Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: (Vancouver / Opera) Stickboy

(photo: Tim Matheson)

by Jay Catterson, Editor, Dance

Stickboy, the new work being presented by Vancouver Opera is based on spoken word artist Shane Koyczan's novel about a boy who gets bullied by his peers, and the effects of bullying on himself and those around him. Koyczan returns to provide the libretto, with music by Neil Weisensel. 

Now is it really an opera, and were they successful in bringing this story to the stage? This show is more multi-media performance art in the style of opera rather than a true opera, and at times the show brilliantly works, but most of the time it did not. The music by Neil Weisensel was evocatively lush, and his score is performed by a brilliant cast. However, the major problems lie with Koyczan's libretto. The audience is immediately thrust into a scene where Boy (brilliantly performed by tenor Sunny Shams) is being bullied by a bunch of schoolkids in a snowy playground, and similar bullying scenes occur so frequently throughout the first and second acts that we don't really have a chance to empathize with Boy's character. If they excised a few of these scenes to give the story (and the audience) a chance to breathe, perhaps spacing out Boy's journey with a few more moments of joy, we would really feel the impact of those horrific bullying scenes more.

The projection design by Jamie Nesbitt featuring gorgeous brush-art animations by Giant Ant studios (who have previously collaborated on Koyczan's viral anti-bullying "To This Day" video on YouTube) proved to be effective at times, particularly during a duet where Grandmother (the gloriously talented mezzo-soprano Meghan Latham) consoles Boy via scribbled notes on a notepad passed under his bedroom door; the duo sang purely without lyrics while their exchanged notes were projected on the screen behind, creating a truly unique emotional dialogue between the two characters. However, at other times, the animations were too distracting and unnecessary, especially in moments when Boy's inner turmoil was bubbling to the surface. The show could have used a little less of the projections and animations, and left the emotion and storytelling to the performers themselves. It felt like the production team did not quite trust their audience in understanding the emotions felt by Boy through song alone; if that is the case, why even bother with singing in the style of opera at all? 

Furthermore, I felt that there was too much of Koyczan's presence in the show to actually let the performers do the storytelling effectively. He briefly appears at the beginning via video to tell you to shut off your cellphone, his voiceovers were heavily featured throughout, and even the show ends with an awkward moment where Boy speaks over Koyczan's voiceover. No well-deserved, poignantly climactic aria for Boy to summarize his growth and experience; just Koyczan's spoken word. 

Overall, Koyczan's Stickboy is an ambitious work to illustrate the harm that bullying can do, and it shows a lot of promise. But a bit more tinkering is needed to make this work sing and truly resonate with future audiences. 

October 23 - November 7

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