Vancouver Opera’s Stickboy packs an emotional wallop

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      A Vancouver Opera production. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Thursday, October 23. Continues until November 7

      From the rhythmic jeers of “You’re a waste of space” to the cast of teens in tuques and Sorel snowboots to the expressive, graffitilike projected animation, Stickboy doesn’t look or sound like any opera you’ve ever seen.

      So Vancouver Opera’s courageous undertaking succeeds as an artistic achievement that breaks new ground. But more importantly, it packs an emotional wallop. You can’t stage a show about bullying that patronizes or sentimentalizes; it would immediately turn off its intended audience. Instead, the VO team manages to weave in the wry, biting humour and soul-baring authenticity of spoken-word star (and librettist) Shane Koyczan, whose real-life story inspired all this.

      Yes, for all its multimedia cues and director Rachel Peake’s innovative staging, Stickboy keeps it real. The key device is in turning us, the audience, into its central character’s only confidant. As the Boy (the stand-in for Koyczan, or for anyone who has been bullied or has bullied), suitably supersize tenor Sunny Shams often turns to us to make a darkly funny remark or to express his fears. When an old man who has just saved him from a beating explains that sometimes boys pick on others for no reason, he sings to us, “I can cross him off the bastard list.” Later, in a deeply affecting scene right before another act of violence, the action stops, the spotlight finds him, and he “privately” explains to us that you can’t ever cry when this happens; you have to bottle it up. Then the scene rewinds, and we watch his vicious pummelling with a new understanding. We get it. You can’t give them your tears because it will only make it worse. And it’s heart-ripping.

      The other big strength the opera has going for it is its cool, beautifully brush-stroked animation by Giant Ant, the company behind Koyczan’s viral videos, like “To This Day”. Its visual impact is established right off the top, with an abstracted image of a boy falling and falling through space—and then the stage lights come up on the Boy, lying on the ground after his first beating. The animation continues through the opera, giving it a distinctive, moody visual identity, from the snowflakes that often float hauntingly across the stage’s three screens to the projected handwritten letters that the Boy and his loving Grandmother pass to each other under his bedroom door after a bad day. With Koyczan’s own poetic narration in voice-over, the live singing and orchestral music, the lighting effects, the creative fight choreography, and this animation, there are a lot of cues—and on rare occasions it feels jerky or too busy. One uneasy montage recalls the marching and old-style heroism of the old man’s war days, with rows of soldiers passing on the screens while the singers and musicians manoeuvre jagged, jazzy rhythms. But there are also huge moments when the elements combine for magic: those emotional letters between grandmother and grandson overlaid with her soothing hums, say, or the climax, where the Boy tears apart his bedroom and hurts himself, over and over, while images of a monster escaping his body blast on-screen and the orchestra swirls and repeats, closing in on him as he explodes.

      Composer Neil Weisensel’s score is an unexpected pastiche of the avant-garde, the popular, and the lyrical, at its most powerful in the grandmother and grandson’s heartfelt duets and in the way it turns the name-calling and taunts into circling, repetitive structures reminiscent of Philip Glass or John Adams. Those inescapable circles also repeat in set designer Drew Facey’s cleverly revolving stage, where a row of detention school desks becomes a principal’s office becomes the bedroom, or in the fisheye projection screens set amid broken, uneven metal scaffolding. Everything moves at a clip here, with no dull moments—visually, musically, or emotionally.

      At the centre of it all is the disarming Shams, who somehow becomes a shy 10-year-old boy (watch the childish way he shakes his head when his grandmother asks him if he’s okay in the first scene), then transforms, believably, into a bitter, bottled-up teen who’s ready to detonate. Megan Latham’s Grandmother is more than a cliché, too—nurturing, wise, but also bewildered sometimes.

      What she can’t always answer, and what drives the Boy (and Koyczan) crazy, is that recurring question of “Why?” And to its credit, Stickboy doesn’t offer up pat resolutions for bullying, or for its protagonist.

      In this risky investment and what is clearly an impassioned labour of love for its relatively young creative team, Vancouver Opera has a winner here—something new, and a bit dark and dangerous, that will likely have a solid life beyond this premiere, especially with teen audiences. You can’t underestimate the importance of the company’s commitment to keeping this art form alive and relevant.

      There will be haters—people who think this is somehow opera seizing on a “trend”, as if the need to speak out against bullying, let alone a slam poet’s desire to do so, ever was such a thing. But here’s arguing that the piece, despite a few flaws, is nakedly emotional and real enough to convince even the naysayers that it is about something more. If the power of this raw, ambitious work doesn’t hit you like a punch to the gut—well, we’ll see you at the next production of Die Fledermaus.

