Feb 23, 2010

Black Dub Magic



Olympics? What Olympics?! If I had to award a gold medal, it would go straight to Black Dub.

The super-band is lead by incredible Canadian musician and music producer Daniel Lanois and features the super-charged pipes of Trixie Whitley, daughter of the legendary Chris Whitley. A few lucky souls have already seen them live this year, but Black Dub treated fans and curious music-lovers February 17th by streaming a live broadcast from New York City's Bowery Ballroom. Together with the multi-talented Brian Blade on drums and bassist Chris Thomas, the concert was filmed by Here Is What Is collaborator Adam Vollick. During the hour-long set, the band covered a good bit of their own material along with some Lanois favorites, and proved why their upcoming release is one of the most anticipated of the year.

Images displayed in the run-up to the show were a surreal, ambient mix that reminded me of the work of artists as wide afield as the Emergency Broadcast Network and Bill Viola to Mark Rothko, and even Antonioni. The zipper of comments that ran along the side of the live feed was filled with impatience, excitement, and even a few hilarious observations from people in the Bowery's capacity audience (ie: "I can't see who's in the VIP section. Granny's eyesight is bad here.") Watching the mix of images and reactions, there was, I felt, an truly intimate quality to this kind of live event; with just a cozy room to play in and a friendly crowd sharing thoughts and reactions in real time to Vollick's every close-up and wide pan, it was the kind of communal, creatively connected experience that nicely reflected the band's ethos.

"Surely" by Black Dub

As for sound, trying to categorize Black Dub's music is no easy task. It's a mix of grinding rock, blues, early punk, and dark rockabilly, with an occasionally eerie, swampy, Waits-like slink and touches of Sunday-morning gospel. Watching them live from the Bowery, this defiance of definition was obvious, loud, and proud. Whether steaming through blues-influenced numbers like "Silverado", the gospel-meets-blues hip-swaying meditation of "Nomad Knows", or the earthy, 21st century psychedelia of "Ring The Alarm", one was continually reminded (whether via rimshots, timbres, key changes, well-placed pauses, or a combination therein) of the magical chemistry at work between these accomplished individuals. Chemistry is a huge key to what makes Black Dub so special, particularly in this era of superstar narcissism, where every American Idol seeks to be a famous icon instead of a real musician. Black Dub turn their collective back on all that, focusing instead on a gorgeous exchange of ideas manifest in sound. In many ways, their work harkens back to jazz, with its focus on group dynamic, interplay, improvisation, and experimentation. The online audience lapped it up, perhaps hungry for a real musical experience that showcased real people playing real instruments.

One of the finest instruments on display was Trixie Whitley's powerful, soul-searing voice. Moving comfortably from mellow to blasting to soft and pleading, Whitley proved herself a formidable front-woman. In addition to showing her incredible vocal chops, she also showed her musical versatility, bashing along with Blade on her own drumkit, playing a keyboard, strumming a guitar, or providing vocal back-up at points. With her black suspenders, white t-shirt and fitted black trousers, with blonde hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, she cut a stylish, strong figure reminiscent of rock feminist icons like Patti Smith or Debbie Harry in her early Blondie days. Lanois, in knit cap and low-slung jeans, played a few of his own hits, including a grinding, guitar-heavy version of "The Maker" with a shuffle-beat percussive undertow courtesy of Blade, and Lanois' own effects-laden guitar work lending a virtuosic, woozy counterpoint to Whitely's acidly sharp backing vocals.

Overall, the evening was a showcase of musical talent that conjured a kind of beauty rarely experienced in live show -whether in-person or viewed online. The balance of instrumental and vocal pieces, of thoughtful and straight rock-out numbers, of give and take between musicians, demonstrated both an awareness of their audience and a courage of creative convictions. Black Dub aren't out to make sing-a-long favorites, but they are out to create a musical experience for both themselves and their listeners. I got the distinct feeling in watching them that no two concerts are ever quite alike. They're so aware of their collective talent as a whole but never become arrogant within their individual egos. That doesn't mean they don't rock out, however. What a gorgeous showcase of adult rock and roll: real, lived-in, world-weary, and honest, or, as one viewer typed on the live feed, "fuzzy, smoky, and sensual -that's what I came here for." It could be the definition for rock in this century, and Black Dub are already ahead of the curve.


