Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Ibsen’s The Master Builder (Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre)

Adapted by David Hare, Directed by Brian Richmond

I have a confession to make. For someone who professes to be a theatre critic–I did write The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, after all–I don’t go out to see that shows very often. Maybe two or three times a year. I get squirrelly sitting down in a seat for too long. I have a distaste for sitting shoulder to shoulder. Room to stretch out is a necessity. I like the air fresh and cool, not stuffy rooms full of colognes and perfumes. But, when I heard that Michael Armstrong–the competition manager for the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition–was playing Dr. Herdal in one of my favourite plays, I simply had to go.


The Master Builder is playing from May 28 to June 9 at the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. The Blue Bridge operates out of the Roxy Theatre, a second-run cinema built in 1949, which it purchased and converted into a live theatre in 2013. The theatre is located in the lively Quadra Village district of Victoria, a brisk fifteen minute walk from the downtown core.


I went with CD to the 8PM show on Friday, May 31, 2019. We estimated the crowd to be 40 strong. The theatre itself probably seats just over 200. Tickets were going for $49 ($47 + $2 service fee). If 10% of the tickets were complimentary (a guesstimate), the box office would have taken in $1692.

At 44, I’m no spring chicken, but we were probably the youngest folks there, or among the youngest. One of the themes of The Master Builder is age versus youth. In the play, youth prevails. But in the audience, however, it seems age prevailed! Go age!

The crowd size was surprising. Opening weekend. Major playwright. Major play. Canadian premiere of the Hare adaptation. Great cast. Where is everyone? And what does theatre have to do to attract larger and more diverse crowds?

The Show

The set designers built a noticeable slope onto the stage, maybe 6%. This creates the feeling is that the set, which consists of wood-framed walls representing Hilde and Solness’ house, lurches towards the audience. It has the effect of adding tension to the play. The house has a front room, which can be a living room, office space, or the outdoors, depending on how the furniture is arranged. It is quite effective as a living room and an office space, but less effective as the garden. The house also has a back room, which is another office space. The backdrop is some type of sheet which makes it look like the house is built into an exposed rock face. Not sure if the intention was to make it appear as though the back room emerges from a rock face, as this would truly be a unique house!

Although I’ve read and studied The Master Builder on many occasions (it’s one of my favourite Ibsen plays), this was my first time seeing it live on stage. With one exception, and a major one, the action proceeded as my imagination had set it. The one exception was the concluding lines. I had always imagined that the final lines–“My … my … master builder”–spoken by Hilde after God strikes down Solness from the steeple top, would be spoken softly, with a sense of incredulity, with reservation and awe. But, to my surprise, Amanda Lisman spoke Hilde’s lines with maniacal intensity.

The next day, I checked the McFarlane translation of The Master Builder to see how the last scene plays out. To my surprise, my memory had failed me. The last lines were exactly as Lisman interpreted them, and not as I had imagined:

Hilde: [with a kind of quiet, bewildered triumph]. But he got right to the top. And I heard harps in the air. [Waves the shawl upwards and shouts with a wild intensity]. My . . . my . . . master builder!

This certainly changes things. It’s like I’ve been given a whole new play. In my mistaken reading, Hilde is despondent. She was expecting the Master Builder to return triumphant. His fall from the steeple was unexpected. She’s dejected and in awe that he could have failed. I’m not sure what to make of the correct reading, though. In the correct reading, Hilde is more intense, more maniacal. She has cast a spell over the Master Builder. It’s like a hand-off or a transition from age to youth. Solness had fed off the failures of Aline, Ragnar, and Knut to become the master builder. Aline had to abandon her vocation as an educator and a ‘builder of souls’. Ragnar had his vocation as the next master builder suppressed. Knut had to lose his architect business. Hilde and Solness’ children had to perish. When Solness falls off the steeple (or is struck down by God), he pays back his debt to nature for his success, his success which had come at the expense of those around him. And the tragedy of his fall will perhaps give Hilde her first stroke of luck in her budding career: the master builder had sacrificed himself for her in the same way as Aline, Ragnar, and Knut had sacrificed themselves so that Solness could become the master builder. All this is speculation. I’ll have to deliberate some more. Fascinating.

Perhaps I should go out to see plays more often? Or, perhaps not. Sometimes I like the plays as I remember reading them, the way they exist in my imagination. For the same reason, I don’t take photographs. That way, I can remember things exactly how I want–there’s nothing to refute my memory.

Theatre Program

I usually don’t write about the theatre program. There’re so many typos in this one that it isn’t funny. The cover page has the play running May 5 – June 9. Actual run dates are May 28 – June 9. The picture of Ibsen is labeled “Samuel Beckett.” Peer Gynt is spelled “Per Gynt.” Hedda Gabler is spelled “Heda Gabler.” “Emperor and Galilean” is spelled “Emporer and Galilean.” You’ve got to be kidding me. Blue Bridge can and should do better.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m one of the happy few doing Melpomene’s work.


War of the Worlds (Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre)

War of the Worlds – A Radio Play, directed by Brian Richmond

Here’s something different: a radio play. It turns out, in 1930s, in the days before television (it wasn’t until the 1950s that saw the proliferation of TVs), families huddled around their radio sets after dinner. On October 30, 1938, a 23-year-old Orson Welles performed a broadcast of Howard Koch’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with the Mercury Theatre for CBS. That broadcast would become known as the ‘Panic Broadcast’, as many listeners who tuned in mid-show missed the disclaimer at the show’s start about the work being fiction. As a result, panic erupted as some listeners booked out of town while others went into hiding, fearing the martian invaders who would melt all resistance with their dastardly ‘heat gun’. The resulting infamy propelled the young Welles into a household name, both stateside and around the world. Welles, riding the wave of fame, would go on to produce, star, and direct Citizen Kane two and a half years later, a movie on whom some critics have conferred GOAT status.


The radio play ran two days from October 30-31. FB and I went on Halloween night. The first act consisted of playing the 2013 PBS American Experience Documentary ‘War of the Worlds – The Panic Broadcast’. The second act consisted of a dramatic reading of the 1938 Mercury Theatre Broadcast by members of the Blue Bridge Acting Ensemble. After the conclusion of the second act the cast remained on stage for a Q&A talkback session to discuss what the dramatization means to us today.


FB estimated the crowd at 100. My tally came in a little lower at 90. Tickets were $30. So, going from FB’s estimate (round numbers are always good), the box office collected $3000 on Tuesday. If the box office drew in another $3000 on Monday, that would bring the total to $6000. With 6 members of the creative team (e.g. director, stage manager, costumes), 11 actors, 1 usher, and two concession workers, this $6000 would be divided by 20, leaving $300 per person. Good thing there are corporate sponsors: Caffe Fantastico, Times Colonist, City of Victoria, and Earth’s Herbal. Side note, I had a hard time reading the ‘Earth’s herbal’ corporate logos on the brochure, letters were quite small. I wonder how much longer the Times Colonist can continue to sponsor theatre? In unrelated news, a 71-year old theatre festival was in jeopardy after Sears Canada, which declared bankruptcy, ended funding.

