Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: theatre

Private Parts

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, although recent years have provided a number of exceptions. Figures as varied as Al Gore (former V.P. and failed presidential candidate, now international environmentalist icon), Steve Jobs (Apple founder, then Apple exile, then Apple savior) and Rosie O’Donnell (interrupting her sporadic career as a bubbly daytime TV host with bouts of angry activism) all demonstrate why the obsessives who update Wikipedia biographies get so little sleep.

And while an actor would love to get a regular part on a beloved, long-running TV series, it is a mixed blessing: with fame and financial security comes the straightjacket of being trapped in a specific character in the public’s mind. While Kramer, Niles and Phoebe may now exist only in reruns, they cast long shadows on the careers of Michael Richards, David Hyde Peirce and Lisa Kudrow.

It’s probably why Sarah Jessica Parker, who had an interesting if not A-list movie career as a young character actress prior to ‘Sex and the City’, has had a difficult time since taking off her Carrie Bradshaw shoes. In her latest film ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ she played a financial advisor who was also a mother, two positions very difficult to imagine Sarah Jessica/Carrie filling.

But, as the giant ‘Sex and the City’ nerd that I am, I only want the best for those ladies. So when I first spotted the fabulously art deco posters for a revival of Noël Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ starring Kim Cattrall (alongside ‘Due South’s Paul Gross), I felt it my duty to attend.

I should admit, though, that, unlike a lot of gay boys out there, Cattrall’s Samantha was never my favourite. I related to Carrie’s romantic yearning and idealism about how life should be (as well as her occasional incoherent incompetence) and cheered on Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda as she provided the show’s feminist voice and demonstrated that beneath toughness can be insecurity. But the cartooniness of Samantha (her porno situations, her over-acted orgasms, the garishly bright colours of her outfits) seemed to personify the worst things people thought about the show.

But my Mother (yes, my Mom and I stay up late watching old ‘Sex and the City’ episodes together), noted an occasional softness in Cattrall’s performance. As the oldest character she suggested a wisdom and far-sightedness the other ladies’ in-the-moment reactions lacked.

When I bought tickets to ‘Private Lives’ for the two of us online, my Mom made me paranoid that Cattrall might sit out some performances. While I understand that every actor needs an understudy and that ‘the show must go on’, as the date of the performance drew nearer, I feared that little piece of paper stuck in the program which would inform us that “Sitting in for Ms. Cattrall…”

There’s the paradox of it: while I support Kim Cattrall moving on with her career and playing different parts, I, like many people at the theatre, bought tickets because I was familiar with her from TV. She could win the Nobel Peace Prize and in the first paragraph of the news story would be the sentence, “best known for her role as Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’…”

The rain was pouring down as people crowded under the illuminated marquee of the Royal Alexander theatre. As we stood in the lobby, Mom in a scarf and me in a bow tie (my nod to the fashions of the 1930’s), we flipped though our programs.

“Oh no,” Mom said, discovering a little slip of white paper.

“At this performance,” it read, “due to the indisposition of Paul Gross the role of Elyot will be performed by Gareth Clarke.”

I audibly sighed. “Thank goodness it was just him,” I said.

“I’m disappointed,” my Mom said. “I wanted to see Paul Gross.”

The play itself is a painfully witty and sophisticated concoction, at once as classic and of its time as a 1930’s martini glass. It begins on a luxurious hotel terrace in Deauville, France. Two couples are celebrating their honeymoons next door to each other. The audience learns that the wife of one pair, Amanda (Cattrall), and the husband of the other, Elyot (not Paul Gross), were not only both married before, but married to each other. When they discover one another what follows is one of the funniest exchanges of awkwardness and mounting anger ever put on the stage, and it reminds one how much sitcoms owe to their drawing room comedy forebears.

Most of the past revivals of ‘Private Lives’ have stuck to the dry, deadpan delivery of Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in the original production. (Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery even based their performances for the 1931 film version on a recording of that show.)

