The Sheer Power of Art


The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is a testimony to the sheer power of art, and creativity. Who would have thought that a sad, satirical short story written in 19th century Russia could be made into a comic opera in the 21st century Canada, and be so relatable and delightfully entertaining?

The famous short story is about Akakyi Akakyevich Bashmachkin, a lowly impoverished office worker, who is relatively content with his meager pay and limited life, until his ancient, dirty, tattered overcoat is beyond repair, and he needs a new one for the freezing Russian winter. With great difficulty he scrounges up the money to have one made for him. The new overcoat raises his respect at the office and his esteem in his own eyes. But alas, he’s mugged and the overcoat is stolen. It’s a blow he has a hard time recovering from.

The opera is laugh out loud funny. Morris Panych’s libretto is ingenious in that in its brevity it transmits Nikolai Gogol’s short story’s descriptions and omniscient point of view into the part for a chorus sung by two or three women. The libretto also adds new tidbits that are not in the story –snuff inhaling alcoholic  tailor –to the text, which enrich the story and make it funnier, and more accessible for a 21st century audience.

While Panych has obviously changed the story quite a bit in his libretto, he’s stayed true to Gogol’s created atmosphere. Ken Macdonald’s set design and Alan Brodie’s lighting design contribute greatly to enhancing this mood. The spartan bed and the lone light-bulb in Akakyi’s room, wheeled deftly on and off stage over and over again by actors, reflect the loneliness and alienation of the main character. The two-storey set, on which the Department Head and the tailor are upstairs and Akakyi downstairs, is a constant reminder of the social hierarchy in the society.

The added repetitious scenes of the morning rush, with Akakyi waking up to explosive music, and bursting out the door in his tattered overcoat, and the morning commute, with identically dark clad people in their sturdy overcoats hanging distractedly  from handrails on the train, reflect the numbing existence of workers everywhere.

The department meetings are a hilarious carbon copy of department meetings anywhere, with the director talking ad-nauseam but not saying anything, and everyone else toeing the line. Petty office politics, bullying, lazy incompetent workers, flirty women, and everyone judging everyone else based on appearances are caricaturized.  

The sad part is that even Akakyi, who was seemingly oblivious to all this shallow materialistic behavior, starts buying into it as soon as he gets his new overcoat. No one is immune to capitalism. Only poverty can protect you from it.

The opera is fast paced. Most actors have two or more parts. The sheer complexity of scene, costume and makeup changes is staggering. All is done with mathematical precision. Actors and their voices are all very good. Specifically outstanding are Peter McGillivray as both Head of Department and the tailor, and Meher Pavri as the secretary.

But the cherry on the cake goes to Courtenay Stevens, in one of the two “Movement Performer” non-singing roles. With his extensive physical theatre and clown performance background (including four years with Cirque du Soleil), his facial acrobatics and body undulations accentuate the music, intensify the mood, boost the hilarity and steal the show.

With only a couple of days left of its run, if you can’t make it this time, keep your eyes peeled for this show to come back. It’s definitely worth seeing.


Of Deer and Humans



In the last few months it seems like I keep stumbling on movies about the underprivileged, the outsiders, the ridiculed, the ostracized and the marginal. All of which have been endearing, heart-warming, tastefully made and beautiful. Maudi, The Shape of Water and On Body and Soul, all belong to this category. As one of my friends put it, it’s the story of an individual struggling against impossible odds and winning, that’s so appealing in these movies.

On Body and Soul, one of this year’s five foreign movies nominated for Oscars has an added dimension to it. True to its name, it’s a mix of two parallel worlds: the world of wild animals running free in a magical landscape in parallel with the world of subjugated animals in a slaughterhouse being cut to pieces and bled out; the world of the mundane tasks at work and in life for people struggling with physical and behavioral disabilities in parallel with the transcendent world of dreams in forests and lakes, trees and snow.

Written and directed by Ildiko Enyedi, On Body and Soul has won the Berlin International Film Festival’s  Golden Bear award, and its main actress, Alexandra Borbely has won the best actress prize in the European Film  Awards.

