Sunday, July 31, 2016

All's Well that Ends Well is Hell: Canadian Stage stage a clunker

Don't believe the hype: this year's Canadian Stage production of All's Well that Ends Well is wrist-splittingly wretched.

I was already in a foul mood when they decided to bombard the audience with ear-splitting elevator muzak before the show even began. I find intrusive music like this something of an assault, like being groped in a public place: a violation of my personal space I neither requested nor authorized.  Yet retailers, restaurants, and waiting rooms seem to think you want to listen to shitty pop-music, and a whole generation of snot-noses have apparently never learned about head-phones. . .

But I digress. The play hadn't even started yet and I was already wishing I were drowning in Lake Ontario. Not an auspicious beginning. And it didn't get better: the whole play is suffused with stomach-churning EDM, blared unrelentingly through every set-transition and a great many scenes. I should have brought ear-plugs. And maybe an ipod. Because then I wouldn't have had to endure director Ted Witzel's grade-school poetry being read between the scenes (or indeed, any of his lousy play). Why this hack thought his own work would enhance the Bard (especially since it bore no relevance to anything actually happening on stage) is not as much a mystery as it might at first seem: after all, it requires a special kind of audacity to butcher a play in this fashion, an audacity that probably really thinks William Shakespeare of Stratford by himself isn't up to snuff.

The show is loud, crude, and grotesque. You can argue all you want that the ugliness is all in the original text, but the choice of presentation lies with each production. You can allude to something naughty with innuendo, or you can build a great big neon sign saying PENIS! You can decide what to emphasize, what to play up, downplay, or whether to insert phallic sausage references. The Bard gives you that leeway. What appears on stage is what the director wants, and if the production is trite and vulgar, it's because the director wanted it that way.

I hated every minute. But that's just me. If you yourself find butt-plugs hilarious, you just might dig this one.    

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Place Where I Lived; In Which the Author goes home

Wandering the Salvation Army depot downtown Hamilton not long ago, I was about to leave, having found nothing I needed amongst the used clothing racks, when I saw something that stopped me cold.

Behind the cashier, sharing a shelf with a marionette clown and a novelty baseball, was a framed picture – a photograph – of a tall church on a lonely hill. It was a rather stark photo, shot in reddish grey and white. The church was not a grand stone Cathedral of European antiquity, but a humble wooden steeple in state of ever so slight decay, standing beacon like in the middle of what looks to be farmland. I suspect it was taken somewhere in rural Ontario, or maybe the American mid-west. At the foot of the hill was a dirt road, with a dust cloud off in the distance, as if a speeding coach were zooming away.

I stood transfixed. It wasn’t just that this kind of rural gothic was exactly suited to my taste, but that this particular picture played a large role in forming my taste. This very picture had been hanging on my parents’ wall in the basement, and had been destroyed in the flood of ’14. I spent most of my formative years staring at this picture, and thought it had been gone forever.  

Funny how the mind of a kid works: when I was little, I thought the focal point of the picture was not the church, but the dust cloud. And I thought it was coming towards us, rather than going away. Something was coming. Something noisy and harsh to disrupt the staid tranquility of the scene. It was actually quite ominous – a picture of almost tomblike stillness, under permanent threat of ever imminent invasion.  
            The rest of the artwork in the basement lacked this impending chaos, but all shared its vaguely gothic quality. Right beside it there was another picture (photo or painting, I couldn’t tell) of an old derelict house in a field of snow. The house looked comparatively modern, but like the church, a completely dead monument to the past, and in this case, literally frozen in time.
            Somewhat incongruously, there was also hanging, a train yard, with a freight train pulling away. Again, I used to think the train was arriving, and thought it only slightly odd that it seemed to pulling in backwards. As a kid you trust such things: even if they appear unusual, there must be a good reason for them to happen if they’re happening. Looking at the back of the train meant no engines and no engineers, no evidence of human presence or agency. The train station appeared just as deserted as the church or the house.
            The theme of desertion abandons us (ha!) in next room which was my father’s study. Dad had a big picture of Ponce-de Leon or some such guy. A very grave, regal figure with a dark beard (the painting, not Dad), this man would have fit perfectly in any of the other pictures (even the train station). He too was a figure from the past, ancient, unchanging, unmoving. As it was, he was very at home in a study, hanging on imitation wood panelling between vast shelves of dusty books. He bespoke knowledge (if not wisdom), and disciplined scholarship.
Dad’s study was not off-limits to us – indeed, it was open access all around. But it was clearly grown-up territory. This was a place where work was done, all books and machinery. Dad was (is) a gadget hound, particularly in the realm of audio-hi-fi. On the north wall, in between two ground view windows that stared down at you like eyes, was his setup: a massive floor-to-ceiling stack of machinery, every bit as grandly imposing as Deep Thought from the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  At its base was the Marantz deck, a dreadnaught of an amplifier, to which was connected the Teac Equalizer and Reel-to-Reel machine, Nacamichi tape deck and Cd-player, Technics turntable, and Celestion Ditton 44 speakers (which were taller than I was). When given the right command, this monster could move mountains.

