Dilettante's Diary

Feb 2/07

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Reviewed here: The Aldeburgh Connection on "The Singer and the Song" (CBC Radio Two); Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci (Operas); Venus (Movie); Casino Royale (Movie -- two reviews); Visual Arts Mississauga (Exhibition); Vodka Painters of Canada (Exhibition); Half Life (Play); Artists' Choice at the Roberts Gallery (Exhibition)

The Aldeburgh Connection on "The Singer and the Song" (CBC Radio Two, Sunday Oct 11/07)

The time has come to sing the praises of "The Singer and the Song", CBC radio’s tribute to the glory of the human voice as expressed in music. (Sundays at 1 pm.) To me, this one hour program, hosted by the charming Catherine Belyea, somewhat makes up for what strikes me as a bias against singing among the programmers at CBC radio.

This past Sunday, Ms Belyea devoted the program to a celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Aldeburgh Connection. Pianists Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata founded the group to present concerts – mostly in the chamber music genre – featuring established as well as up-and-coming singers. Many have become international stars of serious proportions. The founders named their project after Aldeburgh, England, where they were staff members at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. It was fun, on this program, to hear Messers Rawls and Ubukata reminisce about working with the likes of Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Ms Belyea played several excerpts of a 25th anniversary CD – soon to be released – featuring singers who could be considered alumni of The Aldeburgh Connection. For me, the CD would be worth buying if only for the contributions of Gerald Finley, a Canadian baritone now based in England. If I were a baritone trying to make a living by my singing, I would be very annoyed with Mr. Finley. Think of the human voice in terms of an instrument like the keyboard organ. Compared to Mr. Finley, most baritones have the equivalent of a pleasant-sounding electric organ than sits in the corner of your living room. Mr. Finley, however, can draw on the resources of a mighty pipe organ – from its resonant deepness to the ringing clarity of the higher register. He makes even the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams riveting – and that’s saying something.

The soprano on the disk, Gillian Keith, has a sparkling, agile voice and yet it doesn’t lose richness in the lower range. I can’t recall hearing her before but she apparently has a thriving career in England, specializing mostly in early music. Which doesn’t mean that her Schubert, as sung on this CD, is anything but magnificent.

Another Aldeburgh Connection alumnus, tenor Michael Schade sings some solos on the CD with his usual bravura. Was there ever a tenor who tossed out these lieder with such rapturous abandon and apparent ease?

At first, I wasn’t thrilled with the trio – the only one Schubert wrote – featuring Ms. Keith, Mr. Findley and tenor Colin Ainsworth. Virtually a mini-operetta, the piece tells the story of an amorous young couple poaching for their wedding breakfast until they’re caught by a games keeper. The music, like the situation, struck me as trivial. But, by the time the jolly ending rolled around, it had won me over.

Messers Rawls and Ubukata take turns accompanying at the keyboard in the various selections on the CD. Presumably, they’ll share the duties similarly at the upcoming concert to celebrate the Connection’s 25th anniversary. (Macmillan Theatre, Toronto, Sunday, Feb 18, at 2:30) Sounds like a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon – saluting these folks who have contributed so much to Canada’s musical scene.

 

Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, conducted by Marco Amiliato (Met Opera Broadcast, CBC Radio Two, Feb 10/07)

Neither of these operas is a fave of mine but I have a sentimental attachment to the package since it constituted my first-ever live opera experience – a Met performance in Detroit on one of the company’s spring tours many years ago. Eileen Farrell sang Santuzza and the Turiddu was (I think!) Franco Corelli. Teresa Stratas sang Nedda.

This past December, I was a bit wary of the new format for the Met broadcasts. All that razzle-dazzle! Did we really need it? I mean, we all loved the opera and we didn’t need the hype to bring us in. We were just fine with the solemn, plummy tones of the old time announcers. So what if the framework sounded a little stuffy and elitist? The music was the main thing, after all.

