A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

EDITION #67 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 23-29, 2015

Deeply rooted

Wormwood (Tarragon Theatre)

Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue

Thursday, November 19; 8 p.m.

AUDIENCE ADVISORY Coarse language

Theatre Review

Andrew Kushnir’s latest play Wormwood is a timely, topical one reflecting on the current crisis of the Ukraine’s continuing struggle in the post-Cold War independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and maintain a cohesive democracy free from Russian influence. But as the stark political dramedy’s protagonist and its audience shall see, it’s a lot easier said than done.

Going back as election observers during the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution period, Ukrainian-Canadian brothers Ivan (Luke Humphrey) and Markiyan (Ken James Stewart) are unexpectedly caught up in the tumultuous events when Ivan, under the hospitality of their Ukrainian host The Professor (Ben Campbell) with his housekeeper (Nancy Palk) and her daughter (Amy Keating); has his passport and winter coat stolen just days before the democratic elections.

Catching a cold and slipping in between fevered dreams, he encounters the lovely, mute Russian Artemisia (Chala Hunter) who wanders about in the neighbouring garden courtyard belonging to her physician father (Scott Wentworth) during his recovery, who both don’t seem to get along very well with the Professor for personal and historical reasons, but that doesn’t stop Ivan and Artemisia from falling for each other.

When faced with a difficult decision, Ivan learns the hardcore geopolitical realities of his ancestral homeland are not so easily smoothed over with a ballot box and the promise of genuine social freedoms after centuries of distrust, oppression, wars and regional tug-of-wars that have made Ukraine for what it is, including a dark, shameful secret Artemisia conceals, as narrated by the blind bard known as the Kobzar (also Wentworth).

Director Richard Rose firmly takes the two-and-a-half-hour play on more than just some socio-political tale from Kushnir’s well-balanced script peppered with some dark humour and heartbreaking moments – along with some Ukrainian and Russian dialogue tossed about – as much as it does go on about identity, heritage and a heavy-handed critique on Western illusions (or delusions) of exporting democracy and social morals as salvation for a society, as the playwright did in his previous work, Small Axe.

Humphrey makes good on being the naïve Ivan getting the stars being knocked out of his eyes in witnessing the ugliness of a promising revolution looks like up close and having his conscience conflicted as a pawn between two differing neighbours; Campbell as a boisterous optimist who knows how to play his game versus the straight-laced Doctor by Wentworth who’s equally funny as the sightless Kobzar. Hunter gives a lot on her delivery as the tragic young heroine, as do supporting members Stewart, Keating and Palk adding to the play’s dilemma on making tough choices.

With Victor Mishalow playing alongside with his arrangements on the traditional Ukrainian bandura (zither-lute) and Camellia Koo’s traditional costuming (plus her minimal set design) under the competent lighting of Graeme S. Thomson, Wormwood puts those questions of a country and people at the crossroads under overwhelming odds to find itself among the East-West divide as Kushnir does in riveting performances from its cast and director than anything that could be seen on the six o’clock news.

***

Wormwood continues through December 20. For tickets/information, call 416-531-1827 or tarragontheatre.com.

Knockin’ on Abbas’ Doors

Iranian master film auteur Abbas Kiarostami poses in front of one of his many works of his photo installation Doors Without Keys, currently at the Aga Khan Museum

Abbas Kiarostami: Doors Without Keys

Venue: Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Drive

Dates/Times: Through March 27; Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Wednesdays 10 a.m.-8 p.m.)

Admission/Information: Adults $20, Seniors/Students/Children (3-14) $15, Wednesday nights 4-8 p.m. FREE. Call 416-646-4677 or agakhanmuseum.org.

Gallery Review

For their first solo artist exhibition, the Aga Khan Museum landed the ultimate exclusive: the world premiere viewing of Doors Without Keys by the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami as part of a touring exhibit of the fifty doors photographed by the art-house legend over a twenty-year period, invites one to guess the subject on the age-old question that’s been quizzed by game-show hosts to the mere curious: what is behind the door, or any door, for that matter?

