Big Love a big challenge at Toronto Fringe

Big Love

When you first walk into the Randolph Centre for the Performing Arts’ Annex Theatre, you are struck by a musty darkness. One deep breath and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d mistakenly walked into a derelict used-book store.

Tonight was a little different though. Although the smell was still there, the stage was not barren. Rather, it was populated by a half-naked DJ, pumping the jams in high heels and a gold lame mask, ready to celebrate Big Love. And that’s when the party started.

Big Love tells the story of 50 reluctant brides, who escape to Italy to avoid marriage to 50 cousins. As they try to talk their way into an estate, the cousins arrive to claim their women. The battle of wills–both within and between the camps–has begun.

As someone who likes a lot of story in my drama, this very much felt like a 20-minute play stretched out over 70 minutes. The other 50 minutes? Long-winded soliloquies about sex, gender and conflicting agendas for the hard-of-thinking.

50 brides for 50 cousins

50 brides for 50 cousins

There was a moment, however, when I thought the playwright (Charles L. Mee) might reach for something more than a steroidal rendition of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. A couple times, the speeches floated to the plight of refugees and women pushed to the edge, abandoned by their families, communities and countries.

For that fleeting moment, I wondered if the mass marriage was a metaphor for a larger message about slavery and subjugation. I walked away disappointed in this regard.

That being said, the actors’ performances were generally quite good. In particular, I tip my fedora to Matt Lacas (Piero) who I felt did a wonderful job as the perpetual salesman and host, stuck between the warring camps and knowing no one could ever be happy.

I also greatly enjoyed Rosie Callaghan (Olympia) who I felt gave a scintillating performance as a young woman struggling with a personal civil war of self-identification versus the need to be loved.

The choreography feels like a work in progress, however, the many numbers feeling slightly or grossly out of step. And although the women seemed to move smoothly enough, I saw little synchrony in the men’s numbers.

And then the unexplained flinging of bodies to the ground completely baffled me. I can only hope it was a metaphor for something, but goodness knows.

What I thought the actors lacked in coordination, however, I felt they more than made up for in vocal skills. Each of the handful of songs felt like a masterpiece in harmonies, most sung acapella. For me, these were the magical moments in the performance and left me wishing the entire play had been set to music.

Had Big Love been even a third shorter, I might have enjoyed it. But I didn’t feel my dissatisfaction was for lack of effort on the parts of the performers. This fell squarely on the shoulders of the playwright and director.

Case in point was the play’s ending, which felt like a complete cop-out.

Big disappointment

Big disappointment

[Adapted from a review that originally appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]

MacKay away in Canada, eh

Parliamentarian MacKay can carry a tune

Parliamentarian MacKay can carry a tune

In honour of the announced departure of Canadian Parliamentarian Peter MacKay from political office, I would like to call back to a musical number I wrote almost 10 years ago for a Second City Training Centre sketch comedy show in Toronto entitled Da Tory Code.

The parody is sung to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Modern Major General  from HMS Pinafore and features current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper with his right-hand man MacKay.

MacKay blows kisses as PM Harper stares on lovingly

MacKay blows kisses as PM Harper stares on lovingly

Enjoy.

Harper

I am the very model of a primo ministerial;

Appointing every office, even got myself a Liberal.

I run a mighty fearsome ship,

I won’t allow a tongue to slip,

The press thinks that I give a shit,

Your primo ministerial.

MacKay

He runs a mighty fearsome ship,

He won’t allow a tongue to slip,

The press thinks that he gives a shit,

Our primo ministerial.

Harper

I am the very model of a sovereign most invincible;

Why wouldn’t I, my party is the only one with principles.

My gang and I will legislate

Who gays and lesbians can mate;

I’ll make Quebec a po-lice state

Your sovereign most invincible.

MacKay

Our gang and he will legislate

Who gays and lesbians can mate;

He’ll make Quebec a po-lice state

Our sovereign most invincible.

Harper

I am the very model of a ruler quite imperial;

Destroy all opposition like a killer almost serial.

I rule with all supremacy,

From sea to sea to fucking sea,

So screw your old democracy.

Your ruler quite imperial.

THE MUSIC CHANGES TO DARTH VADER THEME

MacKay

All hail the Harper!

EXIT

Da Tory Code poster

Writing the prose angelic

If nothing else, using interviews in my magazine writing has given me a new respect for choir leaders.

The art is to harmoniously fuse voices that are roughly singing the same song and make it sound like the synchronized beat of angels’ wings.

A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying "Glory to God in the Highest" Luke 2:13-14

A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the Highest” Luke 2:13-14

Cadence and Orson Welles

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

Being a good writer necessitates having a good eye and a good ear.

The good eye is the attention to details that will help you paint a word-picture of what you have seen with your physical eyes and processed in your mind’s eye. It’s not necessarily about writing long-winded passages of backgrounds or going into minute detail of a character’s physical attributes (I’ve done plenty of that), but rather in choosing the most precise and meaningful words to describe the environment or the person.

The good ear is the attention to how people communication and how they speak, not always the same thing. Again, it involves finding the right words and inflections (at least implied inflections) that give the reader and actor clues as to who this person is. And perhaps just as importantly, it is about finding just the right cadence for your character’s speech patterns.

If you listen really closely to a conversation, you’ll realize that there is little difference between speaking and singing. There is a rhythm, a cadence to speaking. Conversation is an improvised duet sung a capella. But unlike a traditional song which may have a subset of arrangements, each of us sings to our own tune, with our own rhythms and inflections. It is one of the many things that sets us apart from each other.

When writing characters, it is important to keep this in mind as all too often, a group of characters can have a certain monotone, which I use not to imply flatness so much as sameness. Often, I believe, it occurs when the writer neglects to add variety to his characters’ speech patterns and instead writes them with one voice; his or hers.

The best writers don’t make this mistake…or at least minimize its occurrences. Each character he or she presents us is truly unique, jumps off the page or screen, provides his or her own internal musical accompaniment.

One of my favourite writers of the last decade or so is Aaron Sorkin whose overall writing has its cadence but whose characters also tango (or more often tarantella) across the screen. Read the pilot to The West Wing or the screenplay for The Social Network and you will know you’re reading Sorkin.

But for me, perhaps a better example is Orson Welles, the man who would be Kane.

Recently, someone discovered a long-lost unproduced screenplay by Welles called The Way to Santiago, written in 1940-41. Another blogger discussed the find recently, and provided a link to the actual screenplay (see link below). You only have to read a couple of pages to remind yourself (or educate yourself on) how Orson Welles wrote and the energies he imbued in his characters, each one a snowflake of facets and reflections.

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

Now, listen to the films or read the screenplays of The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil. Although you may question the choice of actors, you can clearly hear or see the distinctions in the characters. Bathe in the richness and depth of each one as he or she is captured for this brief moment. This is the stuff of which dreams are made.

It is also interesting to consider that Welles got his start on stage and in radio, where the human voice plays such a larger role in conveying a story than it does in film. There is much less to occupy the mind onstage or in radio and so dialogue carries a significant burden of not only informing but also entrancing the listener.

Although the stories I write are distinctly different from the Wellesian oeuvre, there is much I can and do learn from this master of the written word. He is worth the read and the listen.

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

Links of interest:

The Way to Santiago at Cinephilia and Beyond

The Way to Santiago, starring Howard Hesseman on Vimeo (A valiant but not brilliant attempt)

“Thank You, Mr. Welles: Definitive actor, consummate director, and true auteur” at Curnblog.com

“Screenplays by Orson Welles” (listing) on Wikipedia

Me and Orson Welles A light but adorable movie that probably portrays Welles’ character better than Welles