But now I’m beginning really to enjoy the new style. The kibitzing between the co-hosts catches a friendly, conversational note, managing not to sound too scripted. And all those intermission features can be quite entertaining. Notably, this time, an interview with the trainers who supply the live animals for the productions. And a man and woman from the chorus (whose names I didn’t note) provided some delightful insights on their view of the performances. During these intermission interviews, it really helps to convey the backstage atmosphere when we happen to catch the stage manager’s announcements over the intercom such as "Blood in the wagon, please".

Mezzo soprano Dolora Zajick (Santuzza) made a good point when the interviewer asked her what it was like to sing a "real woman" like Santuzza instead of the larger-than-life heroines she often sings. "They’re all real women in their way," Ms. Zajick said. On the whole, though, she seemed rather a tough interview. One got the impression that she didn’t take readily to having a microphone shoved in her face as she comes off stage after such a demanding performance.

Which makes Salvatore Licitra’s generous and spontaneous interview between the two operas all the more amazing. Especially when you consider that he was making Met history by being the first tenor ever to sing both Turiddu (in Cavalleria) and Canio (in Pagliacci) on a broadcast. His singing of "Vesti la giubba" was thrilling, to say the least. The interviewer, noting that Signor Licitra is Sicilian, asked if the jealousy required for the part of Canio comes naturally to him. Oh yes, he said, "jealousy is in my DNA."

Canadian baritone Russell Braun sang Silvio, the secret lover, in Pagliacci. Afterwards, the CBC’s Howard Dyck interviewed him by phone. Mr. Braun said that to get to his dressing room he had to push his way through crowds of fans "around other people’s dressing rooms." Ever the nice Canadian boy, our Russell! I once had a two-minute conversation with him. About 12 years ago, he was attending a concert given by voice students of his mother, Irene Braun, at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He was just about to head to France for some "very important auditions" and he claimed to be nervous about them. I feel this full disclosure of our encounter is called for because there’s no telling what impact meeting me might have had on his subsequent career.

In the interview after Pagliacci, Mr. Dyck asked about an upcoming engagement in Europe, where Mr. Braun is replacing an indisposed baritone in the title role in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. Although it’s a very demanding role, Mr. Braun said, the fact that it’s Britten’s music means that you’re barely aware that you’re singing. I think what he meant was that Britten’s music is well suited to the voice. But I couldn’t help thinking how remarkable it was that a singer could say that performing Britten doesn’t feel like singing. For my money, Benjamin Britten’s operas don’t sound much like singing either.

Clearly, the new, improved Met broadcasts are meant to appeal to a wider audience. The opera needs younger fans, of course, if it’s going to survive the demise of those of us who have been on board for some time. So far, nobody has stopped me on the street to announce that they've just discovered the broadcasts. I haven’t heard anybody raving about them on the subway. But here’s hoping.

 

Venus (Movie) written by Hanif Kureishi; directed by Roger Michell; starring Peter O’Toole, Leslie Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Griffiths and Jodie Whittaker.

You know you’re going to get marvellous acting with these old Brits. For a while, that’s enough. Peter O’Toole and Leslie Phillips are hilarious as a couple of elderly actors gossiping, reminiscing and leaning on each other (sometimes literally). In spite of their palpable affection for each other, they bicker like teenage males and swear profusely with their meticulous articulation.

The movie turns problematic for me when a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) – the grand niece of the Leslie Phillips character – enters their lives. Her character is so opaque that she’s hardly believable. Ms Whittaker’s acting is fine but the script doesn’t help us much to understand her. Thanks to her character, the proceedings turn decidedly unpleasant at times. And yet, in the end, I had to consider that what grossed me out may have just been a reflection of the unbridgeable gulf between the widely separated generations. I just wish the script had managed the issue a little more skillfully.

Still, the movie offers a vivid meditation on what life feels like when it's almost over. A scene with Vanessa Redgrave as the O’Toole character’s wife, from whom he has been separated a long time, says a lot about affection and fondness when there isn’t much else left. While the movie touches on many aspects of love, the main one is the camera’s life-long love affair with Peter O’Toole’s face. It will take me a long time to forget his haunting look: the frustration, the hopeless longing, the recognition that nearly everything has slipped out of his grasp, and yet the courage to keep going and try to pretend that nothing is wrong.