Laid out into a labyrinth-patterned installation piece without confinement through translucent screens and a couple of hidden windows that resembles something like a enclave of a “old city” alleyway, the photographed doors mounted on Hahnemühle canvas to give it the fully three-dimensional effect very convincingly. Photographed in places the film director took in his spare time between film shoots in France, Italy, Morocco and his native Iran, there’s no indication of to where exactly these doors came from, perhaps to heighten the mystery or the imagination of the viewer even more.

Ranging from rusting iron to gnarled wood, they’re mostly chained and bolted, some without handles – even one with a door lock with the words “U.S.A.” oddly stamped on it – there’s an appreciation from Kiarostami’s camera eye in the antiquity of these doors that exact a certain characteristic(s) he sees of another world long gone from here, adding a audio soundtrack from speakers in the room where its showcased of chirping birds to creaking door hinges and lock clicks to give it a slight ambience and snippets of poetry on the walls, both in Persian and English, written by the filmmaker himself.

Rush past and you’ll miss it, there’s a little curtained screening area around the corner features selections of looped Kiarostami’s film shorts of pre- and post-Iranian Revolution periods for the duration of exhibit as curated by film curator/film festival programmer Peter Scarlet, mostly videos based on the same theme of the exhibit in silent mode or the occasional subtitling, ranging from the humorous to the melodramatic.

Scenes taken from Abbas Kiarostami's shorts 1982's The Chorus (left) and 1970's Bread and Alley (right), make up part of screening component to the photo installation Doors Without Keys, which will run from November 18 to December 13 before switching to other selected features for the duration of the exhibit.

Working more on the imagery of the door in architectural and societal cultures, Doors Without Keys shows the filmmaker’s versatility of poetry, film and photography rolled into one within the quietness of the exhibit of its physicality, purpose and locations these photos were taken show a lot more life than its almost life-size works may or may not indicate.

Opening up a theatrical Pandora’s Box

Going behind the scenes to Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical Avatar prequel, TORUK – The First Flight

Filmmaker James Cameron and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté pose with performers backstage from Cirque’s latest arena touring show, TORUK – The First Flight, based on Cameron’s megahit film Avatar.

Theatre Preview

Currently rolling across the Eastern United States a few dates on a preview mini-tour, Cirque du Soleil’s first-ever cinematic-based arena production TORUK – The First Flight makes its way around before its gala kick-off world tour in Montréal this holiday season and comes to Toronto in January at the Air Canada Centre, has the usual newcomers and old hands behind a original story inspired from James Cameron’s science-fiction/adventure Avatar with Cirque’s mastery with avant-garde musings and world music/new age beats with acrobatics, visuals and characters to play Hollywood for a discerning audience with a popular film franchise will prove to be their biggest undertaking yet for the Québécois contemporary circus.

As created and directed by the multimedia duo Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, who first worked with Cirque on their 20th anniversary one-night stand Midnight Sun in 2004 and other productions DELIRIUM (2006) and a segment on the Las Vegas residency show Michael Jackson ONE (2013),TORUK returns to Pandora three thousand years before the events of Avatar as a coming-of-age quest tale of two young Na’vi warriors of the Omaticaya Clan Ralu and Entu who are out to save the sacred Tree of Souls under threat from a natural disaster and can only find it by journeying to the Floating Mountains.

Along for the adventure is a budding female shaman from the Tawkami Clan, Tsyal, in helping them find the titular red-orange flying predator to make tsaheylu (“bond”) and fulfill a prophecy in riding the creature by a pure soul for the very first time to become the original Toruk Makto – Rider of the Last Shadow – to save their clans and their homeworld from destruction, all told by the Anurai Clan’s Storyteller many years later.

“It’s a transposition; it’s an evocation,” Lemieux describes the show. “We couldn’t make the movie, and what’s the purpose of remaking the movie on stage? So we started with this universe of Avatar and we created this story that (takes place) three thousand years before the movie. So in the prehistoric time, there were no humans … there’s a lot of volcanic eruptions … so we see another part of this Na’vi culture that we didn’t see in the movie.”

When the new story was explained to Cameron, who has the last word and creative consultancy onTORUK; he couldn’t have been more pleased in leaving his creation in better hands. “We presented the scenario to him,” said Pilon in regard to the show’s storyline, “and he was really happy. One of his assistants said to us: ‘I (haven’t) seen Jim smile so much … in a long time.’ ”Added Lemieux: “He’s very involved. He has to approve everything that we do. It is his universe and we’re just excited to work with Jim Cameron.”

