Friday, January 28, 2011

The Decemberists

My cover story for Exclaim! The Decemberists :)

The Decemberists


Features breadcrumbsplit ON THE COVER breadcrumbsplit Feb 2011

The Decemberists - Barnstorming

By Andrea Warner 

"After this record, we're going to take a nice long break." 

Colin Meloy isn't ready to call it quits with his indie rock band the Decemberists, but after a decade together he's looking ahead ― which means tying up some loose ends in the form of the band's sixth album, The King is Dead.

While nothing in the band's discography hinted at this destination, Meloy himself, like a fairy tale character trailing breadcrumbs through the forest, has spent the last ten years winding his way back to this very spot: a rough and tumble, country-inflected folk-rock record. Flirting with vintage Americana and Celtic rhythms, The King is Dead might not sound like a Decemberists' album, but Meloy insists that it's a "natural progression."

"It was something we ― or at least I ― have been threatening to do for the last three records," Meloy says. "None of this crazy, over-the-top stuff ― we're gonna do it in a barn in two weeks, that was sort of the joke. But each record seemed to get more and more complex, and each time we finished it was the same threat: the next one's going to be the barn record. I think after The Hazards of Love, it was the perfect time to make good on that promise. It felt like a natural and very normal thing to do to make something more stripped-down."

The left turn into alt-country territory might seem natural to Meloy, but the band's fans might be a bit more confused. At the very least, the blueprint for Hazards, a high-concept rock opera, had been laid in the foundations of the Decemberists' earlier work. Picaresque (from 2005) and The Crane Wife (2006) are thematically different, but utilize many of the same components ― storytelling songs, dramatic flourishes, interweaving mythologies, song cycles, and everything from Gypsy beats to chamber pop ― that can be found on Hazards.

If anything, The King is Dead, is the antithesis of its predecessor, down to earth and humble, whereas Hazards might be viewed as the zenith of Meloy's excessive ambitions. Meloy admits that the band, including guitarist Chris Funk, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query, and drummer John Moen, were grateful to get back to basics.

"I think everyone was a little relieved," he laughs. "I mean Crane Wife, a lot of that stuff was written specifically for Jenny and Chris in mind, because I knew that they would love playing that. The Hazards of Love, I thought it might be a little much to take in, but I knew that they'd come around to it and be into it. It didn't take a whole lot of convincing, but there was a little bit of head scratching. With this one, I think we're all on the same page, and it would be a very simple and organic process, and to a certain degree it was. It was very intuitive for everybody."

The last time Meloy made a record that sounded even remotely like this was over a decade ago when he lived in Montana and fronted an alt-country band called Tarkio. With a return to his roots, Meloy wanted to recreate one of his favourite elements in classic "barn" country-rock: marrying male and female vocals. Famed Americana singer-songwriter, Gillian Welch, a California girl with Nashville in her blood and a permanent twang in her voice, was his first choice.

"Colin had in mind a consistent ― not quite a duet voice, but he had a consistent other character, female, in his head for this song cycle, this set of tunes," Welch says. "Flatteringly, I was his first choice."

Welch, a staple of the American roots scene, has appeared sparingly in the indie music realm, recording songs with Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams in the past. Her biggest crossover hit came from the somewhat surprising popularity of the Grammy Award-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, on which Welch sang two songs and also associate produced. But it's her critically acclaimed 2002 effort, Time (The Revelator) that established Welch as one of the best singer-songwriters of her generation.

The pair had sung together once before, when the Decemberists came through Nashville, and Welch and her partner, David Rawlings went to see them play. Welch remembers them hopping up on stage and singing AC/DC's "Sin City" and Welch's own "Miss Ohio."

"It was a really fantastically pleasant surprise to get in there, get into the studio, and have the tracks start coming up," Welch says. "I think we have a really above-average natural blend!" She laughs at her own review of their harmonies. "One thing I wasn't really sure about is that Colin's got that really exciting, emotional quiver voice, and I sing much more like a hillbilly in that there's no vibrato. I just go 'heeeh'" ― she makes a car honkin sound ― "and it's much more old time. I wasn't really sure what was going to happen.

"Once we got in there it went really easily and organically," Welch continues. "The only thing was, I needed lyric sheets! His vocabulary is a little less colloquial than mine, to put it mildly. One of the beautiful things about his writing are these unexpected words, which you don't get from just anybody."