I don’t think the depredations and indignities of old age have ever been so effectively – and unblinkingly – presented on screen. For my own peace of mind, though, I had to keep reminding myself that these paragons of beauty and glamour from my youth couldn’t possibly be as old and dilapidated as they look here. All that tottering and drooling has to be fake. Just another aspect of the above-mentioned marvellous acting -- I hope.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Casino Royale (Movie) written by Neil Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis; directed by Martin Campbell; starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Gianinni, Judi Dench.

For the sake of marital loyalty, you sometimes you find yourself attending a movie you wouldn’t otherwise choose. I’m not in a good position to critique this one, since it’s not the kind of thing I see very often. In fact, the opening sequence features a ten-minute chase that is so scary that I didn’t know if I’d be able to stand the movie much longer. My heart was pounding and my hands were sweating so much that it didn’t feel at all like a good time.

But things eventually settled down and I ended up enjoying the show. The movie’s structured in such a way that you get about ten minutes of quiet time to recover after each of the gut-wrenching action sequences with the ear-splitting music. For me, the main pleasures were the great clothes and the fabulous settings in hotels, apartments and beaches. There was probably some fairly witty dialogue on offer but I couldn’t hear most of it.

Not sure that I was following the plot very well – does anybody? – but I gathered that James Bond was trying to outsmart somebody who was financing African terrorists. Although I haven’t seen a lot of Bond movies, it seemed to me that maybe the plot of this one wasn’t quite as clever or complicated as some. I mean, the central piece of the story is a high-stakes poker game that takes about twenty minutes of screen time. That strikes me as a bit lame in terms of story-telling. But the playing card theme does make for fabulous graphics in the opening credits.

Plot aside, I suspect the main goal of the scriptwriters is to see how many bizarre situations they can create for clashes between Bond and bad guys. We get chases and fights in the high rigging on construction sights, in a collapsing building on the Grand Canal in Venice, on the tarmac of an airport, in a Body Works exhibition. One clash in a hotel stairwell has somebody slashing away with a broadsword, believe it or not. And, in terms of other details, the movie seems to have all the ingredients of a good Bond-type thriller: flashy cars and gadgets, a bad guy whose eye drips blood, Judi Dench (as "M") stomping around muttering, "What the hell do you think you’re doing!" and a femme fatale with a chip on her shoulder. (But what’s with that one scene in the bathroom where she isn’t wearing movie star makeup and looks like a real person???)

The only problem with this movie, as far as I can see, is Daniel Craig as the new Bond. Not that there’s anything wrong with his acting. It’s just that he has raised the bar for manliness very high. And I know that’s the issue because, at a crucial turning point, a woman tells him that he has more manliness in his little finger than most men have in their whole bodies. I’ve seen Mr. Craig in some British movies that required a hunky guy: as Ted Hughes in the Sylvia Plath movie, the gay burglar in the Francis Bacon movie and the studly handyman in the one about the horny widow. But I never realized Mr. Craig was a superhero.

Although I’m not an expert in the Bond genre, I have the impression that Mr. Craig’s predecessor in the role – Pierce Brosnan – manifested his manliness with suavity and elegance. Which were at least within reach for most guys This new Bond is Superman without the cape, Spiderman without the web. At one point, he spends some time in a convalescent hospital but I think that’s mainly about the requirements of the romantic subplot. Clearly, the guy is indestructible. He leaps tall buildings (usually down, rather than up, but what the hell). He’s frequently rolling out of the way of mayhem, if not charging through the centre of it. He can have a heart attack and be back at the poker table – immaculately groomed – an hour later. He makes jokes when he’s being tortured. Add to all that a cute smile and very clear blue eyes and a guy can feel a trifle inadequate.

