Charmed by Onegin

In the opening song in the musical Onegin, the actors sing, “We hope to please, we hope to charm, we hope to break you open.”

There is plenty of all three. I left the Surrey Arts Centre feeling like Onegin was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a play.

It’s Russia in the 19th century. Handsome rogue Evgeni Onegin returns to St. Petersburg to inherit an estate after the passing of his uncle and his parents. He visits his neighbours, the Larins, upon the encouragement of his friend Vladmir Lensky who is dating Olga, the younger Larin daughter. The older daughter Tatyana immediately falls for Onegin, hoping for someone to see her the way she has seen the world through the many books she reads.

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Onegin played by Jonathan Winsby. Photo by Arts Club Theatre.

It’s not often a play comes along that feels so original. But it’s not original in content. There’s unrequited love. There’s a dual ending in death (foreshadowed in the opening number). There are missed chances and irrevocable decisions. Nothing too out of the ordinary, especially for a Russian play inspired by Pushkin’s verse novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera.

What was original is the way the story was told, written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille who updated it for the 21st century. There’s a stage of characters dressed in period costumes, writing letters and riding horse and buggy, and then along comes a line in Onegin’s song “Three Horses” introducing us to his history, mystery, and apathy: “Where are my back-up singers?” who go on to croon, “He’s fuckin’ gorgeous.” Despite his good looks, wealth, and charm, you get the sense Onegin’s a lonely, unhappy man who, in his own words, “doesn’t care” and even asks the audience, “Am I someone you want to know?”

It’s that mix of traditional and contemporary that makes the play so striking. Integral to the story is the music. Three musicians are on stage the whole time (Jennifer Moersch on cello, Marguerite Witvoet on piano, and Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar). Songs that you hear in the first act are echoed in the second, sometimes sung by different characters, adding layers of meaning. And then multiple characters will sing pieces of former songs over each other within a new song and it’s all woven together so seamlessly, a fugue you don’t want to reach the end of. “Good Evening, Bonne Soirée” stood out as the epitome of this overlapping.

The songs fit the story so well, but they also fit our times. They are honest about love and mortality, malaise and meaning. Tatyana’s “Let Me Die” is a powerful ballad featuring an electric guitar that ends with the request, “Let me live before I die.” Onegin will sing this line later on and it is entirely transformed because of the action that’s happened in between.

Another flip is when Tatyana sings Onegin’s line back to him after the tragic duel: “You don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care.” This repetition could easily become overdone, but each “you don’t care” is delivered by Lauren Jackson with such sincerity and a slightly different register of disappointment/anger, that it actually works and feels truer to speech.

The last song between Tatyana and Onegin was perfection. The physical distance between the characters on stage paralleled the gap in their stories, how long it had been since they last saw each other and the things left unsaid. I’ve never experienced negative space on stage became so activated with meaning.

Because of all the intertwined layers, Onegin is a play you could easily see again to catch all the references made in the opening that only come to light in the second act.

Compared to the long introduction, the ending is quick, almost abrupt. But after two hours, the love story has been told and in such an unforgettable way.

Onegin is running until March 3 at Surrey Arts Centre.

 

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.

Leave: of Absence

If any of you are in the Vancouver area from now until Feb 16, I highly recommend seeing this play:

Leave of Absence posterIt’s at Pacific Theatre in the basement of Holy Trinity Church on W 13 and Hemlock:

Pacific Theatre in Vancouver

By Vancouver playwright Lucia Frangione, the synopsis reads:

A community is blown apart when an audacious young girl challenges long-held views of spirituality and sexuality. The world premiere of a searing drama of bigotry and transcendence by the author of Espresso.

In the play, four adults wrestle with their beliefs, their contradictions, their prejudices, their hurt, their anger, their doubt, and their questions in response to a 15-year-old girl and what is going on in her world. A theme linking their reactions is absence (hence the title). They all embody this word in their own ways and extents: an absent priest, an absent teacher, an absent mother, and an absent father.

What does absence look like?

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

For me, there was no clearer picture than the sight of these shoes.

Empty.

Left-behind.

Holes.

A scene in the play involving a pair of shoes brought this van Gogh painting so vividly to mind.

When I first came across this painting – an art history class in undergrad – I remember looking at it in the textbook and moving on quickly. There wasn’t anything particular special about a faded, worn-out pair of shoes. Then I read the description of it and if I could trace my first moment of “art appreciation,” I think it would be to that moment where I then realized this was so much more than a still life painting of shoes. Sometimes (most times I’d say) you don’t need to explain art to appreciate it, but other times, it really helps. It helped me see differently.

[read about the philosophical debate these shoes inspired over here]

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886

Here is a picture of absence, a still life of what is left behind after a person’s life – their holes, their soles/souls. There is a sacredness to this ordinary pair of shoes. The laces are freshly untied, the leather is weathered. They are men’s shoes, worker’s shoes. Sitting there after a long day’s work or after life itself? They smell like him, they look like him. Like sadness? Like exhaustion? Holes for two feet to slip in or out of. The absence of what should be there makes the person’s presence stronger. Your mind mentally fills them in. That’s what holes do.

A letter (not one of St. Augustine’s). This one is actually from Bess Truman to Harry

When I was at UVic, a girl I knew in the Classics department was writing her thesis on presence and absence. Not in van Gogh’s work, but in St. Augustine’s. What medium did she use to explore this? His letters. When St. Augustine wrote a letter to somebody, his presence was all over it – it was signed by him, he wrote and penned the words, and his  state of mind came through in the way he expressed himself. The same could be said for us if we were to take up this lost art. Yet Augustine’s absence was everywhere in those letters. The written words remind the recipient that the living person isn’t there. They speak for him but they’re not him. A substitute at best. Ink for flesh.

Three arts.

Three ways of showing absence.

Three ways of fighting it.