The Show

The PBS documentary was entertaining on the big screen. It contained snippets of a wide variety of all-too-human reactions to the panic broadcast. There was a stern judge that wanted to put Welles in jail for mischief making. One lady told her son to finish the chicken dinner leftovers because ‘tomorrow isn’t coming’. The best was this one lady that decided that, since the aliens were invading, she might as well go down to the bar to down a couple of stiff drinks. Good thinking, that’s what I would have done! The documentary also went through some of the more interesting letters that came in to CBS, some praising Welles, some damning Welles, and some which both praised and damned Welles. One smart comment told Welles he’d better go to Mars himself, because it was the safest place for him after all the mayhem he caused.

The dramatic reading of the broadcast recreated verbatim the words of the original broadcast. You can see in the dramatic compression of time that takes place that realism was not the point. It seems that five or ten minutes after the aliens land they’re decimating the resistance, and after another ten minutes whole areas have become wastelands. The surprising thing is that, despite this, panic erupted, as audiences thought the newsflashes were real (the broadcast consisted of a fake music program which would be interrupted by equally fake ‘newsflashes’ reporting the advance of the Martians).

My favourite part of the show was the Q&A talkback session after the show. I would say about twenty-five people stuck around to listen and take part. I can see why they don’t always do these Q&A sessions. It would take some patience for the cast and director to answer these questions politely. There was some talk on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon today. And obligatory comparisons between Welles’ ‘propaganda’ to Hitler, Trump, and Limbaugh. There was a good comment when one person asked why Welles was seated and not standing during the reading. The director said that in the actual CBC studio, Welles could see the orchestra and the other speakers, so could act as more of a conductor. They thought about this, but it was difficult to set up the stage to accommodate this. Someone asked if anyone had died. The answer was no. But with a population of 140,000,000 at that time, you’d think that quite a few people would have died during the show. If 1 out of 100 people die each year, there would be 140,000 deaths in 1938 or roughly 380 deaths per day. How would anyone know whether the sudden stress of the alien invasion pushed anyone over the mortal precipice? Some good comments on how dramatic radio performances are: the mind fills in all the blanks. Back when I was a lad, we used to gather around to watch X-Files on Saturday night. After the show, we would put on the radio, there was this one station that, at 10 at night, would replay these old radio dramas. They were fascinating.

The most interesting point was made by the director: in a recent New Yorker article, the writer argued, and convincingly, that the panic itself was a media creation. The argument goes that, the newspapers did not like this upstart medium of radio. When Welles’ panic broadcast came out, to be sure, some were discomfited, but not to the extent that we had previously thought. What happened was that the newspapers blew it all out of proportion to discredit radio. I had a little laugh when I heard this. Not only was the broadcast a hoax, the panic was also (largely) a hoax as well. While we laugh at the people who fell for the alien invasion hoax, we ourselves, even today, fall victim to the hoax perpetuated by the newspapers that there was widespread panic. The urban legend continues today. When I told my friend MR about the show, he said, ‘Yeah cool, that the broadcast that incited pandemonium and people to kill each other’. Moral of the story: before we laugh at how gullible others are, we should make sure we have control over our own ‘fake news’!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

A Christmas Carol (Belfry Theatre)

FB treated me to Belfry’s production of A Christmas Carol on December 1st, opening night! It stars Tom McBeath as a corrigible Ebenezer Scrooge. Written by Dickens and adapted for the stage by Shamata. Here’s what the party looks like. That’s Scrooge in front of the door, wearing a grey housecoat:

Dancing Scrooge

Dancing Scrooge

Christmas Carol Synopsis

Everyone knows the story of Scrooge. Consumed by avarice, he is offered an opportunity to change. Three ghosts visit him: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. They show him how his miserly ways have made Christmas miserable to those around him. The shock of seeing himself from the perspective of the other changes him. How does he change? He starts spending the capital (money) on those around him. A donation to the charity. A raise for Cratchit. A turkey for Tiny Tim. Forgiving the debtor. And so on.

A Revisionist Reading of Christmas Carol

The usual reading of Christmas Carol is that Scrooge lacks holiday spirit. He is miserly and miserable. He makes those around him miserable as well. The commonplace interpretation of Christmas Carol is surely what Dickens had in mind. It might be right but it is, well, commonplace. If the role of art is to challenge, what is needed is not a commonplace interpretation but a revisionist interpretation. A revisionist reading goes something like this:

If debtors owe Scrooge money, is that Scrooge’s fault that he collects his debts? If Scrooge is paying Cratchit too little, why doesn’t Cratchit tell him to go to hell? Is Scrooge the only employer in town? If a charitable gentleman donates to charity, does his donation place a moral obligation on others to do likewise?

That’s the standard revisionist reading of Christmas Carol. I like it. But it doesn’t go far enough. Let’s take the extreme revisionist position.

Scrooge and the Problem of Captive Capital

Part of the complaint against Scrooge is his wealth. Specifically, he hoards his wealth. In other words, the capital that he has accumulated isn’t being pumped back into the economy. It isn’t making him happy. And it cannot make others happy. Like it or not, implicit in the story is the idea that money buys happiness. Happiness isn’t going around because his capital is captive: it sits in his vault. It does not circulate. How do we know this is correct? At the end of the play, when he starts circulating the captive capital (turkey for Tiny Tim, raise for Cratchit, donation to charity, etc.,) everyone becomes happy. So Christmas Carol is a play about the problem of captive capital. Or at least that’s what a revisionist stance would argue.

If you don’t like Scrooge, you are against captive capital. If you are against captive capital, you think money should be free, not hoarded. By producing things (or services) one creates capital. By spending money, capital is returned back into the system, where it can work. It goes around in a cycle. If the cycle is broken, then the capital has become captivated. It is useless.

Are you still with me? Captive capital (i.e. all the money Scrooge has hoarded) is bad. Circulating capital is good (turkeys for Tiny Tim). Capital follows the cycle of production (creation) and consumption (spending). Now the $10,000 question: can you think of an example of captive capital today? Not any example of captive capital, but the largest example of money that is doing nothing. Scrooge money, if you will. So big that it threatens to undermine the economies of the world.

Did you say billionaire heirs and heiresses? Yes, that is captive capital, but that is not the biggest and most damaging example. Did you say corporations and cash hoards? Well, sort of. Maybe. The jury is still out on that one. Apple justifies its cash hoard ($200+ billion and equal to the GDP of a medium sized nation such as Czech Republic) because it gives it autonomy. It’s harder for lenders to boss Apple around. The cash hoard gives Apple autonomy from Wall Street. Berkshire Hathaway is like that too. They’re both well run companies in my eyes. Did you say Buckingham Palace (as EK suggested)? Yes, that’s true. But what I was thinking of is bigger than Buckingham. The biggest and most dangerous example of captive capital are pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and endowments.

Pension Funds, Sovereign Wealth Funds, Endowments & Other Forms of Captive Capital

The popular argument is to make pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and university endowments larger. Pensioners benefit from pension funds, citizens benefit from sovereign wealth funds (social benefits), and students benefit from university endowments (bursaries and scholarships).