Cattrall delivers her lines both broader and more realistically, speeding up when she’s upset and occasionally dropping into a demonic shriek when muttering something nasty. Her voice, which sometimes sounded stagey on ‘Sex and the City’, fits nicely with a British accent. (Cattrall was born in England, but grew up in British Columbia.)

It must be noted that Cattrall, who’s playing a part she’s twenty years older than, looks beautiful and incredibly youthful on stage. Although she spends much of the play in dressing gowns, when she steps out in a bias-cut gold evening column, you could almost hear the audience gasp.

And since we’ve admitted and accepted that Kim Cattrall will never fully escape Samantha Jones, what is it like to hear Coward’s sophisticated lines (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”) coming from the mouth which once declared, “My boyfriend has the funkiest-tasting spunk”?

With Cattrall in the role, we can better see Elyot and Amanda for their modern hedonism, contrasting with the boring traditionalism of their new spouses. Elyot has a speech defending treating life “flippantly”, which could almost be a founding manifesto of Camp, and Amanda keeps up with her desires to be “wild”. Dare I even suggest that there are some proto-Samantha lines, such as when Elyot claims it’s natural for women to have less affairs and Amanda shoots back, “It’s useful for men for women to have less affairs!”

As they took their bows, Cattrall grabbed Clarke’s hand and allowed the cast and audience to give him a special round of applause, to which he humbly nodded. As a survivor of stage and screen, she knows that, as difficult as it is to be in the shadow of a TV character, for an understudy to emerge from the shadow of the absent star is even harder.

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Michael Hughes: A Star is Born

Speaking of Mickey and Judy, I saw ‘Mickey & Judy’ on Friday night. Part of the Fringe Festival, the one-man musical revue stars Michael Hughes, a singer and actor who has worked in Canada, the US and Japan. Although he has played Tony in ‘West Side Story’ and Gilbert in ‘Anne and Gilbert’, he clearly wants to be Judy Garland. So, like Rufus Wainwright before him, he’s stepped into those legendary ruby shoes.

Accompanied by just a keyboardist and wearing a Dorothy-esque gingham cowboy shirt, Hughes presents his ‘pseudo-memoir’ alone on a blank stage, save for a framed photo of Garland resting atop an old fashioned trunk. His first number is ‘You Made Me Love You’ with an intro addressed to his idol, “Dear Ms. Garland…”, a modified version of the love letter teenage Judy sang to Clark Gable in ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’.

A series of Judy and Broadway-related non-Judy songs follows, interspersed with Hughes’ tragi-comic tales of growing up as a little boy who just wanted to sing, dance and dress up. His worried parents took him to a child psychologist, who eventually, based on his tendency to wear flowered dresses and pearls, broke the news to them that their son was inevitably going to become…an actor.

Come to think of it, the G-A-Y word was barely uttered all night. Perhaps it didn’t need to be: when Hughes describes being bullied in school we know the exact reason why. (The audience was an interesting mixture of middle-aged snowbirds and hip young queers with V-necks and tattoos.) Although he jokes about himself as a child loving watching himself cry in the mirror, he clearly needed the solace he found in heartbreak songs (his medley of ‘Do It Again’, ‘But Not For Me’ and ‘The Man That Got Away’ is quite moving) and claims, completely seriously, that Judy Garland saved his life.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For decades queer writers have declared the death of camp and the end of diva-worship. Torchy renditions of ‘Over the Rainbow’ were not supposed to outlast the pre-Stonewall generation, who were thought to be self-loathing closet cases. Instead, Garland continues to be the fairy godmother of sensitive outcasts, who project their disappointments onto her trembling voice. And it’s not just gay men: writer and Sigmund Freud-descendent Susie Boyt claims that Judy’s songs got her through dark times in My Judy Garland Life. Take that, psychoanalysis!

Even if you’re not a Friend of Dorothy (or Judy, for that matter) you will enjoy your evening with Hughes. During his opening performance there were moments he seemed nervous (his parents may have been in the second row) but that only added to his achingly earnest charm. His smooth singing voice is better suited to the American song book than Wainwright’s nasal whine, and his mannerisms and inflection were enough like Garland’s to be a tribute but not an impression.

