With the exception of sprawling musicals and Shakespeare, most Canadians don’t go to theatre. There are many reasons why, but a major one is fear. They’re afraid that a play will be pretentious, frustrating and tedious. Conrad Alexandrowicz’s Beggars Would Ride–a musical playing at the Waterhouse Theatre through today–was all of those things, and would scare the hell of the average Vancouverite.
Beggars Would Ride is a kind of dystopian fairy tale, pitting three lowly servants against the hedonistic lord and lady of the manor house. The serfs rise up, throwing off the shackles of their oppressors, only to have things go predictably sideways in the second act. That’s all there really is to the plot–its lack of sophistication didn’t help the play’s overall tedium.
The show is a kind of period play from a period we’ve never experienced. The characters speak a strange dialect full of colourful nouns (a toilet becomes a ‘privy’, penis is ‘lingham’) and play fast and loose with subject-verb and tense agreements. It’s how Yoda might talk, if he’d been raised on the streets on Jamaica. The language is rich and dense, and was simultaneously the most frustratingly academic and entertaining aspect of the show.
Both Beckettian and Brechtian
Speaking of pretention, I could go on ad nauseum about how the upper class couple, with their clownish performances and repeated lines, were highly Beckecttian. Or how the declamatory, unhummable songs reminded me of Brecht. Suffice it to say that Alexandrowicz draws on a panopoly of theatrical sources.
At its heart, the show wants to shock and alienate you. There’s plenty of talk and simulation of sex, and a second act song that Johnathan Swift might have penned. The Camp knob is turned up to 11. Unfortunately, all that theatricality and pomp has a meagre plot to hang its hat on. Moreover, I had to search pretty hard to find any contemporary relevance in the play’s themes.
There are things to like in Beggars Would Ride. The performers are all strong, and I liked Brian Pollock’s out-sized set. There’s also a splendid song which uses flower and plant names to tell the story of pregnancy. Alexandrowicz ruins it a bit by making one of the final lyrics “my body a garden”–yeah, we got that.
I was extra disappointed, because about a decade ago I saw the brilliant, wonderful Alexandrowicz play “The Wines of Tuscany”. It was exactly what theatre should be–entertaining, lyrical and occasional challenging. It probably made the average Canadian a little uncomfortable, but it ultimately rewards the effort it takes to watch a play.
Beggars Would Ride, unfortunately, is both too clever and campy for its own good. I applaud Alexandrowicz’s efforts, but the musical swings for the fences and fails gloriously. Its worst crime is that it reinforces all those stereotypes of the modern theatre that scare audiences away.