Here’s the problem, however. It can be summarized in a little equation r>g. or the rate of return of captive capital is greater than g or the growth rate of a nation’s GDP. Pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and university endowments invest in the stock market. Nowadays, the stock market is projected to grow 7% a year (historically it has been closer to 10%). The GDP of developed nations such as USA or Canada grows 2% a year if we are lucky. So, if r>g, pension funds, endowments, and sovereign wealth funds will grow to become a disproportionate amount of a country’s national wealth. To compound the problem, pension funds, endowments and sovereign wealth funds also grow tax free, a fact which further exacerbates the equation “r is greater than g.”

The tax free is a big deal. Think of the monasteries in the middle ages. They were tax free as well. They grew to such an extent that eventually, they were a drain on the national income: at some point, everything became part of the monastery, choking the government of revenue. Some say that this is why the kings had to make war on the monasteries, to reclaim the missing economy.

You ask, well, what’s the problem if captive capital gets bigger? Some might even want captive capital to get bigger. Students, pensioners, and the citizens of nations who have sovereign wealth funds would benefit. This brings us back to Scrooge.

In a healthy economy, there are producers and consumers. Producers produce, make money, and release the money back into the cycle by consuming. Scrooge is a danger because he produces, but does not consume. Well, pension funds, endowments, and sovereign wealth funds are sort of like that. Except on the other end of the chain: by paying out benefits, they support consumption but they are not producing anything.

Take the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund. It is a highly praised and successful model: instead of spending their North Sea oil revenue, it goes into this fund to provide benefits to Norwegian people. In 2014, it had $857.1 billion of assets (in USD). That’s 1% of the whole world’s stock market. Now, Norway’s population is 5.1 million. Conventional wisdom says that one can spend 4% of a stock portfolio each year indefinitely without drawing down on the principal. Since sovereign wealth funds grow tax free, the safe drawdown percentage is even a little higher, say 4.5%. So, a $857.1 billion investment should yield $38.569 million per year. With a population of 5.1 million, that means that each year, every man, woman, and child in Norway could receive $7562 USD for doing nothing at all.

Now, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund started out in 1990 and, in 24 years, has grown to $857.1 billion. If it continues to grow, sooner or later, everyone in Norway can retire. Even the children. This is good. Or is this good? Someone still has to produce the goods the Norwegians are consuming. So, in effect, by managing their capital well, they have enslaved other people in the world. Sort of like what Scrooge has done.

Ba humbug.

I’m Edwin Wong, and there is little problem of captive capital when it comes down to Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Here: A Captive Odyssey (William Head Prison Theatre)

A play performed in an actual prison by inmates? Who could pass up a chance like this? Not me and FG, who drove the 40 minute drive down the windy road to William Head Institution, a minimum security jail overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Performing since 1981, this year, and for the last three years, they’ve been writing their own plays. Here: A Captive Odyssey is the product of an intensive 6 month writing/production effort by the William Head on Stage Theatre Society (WHoS). As they said after the show in the Q&A: ‘every day a new script’. Warning: spoilers dead ahead!

Here: A Captive Odyssey Synopsis

HERE: A Captive Odyssey is a tale that is spun from archival research and oral stories of William Head, with inspiration from the book Quarantined by Peter Johnson.  Two inmate friends are finishing their final years of their sentences at William Head and find themselves on a time-travel odyssey back into the history of William Head, complete with shipwrecks and sea monsters. Through drama, movement, shadow puppetry and live music, audiences will experience a haunting time-travel vortex that whirls through centuries of both First Nations and settler occupation.  Before it was a prison, William Head was home to First Nations fishing grounds, a Scottish pioneer’s sheep farm, small pox quarantine centre, hospitals, dormitories, fumigation rooms and schoolrooms.  This land has many intriguing and surprising tales.


You can’t bring anything in with you. Wallets, cell phones, gum packages, and purses all have to be left in the car. Each couple is allowed one set of keys (to get back in the car). All that you can bring in is your ID. The jail itself is right along the water. Picturesque. At the parking lot is a tower overlooking the water, a double set of chain link fences, and a guard station. They check your ID and you sign in with the name and time. The security guard give male visitors an invisible stamp that shows up under a special light. It’s an all male facility.

From there, two six man vans shuttle visitors to the gym, which is a minute or two down the road. The drivers are excited to host the event and are happy to tell stories about the prison. The last escape they had was a couple of years ago when a prisoner floated away in a coffin. Too bad the drive wasn’t long enough to learn more. A coffin? What, you would paddle with a stake? Very industrious. But I guess jail brings out industriousness in people, especially after many years.


Full house, all age ranges. Estimated capacity of the gym for the audience is 160. Lots of young folks in the 20s. Different than the regular grey haired crowd at the Belfry and McPherson. Tickets are a bargain $20. Large cast and crew. Roughly 22 acting roles and 3 support roles (lighting and music).


Assiduous readers will recall that the economics of live theatre has been one of my preoccupations. Here runs 12 times. Let’s say they fill up each time (if they had more shows I’m sure they’d sell out as well, quite a bit of good buzz in the air). So that’s 12 * 160 * $20 = $38,400 in revenue. Now, divide this up by the 22 acting roles, the 3 support roles, and the other writers, directors, and so on. Let’s say the number is 30. $38,400 / 30 = $1280 each person. That’s $1280 for 6 months of part time work. Let’s say they put in an average of 20 hours per week for 6 months. That’s a total of 520 hours (26 * 20). In the end, it works out to a renumeration of $2.46 per hour. I think this is part of the reason why so many theatre shows outside the jail are one man shows. $2.46 an hour is not enough to get out of bed for most folks.

But here’s the question of the day: are the prisoner-actors compensated or do they receive monetary consideration for their efforts? Presumably, they will get out one day and when that day comes, they’ll need some cash to keep them afloat while they look for a job, get a place, and integrate back into society. You’d probably need, say, $3000 to get a place, put down deposit, pay for a couple months rent, get some clothes, food, etc., Can they save up for this in jail employed at various tasks? To me, it’s a fascinating question.

Here The Play

It wasn’t till the end that the play came together for me. With plays I’m either really sharp or really obtuse. Genres that I know well, I’m pretty sharp. Take horror. If a guy goes down to check out something in the cellar, you already know before he goes down what’s going to happen. He ends up in trash compactor (or something like that). But if I’m not familiar with the genre, I’m thick as mud. With this play, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Actually, that’s not true. From the blurb, I had expected a documentary style play, more a history lesson than a drama. I was wrong. It was both.

There’s two main characters. They’re both in jail. One of them has his act together and a plan: do good works and get out of jail sooner. The other one is a slacker. They are fishing buddies.

Well, it turns out that the slacker hooks a magical sea monster that sends him time travelling from 1700s William Head to the present. The other fellow spends the play looking for his friend.

As the slacker travels through time, he witnesses the horrors of slave labour, court room injustices, and sees the effects of smallpox. When he gets back to the present, he understands that life is short: a life without a plan is an unlived life. He resolves to work hard to get out of jail. His friend, meanwhile, has also made positive strides: he reconnects with his estranged sister.


