Seminar by Theresa Rebeck

Seminar by Theresa Rebeck opened the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre Winnipeg’s 2015-16 season. Four aspiring writers, Martin, Douglas, Kate and Izzy, pool their money to engage an established novelist for a 10-week master class.

The ensemble of the young quartet worked well. Sparks flew as the relationships among them shifted and as Leonard, their teacher, reacted to their writing and their personas.

The opening scene, in Kate’s apartment, allows us to glimpse the quartet spar with words, the passion that unites them. Martin, nephew of a famous playwright,appears as a parody of serious students of writing. His arrogant use of terms such as the interiority and exteriority of the landscape, his description of the trees and shrubs he has passed on his way to the apartment as balanced for growth, and hints about a possible publication in “The New Yorker” place him in the realm of those who seem to prefer to talk about writing, rather than working at writing. Martin challenges him and mocks his words, trying to gain the support of Izzy and Kate.

When Leonard arrives for the class, he asks to read a piece of writing. Kate steps up, handing him a piece in the style of Jane Austen on which she has been working for 6 years. Leonard stops at the semi-colon, rips her work apart and leaves the class.

Each week another member of the quartet presents work; Izzy’s work is praised; Martin is told to go to Hollywood and Douglas rejects Leonard’s scathing remarks about his friend’s work. When Martin comes a week later and announces to his fellow students that Leonard had been accused of taking the words of others, Douglas then has the courage to reveal his words. Leonard cannot remember having read the first chapter of Douglas’ novel, the piece he had submitted to gain entrance into the seminar. Douglas and Leonard joust before Leonard reveals a hidden part of himself, becoming honest  perhaps for the first time during the play.

Creating works of art is a lengthy process; refining that work also requires time and effort. Leonard’s remarks after a superficial reading of his students’ work, dismiss their creative processes. He acts on the assumption that telling his students the hard truth is the best approach to teach them how difficult the task of becoming successful writers is. His students would prefer him to comment on their talent and let them know he values their work. When they do not accept his remarks, he begins to attack their character as well as  their writing. They begin to wonder about the class but also about the profession they have chosen.

His remarks call into question the narratives they have constructed of who they are. All of us construct narratives of ourselves; these narrative slip and elide depending on contextual influences. Why should it be any different for the aspiring writers? When they begin to question the each others personal narratives, shifts and cracks appear in the faces they present to the world. They begin to tell each other little lies, stretching and reshaping the truth to fit their own purposes. Even Leonard undergoes transformation when confronted by rumours of plagiarism and false memoirs.

Rebeck’s exploration of serious themes, such as personal identity and creativity did not come alive for me, despite the efforts of the actors and some good dialogue.

Freeheld and Grandma: interesting films

“Freeheld” and “Grandma”

Two recent films featuring women as protagonists arrived in Winnipeg during a two-week time frame. I enjoyed both films, experiencing the issues raised by the women as they transpired during the film and then reflecting on these timely issues during subsequent days.

The titles intrigue; grandma is a term with many connotations but those might be questioned as the film transpires. Freehold is a term used in property management. Why has it been adapted to become the title of a film?

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page portray Laurel Hester, a policewoman, and her partner, Stacie Andree, an auto mechanic. The film documents the true story of Hester, a respected police officer in Ocean County, New Jersey, her relationship with Stacie, her struggle with lung cancer and their battle with the Chosen Freeholders of Ocean City who deny Stacie Hester’s pension benefits after her death. Moore and Page do not disappoint; their performances are a testament to their artistic excellence.

Ocean County elects 5 individuals, the Chosen Freeholders, to govern the town. In denying Hester’s request that her benefits be given to Stacie, they use a clause in the governance procedures that county employees can be treated differently. That crutch becomes the public response to hide rigid belief systems.

Hester’s police partner becomes her strongest ally in the fight to obtain equal benefits for civil partners. When he discovers that Hester has lived in the closet throughout their partnership, initially he feels betrayed but over time accepts her relationship with Stacie. Gradually he allows himself to continue to respect his former partner.

