Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sister Act - a curmudgeonly review

Let me begin with my disclaimer: I can be an out-of-control curmudgeon when my mood dictates it. So if you read my review of Sister Act and are offended, tell yourself that you’ve been curmudgeoned . . . nothing more.

I tend to avoid high school and community drama, partly because I’ve been there and gradually tired of the tedium of it—the memorization of lines and blocking, entrances and exits, the building of sets, the painting, the sawing, the cajoling of hormone-laced actors, and the practicing, practicing for days and weeks for one or two nights of sheer terror. I’ve helped manage back stage for musicals like The Pirates of Penzance, been a Chinese passenger on HMS Pinafore, played Annas in Jesus Christ, Superstar and the uncle in Wizard of Oz, for instance. I’ve “taught” Hamlet about 15 times, The Crucible and Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times each. I even attempted Oedipus Rex with a Grade 12 class. Once.

I’ve seen Christopher Plummer and Cynthia Dale on the Stratford stage. Wow!

But hey, you say. That’s unfair. And you’re right. To sing and perform like the cast of RJC’s Sister Act did last night while you’re still just learning the rudiments of vocal music and dramatic performance is truly remarkable. Soloists were competent beyond their years, chorus numbers were musical and well-rehearsed, and if teenage actors tend to do a bit too much “standing around between lines,” that’s to be expected and is easily forgiven; physical awkwardness dominates in adolescence; hands never know what feet are doing. The confidence and energy overflowed.

My hat is unreservedly off to the RJC staff for motivating and preparing what had to be over half of the student body to pull this off, and to do it so well.

BUT! HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Grease have at least one thing in common (and that with opera, the original musical theatre genre); the plots tend to be drivel. Sister Act out-drivels most of them and for those of you who protest that these plays were never meant to be deep, that they are venues for catchy songs, farcical humour and copious laughter, I concede that you have a point. I like farce too, even John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks still breaks me up. But Sister Act is not quality farce; it sinks along with much of American sensibility to the tiresome “humour” of gag lines and double entendres. (Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.” Rumour has it that so many corpses turned over in their graves at this gag line that the Eigenheim Church cemetery resembles a plowed field this morning.)

When the director felt it necessary before the performance began to warn the audience that they might be shocked by Act One, but that . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . there would be a 180º turn in Act Two, I knew that we were witnessing a classical error in dramatic performance, ie. telling the audience what the play means. Not good. Unfortunately, the 180º turn is . . . what? A timid policeman finds out that he can be “the guy,” a fame-seeking singer decides to give up her selfish dream for a nobler cause, a convent of nuns learns how to sing overnight and becomes a jiving, chorus-line “ACT?”

Did I just not get it?

OK. It’s really hard to find suitable material for a mandatory, year-end musical to accompany graduation celebrations in an Anabaptist Christian School in middle Saskatchewan in 2017. Granted. I may prove to be wrong, but by the audience’s “standing ovation” response (they always do this; our kids flat-out amaze us from time to time) Sister Act with all its flaws did what the school needs; endear itself again to its constituency as a Christian, junior, liberal arts school that knows how to do education in this era and is not afraid to take some risks, be innovative. It’s a cracking good school with, probably, more potential for greatness than we deserve.

And here’s a thing. Teach kids to throw mud on a potter’s wheel, help them train their hands to mold and shape with both gentleness and firmness, and so what if all that occurs to them at the moment is to fashion an ash tray? Perhaps, in another day and when they are all grown up, mastered skills will enable them to create a new, exciting, Grecian Urn.

. . . When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." - John Keats

Meanwhile, would someone out there start to work on a really good musical that can be performed at a school like RJC without the necessity of an apologetic disclaimer preceding it?? The world is full of amazing plots, magnificent harmonies, hilarity and joy. Surely we have a really good play in our collective consciousness.

The Midnight Trials of J.J. Thiessen, perhaps?

Thursday, June 08, 2017

How it's Made: hammers and sentences.

Made in Rosthern, ca 1907
I took a History of English course at the University of Alberta long, long ago. The prof was a linguist and the approach was consistent with evolutionary thinking. Anyone in the class who rejected biological evolution would still come away from that class believing in linguistic evolution. It became so darned obvious under the tutelage of someone like Dr. Cantrememberhisname.

There’s a program on the Discovery channel that I like to watch: How it’s Made, it’s called, and it follows the manufacturing processes of everyday objects beginning with raw materials and ending with, say, a hammer or a snowmobile. We can probably be forgiven for seeing a hammer that “just is” without paying attention to it’s origins; you just can’t know everything! But in that class at the U of A where we looked at our English language with the intensity of How it’s Made, I gained an appreciation for the fluidity of language, the way it begins and the ways in which it changes, usually in concert with changes in other aspects of our cultures: our ecology, our economics, our migrations.

(A tidbit: vulgar meant the common people early on in it’s life. It’s equivalent in understanding today might be “the middle class.” From it’s Latin base to the present, it’s evolved to be used to describe low, mean, highly objectionable persons and actions. How it went from its reference to the peasant class to its use in describing despicable persons and events would in itself make for an interesting cultural study. ((An aside to the tidbit: the Vulgate Bible was not a translation for rude, mean people; it was a translation for common use.)))

Historically, people didn’t have the benefit of scholarship like that of Dr. Cantrememberhisname, or of TV programs to explain How it’s Made. But some were understandably curious about how it was that when some people spoke, they couldn’t understand them, and when they themselves spoke, others heard gibberish. At some time, the myth of the confounding of language at the Babel Tower was given birth, a myth that gospel writers reversed in the de-confounding at Pentecost. Taken together, they illustrate that what went wrong is being made right with the coming of Christ and the upside-down nature of his teaching.

Understanding the story of languages—the How it’s Made of our mother tongues particularly—is far more important than knowing how the handle of a hammer is given its shape. In the case of the hammer, it doesn’t really matter if we imagine it to have arrived intact in its present form; lack of facility in and knowledge of the nuances in language starts wars, ends marriages, breaks communities up into parcels of misunderstanding.

We taught language facility in an earlier age—rhetoric and oratory, debating, grammar and penmanship—as the important subjects in school. Students were required to master basics of Latin (from which much of English vocabulary and grammar derive) and possibly some Greek as well. We deemed it important that people learn to express their thoughts well and that they comprehend the thoughts of others, well expressed. We understood how important it is to be able to write legibly, clearly and precisely; how important it is to be able to read and comprehend clear and precise writing; how crucial an adequate and growing vocabulary can be to all human interaction.

We once understood that language knowledge and facility are key to pretty much everything.

(A recent bit of satire chastised Barack Obama for deliberately humiliating President Trump by speaking in complete sentences with an actual verb in each.)

 Pointing-and-grunting might be language enough when we’re digging a ditch, but the demands of the times cry out for language more fluent, more precise, more poetic than that.