Fantastic play. The audience loved it. Lots of talent. Raw talent, as most of the inmates did not have theatrical experience. But it wasn’t the talent that made the play. I think what made the play was that everyone took a big chance putting it together. The audience recognized this and showered the players and the producers with applause. The risks they took in putting this on stage were real. And so was there enthusiasm. The difference is like the difference watching NBA basketball and college basketball. Of course the talent in NBA basketball is better. But boy do they play out their hearts in college. The prison production is like watching college basketball.

Perhaps my favourite part of the play was the Q&A session at the end. The audience got to ask questions to the players. Questions like: ‘How does being in the play help with rehabilitation?’ or ‘Do you plan on pursuing theatre on the outside?’. A lot of honest responses on how hard it was for them to open up to the process of theatre and work together. Some funny responses as well: one guy said that he volunteered because he thought ‘it would be cool to play a prison guard’.

What struck me the most is how likeable many of the actors were. They didn’t seem like they belonged in jail. They just seemed like regular dudes. Which they probably are. So this was eye opening. And the best thing was how genuinely happy they seemed to be to be able to put on Here: A Captive Odyssey for the packed house. Kudos. A real play by real people. Something real at stake: some kind of redemption, perhaps? I’m sure there were some tears in the eyes of both the spectators and the players by the end of the night.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Improvised Tragedy Review (Fringe August 27)

Before Paying Melpomene’s Price is self-published, I thought I should improve my ‘street cred’. There’s only one way to do that: go see more theatre. Yes: see more theatre instead of read more theatre. I’ve become an ‘armchair critic’. Sort of like ‘armchair historians’ or ‘armchair archaeologists’: they prefer to do things in the comfort of their own homes rather than going out and getting their fingers dirty. Oh yes, are the quotation marks around the slang terms (‘street cred’) driving you crazy? Yes, all the styleguides say not to use them like that! Ah, I am a bad man!

Well, what do you know?–when I was thinking about going to see a show, this sign on a lamppost jumped out of nowhere:

Improvised Theatre Poster

Improvised Theatre Poster

Hmmm. Nice poster! Slightly detached look. The look of distance, perhaps. All black (well, it’s black and white). Wearing sackcloth. They must be either philosophers or characters in a tragedy!

But this isn’t any tragedy. This is Improvised Tragedy. And Improvised Tragedy was playing tonight. It was meant to be. I could see a strange show and improve my credibility. Who knew that tragedy could be improvised? Tragedy turns into comedy easily enough (think Gloucester jumping off the white cliffs of Dover in Lear). It would be interesting to see if Improvised Tragedy could maintain the tension of tragedy. What is more, an improvised tragedy would probably reduce tragedy done to the bare bones. An x-ray vision of tragedy. An x-ray vision of tragedy is just what I wanted to see. The question in my mind: will their version of tragedy conform with mine? It looks like from their blurb that the writers of this piece are also into the philosophy of tragedy:

‘Tragedy’ claims that whatever the disaster is, the disaster is exceptional. Lightning Theatre’s The Improvised Tragedy is both looking though the past at the history of the art of dramatic tragedy, and a progression for dramatic improvisation and the future of the art of tragedy. Together with your help we will discover what it’s like to say yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes.

The Improvised Tragedy

The Improvised Tragedy is written and performed by Lightning Theatre. The show is part of Victoria’s Fringe Festival, 11 days of unjuried contemporary plays at 11 different venues spread across town. Lottery determines who takes part. Experimental madness! A good chance to see up and coming artists perform.

The show played at the Roxy. Tickets were $11 and you also needed a $6 Fringe Button to get in. The Fringe Button gets you in all the shows. The $11 goes to the artists. The $6 probably goes to the venue. On opening night, the crowd was 28 strong, translating into proceeds of $308. The stage forces consisted of 3 actors, 1 musician on keyboard and a wind instrument, and a lighting tech. That works out to be $61.60 for a day’s work for each. The people selling / collecting tickets were Fringe volunteers. If the proceeds from the Fringe button goes to the venue (I think it must go into a pot which is distributed in the end somehow), the Roxy would have gotten $66 to open the doors that night. Good thing there are corporate sponsors. A raucous university crowd in attendance tonight.

By the way, I chatted with the actors before the show. That’s the nice thing about Fringe shows: audience and actors can interact. One of the actors was performing with a fresh (couple of hours old) sling on his right hand: he was riding his bike and got right hooked by a car that afternoon. Kudos to him for performing that night. Hey, as they say, ‘the show must go on’!


At the beginning of the show, the three actors ask the audience for various words. The winning selections were: bike, metamorphosis, and … can’t remember the third word! So, in the space of 50 minutes, they did three tragic skits based on the three words. There are spoilers below, but since every show should be different (it’s improv), brave readers read on! But I would imagine that they must have some kind of skeleton they work from…

The first tragedy is about a cyclist. He’s competitive but can’t quite win. A friend introduces him to doping. He starts winning. But turns into a horrible human being. Sort of like Lance Armstrong.

The second tragedy is about an unemployed hobo. He gets the job offer of a lifetime: work one day, decide yourself how much you want to be paid. But in that one day, anything goes. It turns out the employer steals his health and youth. It reminded me of Dorian Grey. But from a different perspective.

The third tragedy was about a stutterer and a gimp. He has the chance to try miracle cure. It works. But there are side effects: he becomes like an animal. He is rejected from society. It’s sort of like what happens to a Marvel comic villain.

The Idea of Tragedy

Interesting: in each of the three skits the hero is tempted (winning, job, and cure). He makes a wager (friends, health, and side effects). He rolls the dice. And pays the price. The x-ray vision of tragedy by the Lightning Theatre reduces tragedy to a sort of gambling instinct. I like it. This is tragedy distilled!

And yes, there were guffaws plenty from the audience. This wasn’t any shortcoming of the production: the actors did a great job. It has more to do with the nature of tragedy and comedy. It’s a thin line between the tragic and the comic. You know what they say: ‘When I get a papercut it’s a tragedy; when you fall into an open sewer and die it’s a comedy’. Who was that–Mel Brooks perhaps?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am watching others who are Doing Melpomene’s Work.

BOOM Review (Belfry August 7)

It’s good to go out and see a live show. Especially since I profess to be a theatre expert! Well, the blog constantly reminds me of how seldom I get out. It doesn’t lie: from the reviews I’m averaging two shows a year. Part of the reason for starting the blog in the first place was to get me to go out more often. It hasn’t worked out that way. But on August 7, I had a chance to see Boom with my friend S. It was playing at the Belfry theatre down the street, a ten minute walk.

Boom is a one man show written, produced, and performed by Rick Miller. It follows the lives of three individuals growing up in post-war Europe, USA, and Canada. The performance is two hours and the time covered by the performance is over 20 years. One of the last musical cuts is ‘Born to be Wild’ by Steppenwolf which came out in 1968. The boomer generation proper is, I believe, those born from 1946 to 1964.