In a rarity for Cirque, the Storyteller will provide English narration for the show (last one being the ongoing Las Vegas residency show and, to a lesser degree, the winter holiday show Wintuk that ran in New York from 2007 to 2010) by Raymond O’Neill who will also narrate the show in English and French during its Montréal run, another rarity for Cirque. “There’s a lot of things I know that are coming that I know are going to be challenging and you just go into them with confidence, you just keep building your relationships in the company and it’s like a family that will support you through it,” said O’Neill.

“As artists, you sometimes get too much comfort like ‘This is the show, this is what the line is and I pour a cup of tea and I slap the dog and that what the script says!’. But this like, ‘what’s going to happen next?’ that keeps me awake, keep me alive [and] keeps me young,” he chuckled. “I think it feels good when you give something, you know? I mean, you give something, you get so much for it. I’ve never given to fifteen thousand people (a night in a arena) before, that’s a big house! But I got a lot of love in my heart, [so] we’ll spread it around.”

Along with O’Neill are the 35 acrobats involved inTORUK’s 100-person crew, including the leading younger actors playing the heroes out to save Pandora and their stunt doubles showing the kind of symbiotic relationship in their work as well as the film’s themes on that same level, as stated by Jeremiah Hugues playing Ralu along with his stunt double Gabriel Cristo. “There’s always an element of danger [on Pandora],” he said, recalling one particular moment in the show during the training process. “We have viperwolves, we have lava, any sort of danger in the scene (and) Ralu’s the first character to put himself between the danger and for (best friend Entu) or Tsyal, he’s the protector [of the group]…normally in a scene, in the moment, you can see the tree but you can’t see the forest. Then team switch, I step out and I get to see (Cristo) do the scene…” Cristo finishes: “…And you see it from the outside.”

“That’s a nice moment!” Hugues exclaims in remembrance. “I’m overlooking, I’ve never noticed there’s a viperwolf behind me the entire time. I should have done something about that!...We’re using two brains with very diverse training to make one great character. I can see myself in that scene and see what he is doing. My seeing him benefits and [my role] gets stronger by watching him.”

For Rob Laqui, being a puppeteer in the show is a dream come true for him after audition for Cirque twelve years prior to TORUK and had waited a long time to be put into a production that heavily uses large-scale puppetry and, as a new act for the company, kite manipulation.

“They’re basically used throughout the entire show,” he said. “If we’re doing our job right you won’t even know we’re there. It kind of goes to show that you have to really commit to these things and they’ll happen if you direct your career and your life in that direction,” Laqui said.“You never know. I had no idea they were doing this show before I was cast. When they were describing the contract to me it was a perfect fit. I couldn’t have asked for any different experience.”

Choreographers Tuen Le and Tan Loc fleshed out the moves of the Na’vi in this show by bringing in new things that weren’t in the film as well as allow a little creative license from the dancers and actors involved. “The thing in this Pandora world, we have more freedom to be creative,” said Tuen, who first debuted in Cirque as a juggler in Banana Spheel, “and select the movement and the performer, and the movement will pick out what’s the most interesting way from there and in the direction where we would like to achieve.”

Left-right: Choreographers Tuen Le (wearing the toque) and Tan Loc direct their charges at a scene in rehearsal; Costumer Kym Barrett (lower left) with her assistants dresses up one of the performers into a colourful Na’vi and Raymond O’Neill prepares for dress rehearsal as The Storyteller in TORUK – The First Flight.

Loc concurred with his partner on the method of adding that dimension toTORUK, which has been a credo in Cirque since the beginning. “We tried to avoid to imitate from what was the movie is. We tried to add something for the artist to create their own Pandora in their own way and not only from us, but also from them.”

Acrobat Lisanna Ohm, who plays the Na’vi Chief of the Tipani clan, joined Cirque two years ago in their former Las Vegas nightclub venue LIGHT before transitioning toTORUK and takes this as another learning experience in her aerial artistry with a new way of learning new moves to work around the show’s storyline. “With (this show) we’ve done a lot of investigating within ourselves and what our Na’vi character would be, so it’s more theatrical and emotional in addition to the acrobats,” she said.

