Wednesday, October 30, 2019

frankenstein | program notes | julia lank

Pacific Theatre produces very little science fiction. Indeed, it’s rare to see the genre on stage at all. And yet, the questions asked by Shelley in 1816 - what differentiates human life from the monstrous? How can we make amends for our vilest acts? why were we gifted with the power to create, and to destroy? - reflect in every way the ideas Pacific Theatre was founded to explore.

Playwright Peter Church has created two previous radio-play adaptations for Pacific: beautiful period-inspired interpretations of Christmas stories It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. With returning cast members Matthew Simmons and Diana Squires and another sonic-based world to explore, it would have been easy to continue in the vein of those productions. But director Chris Lam chose to dig into the darker aspects of the story.

Frankenstein and his monster are a clear allegory for many things - one is the peril of thoughtless creation. Artists tend to idolize creation and creativity; they are, after all, bound to and dependent upon their ability to create. But Frankenstein looks through the glass at the decisions we make in pride and panic, and the dark spectres we raise when our vision narrows too far. The power of art - the ability to affect the mind and soul of a listener - is an awesome responsibility, when held to the light. Wherever our sympathies lie at the end of the story, Victor’s desire to transcend the limits of creativity is a dim mirror that hides in the back room of all artistic souls.

Pacific is thrilled to offer a glimpse down this dark road with the talented cast and crew of Wireless Wings, and to continue offering artists opportunities to create - with eyes wide open.

by Julia Lank

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

nov 1 | kwerks | 'find your loud' premiere party

The moment The Kwerks appeared on the CHRISTMAS PRESENCE stage a few years ago, they instantly became regulars. A couple years back they debuted a new tune, The Drum Song, that felt like a departure from their usual Kwerky, upbeat style. And this summer they retitled the song, and created a video with another Pacific Theatre guy, Jason Goode, who directed a memorable production of DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA in 2012. Jason gave me an advance look at it, and I was so moved; more than a music video, it's essentially a brilliant short film. Several terrific performances, including Shauna Johannesen (COMMON GRACE) and Aleks Paunovic (DANNY& THE DEEP BLUE SEA).

Laura Koch (head Kwerk) writes: "We’ve been working for a long time towards the release of our song “Find Your Loud” - you might remember it titled Drum Song when we played it at Christmas Presence. Well it’s re-titled, and we worked with Jason Goode’s production company to put together a beautiful music video which we’re showing at The Clova this Friday in a celebration of the release. There will be live music (by our band, of course), popcorn, the screening, a Q&A with cast & crew, and even some fancy new quirky merch."

The Kwerks
FIND YOUR LOUD release party and concert

fri nov 1 @ 7pm
clova theatre | 5732 176 street, surrey

Monday, October 28, 2019

allen desnoyers | pier 21

Allen Desnoyers co-founded Pacific Theatre with me, back in 1984. He still appears in Christmas Presence from time to time, and we've got a Christmas musical in the wings that would feature Allen as performer and Musical Director. But he's pretty busy with his own company, Canadiana Musical Theatre, that tours shows to communities and schools around western Canada. His new piece, Pier 21, played an extended run right at Pier 21 itself this summer, the Halifax entry point for over a million and a half migrants coming to Canada over the past century. There's a rare opportunity to see a public performance of the show this Saturday in Tsawwassen.

by Allen Desnoyers

sat nov 2 @ 7pm
South Delta Baptist Church
1988 56 St, Tsawwassen

tickets $20 online
or $25 at the door

“With the situation in the United States the past few years and the hostility towards people who are immigrants, a play that shows what it is like for people leaving a war-torn environment has been a ‘lesson in compassion.’ People have been profoundly moved. When you start exploring the level of suffering people have gone through, you get caught up in those stories, and you start to recognize the humanity you have in common with people.” Allen Desnoyers


The performance culminates a day-long writers conference sponsored by the Surrey & White Rock chapters of The Word Guild. I'll be speaking about writing my play TOLKIEN, Allen will talk about his process in writing a dozen historical musicals, and other speakers will include David Kitz, Rose Seiler Scott, and event sponsor Jim Martens. Information and registration here

Friday, October 25, 2019

oct 25/26 | curse of the demon

Pacific Cinematheque is screening one of Jacques Tourneur's fascinating, idiosyncratic, brilliant films in the lead-up to Halloween.  So if you've got a night when you're not seeing FRANKENSTEIN: LOST IN DARKNESS at Pacific Theatre, check this out.  I've long thought that this is the closest we're likely to get to a film version of a Charles Williams novel; the presence of dark supernatural powers in settings so ordinary and British the verge on the banal.  And while my Soul Food Movies write-up doesn't exactly sell the movie as a must-see, there are sequences that are unforgettable.  It's not something you'll get a lot of chances to see on a big screen.