It’s going to be very hard for the rest of us to measure up to this new standard. I may not be able to leap tall buildings – yet. But, starting tomorrow, I’m going to shun elevators. From now on, it’s the stairs for me – two at a time, if possible.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")

                                                      *****

After writing the above review but before posting it on the site, I received the following one from our son, Michael Donohue. It seemed appropriate to pass on this appraisal of the movie from the point of view of a genuine Bond aficionado. Note: Before reading it, you may want to know that the following review contains more plot details than are usually revealed in reviews on this website.

It is perhaps unfair to call this movie a Bond film. It isn’t a Bond film as we have come to know them. Other than the name and occupation of the main character, this film has virtually nothing in common with the style and content of Bond films that have come before.

Let’s examine the differences, starting from the beginning.

Bond films usually start with an action packed sequence that proves to be relevant to the plot in some way.

Casino Royale opens with Bond getting into a fist fight in the men’s washroom, delivering three pathetic lines, and shooting an unarmed man. None of which has anything to do with the plot of the movie.

The opening credits of Bond films usually feature silhouettes of naked women dancing.

Casino Royale’s opening credits feature the silhouettes of fully clothed men fighting.

The typical Bond film has an intricate and nuanced plot.

The plot of Casino Royale is straight forward and inane. The bad guy tries to make money by blowing up a plane. When that fails, he tries to make money playing poker.

The typical James Bond is good at his job.

Daniel Craig’s James Bond fails miserably at almost every task he is assigned.

The regular James Bond is suave, sophisticated, and charismatic.

Daniel Craig is a lout who seems to have difficulty with multi syllable words. He rarely has more than five or six words of dialogue at a time, and when he does, it’s usually to utter some hopelessly lame pickup line. The fact that he looks out of place in a suit, or in any kind of fancy social situation, is actually commented on in the film.

Former Bonds have all been smooth operators with the ladies. They have all been fond of women, but not overly so. They have occasionally been callous towards women, but never overtly misogynistic.

Daniel Craig’s Bond is apparently inept when it comes to the ladies. Craig also seems to either utterly despise every woman he meets, or else he falls madly in love with them and would do anything just to be with them. He never spends any time in the middle ground between these two extremes.

The main villain in a normal Bond movie is an evil genius with plans of world domination. The villain usually makes use of some sort of ultimate weapon, an army of henchmen, or some other nefarious means to tip the scales in his favour. And in most films, the villain is either a deadly combatant in his own right, or he employs someone else who is.

The villain in Casino Royale is a scrawny geek. His secret weapon: he’s good at math, which is why he has chosen the sinister code name "Le Chiffre". The only protection he seems to have are several inept looking body guards, and his ability to spontaneously bleed on himself. Unlike other Bond villains, who wanted to rule the world or, at the very least, secure billions of dollars, this "villain" seems bent on securing a few million dollars for himself. And how does he plan on doing that? By playing poker. And he doesn’t even try to cheat!

In other Bond films, as in real life one would hope, the British intelligence service appears capable of sophisticated planning and strategies.

In Casino Royale, British intelligence finds out that the super villain is planning to host a poker game in Monaco. Instead of hatching some great plan to thwart the villain, and rather than just sending commandoes to kidnap him, which at least would have been effective, if somewhat unsubtle, the best idea that British intelligence can come up with is to have Bond join the poker game and beat the villain. Also without cheating.

In most Bond films, Bond is equipped with a variety of high tech gadgets.

In Casino Royale, the only high tech gadgets Bond uses are his cell phone, and a fax machine in his car.

Other incarnations of James Bond have employed their stealth, charisma, intuition, wealth of knowledge, and problem solving skills to learn information about the plots of their enemies.

Daniel Craig’s Bond uses none of these techniques. A ten-year-old kid could devise and make use of better spy techniques than Craig does. The "spy" technique that Craig seems most fond of is to find the bad guy’s cell phone, and then press redial. He uses this technique with great success on at least five separate occasions. In another scene, Bond is talking to the girlfriend of a minor villain and asks her in all seriousness "So, is your boyfriend involved in any sort of illegal activities you can tell me about?"