‘Mickey & Judy’ is like spending the evening catching up with that sensitive boy from your school who loved choir and hated gym, for whom even the threat of being pummeled in the face couldn’t prevent the show tunes. Thankfully, the boy is doing all right, especially with the help of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. Especially for the older members of the audience, the ones more likely to know the words to the ‘Trolley Song’ than the hip queers in V-necks, it must have been interesting to see how hokey old songs from the studio era can be reclaimed by a new generation.

It came as no surprise that, after the standing ovation, Hughes said quietly into his microphone, “Alright, one more song.”

“Gee, I wonder which one it will be,” I said to my friend.

Hughes’ rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ was a fitting tribute to the simple little melody which unexpectedly became one of the theme songs of the 20th century. For Dorothy, the rainbow was an escape from the dreary sepia of Kansas. ‘Oz’ was one of the last Hollywood films shown in England before  WWII and British audiences embraced the hopeful song as a symbol of better times ahead.

Salmon Rushdie in his book about ‘Oz’ sees ‘Over the Rainbow’ as an immigrant’s song, significant for anyone who yearned to start life fresh in a new land. And, of course, gay people embraced it, adopting the rainbow as their movement’s symbol and never feeling closer to Judy than when she asked, “If happy little blue birds fly/ Beyond the rainbow/ Why, oh why, can’t I?”

Catch the show at Tarragon on Tuesday July 12 at 10:30 p.m., 
Wednesday, July 13 at 4:00 p.m., 
Thursday, July 14 at 1:45 p.m., or 
Sunday, July 17 at 3:30 p.m.

Macbeth and Macarons

When it rains, it pours, which is how in one week I went from desperately begging for jobs (I even considered going back on the ol’ Vaudeville circuit) to having two at the same time. This is why my posting has been sparse in the last little while, as I’m sure you, my loyal reader, have noticed.

Suddenly, my life is very busy and it’s all about Macbeth and macarons.

I’ll start with the macarons. Finding a job is not just about talent. Talent is often not enough. As James Mason says in ‘A Star is Born’ you have to recognize an opportunity when it comes along and grab it. When a fabulous new Wornette mentioned that her chocolate shop had lost three workers in a row, I guessed that they were probably hiring. I showed up the next evening with my resume, the manager was right there and I was hired on the spot.

It is the fanciest place I’ve ever worked. It is also the most beautiful. I would describe the decor as that of a gay interior designer in the early-1960’s who was given the budget of an Old Hollywood fantasy and took that as his inspiration. And I mean that complimentary. It’s Audrey Hepburn and Paris in gleaming white and neon pink.

One of our specialties is our macarons, which I’ve been instructed to pronounce in the French way and never ‘macaroons’. They are soft and chewy, made fresh daily and come in all the colours of the pastel rainbow. They really are a bit of flaky heaven.

I had already started there when I received word that I got a job as an usher at a theatre which performs Shakespeare for high school kids, a job I applied for completely on a whim. I thought, if I’m going to be getting paid minimum wage for standing around (and yes, I had given up finding a ‘grown-up’ job again, here defined as any job in which you get to sit), I might as well be learning Shakespeare. And anything to be closer to the stage…!

I showed up for my first day and asked the other usher which play we were doing.

“Mackers,” she replied.

I almost uttered the name of the play she had avoided, caught myself and said “Oh, the Scottish play!”

For those not in the know, theatre people are quirkily commited to their traditions and one of the oldest is that ‘Macbeth’ is a cursed play and to say its name in a theatre is to bring on bad luck. Supposedly, it all goes back to the rumour that Shakespeare used some actual witches’ spells for the chants of the ‘Weird Sisters’ and a litany of productions that suffered some kind of catastrophe followed.