On the surface, Meloy and Welch couldn't make music that's more different, but both are narrative writers, excelling in songs that tell complete stories. The stories they tell, though, are drastically different. Whole message boards and websites are devoted to dissecting Meloy's numerous literary references, while Welch writes songs that are rooted in everyday experiences, the grittier the better.

"I think she brought kind of a swagger [to the album]," Meloy says. "She was such an amazing and versatile voice, and such a character and quality to it, I think it imprints itself into the songs and on certain songs it brings out kind of a sweetness and there's other songs, like 'Down By the Water' and 'Rise to Me,' it really gives it this rough swagger, which is really an eye-opening thing to hear."

If Welch brought the swagger, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck brought the wish-fulfilment.

"I mentioned to him, while we were on the road, that I was writing fake Peter Buck riffs, and I would love it if he would consider coming and playing them," Meloy laughs. "Everything that [the Decemberists have] done is sort of an R.E.M. paean ― some more than others. On this one, I was really just trying to get back to the stuff that drew me into music and R.E.M. and the Smiths were a big part of that. I feel like I was deliberately trying to reconnect with that."

When it came time to record The King is Dead, Meloy made good on his promise (or threat) to shack up in a barn. The Decemberists had recorded Picaresque in a church, but the intervening years were spent in traditional recording studios. They recorded in rural Oregon and its influence is palpable. The album's spirit is rooted in that rustic environment, a perfect complement to the songs' earthy vibes, many of which have nature-based references.

A lot of the songs are meditations on our immediate surroundings as Pacific North-westerners," Meloy says. "So part of it was, 'Let's get out in the countryside and record this,' so when you look out the window you see an open field and when you take a lunch break, you go and sit by a campfire, or when you have to go to the bathroom, you have to put on your Wellies and go slog through mud and go to an outhouse. In some ways it's a nice thing, and a bit more challenging certainly, but it adds the intangible dimension to the record itself."

That element has fascinated Meloy ever since he first heard Scottish folk-rock band the Waterboys' 1988 album Fisherman's Blues, which was recorded in Spiddal House on the West coast of Ireland. For Meloy, the house became as vital a component as any of the musicians.

"In many respects, this is my attempt ― or our attempt ― at making Fisherman's Blues. Who knows how many records I have left in me or how many years I have left on this earth?" Meloy ponders. "I could get hit by a bus at any moment and I would not have made my version of Fisherman's Blues, which is an album that resonated hugely for me."

Between its homage to the Waterboys, R.E.M., and traditional "barn" country-rock, The King is Dead could come off as a melting pot of disparate effects. Instead, the album feels like Meloy's most personal work. In part, this is thanks to his decision to mine his past for influences. He's also, finally, letting his guard down as a writer. But it hasn't been an easy place to get to.

Though he possesses one of the most unique songwriting voices in modern music, Meloy knows that not everyone appreciates his ability to negotiate the rougher edges of a sentence. "A decade ago, I was working at a pizza place and living in a warehouse and freaking out over my student loans," Meloy recalls, laughing. "It was a different time. I would get called 'college boy' at the pizza place, because I was the only one there with a college degree, which is sort of sad, in a way, but it's probably true. What was I doing there?" In short, paying the rent.

"College boy" has made the most of his time between then and now. Since the band's first album, Meloy has been exorcising his English degree demons with tangents into British folklore, Japanese fantasy, various historical eras, ultimately creating his own strange mythological world on Hazards. The King is Dead is the first album that's mostly devoid of lavishly orchestrated narratives, consisting instead of his most personal songs to date.

Yeah, I think that would be fair to say," Meloy says. "I mean, certainly it has its moments of flights of fancy, I can't really get away from that, but the songs are personal meditations about my immediate surroundings and a lot about family life." ("Henry," for instance, finds Meloy offering advice to his young son.) "I'm not as sensitive as I was about [exposing myself]. Initially, I was very protective of my private life. I think it was just my initial reaction to becoming a not-so-private person, inevitably with whatever degree of so-called fame, you give away a bit of your privacy and I think that was a sort of shock to me. Maybe I've just grown more accustomed to it, so I've just grown more comfortable to discussing these things."

