Artists I adore (and you should follow)

barnaby-dixon

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

 

matt-me-naomi

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

 

filippa

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.

 

 

sankoff-and-hein_toronto-star

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

genius-poster

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.

genius-women

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.

7X2A6142.cr2

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.

genius_future

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

new-york-story-poster

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.

quinn

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)

Shakespeare suggests Trump is a Dick

rdr

In the New York Times Sunday Review this weekend, Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt wrote an opinion piece entitled Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election in which he draws parallels between the events surrounding the rise of Richard III and Donald J. Trump. Quite fascinating.

For me, the crux of his analogy is summed in one paragraph:

Shakespeare brilliantly shows all of these types of enablers working together in the climactic scene of this ascent. The scene — anomalously enough in a society that was a hereditary monarchy but oddly timely for ourselves — is an election. Unlike Macbeth (which introduced into the English language the word “assassination”), Richard III does not depict a violent seizure of power. Instead there is the soliciting of popular votes, complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.

I can definitely see the point Greenblatt is making and there are strong parallels in the story, but I think he missed the mark on the personalities of the leaders in question.

Rather than Richard III as a model for Trump, I would have gone with Richard II.

[SPOILER ALERT]

The great fall and ultimate execution of Richard II was very much the result of his debilitating belief in his own divinity and his completely disconnection from the lives and needs of real people, including those closest to him. In short, he didn’t understand politics and simply felt everyone should get in line because he was the voice and arm of God.

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

Richard II; Act III, sc. ii.

He was also surrounded by sycophantic parasites who fed Richard’s ego and grew bloated on everyone’s desire to serve the King. They were ultimately destroyed by this bloat and the belief that they too had divine protection, as though the crown served as an umbrella.

It was Richard II’s blinkered existence and unbridled self-aggrandizement that kept him from seeing the dangers that lie ahead, and the simple solutions that would have averted disaster. If he merely acknowledged the just requests of the exiled Henry of Bolingbroke (eventually, SPOILER ALERT, Henry IV) for his family titles, Richard would have retained the man’s fealty and love, and thus would have kept his throne.

For me, Richard III was too aware of his limitations and was therefore much more manipulative than I believe either Richard II or Donald Trump feel they need to be.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other

Richard III; Act I, sc. i.

For Donald, as for the second Richard, what is the need for manipulation when you speak with God’s voice and rule with His hand?

See also:

Richard II (play)

Richard III (play)

Behold, easily the best of Fringe Toronto

BtB-Subway-Poster-For-Web

I may have to give up comedy writing. Based on the sold-out sketch comedy show I saw last night at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern—part of the annual Fringe Festival—I am a flailing hack or self-deluded pretender.

Brought to us by the disturbed mind of Justin Haigh under the umbrella of Spoon vs. Hammer, Behold, the Barfly is a delightful show that is possibly the most consistently funny sketch comedy performance I have seen in ages, and if its run is limited solely to Toronto Fringe, we all lose out.

Trying not to spoil any of the sketches, let me just say that they are all really solid…even the ones that opened weak only to demonstrate that this was done on purpose. As a comedy fan and writer, I often found myself anticipating the direction of a sketch only to be surprised by a solid twist that never felt manipulative or like a bad M. Night Shyamalan moment.

The casting was amazing, each performer bringing his or her unique absurdity to the performance, and presenting the sketches with such vitality that they almost felt improvised (in the good sense). These are performers comfortable with their material, which is critical for sketch comedy.

Singer

Ned Petrie is the classical Everyman who just wants to be loved (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Ned Petrie is clearly the anchor for this show. He does one delicious take after another on the Everyman, a stoic witness to the world gone mad. Eric Miinch is the clown, doing his damnedest to break up his scene partners with ad libs that enhance rather than disrupt the scenes in which he finds himself.

Elizabeth Anacleto is the shape-shifter, becoming whatever her role requires with mercurial fluidity even when required to shift smoothly within a single sketch. Marsha Mason—whom I should note I know personally—is a talent who can say more with a single facial expression than with the best written dialogue.

Jeff Hanson and Steve Hobbs are mesmerizing on stage, each one bringing an intensity to their performances that cannot be ignored, especially in one particularly disturbing turn by Hobbs. Kevin MacPherson and Sarah Thorpe, meanwhile, ably glue the entire construction together, the former largely coming in from left field at every turn.

If I have one criticism of the show, it is that it completely under-utilizes the amazingly talented women in the cast, the male performers generally taking the most significant roles.

As a male comedy writer, I completely understand the challenge of consciously writing female roles without looking like you’re writing female roles. It is not sufficient to simply lop the penis off a male character.

If Haigh and his team are given the opportunity to remount this show—dear comedy gods, let this be so—I would hope he takes time to tap more deeply the talents of these wonderful women.

In the meantime, if I want to keep writing comedy—because it’s all about me—I am seriously going to have to up my game.

Behold, the Barfly Cast

Seamless casting: (L to R) Hobbs, Thorpe, MacPherson, Miinch, Petrie, Mason, Anacleto, Hanson (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Behold, the Barfly continues at Monarch Tavern until July 10. After that, we can only hope.

Rip Van Winkle lives here

While visiting Louisiana last week, my friend Mike and I visited the Rip Van Winkle Gardens, an estate turned tourism site founded by Joseph Jefferson in 1870, in large part funded by his success in turning the story of Rip Van Winkle into a world-traveling stage play. And that’s where all references to Rip Van Winkle end.

The estate is beautiful, although the weather and time of year conspired to make the gardens a tad underwhelming. That being said, I did manage to grab a few photos.

The trip offered a bonus, however, for my friend Mike, who is into what I call “disaster porn”.

The estate abuts Lake Peigneur, the site of an incredible engineering disaster when an oil rig on the lake drilled accidentally into a salt mine. You have to watch the video below to truly appreciate the scale of the disaster.

You and Me Both – a revue review

BARAM_SNIECKUS_630x345WEB_BANNER

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).

Screwball

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