Now, stuff goes wrong in theatre all the time and, as one actor put it, “it’s a play where people run around in the dark with swords,” so some accidents are inevitable. While I enjoy the theatrical culture (it is partly why I took a job in which I herd teenagers into straight lines, a more difficult task than one expects), I am a die-hard skeptic and I have to scoff a bit at anyone who tells me what not to say based on superstition.

Turns out one of the actors felt the same way and made a big point of yelling the name of the play during a Q&A session after the first performance. That very afternoon, the trap door on the wooden platform where most of the action takes place broke open just as Lady Macduff was being strangled, sending her two feet down towards the stage. With a cord around her neck, she could’ve been killed, but because the actor who was ‘murdering’ went down with her, she was fine.

Like a trouper, she kept acting, which meant yelling “MURDER!” so, as her accompaning actor said, “I had to keep the scene going as well and continue to strangle her.” Amazingly, everyone was fine, but they still sealed up the trap door.

So now, when keener students ask about ‘the curse’ the company all chuckle and knock the wood of the stage. One of the actors points out that, considering what could have happened, the fact that nobody was injured is more of a blessing than a curse, but the others see it as a “warning”. As one of the actresses put it, “Weird shit happens with this play.”

Next week we start ‘Romeo and Juliet’, so the only M-word I’ll have to worry about accidentally slipping out is “macaroon”.

Women (of a certain age) Gone Wild!

I grew up amongst strong women. My friends were entirely female throughout elementary school and we were often referred to as ‘girls and Max’. It’s happening again at WORN, where we’re ‘ladies and Max’. I don’t mind. I love women. I even think female comedians are as funny, if not often funnier, than their male counterparts.

But even so, I was a bit trepidatious about being one of the few men in attendance at ‘Love, Loss and What I Wore’ at the Panasonic Theatre. But it was a chance to see legendary funny ladies Andrea Martin and Mary Walsh (pictured above) live, in the flesh.

As my fellow Wornette Anisha and I took our seats, I glanced around the theatre and confirmed that I was one of about twenty men in the theatre. Okay, maybe there were a bit more. But we were outnumbered. Most of them were husbands or gay guys. Unsurprisingly, the latter were more enthusiastic theatre dates than the former. And almost everyone was middle-aged. Anisha and I were easiest the youngest in the room.

“I need to use the washroom,” I said, five minutes before curtain. “I’ll be right back.” I raced downstairs only to discover that the ladies had taken over both the women’s and the men’s restroom, lining up outside the doors. “Great…” It was bad enough that I really had to pee, and that the play was about to start, but what was really frustrating was the smirky looks from the women I received as a man having to stand in line.

‘How the tables have turned, ha ha!’ the looks said.

When I finally made it inside the men’s washroom, I noticed that there was a line of urinals being unused because the women were lined up beside them waiting for the stalls. This was annoying. If the ladies had just stepped back at bit, I would be able to use them, and be one less person in line, and everyone would win. But no; they stayed beside the urinals, laughing and leering at me, until only one lady was left.

“Now you know how it feels!” she said.

I was done with this little game, representing all mankind for her. “Yeah, but you’re not made fun of when you have to go to the restroom.”

“Well, yeah,” she stammered, “but at least you get a little taste of being a minority.”

“Yeah… I’m also gay.”

Forgive me. How often do you get to out yourself like that? Couldn’t help it.

After she was gone, I made a point of using the urinal; my right, as a man.

Here’s my review.

Clap, If you believe in Fairies

Twenty years ago, my friend Jane’s parents opted to leave their daughter at home when they took her older siblings to see the play Peter Pan. This weekend, an olive branch was offered in the form of an invitation for her to accompany them to Stratford’s production of J.M. Barrie’s classic. And, because we had put on Peter Pan when we were kids at Lord Lansdowne, Jane’s parents invited me along. On the drive up, passing conveniently-named towns like Shakespeare, Ontario, Jane pined dramatically about how she’s still getting over the feeling of abandonment, while I regaled her parents with stories of blogging: “Watch out, he might write about this!”  

