The Art of the Unexpected
Say the word vaudeville, and we imagine fading memories of comedy routines in old movie houses. At the Nazareth College Art Center in Rochester, New York vaudeville was brought back to life in freshly minted, alarmingly funny ways; performed by six laugh getters who understand the art of knockabout farce, and use it with striking dexterity. Band width or no band width, lunacy is in.
Tomas Kubineck, who calls himself a Certified Lunatic & Master of the Impossible, led off. The Czech performer is a cross between Salvador Dali and Lucky from Waiting for Godot. Apparently Kubineck was let loose by Godot to wander on stage unhinged. Wearing a coat that looks like it was stolen from the death bed of the Marquis de Sade, with spiked hair arranged on his head like a broken propeller, Kubinecjk is in flagrant disregard of his sanity.
Performing an outrageous “dance of six shoes”, four attached to his legs and knees, and the other two on his feet where they belong, Kubineck rolls across the stage from sole to sole, like he’s peddling a bicycle; throwing away patter in a mumble of off-the-wall ingenuity. Kubineck (the name is impressively apt) passes from one fabulous shenanigan into another, without so much as a how do you do. He knocks off laughter like its an aside. Laughter that has more bounce to the ounce than a host of TV talking heads juggling sound bites.
His colleagues in clowning all share similar gifts of visual punning and wit. And when you get these quirky theatrical virtues together, you’re in for a joy ride of relentlessly satisfying proportions, full of laughs.
Take Michael Lauziere for instance; or rather, let him take you. He calls himself an inventor, acrobat, comedian and musician. Lauziere flounts a musical instrument of his own invention that he calls a “dishaphone”. A fantastic Rube Goldberg contraption that looks like a clothes tree in a hotel lobby gone to seed. Dishes and horns hang from the branches just waiting to be played by a gifted musician. And Lauziere is the genuis who can do it. He tunes up the dishes with everything from mallets to water pistols. And when he honks the horns the tree reverberates with rock and roll. His renditions of Beethoven’s Fifth and Vivaldi’s “The Seasons” are masterpieces; syncopated versions of the classics that will go down in history with a thump. And stay there.
Lauziere tops himself off by pulling a balloon over his head and blowing it up to gigantic proportions, rising in sync with the chords of Richard Strauss’ familiar music from the film 2001. He stands majestic with the balloon full blown around his head, big and round, like Humpty Dumpty in the middle of a squall. And when he shouts at the audience and gesticulates wildly, you can’t hear a word he’s saying. Never has Thus Sprach Zarathusa had it so good speaking thus. And when he slips his entire body into the balloon, and wanders around in his private fun house, he has nothing but Coney Island on his mind.. In a way, the trick is frightening. Will he finally, out of sheer chutzpah, asphyxiate himself? Such is the nature of his humor that he comes off death defying and funny simultaneously.
The Gizmo Guys (Allen Jacobs and Barrett Felker) toss up delightful light hearted repartee while churning their juggling skills. The big guy and the little guy use an easy going approach to their spirited juggling. They juggle around each other, backwards, forwards, inside out and upside down, tossing around everything from bowling pins to ping pong balls flying in and out of Felker’s mouth like planets defying gravity.
Comic poet Les Barker shuffles on stage in a lost, embarrassed manner. Like he has nowhere else to go. You wonder how he got into the act wearing beat up jeans and celebrating a twang, But he quickly puts the question to rest. Barker is a topsy turvy Ogden Nash. With enviable humor and irrepressible wit, he turns words around with relish. He says he’s written 57 books and has several solo albums to his credit. I don’t know whether to believe him or not, but he claims he sells in large numbers because “people don’t believe what they heard”. Barker appears as comfortable on stage as he would be in the comfort of his own home.. And he knows how to deliver words with uncanny slips of the tongue. He does it without the monotonous tone of supercilious seriousness that often plagues poetry readings. You listen to what he has to say because he is unselfconsciously entertaining playing with words and giving them a spin for all their worth. His love of language is obvious and affectionate and without pretension – and that’s a rare thing.
If there is déjà vu in Vaudeville 2000, it the kind of déjà vu that never happened before. As Barker says, déjà vu is a thing of the past. Where do you go to look for déjà vu? Except to and from the imagination. Vaudeville 2000 wins the prize for a thoroughly entertaining evening with a twist and a dab of butter for good measure.
AN ACRE OF TIME
In Jason Sherman’s "An Acre of Time”, staged at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, history and memory merge into a powerful theatrical focus: who owns the land, and what should be done about it?. Set on an oblong, raked stage, thrusting into the audience and surrounded by a river of light, an acre of land takes hold of the imagination, and with bold leaps, fuses it into an acre of time.
