Artists I adore (and you should follow)

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Barnaby Dixon – puppetry

As many of you know, I am nutso for puppetry and have somehow managed to know some amazingly talented puppeteers. But as much as I adore my friends, one fellow blows me away not just for his skill as a puppeteer, but also as a puppet designer.

For a guy that looks like he’s 12—I’m over 50, so you all look 12 to me—Barnaby Dixon seems ancient in his craft and wisdom. From the very first YouTube video I watched, he has dazzled me with his love of the art form, his ability to bring the inanimate to life, and his presentation style that draws you in and makes you feel like this is a private conversation. Stellar!

Visit Barnaby’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter account

 

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Baram & Snieckus – comedy

I know, I know. I have to get past my addiction to these beautiful sketch and improv wunderkinds. But I can’t help myself.

Apart, Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are wonderfully funny and vulnerable and endearing, but together, they rocket off the charts.

As I have reviewed previously (see below), Baram & Snieckus are to the modern era what Stiller & Meara and Nichols & May were to theirs, people who express the challenges and wonders of social awkwardness, allowing us to laugh at the things that frighten us in our daily lives.

No one is more neurotic than Matt…until Naomi erupts in her own mental mushroom cloud.

And that this husband-and-wife team are beautiful, friendly, giving, caring people is an absolute bonus.

You can follow Matt & Naomi on their web site, Facebook page or Twitter.

 

See also:

You and Me Both – A revue review

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

 

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Filippa Levemark – visual arts

As a photographer, I adore nature. As a writer, I adore bizarre or interesting juxtapositions. Thus, I had no choice but to fall in love with Filippa Levemark’s work.

With the seemingly simplest of compositions, Filippa combines nature and human infrastructure to powerfully demonstrate that the two worlds are one and the same. Try as it might, humanity cannot hold itself as distinct from the wildlife that surrounds us, nor should it.

Her work is beautifully approachable and yet is rife with meaning, offering depths that may be missed at first glance.

Based in Sweden, my greatest hope is to find a way for her to bring her works to Canada.

You can follow Filippa on her web site, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Irene Carl Sankoff & David Hein – musical theatre

As a student at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre several years ago, I had the great fortune to meet and do improv with a gorgeous and talented actress named Irene Sankoff, a truly giving performer.

Years later, I heard that Irene and her husband David Hein had created the somewhat autobiographical stage musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which played to wonderful reviews in Toronto. What I didn’t realize was that the musical would explode in the theatre world both in Canada and abroad, setting these two up as a creative force of nature.

And just this past year, they have repeated (and likely surpassed) that success with a new musical Come From Away, based on events in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when hundreds of air passengers found themselves suddenly grounded.

The musical just completed a spectacularly successful run in Toronto and begins Broadway previews on Feb 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it is sure to sell out quickly.

But like my Baram & Snieckus comment above, what makes these two particularly special is that they are genuinely wonderful people and have such love for their craft and for the people who come see the show.

Recently, on a frigid Toronto morning, the pair brought coffee and donuts to fans waiting for rush tickets to their final Toronto performance (Toronto Star article). The pair and performers from the show entertained the small crowd, singing songs and chatting with the chilled throng. That is simply beautiful.

Follow Irene & David’s adventures on their web site, Facebook and Twitter.

 

With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Colin Quinn kills w/ The New York Story

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I can only assume that Colin Quinn spends the hours before his comedy shows scarfing down industrial-scale oxygen tanks. This has to be true, if only to explain how he can spend an hour hilariously recounting the history of New York City without ever inhaling…although perhaps projectile vomiting the Big Apple’s history is more accurate.

Ask pretty much anyone who knows me and you will learn that I am a comedy snob. It takes a lot to make me chuckle, let alone laugh out loud.

I not only laughed out loud at Colin Quinn’s latest Netflix special The New York Story (trailer), I actually clapped while laughing out loud at several observations…and this was from my futon, not sitting with a theatre audience.