Grandma Ella (Lily Tomlin) is a feisty, lesbian writer who has recently lost her long time partner, Violet. In an attempt to pay off the debts incurred for medical care during Violet’s illness, Ella has cut up her credit cards and drawn on her savings. She has also dismissed her current lover, Olivia. No sooner has Olivia left the apartment than Sage, (Julie Garner), Ella’s granddaughter, arrives at the door asking for money to pay for an abortion. Both Ella and Sage agree that they cannot contact Judy, (Marcia Gay Harden) Sage’s mother and Ella’s daughter to ask for money. How has this strange intrafamilial relationship effectively separating three generations of women occurred. Through innuendo, the audience slowly constructs an understanding of the lives of the three women. Ella and Sage visit people who have been part of Ella’s past, begging for sums of money. During each visit, Ella peels away layers of her identity, revealing glimpses of her multiple selves. As a last resort, they descent on Judy whose reaction to the news of the unwanted pregnancy seems to fit Ella’s and Sage;s perceptions of her. Money in hand, the two arrive, almost without incident, at the clinic.

Both films are timely; both films highlight positive long-term relationships between women. Freeheld describes events that occurred almost 20 years ago in Ocean City. The film highlights entrenched beliefs about homosexuality. Hester has led a secret life, travelling away from her community for friendship. The Chosen Freeholders and one of her colleagues are openly biased. Her former colleagues are reluctant to support her request. Stacie is targeted at her place of work. Grandma, on the other hand, perhaps due to its California location, highlights difference. Ella’s lifestyle is not questioned by her friends, most of whom live just on the fringes of mainstream life. Her friends volunteer at abortion clinics, operate tattoo parlours and own funky coffee shops.

Quartteto Gelato at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Air Canada Pops

Quartetto Gelato

 

A slick, fast-paced chatter interspersed with brilliant are the salient features of Quartteto Gelato shows. Peter de Sotto’s opening patter set the stage for the rest of the evening and his slick technical mastery of the violin guarantees interesting performances. Alexander Sevasian plays the accordion and does he play accordion. Finger dexterity, strong rhythmic leadership and sensitive phrasing, whether he is the featured performer or collabororating behind his colleagues work, characterize his presence on stage. Colin Maier, uses his acrobatic training to add bits of humour to serious performances and his work entitled ‘The Pipes’ presents the bagpipe as a mostly serious instrument. His mastery of circular breathing, a skill developed by many oboists, was featured in the pipe music as well as in the Oboe Concerto. Elizabeth McLellan served to support the men of the group and her cello playing was really only featured in ‘Al di La’. One could only wish for more from this fine cellist arranger.

Toronto-based Quartteto Gelato  has been popular throughout its twenty year history, produced many CD’s and won several awards.

Reflections on the Manitoba Chamber Music concert, October 14, 2015 at Westminster United Church, Winnipeg.

 

 

I attended a Manitoba Chamber Orchestra concert the other evening to enjoy two pieces that were unfamiliar to me as well as a Mozart Symphony. The soloist, Mark Andre Hamelin and music director, Ann Manson created a musically interesting evening, linking Mozart to Kancheli and then Kancheli to Sylvestrov. ‘The Messenger’ featuring piano, synthesizer and strings was written in memory of Sylvestrov’s wife and contains melodic fragments, specifically motifs from Mozart as well as from folk music. It features many duet-like passages between the concert master and the soloist as well as highlighting other players interacting  with the soloist. Sylvestrov interrupts motifs, moving on to new  and varied melodic and rhythmic figures before letting them dissipate into the atmosphere. I was reminded of walking in areas of London and Paris past open windows, hearing strains of multiple melodies mixing, fading or ascending as I wandered.

The orchestra then interpreted Symphony No. 25 in G minor (K183) by Mozart. The rapid tempi were controlled by Manson as she led the players through the passion associated with Mozart’s use of this minor key. The ensemble was tight throughout the performance with a warm, subtle tone quality that welcomed bursts of drama and pathos.

The second half of the concert featured “Valse Boston” by the Georgian composer, Giya Kancheli. I had not known (or I had forgotten) that the Boston Waltz was a slow Americanized version of the Viennese Waltz. Kancheli’s piece opens abruptly with a crashing note played by the piano followed by a haze of string sounds that gradually enters our consciousness. The music is punctuated throughout by gripping percussive chords that dissipate into the air.

Although neither piece is particularly technically demanding for the pianist, both require extreme sensitivity of interpretation and deep command of very quiet playing. Hamelin and Manson highlighted colour, line, texture and ensemble playing in ways that assured a lingering memory of both ‘The Messenger’ and ‘Valse Boston.’