Going forward, Meloy and his family are likely going to be the subject of even further scrutiny, thanks to a three-book deal he and his wife, artist Carson Ellis, signed in 2010. The first book, Wildwood, launches in October later this year. It's another example of Meloy closing the gap on a ten-year cycle.

My wife Carson and I have been wanting to do this for a really long time," Meloy says. "Our collaboration as writer and illustrator actually pre-dates the Decemberists. We started working on a long-form, illustrated novel in 2000, 2001, and had to shelve it just because of our own separate careers happening. Finally we're getting back to it."

Meloy anticipates that the next four years will be about a lot of "book-ish" things. He lets out a loud exhale when asked how songwriting and novel writing differ for him. "God, I feel like the only thing that is similar about them is that they involve the written word!" he says. "That's where the similarity ends. Two processes couldn't be more different involving the same core element. Writing a song can take five minutes. Writing a paragraph can take all day. It's almost like a different definition of time. I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around it. They both really satisfy in a way that's very different from each other, and I feel like I'm really driven to do both things, but they're so very different."

Having turned The King is Dead into a catch-all for all his various influences, homages, and inspirations, and with his publishing obligations ahead of him, one can't help but ask Meloy where he sees himself, and by extension, the Decemberists going. He acknowledges the band will spend a lot of the year touring in support of this album, but he's not making any promises about the future. "While I won't ever leave music completely, I am really excited about exploring other modes of expression, stuff I've been putting off."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Blue Valentine

My review of the exquisite Blue Valentine is in this week's WE.

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling play a tortured couple in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine.
Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling play a tortured couple in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine.
Credit: Supplied


Starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams
Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Despite having received a controversial NC-17 rating in the U.S. (subsequently withdrawn) for an oral-sex scene, the warning Blue Valentine should come with relates more to its graphic emotional content. What you see will stay with you for a long, long time to come.

The second feature from director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine’s story unfolds in non-linear fashion, jumping backwards and forwards in time between the warm highs and devastating lows punctuating Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) five-year relationship.

Part lout and part sweetheart, Dean’s an aggressive charmer whose mother abandoned him at a young age. Cindy’s a broken girl from an abusive home who needs someone to take care of her. He carries a ukulele around with him. She tap dances. They’re equally nuanced creations, and their hipster romance reflects a 20- to 30-something demographic under-represented in mainstream fare.

In fleshing out the lovers, Gosling and Williams deliver the performances of their young careers. Gosling uses his immeasurable skill to tap into Dean’s softer side, even when the character’s an insufferable dick. Williams’s quiet, determined presence suits Cindy’s inability to articulate her frustrations. Instead, the actress communicates Cindy’s feelings through wonderfully subtle body language. The pair have pressure-cooker chemistry, making every interaction between Dean and Cindy volatile, be it happy or otherwise.

At the centre of the heartbreak, Cianfrance skillfully exposes the folly of love at first sight: It doesn’t permit for change and growth. The couple can’t evolve since their bond is predicated on a moment in time that can never be recaptured. Dean and Cindy’s relationship is built on an unstable foundation such that its collapse is a foregone conclusion. To Cianfrance’s and the actors’ credit, watching those pieces come together and then implode is nothing less than riveting. —Andrea Warner

Crispin Glover

My interview with Crispin Glover is at

Actor-writer-director Crispin Glover will be in attendance for a three-day residency,  Jan. 14-16 at Pacific Cinémathèque.
Actor-writer-director Crispin Glover will be in attendance for a three-day residency, Jan. 14-16 at Pacific Cinémathèque.
Credit: Supplied

Getting eccentric with Crispin Glover

He played Michael J. Fox’s dad in Back to the Future (despite being three years younger than the Burnaby-born actor), an evil henchman with a fetish for hair ripped from the scalps of women (Charlie’s Angels), and the titular character in cult favourite Willard, about a man who befriends a sinister rat army. One thing’s for sure about Crispin Hellion Glover’s career: it’s never been boring.

The same, it seems, can be said for the man himself. Having established an eccentric persona over the years, Glover solidified this reputation when he premiered his 2005 directorial debut, What Is It?, a surreal piece of cinema featuring a cast of actors with Down’s syndrome. Two years later, he followed it up with It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!, a psycho-sexual thriller written by and starring Steven C. Stewart, a man born with severe cerebral palsy.

