Thursday, 4 May 2017

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Its fascinating to watch the historic battle play out between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in Matt Tyrnauer's documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Voicing Jacobs is Marissa Tomei while Moses is voice by Vincent D'onofrio. Archival documents and communication about city planning as well as footage of cities like New York and Chicago illustrate some of the damage created by architects and top down planners of the past. We are able to see what works and what doesn't, how the same issues are being repeated today (block towers again in China and India) and how citizens must mobilize in order to have a say in how cities are developed. The question of who gets to decide is still one that is being debated all over the world, especially as cites are growing at a never-before seen rate.

Using the term "housewife", a reductive term in the pre-feminist era, the powers that be thought they could reduce the impact that Jane Jacobs and her organized groups of like-minded citizens had on preventing the lower Manhattan expressway from being developed in the early 1960s. Boy, were the ever wrong! Yes, she was a housewife, and she used that power to do what housewives have always done, connect with each other and their community. The difference was that Jane was also a journalist who had investigated how her city and others worked. She saw things from the ground up, so she knew how important people were to the sustainability and growth of a city. She had written numerous articles about different aspects of New York from flower to fur district and had written the still-relevant, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". She knew that cities were living things that required diversity of people,  neighbourhoods, streets, and business.  As one woman says in the documentary, she felt safe walking down to the store at night because the old men in the cafes were out socializing and kept an eye on her. Their presence, meant that she was seen, and in their seeing, would know if any one was bothering her. These are the stories that Jane knew and the people with whom she was familiar, if not individually, than as a collective that made the city function. What her adversary, Robert Moses did not know, was the power and needs of such people.

While in the  pre-war years, Moses was an urban planner who developed public meeting and recreational  spaces, post-depression, post-World War II era Moses and his ilk thought that demolishing tenements and replacing them with high density apartment blocks was the answer to accommodate people and the growing car consumerist culture. What urban planners of the day didn't take into consideration was that in separating work from recreation and home, they developed blocks of isolation where people were no longer able to interact with the vibrancy of the streets. Expressways were seen as the "arteries of progress" where in fact, they were preventing stoop culture and community-building.

Jane Jacobs was instrumental in defeating Toronto's own Spadina Expressway plans when she and her family moved Toronto. Citizen Jane is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and in select theatres across the country, just in time for the global initiative Jane's Walk scheduled May 5, 6, and 7th. The festival consists of free citizen-lead walking tours where the emphasis is on people connecting within their communities and exchanging thoughts about their neighbourhood.  Details about a walk in your city can be found at www.janeswalk.org


Friday, 7 April 2017

"David Lynch: The Art Life", A Painterly Doc


courtesy of Pacific Northwest Pictures
Filmmaker Jon Nguyen and his team adroitly capture a cinematic reflection of subject David Lynch in the aptly titled documentary, "David Lynch: The Art Life". The colours of Lynch's artistry and recollections are painted in tones of smoke, charcoal and dirty silver, the occasional burst of natural yellow (enrobing a solitary Lynch as he works outdoors) and the thick layers of the reds and greens Lynch applies to his canvasses. 

Watching artists at work is a treat for me: seeing what they choose to create, why they choose to bring it into existence and the impact of their mental and physical states on what they produce. With Lynch acting as his own narrator, we get the opportunity to hear personal details of his idyllic childhood in Boise, Idaho, the family's move to Alexandria,Virginia where a teenage Lynch felt as if he was living in perpetual night, his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, where the miasma of racism and fear that hung over the city nevertheless inspired his work, and how a long shot lead him to the world of film in L.A.

If you're a Lynch fan, you're going to love his artwork. Dark, nightmare-inspiring, and even alien. Lynch's own father reacted to his work by suggesting he probably shouldn't have children. Perhaps if his father, indeed, his family,  had sat down and listened to Lynch talk about his art, they would have understand fully his need to create, to build other worlds through art. Then again, even if they did listen, they might be frightened by the thoughts that lead to his globular iterations on canvas, amorphous images on paper and puzzling manifestations in film.

Although, I was familiar with David Lynch's films (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) and his avant-garde television classic, Twin Peaks, and despite Mulholland Drive being a favourite of mine, I had never taken the time to find out more about his life. If there are, perhaps one too many shots of Lynch sitting with cigarette smoke curling and wafting through the air, that indulgence can be forgiven for slowing down the film a bit. After seeing this documentary, I now have a better understanding of how some peculiar dreams, some real encounters and the synergy of Lynch's life/painter's life lead to such creations as the Log Lady in Twin Peaks, an ear in a suburban lawn in Blue Velvet, and Lynch's body of work.

On screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the Vancity Theatre, Edmonton’s Metro Cinema, and Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre on April 7th

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Drabinsky's Sousatzka A Waste of Talent

Sitting in the audience of Sousatzka on Opening Night, there were moments when I hung my head at what was allowed to be presented on the stage of the Elgin Theatre. 