Photography by Brad Gilley.

Feb 21, 2010

Singular

"You go into a bit of a vortex and then you hear the words, 'Jeff Bridges'... "

That's Colin Firth talking about what goes through his mind this awards season.

The British actor didn't have to worry about Bridges tonight, though; he won Best Actor at the BAFTA Awards for his stunning performance in A Single Man.



I saw Tom Ford's film (based on a work by Christopher Isherwood) just this afternoon, and I am not sure I can properly articulate its beauty in any meaningful way. The film revolves around George Falconer, a professor in 1962 Los Angeles, who has recently lost his partner. Ford features several long, meditative shots of Firth, whether he's looking for something for breakfast, sitting in his car, sorting through his bank box, or remembering his times spent with Jim (Matthew Goode). George's life is both bereft of life and hefty with love, as his interactions with his lifelong friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) and new friend Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) demonstrate. With keen use of colour, a gorgeous sense of framing, and a flair for considered shading, Ford nicely balances the silence and the symphony, both literal and figurative. It's an immense achievement that silently yet masterfully articulates the life of one man in quietly desperate circumstances.



Along with being a play on ideas of the single and solitary, the film is a meditation on aging. I was especially moved by the lingering close-ups of Firth's expressive, natural face. No smooth-faced, muscled-up, botoxed Hollywood star, one could see the rough bumps and expression lines a late forty-something man has, and has righteously earned. In no way do those wrinkles detract from Firth's physical attributes; in fact, they add to his attractiveness. In other words, never mind the Darcys -here's the real thing. A Single Man gives us an honest portrait of an outsider -talented, articulate, even playful -who feels rejected by a world that deems him undesirable and considers his contributions worthless. This is deeply related to the speech George delivers on fear to a classroom full of pie-eyed students. The relationship between fear and love is profound in any arena, and Ford nicely, effectively explores this connection, using, again, the palette of Firth's incredible face. Such an achievement is rendered with the deftest of strokes, and the most subtle arrangement of light, colour, shape and shadow balancing with the close, hard facial shots. It's not hard to identify Ford's design background here, but his translation of it into a cinematic expression is nothing short of astonishing for its emotional resonance.

Walking amidst a street fair after the film, I was still haunted by the director's beautiful vision, the actor's aged face, the silence, the noise, the light and the shadows. Questions around youth, age, beauty, and love, and one's perceived "worthiness" of each whispered about like midnight waves lapping at cold toes. Some things are, perhaps, best left unanswered, but the shining faces on the street -of young and old alike -enjoying the sunny day, and the simple joy of living, was a fitting counterpart, and a beautiful reminder of the very things Isherwood wrote of. Viva love. Viva life.




Feb 14, 2010

It's Not A Heel; It's A Mountain


It was with a huge amount of sadness that I read about the death of designer Alexander McQueen last week.

The British designer was one of my early favourites in the high-falutin' world of fashion. Amongst the pish-posh flaky fashion queens, McQueen redefined regal -and he knew it. Working-class royalty wrapped in bad boy drawl, he dared to try new things, while really, truly, "keeping it real." To paraphrase playwright Joe Orton, he "came from the gutter, and don't you forget it." His work wasn't merely ephemeral; it was probing, challenging, and frequently bizarre. Live presentations were deeply theatrical, taking inspiration from popular entertainment and relevant social issues (yes, fashion and social isues can mix) and fusing these ideas with a Biennale-esque sensibility that sought to blow open the doors of what fashion was and what it could be. He never lost touch with his roots, nor with his family. His deep connection with the women in his life -the twin muses of Isabella Blow and his mother -was apparent, and it's that touch of touching earthiness I still find so endearing.

