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March 1/09

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The most recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Romeo and Juliet (Ballet); Nightwatching (Movie); Wendy and Lucy (Movie); The Artist Project 2009 (Art); Che (Movie); The Incredible Speediness of Jamie Cavanaugh  (Play); Born Standing Up (Memoir); The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Novel)

Romeo and Juliet (Ballet) by Sergei Prokofiev; choreography by John Cranko; set and costumes by Susan Benson; starring Chan Hon Goh, Aleksandar Antonijevic, Piotr Stanczyk, Etienne Lavigne, Victoria Bertram, Kevin D. Bowles (March 15; performances continue to March 22)

If my records are correct, this is just the second ballet we’ve reviewed. It’s not that we don’t like ballet. After all, we at Dilettante’s Diary are supposed to be connoisseurs of all the arts. But I must admit to a small problem with ballet: it often looks to me like the performers have forgotten their lines. That doesn’t matter so much in abstract ballets but, with a story like this one, I want to ask the dancers: why don’t you just say what you mean and stop with all the dumb show? In the case of this particular story, it’s not as if they should have a hard time figuring out what to say. I happen to know of a Brit playwright who took a pretty fair stab at supplying some dialogue.

Not having ever seen – or heard – this ballet in its entirety, I was surprised to find that Prokofiev’s score made for such easy-listening, for the most part. I was expecting something more edgy. Apart from that well-known ominous waltz and some climactic moments, it didn’t sound any more contemporary than Tchaikovsky. I heard hints of Peter and the Wolf, perhaps not surprisingly, but a recurring phrase that kept suggesting Londondonderry Air disconcerted me. Maybe it had something to do with the St. Patrick’s Day parade passing on Queen Street as we approached the theatre.

While the sets for this show, with a cheap, cut-out look to them, are, at best, functional, the costumes offer lavish treats for the eye. But what’s with that silky, pinky/orange shawl of Romeo’s? I know that its fluttering in his wake is meant to accent his dancing but, if you care at all about realism – and I do – you have to wonder about the odd fashion choices of macho young guys in Verona back in the day.

For me, the production didn’t take flight until the balcony scene. Our lovers (Chan Hon Goh and Alexsandar Antonijevic) truly did convey the delirium of young idiots in love. By comparison, their post-nuptial morning scene in the bedroom seemed a little tired. I guess we were to assume they hadn’t had much sleep. But one detail from the bedroom morning carried over into Romeo’s death scene very effectively: while dying, he repeated an arm gesture that had signalled his awakening on that blissful morning.

Long ago, at a production of Swan Lake in Amsterdam, when I was just a fledgling culture vulture, it struck me as a great revelation that a dancer could convey character through movement. The only dancer who’s individual character stood out in this production of Romeo and Juliet was Etienne Lavigne in the role of Tybalt. Of course, the nurse (Victoria Bertram) came across as a fuddy-duddy but that could hardly be called a dancing role.

It came as something of a shock to me that the ballet ended with the lovers’ deaths rather than with the duke’s summing up. If you don’t have his admonition to the warring families, his forcing them to make peace so that such a tragedy would never happen again, what’s the point of it all? Are we just supposed to wallow in hopelessness and futility? Here’s where the absence of Mr. Shakespeare’s voice was most keenly felt.

Not being a regular ballet-goer, I was somewhat puzzled by the fact that Juliet got most of the attention in the curtain calls. Is that normal practice? Romeo did more work. Call me a boor, but I think a guy should get his fair share of the kudos.

 

Nightwatching (Movie) written and directed by Peter Greenaway; starring Martin Freeman, Emily Holmes, Eva Birthistle, Jodhi May, Toby Jones, Jonathan Holmes, Michael Teigen, Agata Buzek, Natalie Press, Maciej Zakoscienly

Sometimes you wonder where Peter Greenaway gets the backing for his movies. They’re so weird, generally, that the audience for them must be very limited. In this case, though, about ten funding agencies are credited at the opening of the movie. Maybe that’s because it’s a little less freaky than his usual fare. As a member of the audience watching it, though, you can’t help wondering whether most of us are enjoying this sprawling (two and a half hours) epic or whether we’re simply congratulating ourselves for patronizing such high-brow entertainment.