And before the laughter from one bit reached its crescendo (forget fading), you were already two bits behind, such was the ferocity with which Quinn delivered his perspectives of New York.

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The first two thirds of the show were the best, as Quinn explained and contextualized the arrival of each ethnic group to the city as a way of explaining why the attitudes of New Yorkers are unlike those of any other city in the world.

The last third, where Quinn took shots at political correctness and white guilt, was less funny but still had its share of laughs. This was the part of the show that seemed more like every other show I have seen that touches on race and ethnic relations.

But it is when Quinn becomes the people he describes, taking on mannerisms and recalling each culture’s absurdities, that he is at his best. His is less the vocal mimicry of a Russell Peters and more a distillation of their essence.

And his portrayals were made all the more engaging by the stage itself, which was decorated with settings familiar to New Yorkers—a deli counter, the docks, a front stoop, a corner bodega, an Irish bar—Quinn inhabiting each as he told the story of another group’s arrival in the city.

Colin Quinn Comedy Special

Quinn’s special was directed by long-time friend Jerry Seinfeld

This choreography makes The New York Story more a one-man stage play than a stand-up comedy routine. Not surprising, given the show first got its legs in a run off-Broadway.

In broader terms, whereas I have thought for several years that Quinn is funny—in particular, I miss his panel show Tough Crowd—I think he has really hit his stride in the last couple. What this special did for New York City, his last special Unconstitutional did for American politics, and with just as much humour and wisdom.

Perhaps, however, it is less that Colin Quinn is just now hitting his stride, and more that I have finally reached a place where I can appreciate him and his humours more fully.

Either way, I am glad we have reached this place and I hope we stay here for a while.

 

See also:

In The New York Story, Colin Quinn looks to stereotypes for wisdom—and finds some (A.V. Club)

Immigrants put the new in The New York Story for Colin Quinn’s newest Netflix triumph (Decider)

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

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If Elaine May and Mike Nichols were alive today that would be horrible, because Nichols was buried two years ago. (May is still alive.)

That said, I am sure they would be happy to know that the legacy they started in the 1950s is being continued quite ably by Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, who previewed their latest revue tonight at the John Candy Box Theatre in Toronto.

Long-standing staples on the Toronto comedy scene, Snieckus and Baram are veterans of the Second City and both have had their turn at television (Mr. D and Seed, respectively). But this real-life husband and wife are at their strongest when they stand across the stage from each other and reveal their neuroses in a mass therapy session that other people pay $15 to see.

The new show is aptly titled as they truly are still figuring it out. A combination of sketches, Nichols & May-style audio pieces, some improv, and playful audience banter, the show, which runs about 60 minutes, is still a work-in-progress, some bits decidedly more solid than others. But in many respects, that is the charm of a Baram & Snieckus production; it never feels complete.

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This is a couple who consistently commit to their craft, who are willing to run with anything that comes up—including an audience suggestion of Dante’s cab ride, which turned into a motivational moment for an under-performing Satan with Daddy issues. But what makes this particularly charming is they are not afraid to let the audience know when they realize a bit isn’t working, and we all lean forward to see how they’ll extract themselves.

Their choice of venue facilitates this intimacy with the audience.

Although I have every confidence that Baram & Snieckus would have no trouble holding an audience in a large theatre, all of the revues that I have attended occurred in small venues, holding no more than 100 seats. The John Candy Box Theatre is no exception, and the audience sits so close to the stage that they become a tripping hazard for the performers.

Thus, when you see Baram & Snieckus perform, it is like you’re watching their lives from their living room.

[For the record, I have never been in their living room and this completely unnecessary ankle bracelet chafes.]

That intimacy, that vulnerability is the charm that bonds this team to the audience. These are your best friends and you are about to see them at their worst moment. Over and over and over again.

It’s schadenfreude for swingers. [The title of their next revue?]