Part of what makes Alexander McQueen's passing so tragic is the nature of his death. It wasn't the wasting-away rot of cancer or the slow annilation of AIDS, but rather, the scalding horror of self-violence. Despite conjecture, we'll never know the exact, true reason why he felt the need to leave us -nor should we. His death remains, like his life, his creation alone. It's just sad that, at the end, he never saw the windows, only the walls; never felt the light, but scraped along in darkness; threw aside creation in favour of destruction. Why? Like so many other suicides, it's not ours to know. He's gone, and he's left us his visions, in colours and textures; in dyes and dances of hems and heels and the height he reached as a one of the greatest visual artists our age has seen. From a fashion cynic to you, Dear McQueen, thank you for the passion, the play, the verve and the vision. I'd say "angels sing thee to thy rest" but frankly, the whir of sewing machines, the dry scrape of pencils against paper, and the click-clak of stiletto heels seem like an infinitely better symphony. Rest tight. The gutter won't forget you.


Feb 12, 2010

Sexy Queen

The Valentine's Day sillies are upon us once more. As a singleton who's never really experienced the "romantic" connotations of the Hallmark Holiday, I take the whole thing in stride and tend to draw associations instead with the sticky-sweet days of childhood. Heart-shaped cookies and finger-staining candies, along with cut-outs and tacky cards -that's Valentine's Day to me.

There's a tremendous pressure on female singletons, particularly in North America, where V-Day is taken quite seriously. (That, incidentally, is culturally interesting; I don't recall the same kind of pressure when I lived in Dublin and London, but then, back then I romanticized everything, turning every day into a kind of maudlin V-Day fest, complete with sappy poetry, long dresses, and plenty of chest-heaving for so-close-so-far Byronic, tortured-artist-lovers. Oh, youth...) Year-round Valentine pressure is everywhere in popular culture: witness the phenomenons of Bridget Jones, Sex And the City, and any number of treacly pop hits.

Lastnight's episode of 30 Rock featured a defensive Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) trying to find someone to give her a ride post an impending dental surgery. The snag? The surgery fell on Valentine's Day. In the great tradition of ladies who doth protest too much, the indefatigable Liz huffed and puffed about in hilarious, if equally sad, fashion, loudly proclaiming her independence. Only later, deep in the throes of whirling post-surgery hallucinations, did she acknowledge that she wanted to be loved. It got me thinking: do women need Valentine's Day to assert their desire for love and acceptance? Following that, do men need the pressure of what V-Day represents to show these things? It all feels deeply unfair -and stupid.

The Toronto-based Erotic Arts and Crafts Fair blends like childlike whimsy with a decidedly adult ethos. As its name implies, the fair is a celebration of sex, but not in that tawdry, vulgar way as paraded around so many so-called "professional" conferences. The fair, on since 2007 and founded by members of the excellent Come As You Are, is Canada’s only craft fair dedicated to romantic, sexual, and erotic expression, and features a variety of crafts -not just rude knitwear and dildos (though they're presented too, if you're interested). Books, buttons, jewellery, corsets, slippers and one cleverly-named change-purse feature as well.

Along with being a fun way of celebrating sexuality, the fair also serves as a great way of connecting people -including many single women, who come in nervous and sometimes shy, and leave, laughing. There's no pressure for coupledom, and the whimsical, fun feel of the fair imbues a kind of fun, carnival-esque atmosphere. Also, the event nicely builds community through the sharing of artistic ability, something vitally important in the Queen Street West area (which is rapidly becoming a bourgeois hipster haven, eeek). If you're in the neighbourhood tomorrow (February 13th), pop in the Gladstone Hotel anytime between 12 and 8pm. Single or coupled, I guarantee you'll walk out with a smile.