The story that gradually emerges from a tremendous amount of background static concerns Rembrandt van Rijn’s depiction of the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia in what came to be known as the famous "Nightwatch" painting. First you get the efforts to persuade Rembrandt to take on the commission. Rivalries with other painters come into it; so does Rembrandt’s financial situation. Then there’s a lot of jousting among the participants in the painting for the best positions and the right costumes. Ultimately, we get the critical fallout after the painting’s completion. Through all this, one of the main issues seems to be whether the killing of the captain of the militia during a shooting practice was an accident or murder.

But the canvas of the movie, so to speak, is much, much wider. A nightmare in which Rembrandt imagines being blinded by his enemies serves as a kind of framing device to the movie. There are references to international politics (England is in Civil War, for one thing) and trade (flowers, spices). The daily comings-and-goings of Rembrandt’s vast household are documented. People run about the house making literary speeches, except when they’re shouting "Fuck!" To escape the mayhem, Rembrandt repairs to the roof of his house for chit-chat with an angel who, along with her sister, has something to do with bringing babies into the world. (The squawling of a baby nearby sometimes makes the dialogue difficult to catch.)

As paintings go, this disjointed effort is more Picasso than Rembrandt. It’s almost impossible to keep track of all the characters and their machinations. The question of the captain’s death isn’t much of a grabber, not least because some of the discussions about it are shot from the mid-distance, with the result that you can’t tell who’s speaking. Most scenes take place on what look like theatrical sets in a vast warehouse: tall, bare walls, with dusty light filtering through high windows. Extras are constantly strolling through the background in stagey styles. It all reminds me of one of those extravagant theatre productions of the 1960s, something like a Peter Brook production of Marat/Sade. Maybe if you were an expert in the biography of Rembrandt and the history of the period – or maybe if you read all the hype beforehand* – you’d really appreciate this imaginative take on the events. For the rest of us, it can be quite a struggle to keep track of what’s going on.

Occasionally, the frenetic pace calms down and we get a mesmerizing scene – as when Rembrandt tells a young woman how and when he fell in love with her. Another fascinating moment comes when someone dies while Rembrandt is drawing her and he continues talking to her about how his drawing will seem to keep her alive.

In their portrayal of Rembrandt, writer/director Peter Greenaway and actor Martin Freeman seem determined to demolish the image of the solemn, stodgy gentleman staring out at us from the self-portraits and to replace it with a living, bouncing, red-blooded human being. This Rembrandt is a plucky, spontaneous, affectionate man who loves his baby son and who’s really into women. If for no other reason, the movie is memorable for this portrait of the artist as real mensch.

But surely all the arty effects should add up to something in the way of a grand message? I suspect there’s a delicious irony intended in one character's analysis of "The Nightwatch." The problem with it, he says, is that, instead of posing his subjects stiffly, which is the way real people always appear in a painting, Rembrandt has made them look like they’re engaged in life-like activities. But everybody knows ordinary people couldn’t pose that way for a painting, so the impression is that Rembrandt must have used actors for his models. In other words, the art is so real-looking that it must be fake. Could it be that, in showing how an artist’s greatest work is bound to be misunderstood by his contemporaries, Mr. Greenaway is trying to tell us a thing or two about how a celebrated movie director sometimes feels?

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

* [Since writing this review, I've read some of the publicity about this movie. Obviously, the proceedings would have been a lot clearer to me if I'd studied up beforehand. However, I like to take a movie just as it comes at me, without being influenced by the film makers' theories about what the movie is supposed to be achieving. And I want my readers to know how the movie may affect them without their having to do any homework.]