Despite being familiar with the Disney cartoon, as well as the kitschy 1960’s Mary Martin version filmed for TV which featured a blonde Tiger Lily, I had never seen the play performed live, and you realize how much it all comes down to the success of the key special effects; is the audience filled with buoyant joy when the children first levitate towards the window of the Darling nursery? Do you really believe a little flashing light is a sassy fairy named Tinkerbell? Are Nanna the dog and the tick-tocking crocodile seen as real animals, or grown men on all-fours shaking their bums to make their tails wag?

The Avon theatre was filled with children, including a little girl right in front of us who provided a continuous commentary to her father, and I worried that the Wii Generation wouldn’t buy into the low-tech magic of hidden wires and flashing lights. But my fears were unfounded. In the famous scene when Tinkerbell saves Peter’s life by drinking a cup of poison, her glow gradually fading like the embers of a dying fire, and Peter turns to the audience and says, “The only thing that can save a fairy from death is the belief of children. Do you believe in fairies?” with barely a hesitation, the kids screamed “YES!” and clapped their little mighty little hands. It warmed my heart along with Tinkerbell’s.  

Unsurprisingly, for a play which premiered in 1904, some changes have been made. Introducing the post-modern, post-colonialist, feminist Pan! Post-modern because director Tim Carroll has placed J.M. Barrie on stage, narrating the story of Neverland while writing it in his easy chair. This allows some charming descriptions from the novelization, which have traditionally been left out of the play, to be worked back in. Gone are the problematic Indians, replaced by female warrior Amazons, with Tigerlily as their lineless leader. This brilliantly kills two birds with one stone: it rids the play of accusations of racism (productions in Brazil, where Amazons are ‘Indians’, will have to figure something else out), while providing stronger girl role models than the maternal Wendy and the bitchy Tinkerbell. Although, some may object to their costumes of bare legs, banana-skin bikini-like tops and feathered headdresses: “They look like strippers!” Jane exclaimed.

The feminist revisionism becomes more obvious when narrator J.M. Barrie leaves his manuscript unattended and his frill-clad housemaid continues reading the story. Offended by the exclusion of women during the scene on Captain Hook’s ship, she interrupts the climax with a frustrated sigh, erases what Barrie has written, and pencils-in the arrival of the Amazons to help kick some pirate butt. In this way the play actively engages with modernizing an Edwardian boy-centric text.

Breaking the tradition of a female lead, Peter is played by Michael Therriault, most recognizable for playing Tommy Douglas on TV and staring in the Toronto production of The Producers. He’s absolutely believable as a youth as he brings to the role an athletic, boyish energy, jumping around and somersaulting around bars. Casting a male in the part better highlights the plot’s sexual undercurrents. All three female characters (Wendy, Tigerlily and Tinkerbell) have crushes on this supposed-little boy, and it’s not just the real world which wants him to grow up. When Wendy, after agreeing to be ‘mother’ to all the Lost Boys if Peter will be ‘father’, asks him “What am I to you?” she’s speaking for innumerable women frustrated by their partner’s unwillingness to ‘grow up’, commit and give names to relationships.

After the Darling children have returned to the nursery and the embrace of their parents and Nanna, Barrie’s narration is again effectively used as he admits that he’s written four different endings to the story, most of them bittersweet. Sometimes the play ends with the idealized reunion of the family, other times it follows the Darling children and the Lost Boys as they grow into serious adults who no longer believe in fairies. Yet another has Peter return years later to find Wendy’s daughter in the nursery, not having realized how much time had passed. This version ends with the magical and melancholy image of Peter, floating outside the nursery window in a sky filled with stars, viewing the family he’ll never have.  The set of the nursery is pulled away, save for the window, as Barrie reflectively gazes at his character, the creator watching his creation whose legacy will outlast his own.

We were quiet on the car ride home, but we couldn’t help mentioning the little girl who talked the whole time.

“Her father did not do enough to shut her up!” Jane joked.

“You know,” Jane’s mother finally countered. “That’s kind of the reason we didn’t bring you when you were five.”

“I guess I set myself up for that one.”