In a previous post, I had commented on how tight the margins must be in live theatre. In fact, I couldn’t really understand how some shows could even be profitable. Unless one had deep pockets or some kind of corporate or government funding, the one man show is the way to go for independent artists. We estimated the Friday crowd to be 100 strong. At $50 average per ticket, that translates to $5000. To rent the Belfry (one of the nicer of the smaller venues) along with a sound and lights team for a night must cost $2500, ball park. Remember, the Belfry, unlike the Blue Bridge Theatre, is union. So union rates. The artist is travelling, so allow another $300 for accommodations and food. That leaves him $2200. Not bad for one night, you say. But also remember, this is a Friday night show. Maybe half the people show up during the weekdays. And tickets are less as well on weekdays. To top it off: it took Miller two years of hard work to put Boom together. That has to be accounted for in the calculation as well. Theatre is a labour of love. Which is why I appreciate it. It’s real. They’re not doing it for the money. At least that’s what the back of the napkin calculations say!

It was a good choice for the three characters: one is a white Austrian fellow, one is his mom, and the last a black American musician. Since Miller plays all the roles, having a clearly differentiated set of characters is helpful! It adds to the perspective as well. Not only do we see the boomer years through the lens of different nationalities, races, and sexes, the action is spread over Canada, USA, and Europe.

There were two takeaways from this show for me. The first is that damn this guy is a good performer. He impersonates all the politicians, musicians, and actors. Dylan must have been one of the harder ones. I wasn’t quite sure if he played all the instruments, but he definitely plays guitar and harmonica. Maybe the piano… Probably. He’s talented.

The other takeaway is the history lesson. I didn’t know that the Soviets had been so far ahead in the space race. JFK I knew was assassinated. But I didn’t know about his brother Bobby. It was fun to see how things have changed too: the popularity of processed food. Nowadays you couldn’t pay someone enough to eat that stuff. He had ad footage and processed food was IT! The same with DDT. They had spray cans so that you could treat fleas on your dog. You don’t see that anymore! It reminds me: it will be like that with the things we hold precious today. Give it thirty years.

As entertaining as the show was, it was more a documentary than a drama. A drama is doing and acting. The story emerges from the doing and the acting. At least that’s my idea of dramaBoom is more narrative. Telling. Relating. Mind you, Miller intended it to be like that and it shows off his storytelling and impersonating skills. But I guess this is one of the weaknesses of one man shows: it’s hard to create drama with one actor. But I should end on a positive note. With one man shows–especially if the performer is also the writer–all the lines are spoken with perfect conviction. The delivery is splendid.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’ve been Doing Melpomene’s Work at the Belfry Theatre.

eatingthegame Review (Metro Studio May 15)

It.s Victoria Day long weekend here in, well, Victoria, and what better way to kick it off than to go down to the Metro Studio with MT to see eatingthegame! eatingthegame is produced by the Hong Kong Exile Arts Association based out of Vancouver. It.s a contemporary outfit formed in 2011 by three students who had met at Simon Fraser University.s School for the Contemporary Arts. The play is written and performed by Conor Wylie, who looks like this in half eclipse:


I found out about the play while going around to some of the local theatres inquiring if they rented their spaces. One of the ideas for the Dead Man.s Hand was to stage it in a theatre set up as a restaurant. Assiduous readers will of course remember that this last month been coordinating the events which will culminate in the production of the cover illustration for my book “Paying Melpomene’s Price: Risk and Reward in Tragedy”. It turns out we.ll be staging the poker game at Cenote, but I.m glad I came across the advertisement to eatingthegame while scouting around town. By the way, YES, theatres rent out their spaces for all sorts of things: plays, presentations, parties, you name it! You can rent them out by the hour, day, or week. The prices varied, but for the smaller theatres were very reasonable. But without further ado, if wondering how the advertisement caught my eye, here it is:

Artist-entreprenuer Conor Wylie delivers a keynote speech from and between two worlds: Vancouver and China, West and East, business and culture, ethics and desire. Follow his enlightening journey into the world of foreign property investment, then join him for an exhilarating talk-back and post-show party.

What.s not to like about this! I can even learn about foreign property investment at this ‘keynote’ event and be entertained as well. More on foreign property investment in a second. But first, I should write a few words on the Metro Studio. It.s located in downtown Victoria on the corner of Johnson and Quadra. It.s in a sort of a ‘house’ that.s attached to the back of the Victoria Conservatory of Music. I can actually see it from my window while composing the blog, believe it or not–I wasn.t kidding when I said I lived in the theatre district! It.s my first time in the Metro Studio and boy am I impressed. Clean, spacious, and modern (though the ‘house’ which it.s in looks rather unassuming from the exterior. Seats are comfortable. One central aisle with two banks of seats arranged in nine rows. With ten seats a row total capacity is around 180. I believe its a slab on grade stage, meaning there.s no trap doors from underneath. All the walls and ceiling are painted black which give the space a larger feel (since black is the colour of the infinite void and the night sky). This was a one night show and I estimate the crowd at 50 or so. From what Wylie said, two rows (or 20 people) were family and friends. At $20 a ticket, this translates into a thousand dollars at the box office. Here.s the view from the back:

eatingthegame Metro Studio

Metro Studio from Top Row

On the left you can Remy Siu at the laptop running the lights and sound. There.s a skyline on the floor of the stage made of mahjong bricks. The large projection screen on the back shows the Vancouver harbour and different stills and motion clips are incorporated into the production.

This is my first time to a one man show, and there.s an immediacy and vivacity that.s gripping. That the actor is also the writer furthers bolsters the immediacy. There.s was never a moment where I was wondering, ‘Does he understand the lines?’. After watching eatingthegame and enjoying how crisply the lines are delivered, come to the realization that, in the past, if I was ever wondering, ‘Does the actor understand the lines?’ it means that the actor has most definitely not understood. Wylie made me realize that if you believe what you say, it comes out loud and clear: the well timed smirk, the millisecond delay for effect, intonation, sarcasm, and so on. Many things come together to make a line believable. When you have it, it comes out naturally.

eatingthegame is made up of a bunch of skits revolving around the idea of Wylie finding himself. It.s also heavily metatheatrical in that he.s constantly ‘breaking the illusion’ of theatre by direct audience address and references to his personal life and the writing/promotion of the play. For example, he plays a game with the audience, ‘White or Yellow?’. He.s half white half Chinese, and uses this game to explore stereotypes. ‘Christmas: white or yellow?’. ‘Kung-fu: white or yellow?’. Then there.s harder ones which drew confusion, then laughs from the audience: ‘Karate Kid: white or yellow?’ and ‘White rice: white or yellow?’.