 

Wendy and Lucy (Movie) written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond; directed by Kelly Reichardt; starring Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton, John Breen, Larry Fessenden, Skeeter Greene, John Robinson, Ayanna Berkshire, Holly Cundiff.

Wendy’s the one with short brown hair. Lucy’s the one with short golden hair. Wendy’s the woman. Lucy’s the dog. They’re driving to Alaska. Because of some problems that crop us, they get stranded in some small town in Washington state. Trying to deal with these crises, Wendy flops around about as effectively as a goldfish out of water.

No question that this movie scores high on Aristotle’s criterion of artistic unity: the whole thing takes place in that little town over a couple of days. But the movie has claim to other artistic merits. It belongs to that genre of American film that I call rustic raw, as in The Station Agent and All the Real Girls. Excellent photography gives you glimpses of settings so drab that they somehow turn beautiful. The town where Wendy’s stranded is a mill town where the mill is closed. A water tower looms overhead. You keep hearing train whistles not far away. A mechanic’s garage in blue and white looks like a curio from mid-twentieth century. Rusty fences, shuttered windows, crumbling brick walls take on the lustre of semi-abstract paintings.

In keeping with the grassroots feel of the movie, nearly all the actors come across as very believable. The one exception is an officiously nerdy grocery store clerk. His purpose in the plot would have been served quite nicely without his being such a jerk. Everybody else – whether a receptionist at the dog pound, a night-prowling psycho, a taxi driver or a young male cop who’s having trouble with the finger-printing machine – rings absolutely true. An elderly security guard (Wally Dalton) looks like an intolerant old fossil at first but turns out to be the only local Wendy relates to in any meaningful way. One shot of the hardened face of his girlfriend (Holly Cundiff) tells us nearly everything we need to know about his private life.

Best of all is Michelle Williams as Wendy. This young woman is totally natural in front of the camera. She always makes you feel that you’re in the presence of a genuine person. But not one who’s easy to understand. And that’s the main problem with the movie. Clearly, Wendy’s mad at the world but we never know why. She has money but she takes risks shoplifting. What’s with this girl? Why is she on the lam to Alaska? There’s such an aimless, wet-dish-rag feel about her that it’s hard to become engaged with her problems.

That’s partly because Wendy has so little to say. (If you were writing the dialogue for this movie, you wouldn’t need to have an extra ink cartridge for your printer standing by.) In fact, Lucy’s the only character Wendy speaks to with any animation or vitality. Her simple instruction to Lucy not to misbehave – "We don’t need that" – hints at volumes of backstory about their relationship.

Eventually, though, Wendy makes a difficult decision. That saves the day for us viewers. It’s not exactly that we have come to understand her better or even to admire her. But at least she has given us something to hold onto. We can identify with her now as an agent, an acting person like one of us, not just a passive entity. So the movie has done what it needed to do. In retrospect, you feel that maybe you knew enough about Wendy after all. You can appreciate a certain minimalist allure to her story – like watching a single raindrop sliding down a window pane. Just don’t opt for this movie on a sleepy afternoon when you need some excitement to boost your adrenalin.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worthy seeing")

 

The Artist Project (Art) Liberty Grand, Exhibition Place, Toronto. March 5-8.

Last year, The Artist Project and the Toronto Art Exhibition ran head-to-head on the same weekend. Mercifully, for us viewers, the shows are spaced two weeks apart this year. Whether in the spirit of "So there!", I don’t know, but much fuss is made by the organizers of The Artist Project to present it as the premier art event of the year.

If this is the best art that can be found hereabouts, I can only say that the jurors who picked these works from 150 artists have rather different tastes from mine. For me, there's too much weird, dorky stuff on display – whimsical little doodles and scribbles without much composition, not to mention some borderline kitsch. In many cases, it looks like the artists are trying too hard to be kooky. I suppose this stuff sells if gallery owners can convince buyers that it’s hot. But it leaves me cold.