Is Daniel Craig a bad actor as the new James Bond? Who knows. He certainly doesn’t act anything like the Bond we know and love, but that is clearly the scriptwriters’ fault. Sean Connery himself couldn’t seem cool using some of the lines Craig is asked to deliver. There will no doubt be another Bond film coming soon, and maybe we’ll see what Craig can do in that. But one thing is sure, as a Bond Film, Casino Royale is the pits.

Ok, so it’s not a good Bond film. But is it a good action movie? No. Even for a generic action flick, it’s pretty bad.

The movie starts with a scene in which Bond chases a bad guy through a construction site, up buildings, and all over the place. The scene is totally pointless. Neither the actions of Bond, nor those of the bad guy, make any sense. And the scene is generally irrelevant to the overall plot of the movie. But still, it is a really cool chase. Unfortunately, the film goes down hill from there.

The film is entirely too long, and most of it is a bore to watch. Case in point, we get about 20 minutes of the film devoted to Bond, the Villain, and eight other irrelevant characters sitting around a table playing poker. Bond raises, the villain re-raises, Bond folds, oooh, will the excitement never cease? If I wanted to see poker, I would watch it on TV. The scene isn’t even good poker. The villain, who is supposed to be a super genius at poker, has this one small problem. He blinks rapidly and uncontrollably when he’s bluffing. Obviously only a master strategist such as Bond could have noticed such a subtle nuance. So subtle that not only does Bond have to bring it to our attention by telling his colleagues, but later in this interminably long scene, one of the other characters has to remark "Look, his eyes are blinking, just like Bond said – that means he must be bluffing." Thanks a lot buddy. What is this, cinema for the visually impaired?

Besides the incredibly dull poker scene, we also get treated to almost half an hour of Bond and his girlfriend (yes, girlfriend) just hanging out together and talking about how in love they are with each other. These scenes have moronic dialogue, and totally lack chemistry. Regardless of whether they are out of character for Bond, which they clearly are, they’re also totally out of place in any sort of action movie. OK, we get it, that’s Bond’s girlfriend, and when she gets killed or kidnapped he will want revenge. Now get on with the explosions and car chases. If we want romance there’s thousands of other movies we can get it from, and a lot more convincingly then we’re getting it here.

In total, the movie contains one chase, two fist fights, and one gun battle. That’s precious little by action movie standards. And these scenes only account for about 25 minutes of the movie’s two and a half hour length. If it’s an action flick you’re interested in, then Casino Royale is not the movie for you. In fact, the same can probably be said no matter what type of film you’re looking for. And especially if you’re expecting a typical Bond movie.

                                                     ****

 

Visual Arts Mississauga: 29th Annual Juried Show (Art Gallery of Mississauga, Dec 14, 2006 to February 3, 2007)

My daily routines don’t often take me to the far western reaches of the Greater Toronto Area, but circumstances so conspired that I was able to visit the Art Gallery of Mississauga just before this show closed. Although I found the quality of the work quite varied, it could certainly be considered an honour to included in the show. Only 65 pieces from over 400 submissions were accepted. And I’m glad to report that many of the pieces in the show had been sold.

Having admired the work of Simon Jensen on his website (simonjensen.ca), I was pleased to see his first-prize-winning "Signs": an eery cityscape showing a mass of traffic on an expressway against a background of high rises in the light of dawn or dusk, with a lone human figure on an overpass watching. I’ve also been introduced to the work of Sonja Hidas via her website (sonjahidas.com), so it was a pleasure to experience one of her abstracts "in the flesh" so to speak: a composition in acrylic on a goldish background with large dark blobs and bits of stuff embedded in it like wires, strings and beads.

Several members of the Toronto Watercolour Society, some of whom I know as friends and some whose names I recognize, are included in this show. It’s always a pleasure to see the work of partners Jake Moll and Pauline Holancin (both at tamarackstudios.com). You can spot Jake’s painting by the dramatic lighting on the trees in his woodland scene. And Pauline’s composition of oranges, white blossoms and green leaves makes a strong statement from across the room. I was fascinated by Doreen Renner’s "Nocturne". From a couple of feet away, it looks like a vivid, jumbled abstract. From a little further back, though, it assembles itself into an impression of some chaotic city scene – say Hong Kong – at night. I liked the strong statement and bold colours of Rena Sava’s somewhat Picasso-esque three women. Shamsi Shah Rokhi’s picture with many little faces, each in its own rectangle and all of them arranged in a big rectangle, is fun in a pop art way; it takes you a few seconds to realize that each of the faces is imprinted on top of a subway transfer, it’s date and time still visible at the top.