There.s lots of positives to write about this thought provoking piece. It.s a lot fresher than the classic theatre. A lot more relevant too. Did I say that out loud? That must have been a slip. I want to return to a certain scene in which Wylie is approached by a certain Chinese businessman from the old country. He wants to do the ‘yolk’ business manoeuvre. The ‘yolk’ manoeuvre is where yellow money (the yolk) is disguised in a white business enterprise (the egg white) for the purpose of snapping up local real estate. The businessman wants to team up with Wylie to buy up the vacant Buckerfields lot in Victoria’s Chinatown district. Then they would build the ‘Grand Fortune’ condominiums (‘The Union‘, a five storey condo building was actually built on this lot in real life and finished last year). I think Wylie must make subtle changes to the show as he tours to give it local significance, kudos to him for that. This is a big thing these days.  In the last few days, for example, the National Pest ran an article ‘Prince Edward Island: The One Place in Canada Where Foreign Buyers Must Check In‘. Not to be outdone, Globe and Flail ran ‘In Vancouver Debate Swirls Around Jericho Lands‘. It.s all about real estate and affordability. There.s a fear that foreign money makes real estate more expensive for the locals. Victoria for the Victorians. Canada for Canadians. Sort of like ‘Mexico for the Mexicans’ in 1938. With loads of foreign investment, Mexico had been the second largest producer of oil in the world. They felt, however, that not enough profits were remaining in Mexico (which was true, Mexican workers would be paid half the wages of international workers). So they rose up against the evil corporate oppressor and expropriated all their assets, forming Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). With the Great Depression still lingering and choked from foreign capital, oil production halved. So they got ‘Mexico for Mexicans’ but there wasn.t much left of Mexico to go around! Another unintended consequence was that the Allies wouldn.t do business with them anymore (since they took all their assets). They could only sell oil to the Axis powers. Unintended consequences everywhere. In 2014 Mexico opened its doors back to foreign investors. Let.s see how it works out.

Back to eatingthegame. Wylie turns down the offer to do the yolk manoeuvre and build the ‘Grand Fortune’ condos in historic Chinatown. The foreign businessman is evil (he owns corporations and kills people) and Wylie is concerned about affordability and gentrification. Where would the Chinese live? How would the Victorians fare? The logic of this is beyond me. Wouldn.t supply and demand say that if you build more condos (more supply) affordability would get better? As to where the Chinese would live in Chinatown: well, the Buckerfields lot is bare land! It.s not like building something there is taking away someone else.s house. But I get his point which is that foreign ownership drives up prices. His example doesn.t quite work though. But it.s more dramatic. A better example is if they had built this place and a Chinese mogul comes in and buys two floors. But that.s less dramatic.

Part of the message of eatingthegame seems to be to think local, do the right thing, Victoria for Victorians, and Canada for Canadians. Here.s my question: where did the Chinese businessman get his money? I.m typing on a MacBook Pro. Maybe you have an iPhone. both ‘Designed in California and Made in China’. 50 percent of my clothes are ‘made in China’. The Chinese businessman gets his money from you and me, my friend: from all the iPhones, clothing, computer parts, steel (the Blue Bridge is being replaced by Chinese steel), textiles, medical imaging devices (yes, they make most of this stuff, believe it or not), and so on that China produces. The Chinese workers slave away to produce this stuff for us. We buy it and give them dollars in return. They save their money (something forgotten how to do), pool it together, and make a bid to buy Canadian property. But wait, now thinking of charging them another 10 or 20 percent ‘foreign property owner tax’? Or maybe make it more onerous like in PEI so as to deter foreign property owners altogether. To me, this seems like saying: ‘Hey, sell us iPhones and we.ll give you millions of dollars. But don.t think about spending the money here because you can.t’. Then what.s the purpose of money? Money just really is, at bottom, an IOU. And what good is an IOU if you don.t accept it? So this is my first objection: foreign buyers have money to spend on property because we give it to them. If we don.t want them to drive up local real estate, why are we giving them our money? But if we give them our money, it seems like we have a moral obligation to live up to this IOU that written them. If we accept the advantages of globalization, then we must also accept its discontents.

I.m not saying affordability in Vancouver or Victoria isn.t a problem. It strikes me that the camps that are into reducing foreign ownership aren.t really solutions oriented. Look at PEI. Yes, things are affordable. $170,000 is the median price for a single family detached house. But look, it.s still ‘unaffordable’ to people in PEI because of the shortage of jobs! That.s why young workers have been moving out of PEI. If PEI opened their doors to foreign investors and money, the median price for real estate will go up. Yes. But then so will the opportunities for PEIers.

What about all the Victorians in Victoria and all the Vancouverites in Vancouver that benefit from rising real estate? Do we take away from their happy days to make ownership more affordable?

In Vancouver, a square foot of new condo costs about $850. In Victoria, about $550. So about $275k for a 500 sq/ft pad in Victoria and just over $400k for the same in Vancouver. Pricey. Yes. What about renting? It.s a smoking hot deal right now. Twenty years ago, you could buy a house in Gordon Head in Victoria (university district) for $200k. Today that same house would be almost triple: $550k give or take. Twenty years ago, the rent for a place like that would be $1600/month. Today, it rents for $2500/month. For the rents to have maintained pace with the property value, it would rent for $4400/month today. Which it doesn.t. Looking at the rent/property value ratios over the last twenty years, renting looks like a smoking hot deal. Of course don.t tell this to the people who are decrying foreign property investors.

So that was my rant. And that.s the purpose of good theatre. It makes us think. Forces us to react. That I ranted, then, is a sign that eatingthegame works. I.m Edwin Wong, and, until next time, I.ll be Doing Melpomene’s Work.

PS ‘eating the game’ is a phrase used by a mahjong player who has cleaned up the competition.

Macbeth Review (Blue Bridge at the Roxy May 5, 2015)


Another year, another Macbeth! Readers from last year will remember the memorable production put on by Shakespeare by the Sea with the Strait of Juan de Fuca as the backdrop. Well, yesterday I got a ticket to the preview of Macbeth put on by The Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre at the old Roxy Theatre directed by Brian Richmond! The Roxy Theatre.s a Victoria landmark: for years they would put on the Rocky Horror Picture Show at Halloween. During the rest of the year they would play artsy type movies which catered to the local intelligentsia. At some point, it probably became an underperforming property. While I was still in construction, there were always rumours it would be torn down by the evil developers to make a condo building. That.s what everything downtown these days is turning into. Parking lots, theatres, churches (e.g. where I live), warehouses, and you name it are being all converted into condos. Fortunately for the Roxy, it was bought up by the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre which converted the silver screen theatre into a live theatre. I was excited since this will have been my first time in the Roxy in many years.

Here.s my ticket!–


Keep in mind, yesterday.s show felt like opening night, but was technically a preview. They offer substantially discounted tickets (along the lines of $20 off) for the first two showings. done all the dress rehearsals but during the previews they work out the last glitches. I was told it.s a good deal since usually perfect performances. To me, this is live theatre so in a way the preview would even be more exciting with so much more tension in the air!

So, voila, here.s what the venue looks like–



The photo was taken as you enter into the auditorium. You can see that it.s an more intimate setting. The slope down to the stage is fairly steep for a theatre and the stage is raised about four feet off the ground. I sat in row ‘D’, but I think next time I.ll sit in for ‘F’. Row ‘F’ would probably be the best in terms of elevation and proximity to the stage. They had certainly just got everything together, since I think the paint on the stage was still drying! While we were waiting for the show to start, the three witches were  playing the role of the three fates: spinning, cutting, and joining the thread of the players’ lives. A nice touch. I.d estimate the crowd on ‘preview’ opening night to be at 70 or so. The usual crowd with a scattering of ten or so younger folk who were eagerly discussing the plays merits outside after the show. And yes, I took the photo before the show started and before they announced no cameras!