On the other hand, the show organizers could be congratulated for not including a lot of run-of-the-mill landscapes and florals. In fact, there aren’t many in the show at all. It pleased me to see, instead, lots of works celebrating the architectural glories of our cities. After all, that’s what most of us look at all day long, so why not try to find the beauty in it?

Stewart Jones, as ever, does his marvellous thing with alleys, buildings, power poles and wires in slightly skewed compositions. In a somewhat similar vein, Randy Hryhorczuk paints billboards soaring above conglomerations of rooftops, giving the paintings a special effect by replacing the blatant ads on the billboards with words like "Stay Calm". Debra Archibald creates geometrical fascination in her paintings by focusing on sections of buildings under construction. Bonnie Miller moves a few steps closer to abstraction with rough, "blocky" acrylics inspired by the shapes of buildings. Gordon Leverton’s pastels zero in on sections of doors, windows, walls and rooftops that make strong Mondrian-type statements. Rebecca Ott’s views from the undersides of highway ramps have a dramatic impact, as do John Ovcacik’s paintings of simplified houses starkly lit. The beauty of crumbling brick walls comes through in Alison Hodson’s collages, which include photos and fabrics. Michael Brown’s simple line drawings of street corners, with just a touch of colour, have considerable charm. I also like the way Frances Patella incorporates photos into her mucky renderings of urban scenes.

Among the more traditional motifs for paintings are: Phil Irish’s misty, evocative hills; Margaret Chwialkowska’s very colourful landscapes; and Rose Hirano’s wood cut prints with their restrained eloquence. Ellen Cowie seems to specialize in paintings of familiar cottage country but I was struck by the originality of one of her pictures featuring lights from cottages around a bay reflected on the water at night. Chris J. Cooper’s stylized paintings of pines on rocks have a somewhat Lawren Harris feel to them. Jessica Masters captures the bleak emptiness of country roads in winter and Peter Rotter achieves a somewhat similar effect with vast stretches of water against dark horizons. Joseph Sampson comes closer to photo-realism in his treatment of waves breaking on shorelines.

Moving towards a somewhat more abstracted landscape, there are Stephen Gillberry’s thick impasto paintings, some of them incorporating bits of gold, and Janice Tayler’s not-quite-realistic surges of rocks, waters and trees. Some of Kyle Stewart’s rich, swirling colours seem to represent trees but other paintings of his only vaguely suggest organic shapes.

In terms of full abstraction, there weren’t a lot of paintings that caught my eye. I was happy, though, to see recent developments in David Brown’s encaustic works. While many of his previous works seemed based in landscape or cityscape, these are looser and more spontaneous. Sometimes, underlying pencil marks show through, adding excitement and movement to the works. Lynn Kelly paints luminous, amorphous blobs against dark backgrounds, some of them seeming to suggest city lights at night. Bogdan Luca’s abstracts are big and bold, while Pearl Van Geest creates a more fanciful effect with her delicate colours.

One artist who was showing abstracts last year has "graduated", as she puts it, to figures: several of Jennifer Wigmore’s show an impish girl in playful poses. Gabriel Mejia does striking, larger than life portraits with strong, painterly skill. Natalia Laluque’s blurry paintings of a man with a cat have a haunting effect, as do Aleks Bartosik’s faces that start from a realist vision and turn slightly spooky. Also creating a somewhat dream-like spell are Fiona Ackerman’s disjointed paintings of people.

Two of the portraitists whose work most impressed me are Uros Jelic and Matthew Tarini. Mr. Jelic’s large faces, with paint smeared on them in crazy squiggles, suggest personalities that may be majorly screwed up. Or is that just the way the artist feels about them? I loved the humour in Matthew Tarini’s portrait of his brother. It’s painted in a classical style, with the subject positioned centrally, but he’s pointing a remote control towards us. A very suitable way to picture a 21st century person, since many of us spend most of our time that way. On the other hand, you can't help wondering: are we the picture that he’s going to zap off his screen? For surrealistic effect, Mr. Tarini has put a stormy seascape outside the window behind his subject. A self portrait shows Mr. Tarini lying in bed, looking at us drowsily, his naked body covered in mid-section by tangled blankets. Again, a very telling moment in contemporary life.

