Friday, July 22, 2011

Vroom, vroom in Fredericton, New Brunswick

It's amazing sometimes how the universe majestically falls into alignment.

No sooner do I roll into Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, Canada, in a brand new milk-white General Motors Chevrolet Equinox SUV crossover, which I have owned less than 48 hours and which has super modern bells and whistles such as SM Sirius Satellite Radio and GM OnStar digital navigation ... than I find myself at the opening night of a musical about - a car!

The Fredericton Playhouse is across the street from my hotel, the historic Lord Beaverbrook, now the Crowne Plaza Lord Beaverbrook, so I wandered over to see what the show advertised outside, The Bricklin, An Automotive Fantasy was all about. During my two decades in Ontario, and 15 or 16 summer trips to PEI that took us through New Brunswick, I remember hearing vaguely of a 1970s gull-wing-door car that was built (shades of the later DeLorean car) in the province by an entrepreneur named Malcolm Bricklin.

The show poster

A 1975 Bricklin in front of the Fredericton Playhouse on opening night of The Bricklin, An Automotive Fantasy

My 2011 GM Chevy Equinox

The protagonists of the real story, and of the show, are Bricklin, a cowboy-hatted go-getter from Arizona, and Richard Hatfield, then the premier of the province. With such cyclical economic sectors as farming, fishing and tourism, Canada's Atlantic provinces perennially fall on hard times and the idea of building a unique product in his New Brunswick appealed to Hatfield.

Although the gull-wing door and plastic body were revolutionary, it was beset by engineering and manufacturing problems. Only about 2800 Bricklins were produced between 1974 and 1976 and the venture ended up $23 million in the red including millions in provincial taxpayers' money.

The show doesn't flinch from the project's failures, but characterizes it as an ambitious reach for a dream by two men who saw larger horizons than most. The musical itself represents a leap of faith, as it was commissioned by the Fredericton Playhouse in 2009 - ironically with financing from the city and from the federal government - and co-produced with Theatre New Brunswick, which is also in Fredericton.

With a four-piece band on stage and an orange-red patterned backdrop, the set resembles a 70s TV show, and the action plays out in front of the band. Allen Cole's vigorous score rhythmically refers to 70s songs, but doesn't really contain strong melodies, although my favorite song was "Driftin,'" in which Hatfield sings wistfully of the ordinary government tasks he does and his desire for a really big way to make his mark. The book was co-written by Cole and Paul Ledoux and the show's structure - desire, dream, failure and the importance of maintaining hope - is rock-solid. 

The characters are rounded out by a working-class couple, Gerrard and Michelle, who labor in different ways on the production of the Bricklin. The five-member cast are all very strong: Shawn Wright as the driven Hatfield, Jason Chesworth as glad-handing Bricklin, Tania Breen as Michelle, Cameron MacDuffee as Gerrard and Kevin Dennis. The last three also play various demonstrating workers, political party members, journalists, etc.

The real Malcolm Bricklin, a very handsome and dapper 72, was at the performance and was called up on stage. "It's exactly how I remember it," he said, to great applause. 

Well, tomorrow I will be getting on the road for a four-hour drive to Prince Edward Island. I'm glad it won't be in a Bricklin, no matter how much we may need dreamers. I believe I can depend on my Equinox to start, its doors to open, its body not to leak. But that Bricklin sure is one sexy beast.  

P.S. After writing this blog post, I attended a reception at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery - right next to my hotel - for the opening-night audience. I learned that Richard Hatfield was gay and used to travel regularly outside New Brunswick, obviously to lead a life he couldn't lead in the province. There's a brief, puzzling mention of Truman Capote in the show and I wish the writers could have referred to his double life a little more clearly because he obviously had a creative soul and it was that characteristic that caused him to link up with Malcolm Bricklin.

Loved the party and meeting Tim, Cameron, Dennis, etc. Thank you, forces of the universe.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

No Person Left Behind

There's a modest little show called No Child ... currently playing in Greenwich Village -- modest in its production values, which consist of a stage, a gloriously talented actress, three chairs and a mop. It's anything but modest in its eloquence, passion, insight and reach: this edition of the show has just been extended and it's toured all over the country since its premiere in 2007.

The actress (and writer) in question is Nilaja Sun and she has created a classic teacher tale from her own experience as a visiting teaching artist in New York City schools. There is the initial idealism and apprehension, the difficulty getting through to the kids at the tough high school, the despair, the perseverance and at the end, hard redemption won by the kids themselves and their teacher.

The story is framed by the school janitor, played by Sun, who also plays herself as the visiting teacher hired for six weeks to involve the students at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx in the theater arts on the principle, of course, that this will make them better students and better people. "Ms. Sun" has decided to cast the students in a production of Our Country's Good, a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on Thomas Keneally's novel about a group of 18th century convicts in Australia who stage a play.

Sun, a wiry, exuberant rocket of energy, also gives us the anxious Asian teacher who begins the school year, the stentorian Russian teacher who takes over halfway through and all the students - the girls with attitude, the Hispanic kid, the kid who says his lines as if he has marbles in his mouth, the African-American boy who gives Ms. Sun nothing but trouble until he turns up with his part memorized.