(Am I supposed to be impressed by your piddly little ipod?)   

 Like the church on the hill, this stack stood unchanged, apparently carved out of the earth itself, from before I was born to the very Day of the Flood. My brother and I tried to save it – the Marantz at least – but just as you can’t uproot a tree in a hurry, there were too many cables anchoring it to the ground. Too many things to unscrew and unplug, while water was rushing in. Sometimes you just gotta concede.

Anyway, this is the place where I lived. To a kid, everything looks big and foreboding, and unimaginably archaic. To me it looked looming and shadowy as well, and just a bit surreal (to say nothing about stuff like this playing on the big cathode ray tube-television:). But to me it was home; it was warm and safe, and it was where I wanted to be. Perhaps it was there I developed a lifelong taste for solitary looming, shadowy things, and became an incurable antiquarian. Why I feel so at home in churchyards and on country roads, and attracted so much to old, lonely buildings, though only from the outside – never from within.

To my horror, the photo on the wall was not for sale; it was for auction. I put in a ridiculously high bid, but did not win it, even though I still had the highest bid when I checked on the closing day. Some smart alec probably snuck in at the very last moment with an extra dollar or two. I really wish I’d thought to examine the picture first, to find out who took it or published it, which might have given me a clue as to where it came from. I’ve tried Googling “Church on a Hill”, and it hasn’t helped so far. In any case, it was clearly not a one-off work. Maybe not mass-produced, but copies exist in the world. In my mind, that makes it more valuable, not less.

Places I didn't live: In Which the Author Doesn't Go Home

They say you can never go home. Who exactly says that? Can't say I know, but I have heard it said. I think about it every time I revisit my childhood home, which is actually quite often. It’s funny the things that do come back to you, and the things that just don’t.

Of course, my childhood home was almost entirely washed away by the flood of 2014. True, the room where I spent most of my time and stored the accumulated artifacts of my life up until then, were drowned – “washed away” is definitely the wrong phrase – in a deluge of shit-laced sewer backup. There was no attempt to restore it to its original state, my folks seeing it more as an “out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new-opportunity.

So that particular bit of nostalgia is gone without a trace, but there are little bits elsewhere that remain.

The woods by the creek are still there, and the foliage is denser than ever. When I was growing up, kids would ride their bikes over the little hills and mounds in there, and were constantly sculpting them with shovels. Grown-ups, true to their mission to stamp out fun where ever it may be found, sent bulldozers in to flatten the mounds out, either stupidly ignorant of, or contemptuously indifferent to, the damage to the landscape – the bulldozer treads just butchered the landscape and crushed all manner of plant life. Just so kids couldn’t ride their bikes over a dirt path. It was a typically upper-middle class solution to a non-problem, but the busy-bodies have since turned their attentions elsewhere. The woods are still there, even if the hills are gone. The pathways are much too narrow for bicycles now, but kids still find their way in, as they always will.

The grassy field beyond the woods has not been paved over with houses yet, but give it time; Canadians hate nothing so much as undeveloped green space.

Strolling the neighbourhood, I’m struck by how clean everything is. No chip-bags, chocolate bar wrappers or cigarette butts in sight. You can walk the streets in your bare feet, and I often do – I find the rough concrete scratching the itchy soles of my feet as evocative of summer as grass between my toes, which is also common here. True, power tools often shatter the peace, but these are no worse than the obnoxious motor bikes revving their engines outside my apartment window all hours of every day. I marvel at the lush green lawns and the tall trees lining every street, forming a leafy archway overhead, and remember a time when this sort of thing wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the super-wealthy.

Thank you globalization!

You need to be super wealthy to own a home here now; the kinds of people moving in are the kinds of people who like to turn tasteful detached bungalows into three story mansions, and buy their kids Mercedes for their sixteenth birthdays. Everywhere I look, the physical manifestations of my memories are replaced by ornaments of excessive wealth. Renovations, facelifts and landscaping, all gaudy and garish clashing colours and mismatched materials, almost defiantly out of character with the neighbourhood, or even the merest aesthetic consideration.
It wasn’t always this way.

There are also a couple of places I really wish they would change. There are couple houses in the old neighbourhood whose pale blue and white motif has always lent them a kind of sickly quality. I’ve always found them cold and foreboding, not in the gothic haunted house kind of way – that would be to flatter them – but with a kind of stultifying aura of age.