I.d never seen the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre in action before, so wasn.t quite sure what to expect. Well, to my surprise as the show started, Duncan, Malcolm, and the Sergeant are all played by women! The set is quite bare bones and the forces quite minimal in this production. For example, some actresses play 8+ roles! This hearkens back to the days pre-Marolovian theatre in pieces such as Cambises where six men and two boys would take on 38 roles. As far as the set, you can sort of see the drapes at the back of the stage in the photograph. translucent (that.s harder to make out from the photograph) and shadows can be backlit onto them. So for the forest scene, they would project a shadow of leaves and branches onto the fabric. I sort of like the idea of less staging. The imagination fills things out. The multiple role playing I wasn.t quite used to and threw me off a little bit: i.e. what.s Malcolm doing with Banquo, oh no, that.s not Malcolm, she.s actually playing Fleance! That women were playing men further confused me. In their defence, they have little props in their costumes: for example, when Malcolm is Malcolm, he has a little crown. I can sort of understand how nice it is to have actresses play many roles and have them change characters right before your eyes on stage: it makes things go faster! And, as regulars readers know, I like fast! But what.s harder for me to understand is the point trying to make by having women play men.s roles. In fact, I was wondering how Act 4 Scene 3 would play out where you would have Malcolm (as played by a woman) saying: ‘You matrons, and your maids, could not fill up / The cistern of my lust’ and ‘I am yet / Unknown to women’. I don.t think I heard those lines. Were they excised? There is the danger in tragedy of introducing comedy at the wrong moment. The risk is increased by role reversal. I.m sure modern audiences are receptive to things such as this. But to me, perhaps there could have been word in a prologue as to what sort of artistic effect they were aiming for?

Now for the good part: ALL HAIL LADY MACBETH! She was played by Celine Stubel and boy she stole the show! Her Lady Macbeth is dangerously on the edge and desperate for power, all at the same time as being all too fragile. Stubel.s not afraid of taking her voice past its natural registers to prove her impassioned point. The ‘unsex me’ speech was as good as seen. It made be believe. And she put on a master class in acting: on stage, wave your arms in the air. Contort your body when under strain. When you push someone around, push with some feeling like you meant it! When you speak on stage, really put some oomph into those labials, the ‘p’s and ‘b’s! If truly evil, put some hiss into the ‘s’ sounds! Man I think she was meant for this role because this Lady Macbeth is better than I even imagined her to be! Did I say she was good? Her performance alone was worth the price of admission and more. Too bad Lady Macbeth dies too soon!

Jacob Richmond.s (I wonder if any relation to the director Brian Richmond?) interpretation of Macbeth is one of a subdued man, one who is more ‘done to’ than ‘doing’. As a result, even in the ‘firstlings of my heart’ speech where Macbeth affirms the will to action there is a hint of hesitation. Richmond.s Macbeth is more philosopher than warrior. The ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ scene was particularly well done. In the flexible drapes at the back of the stage, while Macbeth was delivering the lines, daggers were held up tight against the flexible and translucent fabric to give the impression that they were suspended in the air of his thoughts. The ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’ soliloquy was spoken softly, to give the impression of a broken tyrant. From watching this production, I learned that Macbeth is a challenging role. Most of the time, the other characters are speaking back and forth with other people. Macbeth, on the other hand, spends a lot of the time, it seems, in his thoughts speaking with himself. Without cues from the other actors, Macbeth has really got to make cues for himself as he is not bouncing the dialogue and banter back and forth with the other actors.

I really enjoyed the sparse bare bones setting. More honest for the imagination. For example, the dinner table was represented by a large red cloth held up by the four ‘apparitions’ (who would also dress and undress characters for their role doublings on stage). The one thing never really seen done convincingly on stage is the scene where Macbeth goes the second time to the witches and sees: ‘A show of eight KINGS, the last with a glass in his hand; BANQUO’S GHOST following’. In this production, Banquo holds up the glass (mirror) sort of towards Macbeth. But why would Macbeth look at his own reflection. But then if Banquo looks at himself in the mirror, it doesn.t quite work either. heard that in the original production, the glass was held up to King James (who is descended from Banquo) in some sort of fashion where he would see a mise-en-abyme of kings going to ‘the crack of doom’. I.d like to see this staged somehow. As to how, I.m not sure!

Go get your tickets to see Lady Macbeth in action! Stubel in my mind unseats Kate Fleetwood from the 2010 Patrick Stewart Macbeth as my favourite Lady Macbeth. And that.s saying something because the 2010 production was a movie with all a movie.s resources!

So, until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and it was sure a blast to be Doing Melpomene.s Work last night at the Roxy watching Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre.s production of the awe inspiring Macbeth!

Macbeth Review (Shakespeare by the Sea July 17, 2014)

Do you prefer Springsteen.s Nevada to Born in the USA? How about dining?-mom and pop or Michelin all-star restaurants? Do you prefer baroque and rococo furniture or the Eames aesthetic? If you had said ‘Nevada’ or ‘hole in the wall restaurant’, or ‘Eames’, then the Victoria.s Shakespeare by the Sea production of Macbeth is just your ticket.

Both Nevada and Born in the USA are great albums. But, of the two, Nevada is the more honest album.  Honest in the sense that it.s a guy with his guitar recording on a four track in the garage. Just vocals and guitar. No E Street Band or million dollar studio to hide behind. The same with the mom and pop restaurant. It.s honest because the focus isn.t on the linen, the service, the water feature, or the Picasso hanging beside you. The focus is on the food. It.s the same with Eames furniture. The focus is on functionality. If it.s stylish, it.s not because of the acanthus leaf carved into the armrest or the barley twist leg. It.s stylish because there.s beauty in honest design.

The Shakespeare by the Sea Macbeth is about honesty. Honest in the sense that Nevada is honest or Skinnytato Restaurant on Johnson Street is honest. When I called to reserve a ticket a few hours before the performance (turns out it was a good idea) the director took the call. No Ticketmaster. I would later see that, in addition to being director and manning the phones, Robert Light was also impresario, usher, and stagehand. Lighting consists of daylight. Heating is provided but the sun and ventilation by the wind. Shelter is provided by a 25’x40′ tent which covers the stage and the audience. A green painted plywood box raises the stage half a foot off the ground. There are five exits and entrances. One at each corner of the tent. The main door where one enters the tent (directly looking onto the stage) is the fifth entrance. Being set up on Clover Point Bluff, the tent is oriented towards the south. That is, the backdrop of the stage is the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Except for the exits and entrances, the tent is enclosed all around. Behind the stage is a window through which the strait is visible. But not an infinite or ‘floor to ceiling’ opening: the wooden stage extends about three feet up on the rear before the window starts. This is good, as it provides the stage with a boundary. Actually, the window can function asa sixth exit, but only the transgressional Porter character seems to be able to make use of it. The spartan simplicity forces the attention to the action. Like Duncan says, here the air is good.