“We have fun playing with our tails. It’s an interesting addition to our costumes — we trip over each other’s and our own,” Ohm continued. “They get caught around the ropes and vines, but it’s been fun learning how to move with them and make them a part of ourselves.”

As Ohm had put it with their costuming, that falls into the department of Kym Barrett, who came into prominence in designing the costuming for the Wachowskis’ The Matrix film trilogy and Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet and Strictly Ballroom as well for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which made her a natural to recreate Alex Alvarez’s original creature designs from the film.

“The most exciting thing about the new show is, you know, the parameter of us being created by the film but also we have a room to create our own version of that (Avatar) myth,” said the Australian costumer for her second Cirque production after 2010’s TOTEM, as well as makeup. “Most of our costume have to look like were made by, you know, human hands or knobby hands. So they have to have an organic head look, so we’re using a lot of materials that potentially look like grew on a tree or they look like they came from a forest.

“We keep changing it and changing it until opening night, sometimes after opening night because, you know, as you continue towards opening night the directors might have a new idea or a performer might have a new idea or all the sudden, the lighting and the sound comes together and then I think I could make it better.”

Bringing that all together on one stage is its veteran Director of Creation Neilson Vignola, who has guided seven shows under the Cirque banner in his fifteen years working with them. “It’s a huge challenge. The expectation about Cirque is huge and (the expectations of) Avatar are huge, so everyone’s waiting to see what we end up with,” he admits. “Our goal is to make sure everyone who comes to see the show will be pleased whether they’re coming to see a Cirque show or an Avatar show.”

Working for two years with set and stage designers, Vignola finally presented their vision ofTORUK to Cameron and Cirque and got the full approval from both camps. “The first time it took us an hour and a half to present our idea and at the end (Cameron) just looked at us and said, ‘You know, it’s over my expectations. I didn’t know you would go that far with your storyline,’” he said. “He loved it. And since then, we improved the story and it’s even better than what he saw.”

Creature features: Some of the Pandoran fauna puppetry hanging around Cirque du Soleil’s International Headquarters in Montréal prior to hitting the road for the arena production, TORUK – The First Flight.

Presenting a new Cirque show is never without the pressure to have new and especially old audiences to get excited about in their thirty-one-year history when they were the new kids on the block. Now with competitors following the mould they created years ago and coming up with their own originalities and doing better at it, this is not lost on the company after a recent shake-up in managing the company in the wake of the Great Recession that seriously took a toll on their financial structure, which effected some of their offerings that had to be shut down like the Los Angeles residency show IRIS; to the 90% buyout of the company by Cirque founder Guy Laliberté (who still owns a 10% stake and maintains his creative position at the company) earlier this year in order to get their big top in order, which has improved in the last couple of years with dropping their hospitality division and better shows like ONE and last year’s touring show KURIOS.

Nobody knows that better than Vignola himself, who started his career with Cirque on the road, much like his younger charges have, with the courage and drive to follow one’s passion. “I started Cirque by touring. My family and I went on tour for two years and I had to sell my house and car and I wasn’t scared. I’m probably here today because I was ready to do it,” he explained. “I took chances because it was the right thing to do at the time. Just take chances sometimes and go for it.”

That feeling is also shared by the directors who are daring to take a slight revision on a beloved and successful science-fiction film and the long-awaited follow-ups Cameron is still in pre-production and probably won’t hit the screens until 2017. “We’re dealing with the fact that the Na’vi don’t fear,” said Lemieux. “It’s not in their culture, compared to us, where we fear everything. They don’t fear, but they put themselves often in positions of danger. So that creates [the show’s] action.”

“The only time in my life I waited to see a movie was Avatar [when it first came out],” Lemieux added, in his mutual respect for the film. “I waited for an hour to be sitting in the middle (of the cinema) with my (3D) glasses. I was fifty-something, but in my mind I was five years old and I loved it.”

“It’s also scary,” Pilon said in regards to TORUK and to its audience and for Cirque. “There are big expectations. It’s a movie that a lot of people have seen. So we’re also nervous. But very, very excited.”

***

TORUK – The First Flight comes to Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (40 Bay Street) January 7-10, 2016. For tickets/information, call 1-855-985-5000 or cirquedusoleil.com/toruk.