Pacific Cinematheque
Fri Oct 25 @ 8:30
Sat Oct 26 @ 6:00

CURSE OF THE DEMON ("NIGHT OF THE DEMON," 1957, UK, Jacques Tourneur, Charles Bennett / Hal E. Chester / Cy Endfield screenplay, Montague R. James story)
You could learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark, although we tell them it's not so. Maybe we've been fooling them.

There's too much demon for me, and much too soon. I love Tourneur's grand theme – "I make films on the supernatural, and I make them because I believe in it" – and this, his last journey into the fantastique genre, is saturated with dialogue that goes straight to the heart of his favourite and most fascinating questions. But in this picture, I wonder if it isn't all a bit much? There's a thin line between theme and message, and when things get obvious we grow impatient.

Dr. John Holden (another of this director's uber-Yankee rationalist-materialists) travels to England to debunk a Satanic cult, only to be confronted with the reality of evil when he finds himself under a deadly ancient curse. He encounters any number of "believers," from seancing grannies and the sort of not-so-tourist-friendly British country folk who would later show up in STRAW DOGS and WICKER MAN to Fifties-sexy kindergarten teachers who won't take any of this guy's guff because they majored in psychology. (Reminds me of Dr Science: "And remember, he's smarter than you: 'I have a master's degree….'") None of whom make a dent in Doc Holden's boiler-plated and compulsive skepticism.

Problem is, the narrative deck is stacked against the good doctor from the outset, so there's no room for the sort of ambiguity and psychological suspense that make CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE so effective. Is Irina right about this whole fatal feline thing, or is she psychologically troubled? For the longest time, we don't know, so we can at least empathize with (and many times even agree with) the common-sense perspective of her practical Americano boyfriend. In ZOMBIE, we never do really know what's nuts-n-bolts explicable and what's the legacy of the past and what's full-on voodoo "more in heaven and earth" supernatural stuff – or even whether the spiritual carryings-on are evil or benign.

But in CURSE, we spend almost a full minute with the demon only six minutes in, a twenty foot wolf-bear-godzilla type beast that walks out of the darkness in that gravity-free, jerky way bad movie monsters have, all covered in unkempt black hair and flames. Violins swirl, horn sections bombast, there's this screechy noise like the wheel on some kid's wagon needs to be oiled, and a guy in a bowler hat screams, panics and gets electrocuted. And I'm thinking, this is a Jacques Tourneur movie?

Not exactly, at least not according to Jacques. When JT signed off on this one there was no monster at the front end, and at the back, only a four-frame glimpse of something that might be a demon, or might not be. "The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. The audience should never have been entirely sure…" The flaming black horned critter is courtesy of the producer, whose monster picture was darn well going to have a monster in it, thank you very much. "They ruined the film by showing it from the very beginning."

I'm afraid he's right. In a film that's completely preoccupied with questions of skepticism and belief, that's centred on a character whose stubborn commitment to scientific rationalism only slowly gives way to something… well, more rational… the presentation of a big, hairy, incontrovertibly real demon in Scene Two is a serious problem. When he first opens his mouth he's obviously just plain wrong about things, the audience knows better, and the more he opens that mouth, the more annoying he gets.

There are marvelous elements, though, in spite of studio tampering. When we first meet Dr Julian Karswell, the purported Satanist, he's playing cribbage with his old mum, and the film's most effective scene (loaded with ambivalence, irony and uncertainty) takes place at a party he holds for the local children, complete with clown nose and everyday magic tricks. "I see you practice white magic as well as black." "Oh yes, I don't think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them." There's something about the scene's utter Englishness, and its suggestion that supernatural parlour games may cloak real occult forces, that could have come straight from one of the supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams,the author who was such an influence on C.S. Lewis, (particularly in That Hideous Strength). "You know, the devil has something here. Very pleasant." "He's most dangerous when he's being pleasant."