The story is set in an urban slaughterhouse in contemporary Hungary. Endre, the director of the slaughterhouse tries to get to know Maria, a new quality control officer. The HR director complains that Maria is haughty and conceited, but Endre suspects her aloofness is a sign of shyness. Soon the audience finds out Maria is more than shy. She exhibits the anti-social behavior of an autistic person, as well as the extreme mathematical aptitude and memory of Asperger’s syndrome. Due to some creative writing Endre and Maria discover that they’re having the same dreams, in which Endre is a stag and Maria, a doe. They’re astounded. So are the two psychiatrists they talk to. One dismisses the idea outright, and the other thinks it’s some kind of a joke. But the common surreal world of their dreams brings the two together and gives them something to talk about in their waking world.

Enyedi juxtaposes subliminal scenes of the deer searching for food, drinking from a stream, running in the woods, staring at each other across a lake, and just sitting next to each other in a snowfall, with graphic scenes of cows being slaughtered and cut to pieces, copious amounts of blood spilling, staining aprons, hands and arms, blood being hosed and mopped.

And then there are the awkward interactions of Endre, kind, middle aged, with one dysfunctional arm, and Maria, young, zero social skills, nervous, reluctant even to make eye-contact. Each lives in a bubble, with Endre able to navigate his way around his bubble, and Maria desperately trying her best to learn to do so.

The development of the love affair that ensues is believable and tender. The souls come together despite the physical and psychological impediments. The souls connect in the world of cruelty against animals and humans alike. The souls bring together the bodies through the blood.

The pace of the movie is leisurely, the music spare, the sound effects compelling. The framing of each scene is meticulous and elegant, close-ups appropriately at times touching, and at others, jarring.

The only people I would not recommend this movie to are vegetarians and vegans.

But lucky for us carnivores this gorgeous movie is available on Netflix to enjoy.

Painfully Beautiful

No matter how much you think you know about refugees, no matter whether or not every time you hear about refugees you think, “It’s not my problem,”or “Not again, it’s boring”, the documentary Human Flow, by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist and activist, comes as a shock.

The reason is, Ai Weiwei focuses on the magnitude of the refugee problem in the world. He stresses this point using different tactics. There are aerial shots of refugee camps, in which people initially look like ants crawling in the desert, or on a white brick wall. Only after zooming in, they turn out to be children playing in a refugee camp in a desert, or people walking in a refugee tent settlement in Turkey.

He shows refugees arriving in packed boats by sea, shivering from cold, walking long distances to get to borders that block them from entering, getting soaked in the rain, lining up for hours to get food, and living in squalid conditions in rat and insect infested tents with no hope for a better future.

He covers refugees and refugee camps in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Ghaza, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Germany, Hungary, France, U.S.,  Mexico, and sub-Saharan Africa. He has statistics and quotes from news articles like “There are 65 million refugees in the world,” “Some refugees remain in camps for decades, for up to four generations,” swimming across the screen. The numbers are so obscene that after a while they fail to register. 300,000 refugees here, 140,000 refugees there, and so on, and so on…

He often quotes poetry to lend poignancy to new scenes. People talk about the indignity of being a refugee, having lost their home, material possessions, family, friends, identity and dignity. Not only finding all doors closed with nobody caring or bothering to lend a helping hand, but even facing armed guards, tear gas, fire and barbed wire.

In contrast with the magnitude statistics and drone shots of huge landscapes, there are also some very personal scenes. In one close up scene two brothers are talking and crying in a tent in the dark, trying to reassure each other. In another, a desperate woman talks about being stuck in the camp with her young son. She’s got her back to the camera, and is so distraught that pauses and starts throwing up. In yet another, a man who looks crazy is walking agitatedly around some makeshift graves. Eventually he starts talking and crying, showing ID’s of his family members. Initially there were seventeen of them. Now there are twelve. Five perished and were buried near the sea by the refugee camp.

But the whole movie is not tragic. Ai Weiwei mixes in some happy scenes as well. He shows children playing, laughing and making faces, people posing and smiling for pictures, young girls talking about their dreams of travel and adventure. Heart-warming scenes like people being helped ashore from crammed boats, wrapped in blankets and given hot tea. Refugees boarding buses and taken to proper dwellings.

Then there are humorous scenes, with Ai Weiwei barbequing skewers of kebab in a refugee camp, or dancing with the locals at a feast. There’s one where he exchanges his Chinese passport with one of the many passports a refugee hoards in a Ziploc bag in his pocket. They joke and laugh and in the end he says, “I respect your passport and I respect you,” to which he gets a similar response. He seems quite at home among the refugees, spending time outdoors in the cold and fierce wind, offering sympathy and comfort when needed, sharing a joke and a laugh.