I don’t know what created this impression, but I’ve carried it with me all my life. I must have been no more than four years old when I had a vivid dream of visiting one of these houses. In the dream, the place was run like a dusty museum, filled with glass china cabinets and stiff, uncomfortable furniture you weren’t allowed to sit on. Everything was of that sickly blue and white, and could have been a hundred years old. The matron of the house, a prim but not unfriendly old woman, introduced me to her “daughters”, who were no more than animated piles of clothes, Victorian style dresses with no heads or hands. even at that age I suspected there were people with no more personality than the clothes they wore.

Rubbish of course. I never set foot in either of those houses and have no idea what their owners were like. I suppose four-year olds are judgmental. I guess there was something about the places, the ghastly pallor, the dreary sense of order, that struck a fidgety young ruffian as unbearably oppressive. As if, alone in that warm and animated neighbourhood, these were places where the stomping and shouting of little boys, was unwelcome. Unjust no doubt – who knows what kind of people lived there? But try arguing that with a four-year old.

At least one of those houses has since been purchased by a youngish couple who are warm and friendly as can be. They keep their curtains open, and the large screen television in their living room is usually playing sports. This actually humanizes the place. But even if I was wrong about those particular places, I know that such places exist – alleged homes run like mausoleums, and I will always feel ill-at ease in them.     

Dialectics on Poodle-play: Thoughts on Zappa

Been listening to a lot of Frank Zappa lately. I tend to do that in the warm months – don’t ask why. I think the tradition started in Teacher’s College. I’d recently got my hands on a copy of Sheik Yerbouti (sic), which I’d not heard in its entirety before.  There’s not much I can say about Zappa here that hasn’t already been said before, so I’m not going to go too much into how amazing instrumentals are sometimes stuffed into lousy songs, or how much more pronounced the keyboards seem to be. I don’t need some student of Zappa studies pointing out all my errors of fact or omission. Doubtless there will be contrary evidence to everything I say. But there was something that struck me that I wanted to comment on.

No doubt, Zappa was a paradoxical, contradictory figure. He was known for taking music more seriously than just about anybody in the business – a notorious workaholic, more dedicated and disciplined than any mere mortal should be (and no one who heard him take on the PMRC could doubt he was a serious thinker as well). And yet, he could not write a single song lyric that wasn’t a joke. Or would not more likely, as I don’t imagine there was anything Zappa couldn’t do. He never wrote a sincere ballad, or straightforward rock song. For all their deeply subversive qualities, out-and-out protest songs weren’t his bag either (“Trouble Every Day”)? No, sarcasm and ridicule were his weapons of choice, lifting the lid on life’s absurdities with bemusement/amusement rather than outrage, let alone mere human emotions like happiness or sadness.

Yet, there are times I wonder. . .

As I said, the music itself was never a joke. There are countless moments of genuine feeling all over the catalogue. Only when he put words to it, did it become silly. Think “Sofa Number One”, a bittersweet little ditty that almost grows cosmic at the end. But when he added lyrics to the exact same tune for “Sofa Number Two”, what we get is nonsensical German, uttered in an exaggerated guttural dialect. Sure it was funny, but was that really what he was thinking when he composed the piece?

Or how about the closing chorus to “Tryin’ to grow a Chin” off Sheik Yerbouti? The melody’s inspiring, the song builds up to it in a beautifully executed crescendo. For any other artist this would be an anthemic moment, or a denouement of a stage musical. For Zappa, a novelty suicide note:

I wanna be dead,
In bed
Please kill me,
‘Cause that would thrill me.

Doesn’t it feel great belting out those words?

The song itself is a spoof of pimply teenaged angst, but one never gets thinks for a second that Zappa has any genuine sympathy for such issues (true enough, angst can be insufferable, but let they who’ve never indulged in it cast the first stone). I can’t help wondering though, was this really all he had in mind when he wrote the song? Was that much energy really expended just to give us a joke chorus?

Zappa was the sort of guy who knew what he was doing. I very much doubt anything was done by accident, and I doubt he’d have anything but contempt for this kind of speculation. And yet. . .the incongruity is there. He was the sort of artist who chose not to express himself through words, which weren’t his natural medium after all, but I can’t help but wonder. . .could he have done so?

Was he capable?

There are some folks who have difficulty showing genuine emotion. Who need to hide behind a stoic sheen or sardonic mask. Some folks just can’t put it into words. I wonder if Zappa was one of these. He felt plenty – you can feel it in his notes. But when it came to words – to attaching concrete meanings to abstract sounds - he needed to infuse it with nonsense.  Maybe using sincere words would have let the world in too close, or maybe it would have been telling. Or. . .

Zappa admitted he had little patience for books, so it probably shouldn’t surprise us he had little aptitude for poetry. Maybe language was the one instrument he couldn’t master.

Speculating about genius is a mug’s game. I’m probably wrong. All the same, when I listen to “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin”, I can’t help but wonder. . .