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter at @janetsmitharts.




      Oct 25, 2014 at 10:02am

      Don't you just love the way the way the review dismisses all possible disagreement, name-calling those who might legitimately disagree as "haters"? By implication if we're off to see Die Fledermaus we must be pretentious snots who can be looked down on by "real" people. Way to go for recapitulating hierarchy and resentment.


      Oct 25, 2014 at 7:02pm

      When is it comming to Montreal?


      Oct 26, 2014 at 6:47am

      It's a critical review - I expect to read the critic's opinion, Hazlit. Sorry it hit too close to home for you.

      Oct 26, 2014 at 8:27am

      Re: Hazlit comments above. I didn't see any of the name-calling you saw in the review. All the reviewer said was that if Stickboy wasn't your cup of tea - well, Fledermaus is coming. There was no bullying - but alas, your comments were on the fringe of that very thing. I found the performance engaging and moving, and am so glad that Vancouver Opera took the chance. A superb performance, and one that will stay with me for a long time,


      Oct 26, 2014 at 8:58pm

      Saw Stickboy last night. The message gets lost in the medium. There's no redemption in the story. Boy gets bullied - boy becomes bully- boy becomes suicidal- boy survives... Shane opens his wound and lets us swim inside and we leave with blood on our hands.


      Oct 29, 2014 at 10:55am

      There is much that is worthy in Stickboy (this is a talented creative team at work here), but after watching it the other night I was left with one outstanding question. Why make Stickboy an opera, if you were going to ignore what opera essentially has always done? Opera allows people to sing their emotions, their dreams and sorrows. (Musicals can also do this and I wonder if Stickboy:The Musical might not have been a better idea.)
      When the boy hides in his room the grandmother vocalizes, but the content of the scene is written on the screen in the projections. (This works in its own way, but it's not Opera.)
      When the boy retreats to his room in a rage, wreaks violence on his things (directed into an interesting cycle by Ms. Peake, although the level of destruction seems tame due to staging restrictions), and starts cutting himself, he is mute. Yes, there is music underscoring this, but where is the boy's song of rage, frustration, hope, anything? (Again this scene was interesting, but not Opera.)
      Finally the last five or so minutes of the piece is almost entirely voice over narration. There is nothing really wrong with Koyczan's words per se (the book is marvelous, Koyczan is a powerful spoken word performer in his own right) but this is again most decidedly not Opera. It's not even really theatre, it's telling, not showing.
      I found that most of the singing was dull, the singers were fine, it was the way the words were placed in the music - almost purposefully avoiding anything in the music that was tuneful or melodic (and why I thought "this should be a musical" because often the music began to sing, sounded like an intro to a song.) Indeed the most emotional singing came from the crowd of "children", whether taunting the boy, or retreating from him in fear.
      Interestingly, the most "operatic" part of the entire production are the animations, in a weird way they themselves "sing", full of the overpowering emotions that opera, and indeed the young people who have been bullied, or been bullied into becoming bullies, are full of. (Athough the comparison of marching soldiers and marching graduates feels both heavy-handed and frankly simplistic.)
      My fondest hope for the piece is that further time and effort is put into refining and revising it (but I often find shows are rushed to full scale productions before they are ready and then simply declared "finished".)


      Oct 29, 2014 at 5:27pm

      I want to see Stickboy again and I think the music is the big reason for that. The final act, with its powerful orchestral piece during the cutting scene, combines the boy singing, as if an instrument in the orchestra, which creates angry/mind blowing music; the wonderful duet, between the boy and his grandmother; and final aria, the valedictorian; were extremely emotional for me. I wonder, if I would have appreciated those final pieces as much if the composer hadn't subtly woven the tune into the first and second act, building up to those beautiful closing scenes.

      I also believe opera was the perfect medium for this story, there are few operas I have not left feeling like I was bathed in the wounds of the characters. Asking opera to be redemptive is like asking to change the ending of a Shakespearean tragedy to a happy ending.

      The classics are easy to appreciate, we already know our favorite pieces and wait, expectantly, through the show until we have the chance to hear them. The composition of the music in an opera is complex, and I have been to new operas that lacked assistance for catching a tune and was left feeling empty and unsatisfied.

      Stickboy will be an opera appreciated by many audiences, young and old, it is not pretentious, but challenges the audience with a mindblowing, multisensory, thought provoking story.