulges to Agave that she had killed her son. The scene in both the original and the remake are similar in that she denies not knowing who her kill was (in the original, a lion; in the remake, an imposter) before coming to realise that she had just committed filicide. Where it differs is the addition of a third party in the remake: Dionysus, who while soft-spoken, begins to embody the incarnation of the original. He appears unseen by all the other characters as he mocks the lengths to which humans will try and deny that which lies before them; for example, the weeping Agave cradling her child’s head while reciting to herself, “it’s only a dream, it’s only a dream…”

I will attempt to tread carefully in this next section, as it has to do with comparing similarities between the reaction of Agave to Pentheus’ reveal to some members of (typically political or ideological) movements, more recently noted in those that purport to be morally superior. While many branches at a local level typically don’t have these incidents occur, there grows a disturbing trend to dismiss and alienate interested, potential members not necessarily because of the opinions they hold and espouse but by traits that are near impossible to change. Just like Agave’s violent reaction to discovering Pentheus’ identity, some members of these movements discount arguments from others (regardless of whether or not it supports their views) by virtue of their sex, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.

In terms of a work that seeks to explore the different sides of humanity (the “structured, civilised” side versus the “instinctual, wild” side) it is quite thought-provoking; when evaluating it as a work to entertain, it does not come off as strong. Perhaps if the characters were less of a voicepiece for the author and given more individual personality, the script would have entertained better while teaching at the same time.

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[Review] Who’s My Neighbour?

On the 19th of October, I went to the Norman Rothstein community centre to watch a play titled Who’s My Neighbour about Chinese immigrants coming to Vancouver in the 21st century. The production had 2 runs (a 4:30 and 7:30 viewings with characters being doublecast) and was conceived by the Sacrificium Society of Production.

Most (if not all, to the best of my knowledge) of the cast did not actively pursue acting; I know one of the actors and he operates as a tour guide as his day job. There was no room in the program for bios, so any further information I could have tried to glean from the people working on this show was lost.

There is not much of a central plot to this show, as it chronicles the stories of a few characters, some of them not necessarily having to do with one another, which makes it harder to follow without a central conflict or something that brings all the characters together besides just living by one another.

While I did not have a big problem with understanding what the characters (as there was dialogue being brought up in the back in both Chinese and English that synced up (for the most part) with the actors), it was hard to connect with the characters; their names were barely mentioned over the course of the play and that made the characters less memorable than they could have been. The ones I do remember vividly are Wai Wai, a girl who lives with an overbearing mother; Yan Yan, Wai Wai’s teenage cousin who is almost to term; and Wayne, Wai Wai’s boyfriend who appears to have the best parents giving him stuff. One suggestion that I have for this production is to use the characters’ names more so that they stick in the audience’s memory and don’t conglomerate into eerily similar clones.

There were two points in the play that were vivid: Wai Wai talking to her mother who won’t go out with friends and near the end of the scene exploding and telling her mother that she just wants a little time for herself, followed by a hug to comfort the latter. The other was when a young woman is being seen off by her grandmother (???) Irene at the airport for a job offer in Shanghai. The two bicker and try to outwait the other before the girl leaves, but not before coming back and giving her grandmother a final goodbye.

All in all, it was an adequate play. The preachiness of Jesus was a little overbearing at some parts, but for an amateur company, it was done pretty well.

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Thoughts about Commedia dell’arte at UBC

Hours of fun for everyone! Source: UBC Theatre

On October 11th I went to go see the intermediate BFA Acting class perform 2 plays written by Carlo Gozzi: The Three Oranges and The King Stag. The art form of commedia dell’arte is an old one, but quite new to me. The use of masks is similar to that of Noh theatre, where each mask portrays a certain type of character. The masks vary in shape, but the one thing I noticed the most was the width of the eye holes. Minor characters tended to have masks that obscure the actor’s eyes, making it harder to connect with them (which I believe is the point). The only characters that were not masked were female, and two served as love interests to the protagonists whereas two more who were playing the role of Smeraldina.

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[Review] White People Limestone Ring

Halfway through its run, UBC Theatre is currently showing The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Chan Centre. You can still order tickets from their box office. Spoilers ahead.

An adaptation of an old parable. Source: UBC Theatre

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[Review] It Sucks to Be You (if you haven’t watched Avenue Q yet)

We’re together
Here on Avenue Q!
We live on Avenue Q!
Our friends do too!
‘Til our dreams
Come true,
We live on Avenue Q!

“It Sucks To Be Me,” Avenue Q

Ending its extended run on September 14 (tomorrow!), the Arts Club has had major success in producing Avenue Q for theatergoers in an orgy of crude, sexual humour and somewhat uncomfortable truths.

We all live on Avenue Q! Source: Arts Club blog

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[Review] Shakespeare’s Twenty-Fourth Night (Rated R for Raunchiness and Revelry)

If you are able to see this play and have not seen it yet, avert thine eyes, for ’tis a piece so sad that to gaze upon it shall shatter thy joys into a miserable pile of elderberries in front of a nunnery. If you have seen it, continue on as you will have seen everything to be spoiled by!

This is what you’ll look like after the show: all smiles and bound chests. Image courtesy of Noah JD Chinn Books.

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