Feb 8, 2010

Hurts, Wrinkles, Desire (aka Life)

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing the dulcet tones of Shelagh Rogers float across my office. Shelagh was the host of a program on CBC Radio (since canceled) called Sounds Like Canada, but has since gone on to host a weekly literary program, The Next Chapter. Today's show had a distinct theme: bleak endings and new beginnings, particularly related to matters of the heart. With the yearly Valentine's Day assault kicking into high gear, it seemed a particularly timely topic, with a refreshingly bittersweet twist.

One of Shelagh's guests was Mary-Jo Eustace, the spurned ex-wife of actor Dean McDermott, who infamously left her for Tori Spelling and went on to do reality television. She has a new book about her experience called Divorce Sucks and has been featured in Hello! Canada as well as Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Joy Behar, Access Hollywood, Extra, Inside Edition, Bonnie Hunt, People Magazine and US Weekly. I interviewed Mary-Jo Eustace myself around this time last year. She was co-hosting a cooking show with Canadian food personality Ken Kostick called He Said, She Said. Along with yummy, easy-to-prep recipes, the show featured witty, sometimes salty exchanges of the two acid-tongued hosts. I was eager to meet them and learn more about their chemistry and how they come up with their food ideas.


I was not interested in the tawdry details of her break-up. I'd been warned by the publicist not to broach the topic of Mary-Jo's personal life, I didn't, in truth, have any interest in wading into those waters; they were, to me, too deep, too painful, and frankly, none of my business. And, being a foodie, I was more interested in her relationship to food and her viewers. She was polite and classy in answering my questions but I sensed a wary kind of judgment as well, manifest in a few brief barbs related to what she perceived to be my youth.

Regardless of this, I sensed a real sadness about her, and I left the interview feeling her anger was really a ruse covering a deeper wound. I also sensed an intense worry over her age and its relationship to her potential desirability as a woman. Looking at my own wrinkles and bumps lately, I sense that anxiety too. Media outlets can push the "elegance" of all the Meryl Streeps and Helen Mirrens they like -the fact remains that they're not known as smoking hot babes. If you're over 30, how do you compete with the like of Elisha, Jessica, Megan, et al? The truth is: you don't. Self-acceptance is a long road, and it's certainly made harder with an unquestioned man-boy culture that deems female aging to be equated with worthlessness -or worse, sexual repellance.

Where did this come from? I saw photos of Madonna in W Magazine recently, and I was utterly inspired. She may have had work done, but who cares? She looks glammy, vampy, campy, unapologetic, and utterly present. "Would it sound better if I was a man?" she whispers knowingly in her song, "Human Nature". I have to wonder if the same spirit applies to women who age loudly, unapologetically, with sexual aplomb, blazing confidence, searing intelligence, and scalding wit, wearing heartbreak, healing, and a hard-won wisdom loudly and proudly. I can only hope that, like Mary-Jo, Madge, and yes, Nigella, I can embody a few of these qualities. Me, go gently into that good night? I don't think so. But I wouldn't mind being called a smoking hot babe one more time.

Feb 7, 2010

Let The Light In

Romantic, insightful, deeply felt, and lovingly performed -what else can I say about the Toronto production of Light In The Piazza? Oh yeah: it inspired me to cook a slat of rigatoni al forno the following day. Bene? You bet.

Light In The Piazza started out life as a novella by Elizabeth Spencer. It became a weepie 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton and Rossano Brazzi. The musical version premiered in 2005 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, where it ran for over a year and received a boatload of awards: two Outer Critics Awards, five Drama Desks, and six Tonys. Not too shabby.

However, I approached the musical with some caution, mindful of the fact that I have a marked distaste for the maudlin. I figured, a story involving disability, love, and parental (dis)approval can't end well, nor can it provide insight into matters of the heart -or culture. Turns out my fears were utterly unfounded. Toronto's Acting Up Stage Company has done a wonderful job of rendering Adam Guettel's work (book by Craig Lucas) with simple, quiet elegance, while keeping the necessary passion firmly in place.