The play is inspired by a controversial Canadian book by Phil Jenkins, a storyteller and tourist guide from Ottawa. The book documents the history of land slated by the National Capital Commission in Ottawa to be surveyed for redevelopment. LeBreton Flats is “an overgrown area by the river, near the Parliament Buildings", close to the seat of power in Canada. An irony that is not left unspoken.
Land expropriated from its aboriginal inhabitants by “merchants, traders, and immigrant settlers” later develops into a working class neighborhood. The neighborhood, demolished in 1966, is now prime bait for urban planners with visions of redevelopment. Kaleidoscopic opportunism is the jumping off place for the events and crisis’s of the play. The artists involved do it up with succinct, collaborative understanding of what they are saying. No leaf remains unturned.
For Julia (Susan Coyne), the surveyor commissioned to lay out the flats, the land holds painful, lingering memories. Her daughter drowned in the river on a camping trip. Exhausted by the repetitive pain of the memory, Julia drops her modern surveying instruments. That’s when things break wide open. Spurred on by her young intern, a born romantic (effectively played by Kristen van Ginhoven), Julia takes up the memories of the past with a signifying branch of a tree; a walking stick that opens her eyes to memories past and things to come.
Julia’s numbing, private tragedy widens into a landslide of rapidly shifting scenes of historical events and defining relationships - both past and present. Her heated fantasies fuel the play with a surprising mythic focus that goes beyond hallucination into the realm of passionate vulnerability. Although the play is memory, it is also a ghost story with a mysterious, even spiritual quality, and political implications as well.
Five talented performers jump on, off and from under the stage, vividly portraying multiple historical and present day characters. Events transform with swift changes of character, sometimes within the same line; turning scenes over in cabaret style with split second efficiency.
Performers do a number of character turns. Pierre Brauit shines in the adversary role of Davidson, the urban planner, wooing Julia, but also ready to use the land for his own purposes and for everything its worth. Brauit also does a wonderfully comic turn as Champlain, the French explorer searching for a spice route. Champlain stumbles on to the land and declares it for the French king. Brauit seasons the character’s grandiose arrogance with a mix of tarragon and hot butter, portraying Champlain with uproarious buffoonery.
David Jansen, Brauit’s side kick, is particularly effective as John Stegmann, the original 18th century surveyor; John LeBreton, the first purchaser-owner who gave the land its name; and the first expropriator Lord Dalhousie, a cunning character, full of greed and fashionable cover ups. No different then that what he is today - in modern disguise.
The cast go about their business of multiple role playing like they are sampling historical apéritifs before the main meal of the present arrives. Lisa Norton does a difficult job well as Robyn, Julia’s daughter, releasing her mother’s guilt by leveraging the playing field. Norton also does a flip side comic turn as LeBreton’s niece – with apt air head emptiness and slight of hand.
Still, all in all, it is Susan Coyne who brings the play home. Coyne mines the complexity of Julia’s character with laid back definitive choices that eventually become reflections of character. Julia evolves from depression and self pity into a full blown human being with passionate concerns - for the land, for the people who lived on it, and for the importance of memory. She is brought to her awakening by her friendship with a native man living isolated on the land. Timothy Hill brings sensitivity and gentleness into a role that could easily slip into characterture. When he disappears suddenly, perhaps evicted from the land like his ancestors – I wasn’t sure - Julia is left on her own to confront her demons. In the climax of the play she clashes with Davidson, the urban planner who believes he is a visionary “building high…with multi-use planning”. Julia turns the tables on him with fierce insight – both latitudinal and longitudinal:
“You want people to imagine a lovely future, don’t you, Davidson? Well there’s one little thing you left out, one ingredient you’ve kept out of your plans. Time. That’s not something you can get your hands on. But it’s essential. A place needs time to become what it’s going to be.”
In Toronto a variety of ethnic neighborhoods surround the commercial and tourist district. Cultures jam packed in the area include Asian, Native peoples, Caribbean, African, Near Eastern, Slavic, Hispanic, Jewish, and the inevitable English, Celt and French. This intense mix fuels Toronto theatre. Plays Canadian by choice, and cosmopolitan by focus, provide theatrical fare that are well grounded in everyday realities. Communities today in downtown Toronto live on concrete slabs, together and apart simultaneously.
An Acre of Time reveals what’s inside the waste basket of history: the past can not be thrown away without throwing away our sense of community. That community may be here today, gone tomorrow. But in a real sense its always here, whether we like it or not. Memory makes it so. Apparently its pioneer time in Canadian theatre – between sunrise and sundown, the long winter and the evanescent spring.
© 2001 Ned Bobkoff ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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