The best way to watch DEMON may be to imagine the film as the director intended it. Let go of the producer's certainty that there is a big, nasty demon, and give Doc Holden a chance by leaving things up in the air. After all, most of us share at least a measure of his skepticism, don't we? If not about all things spiritual, at least about ghosts and demons and things that aren't the family dog but do go bump in the night. The interfering Mister Chester's "real" Scary Monster only succeeds in robbing the film's real horror any sense of reality, and that sells Jacques Tourneur's vision sadly short: he would have defined things less, left more to the imagination. As they say at the end of the film, "Maybe it's better not to know."

Also by Jacques Tourneur

Cat People (1942)

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

Stars In My Crown (1950)

Soul Food Movies index

Thursday, October 24, 2019

talkbacks | artist talkback & theatre club: ethical quandaries in biotechnology

This week we have back to back talkbacks for Frankenstein: Lost in Darkness!

Friday is our regular artist talkback after the show with you, the audience. After our Saturday matinee is Theatre Club, where this show's topic will be Frankenstein: Ethical Quandaries in Biotechnology.

Our two speakers are Holly Faith Nelson and Dennis Venema, professors at TWU, exploring the ethics of creation within Frankenstein: Lost in Darkness. Join us after our 2pm show for the lively discussion!

Holly Faith Nelson, Phd.

Professor and Chair of the English Department at TWU, Holly's areas of expertise include early modern British literature, British civil war literature, literature of the long eighteenth century, theology and literature, and politics and literature.

Dennis Venema, Phd.

Dennis' areas of expertise include developmental biology, cell and molecular biology, and genetics. He is an associate Biology professor at TWU.

susan alexander | mitchell prize

Susan Alexander is a longtime PT friend, and she's just won the Mitchell Prize for poetry. Must pick this one up - even if it didn't have a drive-in movie on the cover!

Bowen Island resident Susan Alexander has won a major literary prize. She was awarded the $20,000 Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for her suite of poems, Vigil.

“Vigil is an outstanding collection that is highly deserving of first place,” said Lorna Goodison, a Mitchell Prize judge and acclaimed poet. “The writer is a talented and accomplished poet who handles the language of poetry with great authority, and the reader gets a strong sense that this is a voice rich in experience and wisdom. One also gets a sense that the poet speaks confidently on behalf of a large community of people; past and present, thus fulfilling one of the ancient roles of the poet as intermediary between humanity and the Divine.”

Alexander’s previous work has appeared in chapbooks, anthologies and several literary magazines. Her awards include the 2016 Short Grain poetry prize and the 2015 Vancouver Writers’ Festival Contest. She was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize and is currently featured on the bus in Vancouver’s Poetry in Transit. Judges selected her winning Mitchell Prize entry from among 250 nominees. The biennial Mitchell Prize seeks to recognize Canadian poets whose work wrestles with the beauty and complexity of religious faith. Three celebrated writers make up the panel of judges: Lorna Goodison, Chelene Knight, and Scott Cairns. The prize is a project of Image, a journal of contemporary art and literature, and is presented with support from think tank Cardus.

Alexander, author of The Dance Floor Tilts, has a BA in English from UBC and an MA in Theological Studies from Regent College.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

frankenstein | reflections from an audience member

A substantial piece of writing about our current show. The author, who prefers to remain anonymous, attended the preview performance and sent us this marvellous, insightful response. FRANKENSTEIN: LOST IN DARKNESS runs to Nov 2. Information and tickets at our website.

Reflections on Wireless Wings Radio Ensemble’s production of Frankenstein: Lost In Darkness

Mary Shelley famously wrote that she wanted her story of Frankenstein “to speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror … to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” From the front row in last night’s performance of Frankenstein: Lost in Darkness, I did indeed feel my blood curdling and my heartbeat quickening several times during the show. Earlier, I wasn’t sure how effective a live “immersive audio drama” would be at expressing the disquieting undercurrents of a 200 year-old Gothic saga. As the four actors went through their pre-show warm-up arranging scripts on stands, prepping Foley devices, moving around in street clothes through a tangle of mic stands and cables, it was hard to imagine there’d be much magic. Yet within the first few minutes, I was fully immersed in the spell. An unnerving creepiness led me away to be lost in the darkness.