The two main characters are the Clara (Jacquelyn French), a 26-year-old with the mental capacity of a child, and her hyper-protective mother, Margaret Johnson (Patty Jamieson), who are American tourists abroad. They're not the tackily-dressed, loudly-garbed, photo-snapping types, either. Director Robert McQueen has kept the original time period in place, with classy vintage costuming reflecting a more retrained time. Margaret and her daughter's upper class outfits (designed by Alex Amini) -dresses, hats, scarves, all in muted, soft colour -nicely contrast with the Italian natives' vivid, stylish costuming, but, importantly, neither the garb nor the overall direction ever reduces anyone to a stereotype.

Seeing the production avoid easy stereotyping was a relief, because despite Corriere Canadese being one of the show's sponsors, I still feared a tacky Luigi (the moustachioed chef from The Simpsons) caricature. But I needn't have worried; McQueen draws out some wonderful performances, using Guettel's intrinsically knowing score as a guide. Several scenes and numbers delivered or sung entirely in Italian, with the pitch and intensity of each mirrored in movement and delivery. Florence -presented less Frances Mayes-esque and more E.M. Forster-ish (at least contextually) -is where the mother-daughter pair meet Fabrizio (Jeff Lillico), who is immediately drawn to Clara. Lillico, so memorable in productions at both Soulpepper and Stratford, is wonderful as the smitten young man who barely understands his own passions and yet knowingly understands (and accepts) Clara. Stage veteran Juan Choiran is wonderfully charming as his father, Signor Naccarelli. The scenes between he and the beguiling Jamieson, whether awkwardly exchanging pleasantries or sharing a short, tender kiss, are very poignant, revealing the piece's subtext about missed opportunities and new ones. French and Lillico also share a lovely chemistry that is at once passionate and gentle; their silent exchanged glances and carefully-considered silences reveal two actors who deeply understand the awkward, wild wonder of young love.

Equally as impressive is Guettel's score, masterfully lead by Jonathan Monro. While one might expect loud, treacly declamations of love-you-forever-ness, we instead get insightful psychological sketches. The music takes elements of other modern musical contemporaries (notably Sondheim) to weave a sonorous, elegant tapestry of sounds that is beautifully rendered by the quintet, who are kept in the half-light behind a white scrim that is set in labyrinthine slats across the wide stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre. This elegant, economical design (by set and lighting designer Phillip Silver) is a perfect canvas on which to paint the story of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, men and women, parents and children. The Light In The Piazza is about so much more than the obvious "love overcomes all" superficiality its premise might imply; it's about love, to be sure, but it's also about opening yourself to possibility, even (especially) when it's risky. I heard a line in a rap tune recently, that "you maximize potential when you take risks" and though this is the furthest thing you could get from rap, the message -and magic -remain the same. Step into the light, the piazza whispers, come into the light. You might be surprised what you see -and who sees you.

The Light In The Piazza runs through February 21st at the Berkeley Street Theatre.
Photographs by Joanna McDermott.

Feb 6, 2010

Creature Discomfort

I've been thinking a lot about violence: that which we inflict upon each other, in large and small ways, and that which we direct upon ourselves. Every night the television news is filled with searing images of suffering and pain. reminders of the awful damage us humans are capable of, through snarky opportunism, willful malevolence, or some sad combination of both.

Canadian playwright Judith Thompson has never shied away from these issues. The award-winning playwright has spent her career exploring the myriad of ways we inflict violence on those we love, those we hate, and those we don't even know. Her first play, 1980's The Crackwalker, was a gritty examination of the lives of four disturbed people, all but forgotten by mainstream society; 1997's Palace of the End was a triptych of haunting monologues delivered by damaged souls who'd been affected by the Iraq war. Thompson, who is a two-time recipient of a Governor-General's Award for drama and has been awarded the Order of Canada, isn't afraid to ask tough questions around morality and intolerance in her work, nor does she shy away from the depiction of hurts, physical, mental, spiritual and psychological, and their related conequences. Thompson's latest work, Such Creatures, takes the simple premise of two women at two different points in history, recounting their tales; one is a Holocaust survivor, the other an Aboriginal street tough. I had the opportunity to speak with Thompson to exchange ideas around the inspiration for the work, the connection between the two women, and the real-life stories that fuel her creative world. Thompson's responses are still so inspiring to me; I've highlighted my favourite bits.