Glover comes to Vancouver this weekend (Jan. 14-16) for a three-day residency at Pacific Cinémathèque, where each of his films will be screened. Each screening also features a one-hour dramatic reading and slide show of his books, followed by a lengthy Q&A.
WE partook of an e-mail interview with Glover because, well, wouldn’t you if you had the chance?

WE: A lot of your characters — Thin Man in Charlie’s Angels; George McFly in Back to the Future — have these amazing details, but I imagine they weren’t necessarily written that way. How much of your own personality do you bring to various roles?
Glover: The sort of training that I had for acting focused on bringing portions of your own psychology to make those characters have an organic quality. It is good to have elements of your psychology come through. That being said, I cannot think of a character that I have played in any film that truly resembles myself.

Your name is often associated with adjectives like “strange” and “weird.” How much have you cultivated that reputation? Is it a benefit or a burden at this point?
I do not view eccentric as a negative term. I view it as a poetic interpretation of a mathematical term meaning something that does not follow a centric course. Many of the characters I have played can be called eccentric. My own films and books can be called eccentric. I find all of this fine. I publish my own books; produce, finance, direct, edit, and distribute my own films. Publishing, producing, financing, directing, editing, and distribution all have extremely centric elements to them that have to be followed in order for results to happen. Because I spend a good amount of time performing those very centric tasks, it means that I have very centric qualities in my day-to-day life even if the art I am interested in can be perceived as eccentric.

What Is It? was very controversial when it came out. What are you attempting to communicate as a director?
I am very careful to make it quite clear that What Is It? is not a film about Down’s syndrome but my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking — specifically, anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed. This is damaging to the culture because it is the very moment when an audience member sits back in their chair, looks up at the screen, and thinks to their self, “Is this right, what I am watching? Is this wrong, what I am watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have made this? What is it?” And that is the title of the film. What is it that is taboo in the culture? What does it mean that taboo has been ubiquitously excised in this culture’s media? What does it mean to the culture when it does not properly process taboo in its media? It is a bad thing when questions are not being asked, because these kinds of questions are when people are having a truly educational experience. For the culture to not be able to ask questions leads towards a non-educational experience, and that is what is happening in this culture. This stupefies this culture, and that is, of course, a bad thing. So, What Is It? is a direct reaction to the contents of this culture’s media. I would like people to think for themselves.

What’s next for you as a director?
I am in the process of writing a screenplay for myself and my father to act in together. He is also an actor... This will be the first role I write for myself to act in that will be written as an acting role, as opposed to a role that was written for the character I play to merely serve the structure. But even still, on some level I am writing the screenplay to be something that I can afford to make. There is another project that I may make before that — I am currently working on the screenplay [and] that may be even more affordable and yet still cinematically pleasing.

Your books are literal works of art — part collage, part manuscript, using old books as source material. But some people feel that creating new books using those that have fallen into the public domain is akin to plagiarism. How do you respond to those critics?
Most of the books that I have made do not use a significant amount of words from pre-existing books. Most of my books are completely original stories. The books that do utilize pre-existing texts utilize the words in such a different fashion from what the words were originally intended that it would be hard to call it anything other than an original story.

Go to for tickets and more info.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stephen Dorff

My interview with Stephen Dorff, who stars in Somewhere, is featured in this week's WE.

Stephen Dorff stars as an unhappy Hollywood celebrity in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere.
Stephen Dorff stars as an unhappy Hollywood celebrity in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere.
Credit: supplied

Lost actor finds himself in ‘Somewhere’

Stephen Dorff isn’t calling this a comeback, but he understands why almost everyone else has.
Back in the mid-’90s, the Los Angeles-raised actor was supposed to be the next big thing, on a par with Johnny Depp. But after drawing acclaim for his role in the 1994 Beatles biopic Backbeat, he never landed that breakthrough follow-up — until now. As the lead in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, Dorff, now 37, has earned raves for his portrayal of Johnny Marco, a hard-partying Hollywood actor numbed by depression and apathy, coasting into a downward spiral until his young daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), comes to live with him.

For the first time in years, Dorff is in demand.

“I’m shooting covers of magazines, I’m getting offered all these movies,” says Dorff. “You know [why] people wanna say ‘comeback.’ Well, I’ve always been here, I’ve always been making movies. I just haven’t been front-and-centre in such a special film in a long time.”