Montego Glover and Victoria Clark
photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Based on the novel Madame Sousatzka by Bernice Rubens, this incarnation is a Garth Drabinsky produced version in which a young piano prodigy (actor Jordan Barrow) is caught between the demands of his mother (Montego Glover) and a very forthright music teacher (Victoria Clark). The show attempts to link the oppression faced by Sousatzka in Nazi occupied Warsaw and the oppression faced by those living under Apartheid in South Africa, in particular, Soweto. This glorious theme of unity is undermined by the production's own ignorance. How could they be so blind to their offensive portrayal of Soweto, and South Africa. When they chose to include projections of the savanna, did no one investigate the fact that Soweto is an urban setting, not grassland? When the script made fun of someone's name did they not realize that such cheap jokes would not be welcome in 2017, especially when the lead character has a name like Sousatzka? When they were choreographing the dances, did they not think to hire someone who could manifest on stage the high energy and distinctive forms of South African dance? With the Warsaw elements being fully and beautifully realized, the shoddy Soweto section makes songs such as "Rainbow Nation" absurd.

Jordan Barrow photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Overall, the songs, music and dance in Sousatzka are the weakest I have ever seen in a major commercial production. At one time, the music coming from the pit reminded me of my junior high music class on a bad day. I felt sorry for the orchestra having to play such juvenile compositions. I also felt sorry for the actors. No fault can be placed upon Tony winner Clark (The Light in the Piazza, Gigi), Tony nominee Glover (Memphis, Les Miserables) and Tony winner Judy Kaye (The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked), whose resplendent voices had no matching lyrics to showcase their immense talents. The weak balletic moves I saw on stage would have had the students from the National Ballet School laughing out loud; the punk rock music scene had lots of plaid but the dancing was underwhelming, lacking the inherent hardcore physicality and simmering violence of that music scene.

I can't help but think that the ovation the show received on opening night was a an acknowledgement of the actors having to perform in such dreck.

Sousatzka is a pre-Broadway production that, in my opinion, isn't ready for any stage. If it should go to Broadway in its current state, the critics will have a most delightful time crafting their scathing reviews and they will be justified.

If you must:
Sousatzka (until April 9th)
Elgin Theatre
189 Yonge Street
http://sousatzkamusical.com/






Thursday, 16 March 2017

Director John Shooter on Radiant Vermin


Note: Apologies to all for this late interview post. I was blindsided by a horrible cold that sapped my energy and  concentration.

donna g: Radiant Vermin makes the second time that Precisely Peter Productions is presenting a play by Philip Ridley. Was this always the intent, or were you spurred on by the success of Pitchfork Disney?

John Shooter: Philip Ridley is one of my favourite playwrights. I love his imagery, his sneaky twists and turns and the fact that, even his darkest, most gruesome plays are laced with black humour! I intend to do a trilogy of his plays.

donna g: Plans with your first venue fell through. Once you got past the panic, how did you deal with the resulting challenges?

John Shooter: I intended to stage Radiant Vermin in Double Double Land. However, following the fire (of a DIY creative venue) in LA (which killed 36 people), many such venues around the world have now been under strict inspection and have been forced to close. Even if they do in fact comply with health and safety rules. Unfortunately, Double Double Land is one such venue and we only found out three days before we were due to start rehearsing. The DDL guys are really great though and are working hard to get their venue reopened as soon as possible. I loved working with them and hope to go back there in the future.

I had to find a new venue extremely quickly and managed to find Dirty Talk, run by music producer James Beare. It's an amazing venue and James has been phenomenal in allowing us to utilise the space in any way we wanted. We couldn't have wished for anything better. I'd also love to bring another show back here. Of course, moving venues means rethinking the show in some ways. Entrances and exits are very different in both venues but, due to the understanding and generosity of the cast and designers, the change was as smooth as could be!

donna g: You've only been in Toronto a handful of years yet you've managed to create theatre in established spaces as well as the historic Campbell House and even hip corners of Kensington Market. Nothing seems to hold you back. What keeps you going?

Marium Carvell
John Shooter: What really keeps me going is the fact that l have met and worked with such extraordinarily talented people. I often work with people l had never met before starting a show and they are always so kind and generous and take a chance on me. I finish each show on a high and am sad that our time together is over. But, l store the memories and believe that we'll work together again. If this wasn't the case, l doubt l'd have the enthusiasm to continue. They inspire me and so do the plays, of course.


donna g: Radiant Vermin has been getting positive reviews since its Opening Night. Are there any chances of an extended run, or are you already thinking of your next project?

Julie Tepperman & Jonas Widdifield
John Shooter: Radiant Vermin is a magnificent play but it has been so challenging to pull off and do it justice. But in the hands of these wonderful actors and designers, l think they did it. They are superb. This play has a certain rhythm to it and asks to be performed at breakneck speed with boundless energy. There is no fancy set, lighting or sound and so relies primarily on the skill of the actors to bring the story alive. There's nowhere for them to hide. This is a great achievement on their part. I'm not entirely sure what my next project will be. I have several ideas though and so l hope you'll watch out for us. Regarding an extension, that would be great but these pigeons need to rest. They've put out everything into this show and never faltered.

Radiant Vermin
A Precisely Peter Production
Until March 19th
Dirty Talk
167 Augusta Avenue (just north of Dundas)
Kensington Market
facebook.com/PreciselyPeterProductions