Was there a specific event that inspired Such Creatures?

Many moments and stories inspired the play, (like) Reena Virk and others like her. I have realized that many young girls live in a kind of war zone almost as dangerous as the one so many young men live in, but they don't make the news... I teach acting, and one of the exercises I assign is for the students to interview someone out of their normal social sphere, and then bring a monologue to present to the class; a student from outside of Ottawa brought a letter given to her by an elderly neighbour. The letter was written to her by her sister, from the prison within Auschwitz, where she was waiting to be hung for her part in the Auschwitz revolt in which Crematorium 4 was blown up. When I heard this letter, something inside me shifted. I knew I would revisit the letter. I was so inspired by the courage of these young girls.

Why did you choose two female protagonists?

Many male heroes have been celebrated in drama, but there are so many unsung female heroes and martyrs, and these girls... well, both are heroic, because they face violence with bravery, and one especially takes huge risks to benefit others. They have nerves of steel, sharp extraordinary intellects, and they are both only fifteen! I want to look at women who are leaders, and fighters, women who will never ever give up or surrender their beliefs.

What do you think binds these women together, ultimately?

We carry our history in our bodies, and deep in our psyches, we carry every woman's experience. We stand on the shoulders of the women who lived before we were born, whatever race or religion we are. Preparing to fight a gang of girls to the death is facing death; it has come down to the very same thing that the girl at Auschwitz faced every day. We are always underestimated, valued mainly for our attractiveness to men. These girls are so so so much more than that -and so are we all!

Such Creatures runs at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille through February 7th.

Feb 5, 2010

Casting A Spell



Amidst the rush of celebrity do-gooding for Haiti are a number of music recordings that benefit various organizations working in the earthquake-ravaged country. "We Are The World" was originally recorded in 1985 to help Africa, and now it's being revived, with a new round of contemporary music stars (and produced with original helm-master Quincy Jones), all in an effort to help Haiti. The single will debut at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver next week, guaranteeing it big exposure, meaning big sales, ergo, more aid.

As expected, the effort has raised all kinds of ethical questions around the benefit and drawbacks of charity singles, and the pros and cons of the super-rich-and-famous shilling for the truly destitute and desperate. I'm not going to wade into those super-deep debating waters here, but I will say, I was excited when I came across the above report detailing former Pogue Shane MacGowan's assembling of some great musical luminaries to re-record the outrageously sexy Screamin' Jay Hawkins song "I Put A Spell On You" to help Haiti. Mick Jones, Nick Cave, Chrissie Hynde, and Glen Matlock were all involved in the recording. What I like is that the entire process appears to be so organic and homespun; no one's wearing makeup or flaunting designer gear (though, as befits the rock and roll crew, there is drink). No one's flapping on about their sincerity, and the song isn't nauseatingly saccharine, either -it's not a specially-composed tune for the occasion, but an old chestnut that is a long, true favourite among music lovers of all stripes. All proceeds from the single are benefiting Concern Worldwide, a Dublin-based charity that has a long history of working in Haiti.

Update: This rocks. Take a listen.



Somehow, I suspect, were Ms. Simone alive, she'd want to be in the same room as Cave, MacGowan, et al. Really, could you blame her?