Though Dorff has worked consistently over the years, the last major role he had in a popular, mainstream feature was opposite Wesley Snipes in 1998’s Blade. Recently, he’s played key supporting parts in several high-profile films, including Public Enemies and World Trade Center. He also produced and starred in Felon, a prison movie that found an audience on DVD.
“The last three years I’ve been doing really good work,” Dorff says, without a hint of bragging in his voice. “I’ve been trying, you know, to get to a vulnerable place, but... I hadn’t had the part. It took Sofia to show that side she thought existed in me.”

Somewhere, Coppola’s fourth film, explores themes found in her previous work: depression, alienation, and discontent amidst a backdrop of privilege and wealth — this time in Hollywood’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel. Where Coppola breaks new ground is in her storytelling style: She drops the camera into Johnny’s life without an explanation as to who he is or what he does. What little Coppola does offer in the way of answers over the ensuing two hours might be frustrating to some, but is ultimately refreshing in an exposition-heavy medium.

With minimal dialogue (the first half hour is practically a silent film), the burden largely falls on Dorff’s facial expressions and body language to convey the excess and monotony of Johnny’s life. Dorff hints that he was able to mine his own past to help inform his performance, admitting he has plenty of firsthand experience wrestling with demons similar to Johnny’s.

“Johnny’s got a fast car, likes to drive in circles, follows girls aimlessly — because he doesn’t know what he wants to do, ’cause when you’re depressed, time moves very slow,” says Dorff. “It’s quite sad, but it’s very honest. Being a performer is a very lonely job, even if you have a family. For me, I don’t have a family. I mean, I have my family family, but I don’t have my own responsibilities, so when I go home after a movie ends or after the show stops, it’s weird. I don’t go to an office the next day. I don’t have anything to do except normal stuff. But after a week of that normal stuff and seeing my family and going to the grocery store, it’s like, well, now what?... Being an actor, a musician, any kind of a performer, is a strange job. It’s why you probably hear about all these famous comedians killing themselves, and horrible stories where all these talented people die. I’m sure they were missing something inside and never got to fix it, through success and just constantly going to the next circle and the next round of girls, and you just get lost along the way.”

Though Coppola hasn’t said this particular piece of art is meant to imitate Dorff’s own life, Johnny and Dorff have at least one thing in common: both men were in dire need of a fresh start. And even though he’s been reaping the rewards of Coppola’s casting choice for months, Dorff is still awed by his good fortune — even if he’s not willing to call it a comeback.

“I was just so blown away the way that Sofia embraced me at a time when I really needed it,” Dorff says. “I needed to show a different side of myself. I was over-playing villains. I was ready to grow up into another role, and this was kind of the perfect one to start with.”

Thursday, January 6, 2011

2011 Stage Look Ahead

Steven Schelling and I look ahead at 2011 and pick a few of our favourite things in this week's cover story for WE.

Australian ‘new circus’ company Circa (above) brings its gymnastic dance style to Vancouver as part of the PuSh Festival.
Australian ‘new circus’ company Circa (above) brings its gymnastic dance style to Vancouver as part of the PuSh Festival.
Credit: Supplied

Stage Invasion

Funding cuts and the recession cast a pall over Vancouver’s stage scene last year. Who knew what 2011’s tighter budgets would hold for the city’s arts community? Would those smaller companies and festivals that depended on provincial grants manage to survive? Would arts groups band together to create co-productions? Would international and touring acts fill in the inevitable holes? As it turns out, the answer to all these questions is yes. From puppets to Panych to the King of Pop, there are plenty of things to look forward to on the city’s stages in the year ahead.


Renowned Vancouver-based actor Bob Frazer takes the director’s chair and launches his production company, Osimous Theatre, with a play that has been billed as “an Our Town for our time.” (The comparison to Thornton Wilder’s treacle-laden ode to 19th-century rural America — a staple of the Midwestern high-school drama circuit — is likely meant positively. We can’t see how, but there it is.) Those who lack a taste for the sweetly earnest can take heart in the fact that The Pavilion is the creation of Craig Wright, an Emmy Award-nominated screenwriter and producer of TV hits Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters. Lead actor Craig Erickson plays Peter, a man who returns to his hometown for his 20th high school reunion and meets up with his old flame, Kari (Dawn Petten). Parnelli Parnes, as the narrator, guides the couple through their time together. Promising a bare-bones production (no set, minimal props), The Pavilion could be the start of something great. Jan. 8-23 at Firehall Arts Centre (280 E. Cordova). Tickets $25 from 604-689-0926 or


