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.