One thing that was different from previous revues is the pair have started filming some of their classic sketches, and they projected two—from their previous revue You and Me Both—for tonight’s audience. This is part of a larger effort by the couple to make more of their material available online to audiences.

Still Figuring It Out, which runs until Friday, September 30, is practically sold out, so you’ll want to snatch the last few tickets soon, if you’re not already too late.

Alternatively, look for them on the web site of their company National Theatre of the World.

You will find laughs, and maybe a few insights as you too still figure it out.

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See also:

Toronto Star review of Still Figuring It Out by Carly Maga

My review of You & Me Both

You and Me Both – a revue review

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As a disclaimer, I should tell you that I am in love with Toronto comedian Naomi Snieckus. What keeps this from getting too awkward—for me, at least—is the fact that I am also in love with her comedic partner and husband Matt Baram.

There. I said it. It is out in the open. Let the restraining order chips land where they may.

Last night was the preview of Baram and Snieckus’ latest stage revue You and Me Both, playing at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille – Backspace. And short of attending the show in the performers’ living room, a more intimate setting could not be found.

Minimalist is too long a word to convey how intimate the Backspace is. As the sell-out crowd of about 40 patrons stirred on their Obus-form cushions, we were faced with an almost barren stage but for a handful of stools and chairs, the furnishings hearkening back to Baram & Snieckus’ days as performers at Toronto’s Second City. And the stage itself was little more than a black box that Schrödinger’s cat wouldn’t be caught dead in (or not).

The reason I go on about the environment is because this is the setting in which Baram & Snieckus work best. When you see these two perform, it is less a classical theatre experience where the actors remain in a distinct world, separated from the audience. Instead, the audience is embraced by the performers—not literally, more’s the shame—and shy of being brought on stage, are used by the performers to heighten and inform the performance. As an audience member, you feel special in their presence (see earlier disclaimer).

But onto the comedy.

Unlike most Baram & Snieckus performances where improvisational scenes take the day—you will be hard-pressed to find two better improv performers—You and Me Both is a scripted show, a combination of sketch and musical revue, most of which worked really well.

The opening musical number was a bit uneven, Snieckus seeming more comfortable with the music and routine than Baram. Astaire and Rogers these two aren’t, but Snieckus sold it for everything she was worth. Baram musically redeemed himself later in the show, however, in a number that played to his strength as a performer: frustrated under-achiever.

The sketches, however, were classic Baram & Snieckus as the two latched onto characters of all stripes. After a decade of performing together, the two are perfect foils for each other. If screwball comedies ever became vogue again, these two are Rock Hudson and Doris Day (with Snieckus as Hudson).

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As scene transitioned to scene, Baram & Snieckus chameleoned into their roles, the muscle memory of improv turning them into the characters rather than simply performing them. That being said, the only bit that really fell flat last night was ironically the lone improv piece.

Watching these two perform is tantamount to witnessing a comedic kaleidoscope, every twist and turn bringing something new to dazzle the eyes and ears. You and Me Both is just the latest twist and more than lives up to expectations.

The intermission-free show, which was listed as 80 minutes but has been cut to 65, runs until November 1 with shows at 7:30 pm and weekend matinees at 2 pm. Knowing these two, each performance will offer something new, so consider seeing the show more than once. For $20, you’re unlikely to spend a more entertaining hour.

Related:

Baram and Snieckus are the city’s most laughable couple (Toronto Star)

National Theatre of the World

The Women of Tu-Na House needs some massaging (a review)

Writer/performer Nancy Eng takes us inside a NYC massage parlor

Writer/performer Nancy Eng takes us inside a NYC massage parlor

I generally don’t like one-person shows. Because the onus is on one actor to relate a story, often without much more than narration, I find myself wishing I could just read the play. Thus, I headed to theSt. Vladimir Theatre to see the Toronto Fringe premier of The Women of Tu-Na House with some trepidation.