Launched in 2003 by then-Rumble Productions director Norman Armour and Touchstone Theatre’s Katrina Dunn as a performance series for three new works, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is now a dead-of-winter arts powerhouse (with a $1.7 million budget) that brings internationally acclaimed performers to Vancouver and showcases plenty of local talent, too. The focus of many of the fest’s free and ticketed events this year is Vancouver’s 125th anniversary. Considering the continued financial fallout from the Olympics, PuSh may be the only birthday party in town this year. Jan. 18-Feb. 6 at various venues. Visit for schedules and ticket prices.


Having seen this wonderfully funny — and often raunchy — puppets ’n’ humans musical in all its Broadway glory several times over the years, we’re thrilled that the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q is finally making its way to Vancouver. Audiences will no doubt be drawn in by its delightfully on-the-nose songs (“The Internet is for Porn,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”) and vigorous puppet sex, but they’ll become emotionally invested in the achingly familiar narrative of aimless and lonely people trying to figure out who they are. Feb. 1-5 at Centre for Performing Arts (777 Homer). $61.25-$86.75 from


Chelsea Handler
If you like your funny bone tickled by wickedly clever and acerbic female comedians, you’re in luck. In the coming months, Vancouver plays host to a bevy of brilliant visiting acts, like vodka-swilling talk-show host Chelsea Handler, insult comedian Lisa Lampenelli, acid-tongued actress Wanda Sykes, and the reigning queen of self-deprecation, Joan Rivers, on hand as part of the Unique Lives & Experiences series. Chelsea Handler appears Feb. 19 at the Orpheum (Smithe & Seymour). Tickets $69.50-$89.50 from Lisa Lampenelli appears Feb. 26 at River Rock (8811 River Road, Richmond). Tickets $54.50-$64.50 from Wanda Sykes appears May 6 at River Rock. Tickets $54.50-$64.50 from Joan Rivers appears May 17 at the Centre for Performing Arts (777 Homer). Visit for ticket information.


The cast of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Three of the best stage productions from the 2009/’10 season are making their way back to Vancouver stages in 2011. Blackbird Theatre’s brilliant production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a bitterly funny yet devastatingly dark tale of marital discord, moves from the Cultch to the Arts Club, featuring a star turn by Gabrielle Rose. A Beautiful View stars Colleen Wheeler and Diane Brown as two women who tiptoe around friendship and love for over 20 years, and boasts a masterful script and subtle direction from iconic Canadian writer-director Daniel MacIvor. And, drawing inspiration from Henrich Harrer’s book of the same name is Mascall Dance’s The White Spider, which pairs mountain climbing and dance as it chronicles the challenges of scaling the north face of the Eiger Mountains. If you missed any of these the first time around, consider yourself lucky to have this second chance. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs Feb. 10-Mar. 12 at Granville Island Stage (1585 Johnston). Tickets $29-$49 from A Beautiful View runs Apr. 4-9 at Presentation House Theatre (333 Chesterfield, North Van). Tickets $24-$28 from The White Spider runs Apr. 10-16 at the Shadbolt Centre for Performing Arts (6450 Deer Lake, Burnaby). Tickets $25-$30 from


The Royal Winnipeg Ballet proved its talent for pop-culture adaptations with 2009’s visually rich and risqué Moulin Rouge. The company continues reaching out to audiences who might shy away from the more traditional trappings of ballet with this year’s Wonderland, a wild riff on the adventures of Lewis Carroll’s heroine, Alice, as she encounters the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, and a host of other weird and wonderful creatures in the titular land of dreams. Mar. 24-27 at the Centre for Performing Arts (777 Homer). Tickets and information at


Preeminent Canadian triple-threat (actor, playwright, and director) Morris Panych debuted this, his latest work, at the Stratford Festival in 2009, and followed that up with a staging at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre last fall. Finally, Vancouver gets its chance to peek in on The Trespassers, a coming-of-age story about a small-town teen caught between his anarchist, atheist grandfather and his born-again Christian mother. Mar. 26-Apr. 16 at Vancouver Playhouse (Hamilton & Dunsmuir). Ticket info TBA. Visit for more information.