There is so much to admire in this production. The acting was raw, intense, and engaging. Tariq Leslie’s otherworldly bird calls and monstrous utterings were desperate cries from the underworld. Corina Akeson’s heart-wrenching dialogue embodied the anguish we all feel at confronting the limits and consequences of our darkest imaginings. There was added power in seeing the actors unadorned by costumes or make-up, strangely revealing the artifice of an audio drama. Scoured of convincing illusions, the naked sets, props, and equipment never let the audience slip into the comfort of unawareness. At some subterranean level, the alienation created by the visible contrivances embodied the spirit of a creator grappling with the created.

At times, I closed my eyes to experience the acoustical dimension of the play on its own. While this certainly worked and enhanced the effect of words, effects, and sound design, each time I opened my eyes again I was even more impressed to witness how the soundscape was being created. Seeing wooden implements voicing insect chirps, scrunched tin foil crackling like flames, and Diana Squires spiriting ghostly moans into a microphone didn’t shatter the acoustical magic. Rather, it enhanced the alienation effect: this is how we all simultaneously create and experience our own imagination - in dream, fantasies, or murky delusions.

The music and sound design were exceptionally effective and seductive. When the actors are just metres away – wearing tired bluejeans, reaching for audio props, sending spittle flying with exuberant projection – you’re quite aware of how the visual magic is working on you. But the audio effects operate in another dimension. They sneak in through the back door and grab you viscerally. Swooping aural atmospheres roiling like dark clouds; chilling disembodied digital effects that blindside you without any connection to wooden spoons or a vintage spinning wind machine. Again, the ingenious contrivances worked to place me in Victor Frankenstein’s soul, confronting powerful forces beyond our control. If an audience can be transported this effectively with sound, why would anyone bother capturing the story through a lens?

I wasn’t sure how I might respond to Victor being portrayed by a woman. Transposing a classical character’s gender, race, or traditional traits doesn’t always work. Yet with Corina Akeson’s first words I immediately understood why she was perfect for the role. Just as the story first came to Mary Shelley in a dream after taking part in a ghost storytelling contest improvised by Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and other poets and partners, the drama is at its core a female narrative about a male’s dark imaginings. What better way to personify Mary Shelley’s inner Victor than for a powerful woman to tell his tale? Shelley’s demonic yet pitiable monster portrays the haunted distortion of the motherless son. Just as Frankenstein resonated with the transition from the Romantic era to the age of industrial technology, today the story also reverberates disturbingly with the incel phenomenon: repression and anger still conjure up destructive monsters armed with self-justification.

One final thought about the staging of the play. The production obviously reveals a fascination with sound. Rarely have I seen such careful attention to the acoustical nature of a stage show. Although the audio mix was rich and varied, I found myself wondering what it might be like to hear the production as though it were an actual radio show: no lights, no props, just pure sound. To that end, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have the full mix of voices, Foley effects, and digital sound design all transmitted through the mixer to wireless headphones via Bluetooth? It could simply be an optional bonus for anyone with a pair of noise-cancelling BT headphones. Yet how fantastic it would be to hear all the subtleties and nuances in this sophisticated audio masterwork with the clarity, richness, and intimacy of personal stereo? Surely it would be easy to configure. And what an experience it would provide.

Thanks to the entire production team for providing such a uniquely stimulating and thought-provoking presentation. It’s rare that a night at the theatre treats you to an experience unlike anything you’ve had before. This production of Frankenstein does that with admirable artistry. I feel lucky to have had a chance to enjoy it, up close and personal. Congratulations.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

oct 18 | sojourners | cd release concert

Sorry, Soul Food pals! I've been away a couple weeks, basking in the glories of New England fall colours, exploring the fine burgs of Boston, Montreal, and North Hatley, and revelling in the season closer at Fenway! But I've now returned to my post, just in time to give you quick (if late) notice of what will be a splendid evening of gospel music this Friday night. So if you can't make it to the opening of FRANKENSTEIN...

The Sojourners were formed by producer Steve Dawson (or maybe by Jim Byrnes himself? depending which origin story you subscribe to) to provide vocals on one of my favourite recordings of 2006, Jim Byrnes' gospel-centred HOUSE OF REFUGE. (We used some of those tunes in TESTAMENT, a couple years back.) They're splendid live. And if you can't make it to the concert, it's probably a mighty fine record to pick up...

Freedom Never Dies EP Release show
October 18, 2019
St James Hall | 3214 West 10th Ave