For impressive painting technique, you couldn’t overlook Joanna Strong’s multi-coloured balls of rubber bands. Julia Gilmore’s exuberant still lives can always be relied on to give you a shot of enthusiasm for being alive. Pauline Bradshaw moves from classical painting of peonies and a silver tray to a painting of nothing but red gloves. A couple of smears of red on the white background tell me that it’s all about the sheer joy of painting. Jon Jarro’s acrylics – a few leaves emerging from a pond, for instance – are stunningly brilliant. Susan Wilde excels in the meticulous treatment of fruit, glass and silver in her large still lives and I was drawn to Kerensa Haynes’ painting of something yellow --  flowers or leaves -- emerging from a murky background.

There were few watercolours on show but I admired, yet again, the fabulous work of Micheal Zarowsky, whose scenes of swamps and snowy fields capture the dazzle of light as no other painter's can. Warren Hoyano’s abstract watercolours, however, have a muted, sombre appeal. I liked Ilyana Martinez’s odd groupings of little buildings in clusters because they sported what looked like fresh, vibrant watercolour (although I can’t verify that that was the medium). Strictly speaking, Wenyun Hua’s paintings are mixed media but her Chinese brush technique produces serene paintings that look very much like watercolours.

I don’t usually pay much attention to photography and sculpture. Not that I have anything against those arts. Since you can’t take in everything, however, it helps to limit your range. But I was interested in David Perrett’s explanation of the way that his nature photos inform his sculpture, leading to his personal statement about the importance of the environment. Another photographer whose work appealed to me was Meaghan Ogilvie with her pictures of a woman under water, her skirts unfurling around her. Gerald Vaandering’s pictures capture the feeling of rush hour crowds in the city by means of photos transferred to metal surfaces and treated with procedures that were too complicated for me to follow.

While I don't share the jurors' apparent bias towards the weird and experimental, some work in that line did intrigue me. Xiaojing Yan silk screens faces onto plastic, putting one a few inches behind the other, so that you get two faces in a kind of double-exposure that could suggest a troubled personality. Carrie Chisholm uses paint markers to draw elegant figures (like the ones that fashion spreads used to feature) on plexiglass, then applying a sort of filigree over them for what she calls a "snowflake" effect.

At first, Min Hyung’s paintings didn’t appeal to me because of the predominance of colourful globs like marbles inserted into them. But then I noticed that the background paintings were very effective cityscapes of an almost architectural precision. What the clash of the garish globs and the realistic backgrounds was meant to convey, I couldn’t say, but it was arresting. I was also somewhat puzzled by Paul Saari’s paintings which all included tiny box-like houses tossed in tornado-like clouds. One such swarm of them blasted out of what would otherwise be a magnificent painting of a majestic, snowy mountain range. Peter Mitchell explained to me that, in his rather convoluted, tumultuous compositions, the line drawing was done on the glass that covered the darker, more coloured part of the picture. He said some viewers objected to the pictures’ crappy frames – like wood from weathered storm windows – but I loved them.

 

Che: Parts One and Two (Movie) written by Peter Buchman (with Benjamin A. Van Der Veen for Part Two); directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Benicio Del Toro, Rodrigo Santoro, Demin Bichir, Jos Caro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Joaquim De Almeida, James D. Dever

The first thing to report is that I survived. And I’m not talking just about the length of the showing. An even greater shock to my system was the cost of admission: eighteen dollars. When my nerves stopped jangling, though, I had to admit that it wasn’t unreasonable to pay roughly the cost of two movies. That’s pretty much what you’re getting: four and a half hours, including a fifteen minute intermission.

