Friday, 17 April 2015

The Hard Problem

We went last night to the ScotiaBank Theatre to see the broadcast through NTLive of Tom Stoppard's new play "The Hard Problem". There is to be an encore of the broadcast on May 16. If you are in Vancouver then I strongly recommend you go see it.

Stoppard is an extraordinary playwright. Just listening to his dialogue makes me feel more intelligent than I am. His newest play is a continuation of a fine body of work which I have greatly enjoyed over the years - including "Shakespeare in Love" one of those DVDs we not only own but watch again with great pleasure.

"The Hard Problem" is all about consciousness. Can machines think? We are getting ever more information about how our brains work, but we still do not have any explanations for altruism. Our understanding of society - and especially how markets work - is based on the philosophical premise that investors are both intelligent and self interested and that their decisions make for arrangements that are somehow optimal. But markets are fundamentally irrational. My investment advisor often talks about "market sentiment". It is not all about rates of return on capital employed.

Now that computers have become so fast and cheap, we can do calculations of the utmost complexity very rapidly. But we have not become very much better at understanding human behaviour, and are still really bad at risk assessment and forecasting. We really have a hard time coping with coincidence and how that is not the same thing as causation: we still think in terms of fate and fortune.

"The Hard Problem" is clever and witty as an intricate as a Swiss watch. It is a delightful experience.

I wish I could say the same thing about watching NTLive. We have done this now, several times, at both the ScotiaBank theatre and Riverport in Richmond. First, know that you need to get there early. There are a lot of people of my generation who like these things and who like to save the best seats for their friends. If you want seats in the middle of the back, Good Luck!

Secondly the show starts with a warning about the somewhat less than perfect technology in use. I wonder about this. The show is not actually "live". 7pm here is 3am there! It is "captured live" but still broadcast. Every time we have seen a performance, it has broken up and usually in the middle of the third act at some critical moment. The picture breaks into blocks and sound stutters or is lost entirely, and when after a brief pause things go back to normal the action has moved on. There is no rewind! That perhaps matters less in Hamlet than a new play but both are annoying. Maybe this happens to frustrate surreptitious illegal copying?

Thirdly, the people who work at theatres are usually very young and inexperienced. Last night they left the overly bright lights on that they use when cleaning the auditorium. This could well have been so that the aged patrons could find their seats and read the programmes. But these lights were dazzling me well into the beginning of the play itself. The house lights did not come on at the end, and people were stumbling in the dark to get out. This play is 1 hour 40 minutes without an interval, and many were acting under some urgency.

On one occasion, the theatre staff at Richmond appeared to have forgotten to switch on the broadcast until the play was well underway, and at that performance we were given complimentary passes for a future show. That did not happen last night, nor need it have. But it would be nice to know that someone is actually paying attention which I understand is not always easy in a multiplex.  

We did pick up a flyer for Front Row Centre Events which includes a a Van Gogh exhibit from Amsterdam and live broadcasts from the Met. So I think it is probable that we will continue to patronise these less than perfect experiences.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Backstage Lounge, Granville Island

Generally speaking I do not post bad reviews. There are times however when a warning is necessary.

Another axiom I live by is that once is chance, twice is coincidence but three times is ... insert favorite phrase here. Incompetence probably covers it this time: though the original is "enemy action".

I would like to be able to support The Arts Club. We are long time season ticket holders. We go to the theatres as often as as there is something we feel maybe worth seeing, and are not often disappointed.  In the same spirit we have been patronising the Back Stage Lounge which is the bar behind the Granville Island mainstage. There is a lot of competition for eating places nearby - and not one but two breweries.

I saddens me to report that on the last three occasions we have eaten here, we have regretted the choice. They did have a real problem with a kitchen fire that severely restricted their abilities. It took a while for that to be rectified, and we made allowances. But sadly even though the kitchen equipment is now working well, there is not a basic skill level to produce good food reliably. Of course, if you choose the raw veggies and humus, there is not a lot that can go wrong. Though the lettuce at the centre of the plate - presumably for decoration - was distinctly limp. But the Oklahoma Flatbread was almost uneatable. It seemed to be based on a frozen pizza crust - the texture being closer to a biscuit than bread. It is also very hard to understand how pulled pork can be tough - but somehow they managed that too. There was also melted cheese and too much barbecue sauce - straight from the bottle. It was a mess both to look at and to try and eat. It was very nearly cold when served. The menu claimed that there were caramelised onions - which seemed to have been deep fried.

