Thursday, January 16, 2014

More thoughts on "Art"

Last weekend I managed to squeeze in a performance of Uncle Vanya over at the Cultch.  And I do mean squeezed in.  I had the last seat in the balcony advertised as having a non-obscured view.  There were two or so seats in the same row that were blocked quite badly by a pillar or the lights.  I had to lean forward to see one of the chairs on stage.  But for all that, I probably still had a better view than the folks placed to the rear of the stage.  Note to directors: just because you place chairs all around the action and call it theatre-in-the-round, you still need to think a lot more seriously about staging.  As far as I can recall, they still employed complete traditional staging with all action directed stage-front and the folks in the back got completely screwed.

I'm going to be honest -- I thought this was a weak performance.  I saw a much better version of Vanya in Chicago in 2010 (Strawdog).  I should have gone with my instincts and not gone, but the reviews were generally quite positive, though upon rereading I saw some warnings that the actor playing the title character was not up to snuff.  Indeed he was not.  I couldn't for a minute believe that this whining playboy had managed to keep the country estate going for all these years, whereas at Strawdog, he was a more substantial character, though one deeply unsatisfied with his life.  I thought Strawdog really centred the play around the Vanya-Sonya axis in a way that didn't happen enough here.  I also thought the doctor here was a bit too over-the-top.  And the way they (Blackbird) made the attempted shooting into a kind of slapstick action really pissed me off.  Now in both versions, I thought the last speech given to Sonya is very trite and basically unsalvagable: it's our duty to work hard for others without rest, but we'll get our reward in the next life.  It's a shame, as it really undermines the play.  I may well never go see the play again just because I think the ending is so weak (the same way I may well never watch Kurosawa's One Wonderful Sunday all the way to the end -- I would just lop off the last 5 minutes as being dopey and unworthy of the rest of the film).  I do think Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard are a bit better in not having such a lame ending.  In many ways, my deeper regret is not catching Strawdog doing Three Sisters (I was in England at the time).  I'm quite sure they would have done a better job than the version I saw at the Cultch.  That said, that version of Three Sisters was still considerably better than this staging of Vanya.

That is probably going to be my last experience at the Cultch, which of course is disappointing.  I've very mixed feelings about the institution as a whole.  I think they are in a terrible location, and I still have not entirely forgiven them for the way I missed a play because their on-line map and directions were so terrible at the time.  Indeed, I almost got lost again this weekend.  I thought Three Sisters was ok, and actually I liked Penelope quite a bit (more than I expected) and that positive experience was probably enough to push me over the edge to giving Vanya a try.  Now, this bad experience will probably dissuade me from going again, even if anything in the line-up through June interested me, which it does not.  Perhaps ironically, I found the art on the walls a lot more interesting than what was on stage, and might actually pick up one of the smaller pieces as a tangible reminder of the art scene in Vancouver.

In contrast, I have found the Honest Fishmongers to do a real bang-up job when they have tackled Shakespeare, and I probably will go see them in a week or two in Measure for Measure, even though this is a problematic play that I have mixed feelings about.  But there is not much else that is of interest in the theatre scene here.  I was totally bummed when the Ensemble Theatre Company decided to not produce The Changling in favour of The Dutchess of Malfi (which I've seen and don't think is a particularly good play).  So that is one less thing to look forward to.  I'll probably see Ubu Roi at UBC in the spring and then a couple of productions at Bard on the Beach, and that is basically it as far as theatre here goes.

Classical music has been surprisingly good here, though not up to Chicago Symphony standards of course.  I may be in for a bit of a shock in Toronto.  While the Toronto Symphony has a pretty good reputation, I was not impressed when I looked at the number of concerts they put on nor the repertoire.  There happens to be a good concert when we are visiting, and I did get tickets for that, but they were shockingly expensive.  I suspect this is because the concert hall is actually too small and they can't offer cheap seats up in the balcony the way that CSO does.  Well, this means that few people actually go.  My understanding is that the musicians were shocked to find out that the public basically didn't care that they were on strike (in 1999).  There just isn't a deep connection between the symphony and Toronto residents.  Maybe this is completely off-base, but it just doesn't seem as integral part of the arts landscape as the symphonies of New York or Chicago or even Cleveland are in their respective cities.  I know that if I can't get a much deeper discount as a subscriber, I won't be going, and I'll have to satisfy my musical urges with chamber music groups and perhaps the University of Toronto and its symphony and various musical ensembles.

After giving it quite some thought, I think my artistic interests (and rankings of cities) are as follows:
Theatre -- Toronto is very, very good, though still behind Chicago.  Both are better than NYC.  All three are vastly better than Vancouver.
Visual arts -- the core collection at AGO is not as good as Chicago's Art Institute.  The two are comparable in terms of touring exhibitions.  Both are pretty far behind NYC and Washington DC, but both are far ahead of Vancouver.  I'm not as sure about the gallery scene, which was fairly healthy in Chicago.
Classical music -- Toronto seems behind Chicago and New York, and may actually be slightly behind Vancouver when cost is factored into the equation.
Jazz music -- New York is by far the best, with Chicago a distant second.  Toronto is a bit behind Chicago, and Vancouver is far behind Toronto.*
Films and second-run movie theatres -- Toronto pulls a bit ahead of Chicago, particularly when factoring in second-run movie houses. I also like TIFF Lightbox more than the Gene Siskel Film Center in the Chicago Loop.
Other types of museums -- Toronto is a bit behind Chicago and both are far behind New York and Washington DC.

I don't go to opera or dance, so there is no point ranking them.

The bottom line is that for things that interest me the most, I should have no problem keeping myself occupied in Toronto, especially if a summer trip to Chicago is on tap each year.  Toronto definitely suits me a lot more than Vancouver, which has its strengths in things that don't particularly interest me and is weak on the things that do interest me (particularly art museums and theatre).  So it is an upgrade pretty much all the way around, though I may not go to the symphony quite as much as I did here.

* Edit (Feb. 2017) -- I have to revise this.  Given the closure of key jazz clubs in Toronto, the Toronto jazz scene is terrible and actually now somewhat worse than Vancouver's!

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