It’s no wonder. Ai Weiwei is a refugee himself. After being arrested, interrogated, beaten and incarcerated in his native China, he chose to leave, and take up residence in Berlin, Germany. Although he is an internationally renowned multidisciplinary artist, –he recently received a “Global Citizenship Award” from Adrian Clarkson—he doesn’t dare go back to China, because his life might still be in danger.

Another way he stresses the immensity of the plight of 65 million refugees is through symbolism and irony. After an interview with Palestinians complaining that the Ghaza strip is like a prison, a tiger is shown, which somehow escaped from Egypt through the secret underground tunnel and ended up in Ghaza. The tiger is angrily circling the small pit that he’s put in. A vet complains in an interview that the pit is no place for a tiger. He’s away from his habitat, with no grass under his paws, no opportunity to hunt, etc. etc. Letters are written, a huge effort is made, and finally the tiger is transported to a more friendly environment. Cut to a scene, where a multitude of people, Ai Weiwei among them, are jubilantly dancing on the street. The tiger was the lucky one.

The Palestinians still remain blockaded in their densely populated pit.

He also takes a few political jabs. While poor countries like Jordan and Lebanon take in countless refugees without closing their borders, rich countries like Germany, Hungary and the U.S. don’t let them in. The EU gave Turkey 6 billion Euros and visa-free travel privileges in return for Turkey to keep all the refugees who what to go to Europe through its land. Turkey, in turn, only spends a fraction of that money on the refugees, with many of them left to fend for themselves with no government support. France, in its turn, set fire to a refugee camp in Calais, forcing the inhabitants to flee. The US has a now famous partial wall on its southern border with Mexico, with border guards patrolling it. The majority of the millions of refugees are fleeing war and political oppression: manmade problems.

Human Flow is a beautifully shot, painful and shocking movie. It jolts us out of our complacency, and drives home the point that we are facing in Ai Weiwei’s own words, “…a human crisis.” And as human beings, every one of us needs to do something to solve it.

Where’s the Comedy?

Shannon Taylor as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.


I went to see Twelfth Night at Stratford with great expectations. The last time I saw the play, it was years ago at High Park, and it was colourful and funny.  So I bought tickets for the women in my family and we went to see a comedy.

Alas, we were disappointed. What was missing from this production was comedy. Especially in the first half.

The best word to describe the first part is bland. The set consists of two staircases on two sides of three metal trees leading to a balcony. The colour of the set is dark and the lighting subdued. Add to these monochromatic setting costumes that are mainly black, with the exception of the fool, who wears beige.

In her program notes Martha Henry, the veteran director, explains that in the first part of the play the design conceptualizes a world “initially shrouded in grief and mourning”, because Olivia, one of the heroines of the play, is in mourning. However, that explanation does not justify a full hour of visually dark and bland set and costumes in a comedy.

Reza Jacobs’ music is pleasant.  A number of white bowls are placed around the stage and the balcony, which are used as instruments that Brent Carver plays to accompany his singing. He plays them by rubbing circularly around their edges with a stick, to produce interesting and mellifluous notes. However, the songs are sad throughout, the accompaniment at times eerie, and Carver’s singing, although enjoyable, lacks in volume.

The first half of the play goes on scene after scene, while the actors stand around, sit around, and sometimes yes, walk around, talking. There’s very little physical action or comedy in it. The only exceptions are the scenes with Geraint Wyn Davies, as Olivia’s drunkard uncle, Sir Toby Belch, Tom Rooney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s infantile friend, and Lucy Peacock as Maria, Olivia’s waiting gentlewoman. They do inject some welcome energy into their scenes, but that is not enough to carry the sense of comedy and engage or entertain the audience in the first part of the play.

From left: Brent Carver as Feste, Tom Rooney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Mercifully the second half is better. Now that everyone is love, the lighting gets brighter and makes the metal trees look leafy and blossomed, the costumes get colourful, some action kicks in and physical comedy picks up.

Practical jokes are played on a number of people. The sour and serious Malvolio is made to paste a smile on his face and strut around in yellow garters. Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Viola disguised as Cesario are tricked into a duel against each other, played masterfully and hilariously by Afful and Rooney.

Michael Blake takes the cake in the second part, when playing Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, he meets the beautiful and rich Olivia and she practically throws herself at him, mistaking him for Cesario. Blake’s surprised and blissful facial expression and body language in these scenes are priceless.