The server did ask me what I thought, and I told her frankly that I was disappointed and why. A 50% discount was applied to that item on the bill. I left half of it uneaten, after all. I am afraid that also had the effect of reducing her tip, based on 15% of the total.

There was a long list of draft beers, but the one I wanted was not available. I was at least offered a taste of the proffered alternate, which was a bitter rather than an IPA. I did find something else.  However now that I look at the bill again I see that I was charged for the beer that was not available: so we paid for three beers but only consumed two.

We also established that the size of a "sleeve" could vary between 14 and 16 fl oz depending on the beer and the glass provided by the brewery. Some brewers take much greater care about how their beer is served than others. I doubt this bartender had actually paid a lot of attention, judging by how he served Stella Artois - not a beer I am prepared to pay that much for, but plenty of others were.

The next time you are at Granville Island and want a beer and a simple meal, I suggest you go to one of the other places - definitely not the Backstage Lounge.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Review: One Man, Two Guvnors

at the Arts Club, Stanley Theatre on Granville until February 22 

When we were in Venice last year, this sculpture immediately appealed to me. And I was surprised that I knew immediately who it was. Carlo Goldoni was one of Italy's most popular playwrights, during his life in the 18th century and for long after. One of his most popular plays, The Servant of Two Masters has been translated and adapted continuously ever since, most recently for the National Theatre in London in 2011, transferring to the West End and Broadway in 2012.

It has now reached Vancouver. If you are a regular patron of theatre in this city many of the cast will be familiar to you.  There are only a few live theatre companies here - one less since the Playhouse closed - but we still manage to find employment for some very talented people. For this show which draws heavily on the traditions of the commedia del arte, they have to be musicians and something like acrobats for  all the physical comedy business.  The show has been updated and moved to Brighton in 1963.  There's not just songs and sketches there's improv too. Which actually gets funnier when things go in unexpected directions. 

Last night the show played to a packed house, which hugely enjoyed the show and was reluctant to leave afterwards as the musicians played people out. In fact it is worth taking your seat early as they entertain before curtain up too. It was a really good team performance but special acknowledgement has to made for Andrew McNee who makes the most of the title role created for James Corden. All the music was created for the show but faithfully represents skiffle in the first half and the Mersey beat in the second. 

You should not miss the chance to see this show while there are still seats available.  

Sunday, 4 January 2015

All that Fall

The Cultch is currently hosting the Blackbird Theatre production of a radio play by Samuel Beckett. This has not been performed on stage for the last fifty years as the author insisted it was designed to be heard not seen. Only recently has the Beckett estate relented, and there have been staged performances in both London and NewYork.

Duncan Fraser provides an additional note in the program that starts "We are the screenage generation" But that seems to ignore the vast amount of sound material we still listen to. Just because the local CBC radio station no longer produces radio drama does not mean that people are no longer listening. A quick Google search shows all kinds of radio drama is available on the internet. People listen to audio books in their cars - and elsewhere - and there are now many more podcasts than there were radio stations. I suspect that once the copyright has lapsed on Beckett's radio plays they will start to appear on that medium too. I suppose that is why Samuel French is now licensing these performances, since in a few years time they will not be the same source of revenue.  I also know many people are annoyed that the classic iPod is no longer being made.

Performances continue at the Cultch until January 24th and I certainly think that we should support local live theatre. Seeing how radio plays were done back on the fifties is interesting in itself, and the actors are worth watching even if the demands of the microphone have to be met first. There is no curtain, nor interval. And though the running time is said to be 75 minutes it started late and we were already driving home by 9:15. There is also the opportunity for 'lively post-show talkbacks after some performances'
- though if we had gone to one of those there would be no blog post here, I suspect.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Tempest: Bard on the Beach

Last year, due to not really paying attention, I missed two of the four Bard plays. I won't be doing that this year. I booked early, and last night (July 4th) we went to the first of them.