Jiri Ustohal, whose name I recognize from shows of the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour. deservedly won second prize for a scene very evocative of Canadian winter: a greyish, snowy landscape, with dark brooding trees in the background, a rail fence and flocks of crows like ominous shadows. In terms of pure watercolour technique, some other works stood out. I could not help but be dazzled by Ann Fullerton’s magnificent "Strawberries & Tea": a horizontal composition of bluish china and a box of berries on a lace cloth, all executed with meticulous detail. I loved Inge Tajik’s "Straw" simply because of the excellent demonstration of watercolour in the use of many different hues and values to create the overall impression of a golden bale of hay. Another watercolour that appealed to me very much because of its fresh, loose use of the medium in such an effective way, Carole Woodward’s "Maritime Mist" shows some sketchy buildings in a blur of foggy atmosphere.

Among the abstracts, Bozena Bar’s "Timbre of Emotion", which won third prize, invites a lot of looking. Although it’s a bit hard to imagine having so much red in your living room, the painting boils and surges with powerful reds and oranges in sulphurous masses, with just one dark spot where the red slows to thin drips. Robin Hollingdrake’s dramatic abstract – mostly bold vertical swatches – caught my attention immediately. Lydia Panart’s "Too Much" has a solid red space in the foreground, a dark background, and an angular structure that looks like a delapidated bit of scenery left over from a play. Hanging on this structure is a conglomeration of shapes and colours. At first , the painting struck me as an odd combination of the geometric with the amorphous. But those globs of colour absorbed my attention for along time. Olga Shiels "Vessel of Dreams" offers very soothing, contemplative washes of acrylic in various beige-like hues, with just one darker corner. I wish it had a gold frame though instead of the black one that, to my taste, dulls the picture.

There’s a ballot box at the door to the gallery where viewers are invited to vote for their favourite picture. I voted for Ed Kornachuck’s acrylic "Promises to Keep": a very simple composition of shadows of trees on snow against a dark forest background. The use of the paint and the economy of means to achieve the effect are masterful. It may not be the most imaginative or innovative entry in the show. It’s just the best.

 

Vodka Painters of Canada (Exhibition) Etobicoke Civic Centre Art Gallery (January 29 to February 21) Marion Andrews, Frank Webb, Gery Puley, Pauline Holancin, Elizabeth Jaworski, Elisabeth Gibson, Carolyne Pascoe, Peter VanGils, Jake Mol, Thelma Likuski, William Vincent, Fred Collins.

I was delighted to be able to attend the opening of this show of miniatures by members of the Vodka Painters of Canada, several of them friends from the Toronto Watercolour Society. According to Pauline Holancin, the group members take vodka with them when they do watercolours on location in the winter. The vodka goes into the water to keep it from freezing. "That’s the story," she insists, laughingly.

When it comes to art shows, you see lots of shows with some good and some not so good pictures but you’ll seldom see a show with so many little gems as there are here. And they’re all very reasonably priced (around $170). Makes you want to gather up handfulls of them.

It’s unfair to single out just a few but I can’t resist mentioning some: Pauline’s vibrantly red poppies, Jake Mol’s woodland scenes (with his characteristic lighting), Carolyne Pascoe’s peaceful snow scenes, Fred Collins’ marvellous composition of walls in a French street scene, Peter Van Gils’ use of bright patches of colour in "Peter’s Place" and Gery Puley’s "Croatian Sisters" – a charming study of nuns at work. Elisabeth Gibson has developed a distinctive style that makes a masterpiece of virtually anything she does – take your pick. I’m a special fan of Elizabeth Jaworski’s watercolours but the one that really caught my breath in this show is the humourously entitled "Lunch Special": a very effective composition – with not much more than shadows and blobs – to create the effect of birds feeding on seeds in the snow. (I believe it’s sold – too bad.)

