Much Ado about Much Ado about Nothing

The Georgia Straight said, “This is Shakespeare at its sharpest and most satisfying.”

Bard on the Beach‘s 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing is visually spectacular and very well acted. Director John Murphy adapted this 1598 Shakespearean comedy and set it in 1950s Italy where the characters are glamorous film stars wearing tailored suits with skinny neckties or lacy cocktail dresses dangling cigarettes from their lips and riding off on Vespas.

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Waiting for the show to begin

The costumes and setting alone make this play a delight. Daringly minimalist, it features a few director’s chairs, boom mics, movie camera, and a large pair of “Studio B” doors as the backdrop that opens and closes to reveal slices of Vancouver scenery. The first act plays out in black and white, and gradually more colour is introduced “when love enters the picture” according to Pam Johnson, the scenery designer.

As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the dialogue is witty and quick, but I particularly found the language harder to follow in this one than other Bard plays. Luckily the visuals largely make up for this, but I still would have liked to catch more than 50-60%!

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Bard on the Beach tents in Vancouver

There are basically two strands to the plot: 1) Beatrice and Benedick, both stubbornly single and opinionated, take every opportunity to insult each other. Their friends hatch an elaborate plan to matchmake them. 2) Benedick’s friend Claudio falls in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero and the two are set to be married.

Where’s the tension that moves the plot forward? That’s the part that confused me. It comes from the villain Dona Johnna, sister to Don Pedro, a famous film director. The synopsis in the program guide says she is a journalist and wannabe filmmaker, but that doesn’t explain why she devises her own elaborate plan to ruin Hero’s honour and break up her wedding to Claudio. I caught that she is jealous of her brother but how is interfering in Hero and Claudio’s relationship revenge for her brother’s success? Apparently my friend and I aren’t the only ones wondering about her motivation—Marsha Lederman in The Globe and Mail comments on this too. Again, is this because we couldn’t understand the Elizabethan English or because the plot is weak?

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Members of the cast in the Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Blue.

While Much Ado About Nothing is a lot of fun, it has more of a darker side to it than I expected from a Shakespearean comedy. A fiance disgraces his lover and a father renounces his daughter. A character is believed to be dead. Another character asks someone to murder a friend.

While all turns to happiness and dancing in the end, it certainly isn’t the uproarious and easily accessible comedy that last year’s Merry Wives of Windsor was.

Much Ado About Nothing is playing at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver until September 23.

Looking for the Character Behind So Much Wit

Yesterday, I saw Wit at Pacific Theatre by Margaret Edson. It was moving and brilliantly acted.

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The story almost all takes place in the hospital and in the present. 50-year-old Dr. Vivian Bearing, professor of 17th century metaphysical poetry specializing in John Donne, has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage 5,” she tells us.

She narrates the story for us and we watch her when she learns of her diagnosis, when she is reminiscing about her successful academic career, when she is undergoing medical exams, when she pukes her brains out into a bucket, when she is screaming and writhing in pain from the effects of the full dosage medication the doctor gives her, and lastly, when she walks from this world into the next. Through this all, we see, as the play’s description reads, “her intellectual armour giv[ing] way to her need for human kindness.”

Katharine Venour, who plays Vivian Bearing, did a thoroughly convincing job as an unrelentingly hard academic and as a cancer patient whose pain, fears, and vulnerability felt entirely believable. Her dry humour and cynicism gave her a lot of funny lines and I laughed much more than I thought I would in a play about a woman dying of cancer.

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Photo by Emily Cooper.

In pondering the play more and more though, I can’t remove the niggling feeling that something was missing.

I think it had to do with the fact that as sympathetic as Vivian was, I didn’t know her very well, and it’s hard for me to fully embrace a character that I don’t know. This is more an issue I have with the storyline.

Because Vivian is such a demanding professor who puts research above relationships, no one comes to visit her in the hospital (except at the very end, her old professor played by Erla Faye Forsyth shows up and reads her Runaway Bunny in one of the most touching and human scenes of the play).

When the young Dr. Jason Pozner doing his fellowship takes Vivian’s medical history, we learn that her parents have died and she has no siblings. This accounts for no immediate family members visiting her in the hospital, but what about an uncle, an aunt, even a cousin?  One of the best ways to know someone is to watch them with their family, but aside from one flashback between Vivian and her distant father, we aren’t shown any family. I know this is part of the point—to show how isolated Vivian is—and I know some people just don’t have any siblings—but I find it difficult to really know, and hence connect with a character (in a novel or play), if I don’t see them with people who share some common history.

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Katharine Venour  as Vivian and Dan Amos as Dr. Jason Pozner. Photo from soulfoodvancouver.blogspot.com

There’s a really funny line when Dr. Pozner asks Vivian some questions like, “Ever been married?” “Every been pregnant?” to which the answer is “no”, and then in his casually charming and completely insensitive way, “Okay, well that’s it for life history.” Vivian responds with one of her many wry asides to the audience that goes something like, “Yup, because that’s all my life history.” We laugh because of course there’s more to a person/a woman than marriage or kids, but the play doesn’t actually fill in those gaps of her life story so all we know is she’s an excellent and exacting Donne scholar and she has no family or friendships. I wanted a bit more.

On the other hand, you could say this missing piece highlights a central theme of the play in reminding us of what really matters in life (and death).

Thankfully, we witness a thread of friendship in the short relationship Vivian develops with a compassionate nurse named Susie.

Being a Donne fan myself, I highly enjoyed all the quotations and references to his work (the classroom scene was superb). His Holy Sonnet X got the most air time, and Vivian’s professor delivered a gripping speech near the beginning on why there should be a comma and not a colon between “more” and “Death” in the last line. It is not an awkward and abrupt semicolon that separates us from life and death. It is a breath, a whisper, a comma.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

My favourite audio version of this poem is in this opening to Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan‘s Move Pen Move, which, no matter how many times I hear it, moves every piece of me.

Wit is showing at Pacific Theatre until tomorrow, June 11.

School’s In!

One of the things I wanted to do over the Christmas holidays was explore a new part of Vancouver. I had never walked much of Broadway before, so on a sunny afternoon, I strolled the stretch from Granville Street to Bayswater, snapping pics of interesting things along the way.

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And one of those interesting things was the offices of the Vancouver School Board at 1580 West Broadway. The building itself wasn’t so interesting, but the sculptures of children playing in the park at the entrance to it were.

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It was like a game of hide and go seek, trying to find these 7 unobtrusive sculptures.

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This was the first one I saw:

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The second:

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Third:

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Fourth (and my favourite):

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Fifth:

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I love the movement, energy, and playfulness the sculptor captured in a hard medium like bronze, as well as all the realistic details: the pleats and wrinkles in the clothes, the yellow strip of tearaway pants, the girl’s barrette. The titles are fun too.

I couldn’t find the 6th and 7th ones, but stumbled across these letters in the ground, which immediately made me think of the Jackson 5 song:

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In the spirit of these sculptures, I thought this Raymond Carver poem fit well:

Happiness

So early it’s almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm. It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.