Equivocation Review (Belfry Theatre May 24, 2014)

Sir Robert Cecil, a sometime spymaster for King James I commissions a recalcitrant Shagspeare (Shakespeare) to write a play on the Gunpowder Plot. So it begins. Shagspeare is caught between a rock and a hard place: either reveal his sympathies to the conspirators and lose his head or write a patriotic propaganda piece and sell out his Muse. Like so many things in life, he confronts an either/or situation when he would rather see a both/and proposition. To get around the either/or catch-22, the players equivocate. Hence the title. In the main, Equivocation really isn.t a play but is rather a play about a playwright struggling to write a play. Metatheatrical. A reflection of a reflection of reality. A perfect play for clever audiences. That it had a successful run in Victoria is something Victorians can be proud of.

Now, the play within a play structure of Equivocation allows dramatist Bill Cain to do a few things which would be more difficult in a more conventional straight shooting drama. Since dramatists are frequently busy with life as they compose (and not, as the Romantics would have it, withdrawn in some cave or out in the wilderness communing with nature), Cain adorns the primary story with secondary plots from Shag.s life. If the main theme is the ‘write me the play’ and ‘I can.t write the damn play’ banter between Cecil and Shags, there are also all the other things going on in Shags life that are brought into the fold: his estranged relationship with daughter Judith, workplace drama within his acting company, and his interviews with the gunpowder conspirators.

The effect of layering plot on subplot overtop demiplot diffuses the flow of the action. Because Cain borrows scenes from Shakespeare, it.s easy to spot changes in the dramatic tempo (especially since he borrows mainly from Macbeth, the most taut of Shakespeare.s plays). There is more dramatic punch when the players play out on the blasted heath the encounter between Macbeth and the witches. More dramatic urgency. The actors move quicker. They speak quicker. They make louder sounds stomping around the stage. Same goes with the storm on the heath scenes borrowed from King Lear. Side by side one can see the dramatic power Shakespeare wields next to Cain. But what Cain gives up in raw power he gains in contemplation and reflection. Reflection on the nature of equivocation (in the conspirator interviews). Reflection on artistic and worldly responsibilities (in the dialogue with members of the acting company). Reflection on the place of the playwright in society (in the dialogue with Cecil). Reflection on the power of drama to sway popular opinion (Cecil.s thoughts on Othello and Merchant of Venice). But note so much of the power of the play comes from the dialogue; the ‘dramatic’ action scenes are largely borrowed from Shakespeare. In a way Equivocation reminds me of Tarantino.s works. Tarantino also layers his works so that the action proceeds herky-jerky. And in between the herky-jerky outbursts is this strange and wonderful dialogue. Like when, right before the concluding scene of Kill Bill, Bill goes on a philosophical rant comparing the place of Superman with Spiderman in the world with Uma Thurman looking on in disbelief. But coming back to Equivocation, this brings us to the character of Judith, who, like Bill in Kill Bill, functions like a mouthpiece of the writer more than a character within the closed confines of a play or a movie.

There is something about Judith. She doesn.t quite fit. She talks about things outside the play which have little bearing on the action at hand (e.g. her distaste for soliloquies). Her manner of speech isn.t affected like that of the other characters–it.s a very natural discourse as though she were talking in her own voice and not an actress upon the Belfry stage. She is aware of the audience and has the capacity to address the audience directly. And she does so with the playwright.s own voice (e.g. at Shagspeare.s wake as the closing of the play). This got me thinking: I wonder if she functions as a chorus?

Before there was drama, there was the chorus. This is going back to sixth or seventh century BC-perhaps even earlier. The chorus would hymn praises to the gods. At some point, one member of the chorus stepped outside of the chorus to address it. That was how the first actor came to be. As things developed, two and three actors would emerge from the chorus to engage it in an antiphonal game of alternating call and response: that moment marks the birth of ancient Greek theatre. In time, the actors took more of a central role and the chorus’ importance diminished to the point where it was reduced into an atavistic tailbone tacked onto the tailpiece of drama. Finally, the chorus altogether disappears. But what the chorus was good at was speaking in the voice of the playwright (to convey, say, some moral the playwright thought appropriate). It could also act as a living wall between the on stage illusion and the off stage reality (the chorus is is aware of both realities and can address the actors from within the play or the theatre-goers outside the play). What I wonder is whether Cain had intended Judith to function as a sort of one woman chorus. That would explain how her character seemed to me to be part of the action yet also curiously aloof and distant to the action. As chorus, she wouldn.t really be a full-fledged individual but could somehow represent the playwright or even the community. If Cain had intended Judith to be a chorus type figure, kudos to him. It.s been awhile since dramatists have put choruses or chorus type figures on the stage (they still do it in operas, so perhaps operas are the true heirs of the ancient stage). The last that comes to mind is TS Eliot when he tried it in Murder in the Cathedral. Because the chorus represents community, there is much to be said about putting the chorus back into drama. Chorus is the all-too-human voice of drama. But it is true, no modern playwright has managed to integrate the chorus into the play successfully. I have a large reward waiting for the one who is able to manage this feat and to make drama whole once again…

Did Equivocation remind you of another historical play by a twentieth century playwright? Some hints. Here.s what I.m thinking of. A play set in England (two generations before the Gunpower Plot). Catholics and Protestants are going head to head. Either allegiance to the king at the cost of selling God out or allegiance to God at the cost of the true king. Plenty of equivocation. Yes, you guessed it: Robert Bolt.s 1960 A Man For All Seasons. Instead of a conscience ridden Shagspeare there is Lord Chancellor Thomas More. Instead of Cecil as the agent of King James, there is Thomas Cromwell as the agent of Henry VIII. Catholic More attempts to maintain his allegiance to Henry VIII who divorces his wife against the wishes of the Pope. This is not unlike Shagspeare.s catch-22 of either writing a propaganda piece or putting his neck on the line. Like Equivocation, there is much psychological storm and stress in A Man For All Seasons but little action. The bulk of the play consists of speeches where More justifies his position by equivocating while Cromwell attempts to get More to turn the wrong phrase in a chess match of words. The one difference between the two-and it is a large difference-is that while the action is diffuse in EquivocationA Man For All Seasons starts off with one question and puts that question through every variation until the play.s end. It.s power is highly focussed.. The question is, ‘What would you sacrifice for what you believe is right?’. Every character, from More to Rich and from Norfolk to Alice, exists for one purpose: to examine the singular question from different perspectives. I leave you with this question. Which do you prefer? The diffusive Equivocation which manages to combine comedy, satire, history, and tragedy or the laser like intensity of A Man For All Seasons? Are the differences between them a reflection of how audience tastes have changed from 1960 to 2010? Or?

My own feeling is that it is a bit of both. Art reflects contemporary mores. Today we multitask and so too our dramatists multitask the action into many parallel segments. And because we multitask, we don.t like things that are overly complex (since it would be too difficult to do many complex things all at once). So too perhaps the distaste of the soliloquy is something thoroughly modern. I wonder if the soliloquy occupies the same position as the rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo in the 1980s. They are both blazing set pieces, full of fire and weeping. Complex creations. It used to be in the 1980s that a song would have two or three solos (think back to Van Halen glory). Now I can.t think of a single song that has come out in the last five years that has any soliloquy-or I mean guitar solo. Funny how the technology and art moves in unison. Times change. And playwrights change with the changing times.