Feb 1, 2010

Susan Coyne: Her Own Peer

There are some plays I'm absolutely drawn to, Hamlet being a notable example. I love the haunted nature of the title character, the complicated nature of his relationships, and the ways he deals with (or avoids) various elements thrown up at him. Like Hamlet, Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt has a compelling main character and a complex set of relationships -but the big difference is the sprawling, massively ambitious storyline. Most people associate Ibsen with serious, hard-edged reality-based works like Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. Yet before these works, Ibsen wrote his five-act play in verse, and, to quote one critic, "in deliberate, liberating disregard of the limitations that the conventional stagecraft of the 19th century imposed on drama." Wow. Ambitious? Yes. Brave? Yes. A little bit crazy? Perhaps.

Indeed, Peer Gynt has presented its fair share of challenges in live production; many versions are long, or else condensed so thoroughly that they risk losing their original Norwegian folk flavour. Ingmar Bergman helmed a five-hour version in 1957 (and didn't use the famous Grieg music named after the work), while Christopher Plummer presented a radically-reduced concert version in 1993 (and did use the Grieg music, natch). There's a myriad of reasons the work is so challenging: numerous location chances, an enormous cast of characters, and fantastical elements that reference fairy tales, religion, and the nature of time itself. Like I wrote, Peer Gynt was, and remains, ambitious, brave, and a little bit crazy.

So it was with much intrigue that I recently looked over a press release for a new, streamlined production of the work, staged by The Thistle Project; adapted for two actors by director Erika Batdorf and the company, the production features playwright, actor, and author Susan Coyne alongside Thistle's co-founder Matthew Romantini. I wanted to find out Coyne's ideas about this unique work, perhaps in the hope that she'd be able to furnish me with a little more clarity in trying to understand the nature of Peer. I soon learned she brings not only an actor's dedication and commitment to the role, but a writer's intuitive understanding of the language, and how it informs the visual elements within the work. The Thistle Project's production of Peer Gynt promises to be one of the most memorable experiences of the Toronto theatre season this year.

How do you approach the role? You're playing what some might characterize as a "typically male" role. What is it about Ibsen's hero that ultimately renders him genderless?

The character is very male in the traditional sense and we aren't changing that. However, I"m not playing him in drag. I like to think it's similar to what actresses quite often did in the nineteenth century- playing the "breeches part" without having to explain why. The play reveals new facets when you can get away from some of the off-putting surface elements of Ibsen's original script (which was probably not written to be performed at first)- like the character of Solveig, who seems a kind of caricature on the page. (She is) the maiden pure who waits her whole life in a castle tower for her hero to return to her. What attracts me to Peer is his energy and his imagination. He's a dreamer and a doer, though he lacks the capacity to look at himself and his actions.

By producing it in a church, there is a lot of spiritual background brought in. Intentional?

We wanted to do the play in a non-traditional space. Again, this is a way of looking the play from another angle. The play has a very spiritual core and we wanted a space that would provide it with a kind of resonance- as it happens we found one in the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is a beautiful space with a very progressive history and deep roots in the downtown community where it sits.

How does the movement-based, experiential nature of the piece complement Ibsen's writing?

Peer Gynt is very unlike the plays by Ibsen that most of us are familiar with: A Doll's House, Hedda Gabbler, Ghosts. It is a kind of folk tale, very earthy and wildly inventive and mixing all kinds of styles of theatre. So we are doing the play with only two actors, me and the brilliant Matthew Romantini, who plays every other character.

How much of your own writing background helped in the streamlining of the work?

Erika Batdorf is the real force behind this adaptation, which involves cutting a play down from about four hours to something like ninety minutes. She knows the play intimately, and has been involved with several productions, and lived with it inside her for many years. The rest of us have had a hand in reworking bits and pieces as we've found some stumbling blocks in the text.

What does Peer Gynt have to say to us in the 21st century?

First of all it's a very entertaining story, and surprisingly funny. It is the story of Everyman's journey through life- the struggle between our flawed, selfish, human desires and the part of us that might be called our higher self- the self we seldom allow to have the upper hand. I think it's an old, old tale, and one that never goes out of style.

Peer Gynt runs to February 21st at Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity. More information is at the Facebook Event Page.

Photos by Lindsay Anne Black