The one thing that gave me hope going in was that writer/actorNancy Eng had created a show in which she played a half-dozen characters. Thus, I hoped, there would likely be one or several characters I could latch onto. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way.

The Women of Tu-Na House practice a traditional Chinese massage technique at a New York massage parlour. As we learn through a series of vignettes, each woman ended up here under very different circumstances, and several of the women decided there was money to be made by offering additional services.

The tea server who was once a man

The tea server who was once a man

Interestingly, in the show’s program, Eng is quick to state that the women made their choices willingly and feel no shame in their actions. And yet, despite asserting that these women aren’t victims, at least half of the monologues tell stories of victimization, whether by husbands, home towns or customers.

But that aside, for me, the biggest challenge of the performance was Eng’s inability to inhabit the characters she portrayed. Although she told each character’s story—with some difficulty, as she routinely stumbled her lines—it never felt like she became those women. Try as she might, it was always Nancy Eng on stage and a bad French accent, for example, wasn’t about to change that.

The performance was also let down by a faulty sound system. Every time Eng changed character, the lights would go down and she would change costume. While this happened, the next character would explain her origin story in voice over. Unfortunately, the sound system kept garbling the voice over so that by the time the lights came up, I had no idea who Eng was portraying.

The host for happy endings

The host for happy endings

Seemingly recognizing the premiere’s challenges, she apologized to the audience during the curtain call for her rough voice and allergy issues. Even she, it seemed, felt that tonight’s performance wasn’t up to code.

The show has played to raves at other festivals; for example, it won Best of Solo at Hollywood Fringe. And I definitely thought there were some poignant and funny moments during the performance. I can only hope that the theatre and Eng manage to pull things together for the rest of the Toronto Fringe run.

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

OverTime finds truth under artifice (a review)

When all else is stripped away, only truth remains

When all else is stripped away, only truth remains

“Being naked and too honest makes you predictable and maudlin,” chided one of the characters early in OverTime, which premiered tonight at the Robert Gill Theatre for the Toronto Fringe Festival. And for the next 85 minutes or so, the cast proved the exact opposite was true.

In some ways, watching OverTime was like redecorating a home, peeling back the decades of paint one layer at a time. As each coat is removed, you uncover the laughter and tears of that moment in time. And once the last layer is gone and the history is revealed, all that’s left is the truth.

It is only as the play deepens that we learn that truth is what retired school teacher Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) feared most when she uttered that line to her protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier). As Carla mentored Darby to become the next great playwright, she argued that mystery must be maintained.

Truth was also the motivation behind the other plotline of the play as young blogger and photographer Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to pull her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy) out of the safe environs of the hockey rink. A successful coach on the outside, Linus is a wreck inside, and Jewel wants to ease that burden.

Mentor Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) advises protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier)

Mentor Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) advises protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier)

OverTime playwright Romeo Ciolfi did an amazing job weaving these two story lines together. With each passing moment, it felt like another layer of paint was removed to reveal a bit more of the truth. And at least for me, the story was anything but predictable.

Sure, I felt Ciolfi could get a little heavy-handed with the metaphors. I would not have been surprised, on occasion to have seen a surtitle card reading “Metaphor here”, but I never felt they detracted from the increasingly tightly woven story.

What impressed me even more, however, was how the same layered revelations arose from each of the characters. With each passing moment, the characters became deeper and darker. Part of this richness was the writing, but I also credit the cast.

Daughter Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to help her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy)

Daughter Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to help her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy)

Rarely do I praise an entire cast of a production, but I could not find fault with any of the performances. And no single actor deserves loftier praise than any other. To me, this was an ensemble performance. Remove any one of these actors and I don’t think this play would have been as good.

As with the play, there were times when impassioned performance became overwrought melodrama, but I largely felt these moments were the exception. These actors and their descent into raw truth had me mesmerized for 90 minutes, and I found myself praying we would go into overtime.

Without hesitation, I would watch this performance again and again, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

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