A lot of good acting is lost in the play. Shannon Taylor brings as much life and zest as she can to her Olivia even while she is grieving. Sarah Afful is valiant and vibrant as Viola, disguised as Cesario.

However a few good actors a comedy does not make. Neither does one funny half out of two, especially if the play starts with the non-funny part, and the audience initially feels let down.

Overall we were disappointed in the production and lost two viewers out of five in our group at the intermission, after the first half of the play came to its painful end.

Exploring the Human Soul




Spoiler alert!

The movie The Salesman by the Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, is a well-directed, superbly acted, tastefully framed and shot movie. However, what touched and impressed me most, was the script. Its approach to its subject is incredible and precedent defying.

Summarizing it to the bare essentials, the movie is about rape and revenge. However, the rape is never explicitly defined as such. Raana, the victim, injured and distressed as she is, claims she doesn’t have a clear memory of the rapist, and doesn’t want the police to get involved. Emad, her husband, although mad, heart-broken for his wife and boiling with the need for revenge, gives in to his wife’s wishes not to get the authorities involved.

And so he starts detective work of his own. The first suspect he finds, looks the part. He’s young, cocky, too busy for the husband and gives him the run around. The husband is seething, but he doesn’t give in to his urge for revenge. He needs to make sure it’s the right guy he’s confronting. In pursuit of the first suspect he stumbles upon another guy, the first suspect’s father-in-law. Elderly, heavy set, with heart problems, he’s a family man and seems to be covering up for his son-in-law. Or is he?

Farhadi’s script questions everyone.

Is Raana really telling the truth? Why did she leave the door open? Why was there money left in the drawer? How is it possible she didn’t see her attacker? Why does she insist that her husband forgive her attacker although she’s severely traumatized? Is she really that traumatized or is she being an actress in her private life as well as on stage?

Is Emad the caring husband he seems to be? Why can’t he just move on and leave the matter alone? Does he really think Raana is hiding something? Why does he sometimes snap at her even during her recovery? Is his lack of action due to prudence or fear? Does he, a language teacher and an actor, really have it in him to take revenge? Does he want to take revenge because he wants to save face with his friends and neighbours, who have found out about the incident to various degrees, although Raana prefers to hush it up?

Did the rapist really not know it was Raana who was in the shower? Is he telling the truth that he had come to visit the former promiscuous tenant? After all, the door was left open and some of her belongings were still left behind in the apartment? How could he have known it was not the same woman?

What is the worst punishment for the rapist? A beating? Death? Revealing this heinous crime, as well as his previous visits to the prostitute, to his family, which will result in the family falling apart and its reputation –an extremely important thing in Iran—being tarnished?

Is the friend/fellow actor, who rented them his apartment when they were desperate for one, really the good guy he pretends to be? Should he have warned them that the previous tenant was a woman of ill-repute? Did he withhold that information because he was sleeping with her? Did he let her stay in that apartment for free in exchange for sexual favours and kicked her out at the drop of a hat, when a friend needed an apartment? Did the favour he did them end up being the biggest nightmare of their lives?

Farhadi asks all these questions and then some, but provides few easy answers. He lets his viewers consider all the possibilities and empathize with every character. There are no heroes or villains here. Nobody is absolutely blameless, but nobody is evil either. People act the way they do for their own reasons, some of which are not apparent. Everyone copes the best they can, but sometimes makes mistakes.

It is this, the absence of absolutes, that makes the script a masterpiece in exploring the human soul. Emad is a kind, caring and creative man, but he becomes obsessed with revenge. Raana is a loving, artistic family woman, but behaves suspiciously after the attack. The landlord is a good friend for Emad and Raana, but has shady dealings with his previous tenant. The rapist is a family man beloved by his wife, but he rapes an innocent woman and tries to deny and cover up his crime.

It is references, quotes and parallels between the story, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Gholam Hossein Saedi’s The Cow that make this script a universal and philosophical literary piece.

And it is the lack of graphic violence that makes it so refreshingly civilized. There is violence, but it is implied. No graphic blood and guts on screen. There’s no shortage of suspense and tension, however, but it is achieved through other means like acting, music, rapid cross cuttings, cinematography, sound effects, chases in traffic, honking horns, etc. The culmination of violence actually shown on screen is a slap in the face. By comparison Beauty and the Beast has a lot more violence than The Salesman.