Sun's portrayal of the teaching artist's low point is very effective. She questions why she, an African-American teacher, chose a play about convicts and laments, "I can't even help my own people. We are getting these kids ready for jail." Opening night arrives, the show isn't perfect, but the janitor comments, "I never seen them kids shine like they did tonight."

The play's title refers to the No Child Left Behind education law, with its emphasis on testing and accountability, and gently makes the point that that arts produce results that are deep and lasting, but can't necessarily  be reduced to a score or a number. This is theater for life.  

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Beautiful song, not so beautiful play

The song is "Jerusalem" and it doesn't have much to do with the Middle East, nor does the play of the same name by Jez Butterworth  currently gracing Broadway's Music Box Theater. Perhaps "gracing" is the wrong word for the play's protagonist, a ne'er-do-well named Johnny "Rooster" Byron living in an Airstream trailer on the outskirts of Flintock, Wiltshire.

Johnny, played by the awe-inspiring Mark Rylance, walks with a ferocious limp, the result of an Evel Knievel-like daredevil career, regularly gets drunk, plays loud music, ingests various substances, tells tall tales and is of course a magnet for various town characters, including a dotty professor (bit of a cliche alert here), a marvelously comic Morris dancer and disaffected teenagers, to whom he deals some weed and occasionally boffs (the female ones).

He is, like his poet namesake, "mad, bad and dangerous to know," and a general nuisance to the citizens of Flintock, which is expanding its housing developments and sends the police to evict him. Johnny, hearkening back to the mythical England of King Arthur and Stonehenge, which isn't far from the real Flintock, vows to make a last stand.

Rylance, who won the Tony Award for best actor in a play, opens his giant steamer trunk of acting skills - there is a physical sequence at the beginning of the play that is nearly a Dance of One Who Is Hung Over - and almost made this viewer care about a man who is actually rather a creep. (To digress for a moment, I wasn't quite as hot under the collar as the Times' Brantley, who said we would respond with "glassy-eyed rapture" to Rylance's performance. I can get more wound up about theater than anybody, but at that point, felt like responding, "dude, it's just a play.")

I also have to muse at the conceit of male writers who seem to think attractive women are just dying to go to bed with dirty men. This phenomenon occurred also in the film "Crazy Heart," where lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal gets into it with Jeff Bridges' chain-smoking, drinking, sweaty, beer-bellied country singer. Sheesh, I'd at least ask him to take a shower and brush his teeth. But this is fantasy, isn't it!?

Back to Jerusalem, a two-hour play wandering around a three-hour evening. It's hard for an American to realize how potent the song by Charles Parry, set to a poem by William Blake, is for Britons. It evokes the England of St. George and the dragon - but is that England really now in the hands of Johnny Byron, who is hardly an attractive free spirit but who has abandoned a young son and has no problem screwing a 15-year-old girl. Her relatives come looking for satisfaction. As a parent of a 14-year-old girl, I can't condone what they do, but I can't see Byron as a hero, either.

And if he isn't a hero - if this is who now represents the "green and pleasant land" -  then Butterworth is making a very dark comment on contemporary England, indeed.   

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Devil Made Me Do It

Forget "The Book of Mormon." The funniest play about faith, hands down, on the contemporary stage, one that had the audience (including me) screaming with laughter, stamping feet, wiping eyes, crying out with incredulity, is Robert Askins' Hand to God, which tonight was presented at the Southampton Writers Conference in a staged reading by The Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Ensemble Studio Theatre actors, from left, Scott Sowers, Haskell King, Geneva Carr, Steve Boyer and Megan Hill (and one puppet) present Hand to God by Robert Askins at the Southampton Writers' Conference in Southampton, L.I., NY

There was no program and I didn't take notes - I was too busy holding my stomach with laughter - so I hope Mr. Askins and Billy Carden, artistic director of Ensemble Studio Theatre, will excuse any inaccuracies, which I'll clean up later anyway.

The action takes place in what seems to be an anonymous Southern town where an attractive 40ish widow named Margery copes with a son, Jason, who has a sock puppet seemingly permanently attached to his arm, plus an intense 16-year-old who has the hots for her, local girl Jessica who can't seem to get near to Jason, and Pastor Greg, who would also like a relationship with Margery.

Things are getting a little tense since Margery is in charge of staging a religious puppet show for Sunday and things aren't quite coming together as planned ...

The humor comes from the fast, feverish pitch of the action - and the masterful work of these actors - and the constant dark absurdity of the situations with which the hapless characters attempt to cope, even as they attempt to do the right, the good, the holy thing. Possibly the apex of the whole thing comes when Jessica decides if you can't fight 'em, join 'em, and shows up at the son's place with a female sock puppet on her arm.

The scene that practically had me on my knees with helpless laughter had the son's evil puppet, Tyrone, and the female puppet engage in a series of, shall we say, carnal acts, while the son and Jessica are carrying on a conversation on an entirely different level.

Playwright Askins, whose photo is at left, was at the performance and I wish I'd known then what he looked like so I could have stayed and congratulated him. I hope Hand to God gets a fully-staged performance so more people can discover this fresh, original voice.

I have subsequently discovered that his mother actually did start a Christian puppet ministry and that he was a star choir boy. It is a great truth that you have to know what you are talking about in order to make fun of it and he has done this with great love. Well done, Mr. Askins.