Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Sondheim Shows

On Wednesday, June 17, Howard Kane and I drove all the way to the Shaw Festival at Niagara on the Lake to take in a matinee of Sunday In the Park with George, at the Royal George Theatre. We were by far the youngest people there, a busload of seniors from something called ElderHostel having been bussed in earlier. Being Sondheim fanatics, we couldn’t wait for it to start, but 20 minutes into the performance, I could tell that it wasn’t working for either of us. Howard blamed the leads, Steven Sutcliffe and Julie Martell, but he also didn’t like the directing by Alisa Palmer. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what didn’t click. It’s a very ambitious play, and I certainly admired the stagecraft, with all those gauze-covered panels zipping back and forth recreating the painting of Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The music was also well performed. It wasn’t until I went home and watched a DVD of the original production, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, that I realized that Howard was probably right.

Just two weeks earlier, Howard had directed a version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, starring the teenagers he teaches at his school, the Children’s Theatre Project in Richmond Hill. I have to say I enjoyed it a lot more than Shaw’s George. Maybe it was the sight of cute kids struggling with such tough songs. Woods is a simpler, sweeter show, an examination of what happens after the Happily Ever After part of fairy tales. Sunday, an examination of the cost of creativity, spares no one, even providing a second act set in the bloated art market of the 80s. But both shows are so damn well written that almost any production would satisfy. At his best, Sondheim was better than anyone else. Both those kids Howard teaches and the actors at Shaw must benefit from performing such excellent material.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I Was Barbie

Nina Arsenault’s I Was Barbie is a monologue about how she was hired to portray Mattel’s signature dolly at Fashion Week. She takes us through the tale chronologically, from the initial phone call to the moment she got home that night. And what a tale it is.

Arsenault is one of Canada’s most renowned transpersons, and I Was Barbie is one of three shows she hopes to tour (the other two chronicle her dozens of surgeries necessary for her transformation, and a more serious story of a spell spent in a loony bin). She’s an old friend of mine, a former co-star of the gay sports comedy series Locker Room that aired on PrideVision about five years ago. We always had fun together. Now, she brings that spirit of fun to the stage.

Theatre is the ideal place for Arsenault. After all, she has two masters degrees in theatre from York University, and god knows she is truly something to behold. Last year, she starred in Ladylike, a somewhat sanctimonious Sky Gilbert play that didn’t do it for me. Her own writing is another story. I Was Barbie is not afraid to trash Canadian celebrities like Ben Mulroney, and it offers a rather thorough look at not just Fashion Week, but the nature of fashion itself, a world dominated by “really cunty ladies” and gay volunteers wearing headsets that reminded her of Battlestar Galactica crew members.

There is much talk of line-ups and VIP lists, but the best part is after the fashion show, when she is conscripted to pass out pink cupcakes to the jaded crowd. To reinforce the point, Arsenault ends the show by passing out a tray of the very same. The audience loved it. In fact, much of the monologue was accompanied by photos of the very things she was talking about, as though to offer proof that she was not lying. She needn’t have worried – with or without the proof, it’s a hilarious and fascinating look at the world of fashion, and best of all, ends on a positive note. The show was presented at Tallulah's Cabaret as part of a Buddies in Bad Times fundraiser, but let's hope it gets a longer run in the future. It's well worth seeing.