The first half deals with Ernesto Che Guevera’s role as one of Fidel Castro’s main cohorts in the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s. The Cuba scenes are inter-cut with flash-forwards to 1964 when Che appears before the UN to answer challenges to the Communist ideology. The second part of the movie tells about Che’s attempt to organize a revolution in Bolivia, about ten years after the success in Cuba. Given the end result of the Bolivian effort, it’s no surprise that this part of the movie is bleaker.  The only variation from the dogged pace of the revolutionaries’ campaign comes in the form of a few scenes showing consultations with US advisers in the Bolivian Presidential palace .

In some ways, it’s easier to say what this movie isn’t than what it is. It’s not a typical bio flick, or action picture or historical re-enactment. For the most part, there’s no attempt to shape events to dramatic effect. It’s only near the end of each half that you get a bit of suspense. There’s very little explanation of what’s going on. If you don’t know much about either of these conflicts, it’ll take you quite a while to get the drift. When groups of rebels split and go in different directions, it can be hard to tell what’s happening. A character like a journalist can come and go without your really understanding his role in the big scene.

Nor is there much development of relationships. You might catch something in that line if you can keep the characters straight but, to my eye, one black-eyed, swarthy guy with a scruffy beard looks much like another. (It helps when Che adopts his trademark beret!) A few women are around, and Che apparently marries one of them, but we learn almost nothing about that scenario.

What the movie appears to be is an attempt to give the feeling of a guerilla movement on the ground, day-to-day. So we get some danger, some battles, some heroics, but mostly the unglamorous trudge of the rebels, their stubborn dedication to their goal. It’s more about rain and heat and mud and sweat than anything else. Along the way there is confusion, even monotony. In this shunning of theatrics, the movie reminded me of Elephant, in which Gus Van Sant showed, with startling acuity, the utter banality, the ordinariness surrounding the unfolding of something as horrible as the Columbine school massacres.

So I found myself wondering if Che could almost be called an anti-movie, at the opposite extreme, let’s say, to the recently acclaimed "movie-movie" Slumdog Millionaire, with its artifice, manipulation and contriving. In fact, the very first scene in Che feels like a scrap scavenged from the cutting room floor: somebody’s doing a sound check for an interview with Che. And yet, it would be obtuse to say that Che doesn’t have its own type of artistry going on. It’s just that it’s subtle, for the most part. It takes tremendous control and vision to reject, as this movie does, so many of the customary dramatic devices for story telling.

Which is not to say that the movie doesn’t show obvious craft in some respects. The photography, for instance. I can’t imagine that the jungle’s raw beauty has ever been more vivid on screen. There’s also the slightly weird music contributing just the right effect in the background. Obviously there’s some artistic purpose whereby the UN scenes, in a slightly fuzzy black and white, contrast with the brilliantly clear and colourful jungle scenes. And there might even be implications in the lack of any opening or closing credits. (Instead, they give you a thick glossy brochure with all that info when you buy your ticket.) But, as you know, we don’t belabour such esoterica here at Dilettante’s Diary.

In a movie where realism seems a primary virtue, it’s odd to notice some wooden acting in smaller parts. You can see an actor following instructions: this is the place where I’m supposed to give a wide-eyed reaction and then turn away. It’s only because the overall tone of the movie is so authentic that these lapses are noticeable. But I suppose, when you want real-looking campesinos for your movie, you’re going to end up with a few moments where their inexperience before the camera shows.

But there’s no noticeable flaw in Benicio del Toro’s take on the title role. Although he looks older than Che was at the times depicted, there’s no denying the integrity of his portrayal. The Che we get here doesn’t much resemble Gael Garcia Bernal’s fun-loving Che in The Motorcycle Diaries (see review – Dilettante's Diary "Movies" page, near the bottom of the navigation bar) – admittedly a younger version of the character. Signor del Toro gives us a dedicated, serious man with nothing particularly charismatic or inspiring about him. As this movie would have it, he was motivated, at great sacrifice to his personal comfort, by a desire to improve the lives of the poor who were getting screwed by the wealthy. Other portraits of Che play up his predatory sexuality but there’s none of that here. Which doesn’t mean that this Che is a saint. He’s capable of executing someone he considers a traitor to the cause. Still, he’s the kind of leader who insists that his soldiers return a stolen car to its rightful owner.