Apparently "The Tempest" was in the 2008 season - and I missed it then too! Which means that this was the first time I had seen the play anywhere. In chronological order it is one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote (1611) - and the only one that "conforms to the classical unities: the action takes place in one place and in one day". It also is going to be "familiar" because so much of the text has been so often quoted

...We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

People came expecting to see a comedy and, once the initial storm and shipwreck were over, seemed willing to laugh at anything, even if it wasn't meant to be funny. In fact the storm was so severe that I had a hard to time hearing the dialogue - and now all actors are miked, that is indeed unusual. We had, due to early booking, excellent seats in the second row, centre stage. I will also admit that I did enjoy the view through the "back drop" (even though I have posted to Bard's facebook page that I do not go to the theatre to see backdrops)

In my edition of the Complete Works Trinculo is "A Jester" and Stephano "A Drunken Butler" In this version Trincula and Stephana are "ladies of the court of Naples" and wearing somewhat familiar outfits. Luisa Jojic and Naomi Wright perform a double act that could stand on its own as entertainment. Jennifer Lines as Ariel also deserves special mention since she has a stage presence that means no-one else is noticed when she is on. Even when she is not doing anything: in fact, especially when she is not doing anything. I do not believe in magic, yet that is what this play is all about. Prospero has learned magic from books: it was not enough to stop him being Shanghaied, but now he can turn all kinds of tricks to get his revenge - or possibly a better outcome than that, living well. It does require suspension of disbelief, that is the magic of the theatre, and Meg Roe (Director) has indeed worked a magic trick. She simply ignores the real world - which continues on its way outside the tent, sometime very noisily - and weaves spell that holds the audience enthralled.

You should not miss Bard - and if you cannot go to every show, at least make a special point of seeing this one. I feel sad when I see empty seats in any theatre. I really feel for the actors who make such an effort - and they deserve your attendance and attention. Live theatre is still much better than any electronic form of entertainment, and Bard is professional repertory at its best. We must support live theatre and we must keep Bard going. It is an essential part of a Vancouver summer.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Review: Chrome Cast

This device - and many like it - has been available in the United States for a long time, but now it has come to Canada. I got one from the Play store as soon as I saw it announced. It arrived yesterday by UPS.

While most pictures just show you what looks like a fat thumb drive, you need to know that it plugs in to the HDMI port - and has a neat little short cord if it is too chunky to plug directly into your tv. Some older models seem to delight in hiding their input ports. It also has to be plugged in to a power source.

Basically all you have to do is plug it in and switch the input. Again, older tvs tend to have just one HDMI input so I have to manually switch cables between the Apple TV, Telus Optik device and the Chromecast. I use my Nexus 7 tablet with the free app on the play store.  There is no need for a remote control - but you could also use a laptop (I have put the cast extension on the Chrome browser on my MacBook too) or phone. And I have tried it out on more than one tv without any issue.

Then  get some content from the internet. Start with Youtube. The app on the tablet has suggestions for other apps that are Chrome cast compliant.  Apparently it is also possible to use it to put anything from the screen of your laptop on the tv. I have not tried that yet - and it is something I feel I ought to be able to do with Apple TV but cannot because my MacBook is too old.

It also works just as easily with my partner's iPad. You get the chromecast and YouTube apps from the App store. Free.

Very odd that one of the trial programs my new YouTube app offered me as a test was an old tv program at low resolution. Very unimpressive but there is plenty of free HD video out there and mine just works fine. When I bought the (Nexus 7) tablet I got "Transformers 2" for free: it is not the sort of movie I usually watch, but I played enough of it through Chromecast to be be impressed by the special effects. Odd that the Google Play store leaves up the old user reviews of people with M$ operating systems who had trouble back in the days when it was still new and all.

I do not understand why some people are suggesting waiting for Roku. I wouldn't, if I were you.