Even without its stellar original cast (Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, and Joel Grey), Wicked’s behind-the-scenes talent ensured it would be a success — which is good news, because none of those stars are touring with the production coming to town. Still, the 17th longest-running show on Broadway has an impressive pedigree that helped it overcome initially lukewarm reviews. Based on the bestselling novel by Gregory Macguire and adapted by Winnie Holzman (creator and writer of TV’s iconic coming-of-ager My So-Called Life) and composer Stephen Schwartz (Pippin), Wicked tells the “true” story of the Wicked Witch of the West (of The Wizard of Oz fame). Did we forget to mention the giant fire-and smoke-breathing dragon? Or that the show’s big book number, “Defying Gravity,” snagged some major play on Glee? (Menzel and Chenoweth have also guest-starred on the show.) Or that it’s going to be the gayest show since Cyndi Lauper opened for Cher at GM Place during Pride Week 1999. Put on your ruby slippers, Dorothy — it’s going to be a campy night. June 1-26 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (Hamilton & W. Georgia). Ticket info TBA. Visit for more information.


Michael Jackson’s legacy has been muddied by years of disturbing allegations and bizarre behaviour, but no one can dispute his impressive musical catalogue. That his own life was a veritable circus (albeit tending more toward the freak-show side of things) makes Cirque du Soleil’s highly anticipated production the perfect marriage of artistry, creativity, and fantasy. The music will rock, the choreography will astound, and ultimately, there’s no more fitting tribute imaginable for the self-styled King of Pop. Nov. 4-6 at Rogers Arena (800 Griffiths Way). Tickets $69.50-$190.50 from

Movies look back and look ahead

My favourite movie from 2010 and the movie I'm most looking forward to in 2011 in this week's WE!

Best movie of 2010: Winter’s Bone

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone.
This bleak masterpiece earned every single accolade it received — and there were several. Using Daniel Woodrell’s novel as source material, writer-director Debra Granik trekked a film crew deep into Missouri’s Ozark Mountains to tell the story of 17-year-old Ree, a girl racing against the clock to keep her family together. Granik’s artistic eye spares nothing in her unflinching account of a community ravaged by poverty and drugs. Watching Ree navigate the terrain and its various dark characters proves a tense, disturbing, and ultimately rewarding coming-of-age drama.

Most anticipated movie of 2011: The Skin That I Inhabit (La piel que habito)

Pedro Almodóvar directs Antonio Banderas on the set of The Skin That I Inhabit (La piel que habito).
Pedro Almodóvar has made a career out of crafting gorgeous-looking, often gloriously over-the-top films that are never short on story or emotional complexity. In his latest — a quasi-horror flick — the director taps one of the actors whose career he helped launch, Antonio Banderas, as a plastic surgeon hellbent on revenge. If Almodóvar can work the same magic he has in the past with Penélope Cruz, this moody romp may give Banderas the career revival he so richly deserves.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Theatre year-end 2010

Our favourite theatre of 2010 is featured in WE's new issue.

Simply the best: Alex McMorran and Cathy Wilmot  in Fighting Chance Productions’ Sweeney Todd
Simply the best: Alex McMorran and Cathy Wilmot in Fighting Chance Productions’ Sweeney Todd
Credit: Supplied

Bringing the curtain down on another year

BEST SHOW (Large Venue)

Even the most zealous anti-Olympic protestor would be hard-pressed to minimize the arts bonanza of the Cultural Olympiad. Sure, there were questions about whether too much was spent on international touring companies that could have gone to Canadian artists, but any program that brings Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina company to town is a winner. Blue Dragon, the sequel to Lepage’s The Dragon’s Trilogy, finds its central figure living in modern-day China and dealing with his Canadian past. A multimedia feast of dance, music, film, and Lepage’s signature puzzle-like sets, Blue Dragon gave Vancouverites a chance to see a true national hero who has dominated the international theatre world for a quarter century — as opposed to briefly worshipping a 17-year-old who skied a fraction of a second faster than another 17-year-old. —Steven Schelling


Founding member of Electric Company Theatre, winner of the prestigious Siminovitch Prize, and director of this year’s experimental film-meets-theatre extravaganza Tear the Curtain!, Kim Collier is a rare talent. Inventive, surprising, and even-handed, her work is often breathtaking, sometimes cerebral, and never, ever boring. —SS