The very distinguished American artist Frank Webb is, apparently, an honourary member of the group. Any of his five paintings in this show would be a treasure. My particular favourite – "Gone to Pot": a quick ink sketch of a ragged plant on a table, a chair in the background, the whole washed with greyish pinks. It’s thrilling to see what great artists can do with so little.

 

Half Life (Play) written by John Mighton, directed by Daniel Brooks, with Laura De Carteret, Barbara Gordon, Carolyn Hetherington, Maggie Huculak, Randy Hughson, Diego Matamoros and Eric Peterson (Canstage, Toronto, until February 3)

The final lines of a play may bring on tentative applause for one of two reasons:  either the audience is stunned into momentary silence by the dramatic impact of the piece or, as in the case of this play, there has been such a lack of a dramatic experience, that they’re not sure it’s over.

Here we have some encounters among elderly people in a nursing home. Between these mildly charming scenes, relatives of the patients sit in the home’s waiting room and discuss the meaning of life. They’re often joined by a fatuous chaplain who seems to have nothing much to do. Why do these people spend so much time in the waiting room? Apparently because the playwright can’t think of any other way to fit in what he wants them to say. And there’s a scene near the beginning of the play – something about a man trying to determine whether he’s talking to a human or a computer – that seems to belong in another play. The scene is presumably meant to establish themes that run through this work but they don’t.

This play is so loosely structured and so lacking in theatrical momentum that it feels like the work of an author who is more familiar with movies and television than with the theatre. The piece might work as a gentle, quiet film, with quick cuts, close-ups and all the camera tricks that can help to make such a slight piece come to life. In the theatre, it bogs down, what with all the re-arranging of furniture and pulling of curtains between scenes. More energy and imagination go into the choreography of these scene changes than into the play itself.

I don’t think words like "lethargic", "soporific" and "moribund" should keep coming to mind -- even in a play about people who are dying.

 

Artists’ Choice (Exhibition) Roberts Gallery, Toronto, until Feb 17

This show gives me a chance to see works by several of my favourites among the Roberts Gallery’s artists, along with some I haven’t noticed before. I’ve admired Mary Anne Ludlam’s finely-chiselled, pure, transparent landcapes for some time, so it was fun to see some some urban scenes here – delightful storefronts – in her trademark watercolour style. I love what Joseph Peller does with cityscapes and, in particular, his "Bridge Nocturne": all bluish night with the lights of a ship and a bridge. As usual, John Lennard’s exuberant abstracts catch the eye. For some reason, Rachel Gareau’s abstracts have a special appeal for me. There seems to be something perfect in their balance of colour, form, dynamism and rest. Valda Ostreicher’s boldly painted still lives – three paintings featuring egg plant dishes – are very striking. I don’t remember noticing Paul Healey’s pictures before but I love his "Dreaming" – a very simple composition of a dog sleeping by an old wood stove, a window in the background.

But the main point of this show, as far as I’m concerned, is Ming Zhou. The invitation to the show, by including his dates, informed the public that this supreme master of watercolours died of cancer last year in his mid forties. The family had kept this tragic news private; many people in the artistic community had no inkling that he had even been sick. This show includes several of his superb still lives – usually just a vase with a few flowers or sprigs of greenery against a brooding background – ethereal compositions that are all about mood and ineffable beauty. To my mind, no one has ever captured the special qualities of watercolour as well as Ming Zhou does in these paintings. The show also includes one of his more recent works on yupo (a plasticized paper that makes the paint slip and slide). It’s a scene of a village bridge, a souvenir of one of his last trips to China. This is an entirely different kind of picture; the main points are the marvellous structure of the composition and the amazing control of the paint on the maddeningly difficult surface. This picture has been sold. If you’re the owner of one of his paintings, consider yourself lucky.

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