The fact that the movie doesn’t glorify Che is the best thing about it, for me. It leaves you to draw your own conclusions about him. And it keeps you thinking about questions like: when is armed struggle justified? Some current aspects of the issue come to mind when the movie visits the camps where Che trained his rebels. Who can see that kind of thing without being reminded of other kinds of training camps, the thought of which sends shivers through most of us these days?

Rating: C+ (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing" – but not, in this case, if you want easy entertainment in your movies.)

 

The Incredible Speediness of Jamie Cavanaugh (Play) by Chris Craddock; directed by Richard Greenblatt; starring Emma Hunter, Madeleine Donohue, Andrew Moodie and Aaron Willis. A co-production of Roseneath Theatre and Carousel Players.

It was only through family connections (check the cast list) that we were invited to a preview of this show on Saturday, Feb 28th. The show’s performances in schools around Toronto and St. Catherine’s in the next four months aren’t open to the public and they’re sold out anyway. So I wasn’t expecting to write a review.

But the show was so thrilling that I couldn’t not say something here.

The play tells the story of a girl about ten, Jamie Cavanaugh, who has ADHD. In the title role, Emma Hunter, with her rapid-fire delivery and her charismatic presence, grabs you by the throat and never lets go. Instantly, you’re in this kid’s brilliant but scattered mind. She makes you feel the exquisite pain of constantly causing trouble for everybody without intending to. On top of which, she’s so funny. Ms. Hunter delivers one of the most affecting performances I’ve seen in a long time. To my great embarrassment, tears kept spurting from my eyes because of the poignant way she pulls you inside her character’s tricky world where flights of fancy vie with the dread of being labelled a "special needs" kid.

As the other characters in Jamie’s world, Madeleine Donohue, Andrew Moodie and Aaron Willis manage impressive switches among the roles of teachers, principals, social workers, doctors, moms, dads and schoolyard bullies. Ms. Donohue has one of her best moments as Jamie’s mother, who is driven to tears with exasperation. Aaron Willis does a beautiful job as the brainiac nerd who is Jamie’s only friend and Andrew Moodie is especially interesting as the bully who might not want to be.

The Roseneath group, under artistic director David S. Craig,  is said to be one of the foremmost theatre companies for children in Canada. From this show, I can see why. If you hear that it's playing at a school near you, do whatever it takes to sneak in. Disguise yourself as a fire inspector, if necessary.

 

Born Standing Up (Memoir) by Steve Martin, 2007

In many ways, this book wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s by no means a full-fledged autobiography. There isn’t even a sketchy attempt to cover the main events of the subject’s life. In the last chapter, for instance, Mr. Martin mentions his divorce but he never told us about getting married. Nor is this a particularly evocative account of childhood. Given that Mr. Martin has had several short pieces published in the New Yorker, I thought there might be a certain artistic touch to the reminiscing. Apart from the account of a disastrous relationship with a bad tempered father, however, there’s nothing particularly poignant about the early years. And, in terms of the laugh quotient, this book ain’t in the David Sedaris league.

What the book does very well, though, is trace Steve Martin’s development from child magician, to stand-up comic, to movie star. Given the context of this trajectory, there are unavoidably lists of the names of famous people who influenced or helped him. But the lists don’t annoy in the way of obnoxious name dropping. They serve simply as acknowledgment of debts owed. Mr. Martin’s unstintingly generous in his thanks to people like Johnny Carson and Martin Mull.