BEST ACTOR (Large Venue)

Before the curtain went up on Arts Club’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a loosely assembled scrum of media took bets on the fortunes of its star, Eric McCormack. Would an actor known to millions as nebbish, nice-guy gay Will, from the long-running U.S. sitcom Will & Grace, be able to pull off the part of ruthless real-estate huckster Ricky Roma? Within moments, McCormack had sold his sinister performance not just to the cheap seats, but to those on the aisles who’d stopped scribbling on their notepads. It’s one thing to capture an audience in the palm of your hand, quite another to shatter a roomful of preconceived notions. —SS

BEST SHOW (Small Venue)

For two weeks in October, the Jericho Arts Centre became a seedy Victorian-era London alleyway — the setting for the blood bath that is Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This vibrant revival of the musical about a vengeful barber murdering his clients and turning them into meat pies with his landlady/co-conspirator came courtesy of the brilliant, mostly 20-somethings behind Fighting Chance Productions. The remarkably assured take on this rich, technically complex material (it’s Sondheim, remember?) proved you don’t need huge budgets and big names to craft quality live entertainment. With the right ingredients, producing the perfect piece of theatre can be as easy as, well, pie. —Andrea Warner


Would Sweeney Todd’s audiences ever guess that its director, Ryan Mooney, is still in college? Probably not. Since Fighting Chance Productions’ debut in 2007, Mooney, the company’s founder and artistic director, has proved himself to be a young man with a singular vision. With Sweeney Todd, Mooney hinted at the kind of director he’s growing into: resourceful, innovative, and clever. Commanding a sprawling cast in a small space is no easy feat, but Mooney’s execution made perfect use of the physical contrast, illustrating the all-consuming tension and frenzy of the source material’s tale of revenge and madness. —AW

BEST ACTOR (Small Venue)

As Sweeney Todd, Alex McMorran was glowering, darkly funny, and mad in every sense of the word. A man unhinged by grief and a thirst for revenge, McMorran made Todd’s extraordinary bloodlust utterly believable. While plotting to extract his pound (or more) of flesh from those who’ve cost him his daughter and his wife, McMorran nailed every emotional high and low, subversively toeing the line between empathetic victim and ruthless hypocrite. Additionally, his chemistry with Cathy Wilmot as Mrs. Lovett proved delightfully unsettling and surprisingly sexy. —AW

BEST ACTRESS (Small Venue)

While Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett is a role many salivate over, her solos have been known to cause more than a few actresses sleepless nights. Doubtless Cathy Wilmot slept soundly, because her voice ran headlong through Sondheim’s trademark counterpoint and syncopation without a hint of strain, all the while infusing every line and lyric with subtext. Her Mrs. Lovett is a manipulative liar, sure, but she’s also incredibly lonely and blinded by her romantic obsession with a psychopath. Wilmot got at the murky heart of Mrs. Lovett’s darkest motivations without sacrificing the wonderful gallows humour that permeates even her bleakest moments. —AW


Last May, ITSAZOO Productions’ Bridge Mix transformed a city eyesore (a concrete parking garage in the business district) into a place where anything was possible, including a spontaneous street-hockey game, a confrontation between Robert Pickton and the ghosts of his many victims, a choreographed dance-off, and a hilariously sweet demonstration by a little girl who believes she can collect people’s dreams for interpretation. Bridge Mix’s variety and lack of pretension helped showcase the raw talent of Vancouver and Victoria’s emerging theatre companies. That the audience moved between various spots throughout the parkade, with a roving bar never more than 10 feet away, only sweetened the deal. —AW


A hopeful sign after a bleak period of restructuring, Ballet BC wowed audiences with Songs of a Wayfarer and Other Works, a season opener composed of three new works. Artistic director Emily Molnar continued in her efforts to transform the once-tired group into a truly contemporary ballet company. Her titular contribution to the programme proved playful and intelligent, while choreographer Kevin O’Day brought a fresh, international sophistication to the Queen E stage. The undeniable highlight, however, was Jose Navas’s dizzying The Bliss That from Their Limbs All Movement Takes. Dance fans will also take delight in Navas’s appointment as Ballet BC’s choreographer-in-residence for the next three years. —Jessica Barrett