Some of the milestones in the development of Steve Martin’s understanding of comedy stand out. Early in his career, he had one of those Eureka moments when it suddenly occurred to him that maybe a comic should write his own, original material. Later, he found himself pondering the phenomenon of laughter in response to stand up comedy. He realized that most people laugh at a comedian because they want to signal that they understand that he’s telling a joke and they recognize the punch line. But what would it be like, Mr. Martin wondered, to make people laugh when they didn’t know why they were laughing? And thus was born Steve Martin’s unique, off-the-wall style of humour.

A couple of insights into a life in the arts struck me as particularly endearing. In admitting to a complete lack of natural ability, Mr. Martin says that, in the early years, creativity goes hand in hand with navet, "that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do." In a similar vein, he allows that "there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration."

In the final chapters, when he talks about the burdens of celebrity and his decision to chuck the rigors of the stand-up life, Mr. Martin reveals much more of his soul. We get his panic attacks, his hypochondria, his walking off stage in the middle of a show because of his sheer inability to cope. His semi-reconciliation with his dad is particularly touching.

And yes, there are some good laughs. But one of my favourites wasn’t intended that way. At the height of his fame, Steve Martin was accosted by a man in the street who asked, "Aren’t you the guy who does that Steve Martin thing?"

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Novel) by Mark Haddon, 2002

When faced with a little book that has become an international phenomenon, you have to wonder whether you’re dealing with good literature or a commercial product. Think of Jonathan Livingston Seagull or Love Story or The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency or A Year in Provence . Do these books satisfy anymore than a Coke and a Mars bar?

On first impressions, The Dog in the Night looks like something special. Christopher Boone, the narrator, is an autistic kid, based in a small town in England. He wants to find out who killed a neighbourhood dog with a pitchfork. The quest for the culprit leads Christopher into many situations that are hard for an autistic kid to handle – confrontations with strangers, for instance.

It’s amazing how well author Mark Haddon takes us inside the mind of this kid. With startling insight, we come to understand his compulsion to enumerate everything, his insistence on order and fact, his abhorrence for evasion and uncertainty. We learn that similes are ok, because to say something is like something else is factual; but to say that something is something that it isn’t, as in metaphor, is a lie and that’s intolerable. It’s intriguing, also, to see how Christopher misinterprets ordinary occurrences: he’ll think a policeman is standing by to protect him, while we know that the cop is actually suspicious of him.

As Christopher’s hunt for the killer takes him further into unfamiliar territory, we come to see better the strengths and the limits of his mind. He’s something of a genius in many fields – astronomy, evolution, physics, math – but he can’t read people’s faces to determine their moods. He refers to the fact that adults "do sex" as though feelings don’t enter into the equation. He speaks matter-of-factly about his dad's porn as something that’s apparently of less interest to Christopher than last week's weather forecasts would be.

Being carried along by the voice of this odd kid was fascinating. But I began to wonder if his shtick was going to get cloying. It did.

Call me unsympathetic to a child with a disability like Christopher’s, but his constantly reducing everything to mathematics got a little tiresome. Also, after so many pages of "....then I did this....and then I did that..." a touch of monotony began to creep in, no matter how sincere this reader’s intentions. The cutesy drawings that Christopher keeps offering, by way of illustrating his view of things, began to look, after a while, like filler to pad out a short manuscript. Not to mention a three-page appendix devoted to the solving of an abstruse geometry problem.

And then there were the plot problems. About half way through the book, some revelations about the dog killing and about Christopher’s family situation are downright melodramatic. It struck me that there were real problems with the writing here, in terms of motivation, plausibility and character consistency, on top of the device of resorting to clich. The adults – most of whom seemed unable to do anything much other than swearing at Christopher or apologizing to him abjectly – became very uninteresting. And the disposition of his problems at the end of the book didn’t offer much pleasure in its predictability.

For me, that is. The young woman who was checking out my books at the library, glowed at the sight of this one. "That book’s so good," she cooed. So who am I to complain when the publishing industry can still manage to turn out something that a library employee enjoys reading?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com