01/17/2012 12:19 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

PuSh Festival warms Vancouver winter

Vancouver theatre company Neworld is premiering its stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot at this year’s PuSh Festival, in its second venture into the Russian master’s works at PuSh.

PuSh, the Vancouver festival of avant-garde dance, music, theatre, visual arts or other media that was first held in 2003, begins Jan. 17. The annual festival brings 20,000 people out in the cold for three weeks in January and February.

Last year as part of the city’s 125th anniversary celebrations, PuSh focused on works about Vancouver. This year, it turns outwards with a more significant focus on international works, according to executive director Norman Armour. PuSh has begun to build bridges with similar festivals around the world and many of the international works result from ties made when Vancouver artists performed abroad.

Armour notes the opening piece from Mexico, multimedia play Amarillo, which looks at cross-border issues through the story of a missing man. For the first time there is work from the Middle East, including two pieces by Rabih Mroué of Beirut.

Among Vancouver performers, many are back for a second run, among them playwright and director James Fagan Tait, who brought Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s massive novel about the ramifications of a single crime, to a PuSh stage in 2005. He was determined to create a musical play out of another Dostoyevsky social satire, The Idiot.

Adapting Dostoyevsky for the stage

Adapting the many storylines and numerous characters of a Russian novel for the stage is no easy feat, Neworld artistic director Adrienne Wong admits. Early drafts of Tait’s adaptation ran six hours and it took extensive revision to bring it down to three and a half hours and tease out the real comedy of the work, Wong told CBC News.

“We had to figure out what was at the core of [the hero] Prince Myshkin’s journey and what Dostoyevsky wanted to say about the middle class of St. Petersburg,” she said.

The central plot involves conflicting romances between Myshkin and Nastassya, an abused woman who has been hardened by harsh treatment, Nastassya and another man Rogozhin, and Myshkin and Aglaya, a rather spoiled ingenue played by Wong herself.

“I see her as someone who is restless, dissatisfied,” Wong said of Aglaya. “The only option open for a young woman is to attract the eyes of an influential man and marry. She rejects the normal path. She sees the prince as a way out and says maybe we can get out together.”

Myshkin has spent much of his life as an invalid and has a naïve approach to the world that allows people to take advantage of him when he comes into some money. Wong sees modern parallels in his rose-coloured idealism, which eventually leads to disaster.

Neworld has teamed with Vancouver Moving Theatre, a group that works with Downtown Eastside residents, to create the work. Wong sees reflections of today’s Vancouver in the deep class divisions that run through The Idiot.

“In Dostoyevsky’s time the middle class is disappearing, just as it is today and at the same time, so many people are social climbers — there are many modern parallels,” she said.

Three musicians, playing live on stage, enhance the emotions of the piece, which Neworld hopes will catch the eyes of other producers through PuSh, giving it opportunities to move onto to new stages.

“We’ve got a great show and we’ll follow what life we can get for it,” Wong says. The Idiot plays Jan. 19 to 29 at PuSh.

Almighty Voice by Native Earth

Another Canadian show set for a PuSh premiere is Almighty Voice and His Wife, to be staged by Toronto-based Native Earth Performing Arts. Unlike The Idiot, this play by aboriginal writer Daniel David Moses has a 20-ear track record.

Almighty Voice had a successful revival in 2009 under the direction of Michael Greyeyes, so successful it got funding to tour to Whitehorse on Jan. 25 and Saskatoon Jan. 27-29 before going on the Vancouver’s PuSh Festival Feb. 1-4.

The story of Almighty Voice explores the tragic intersection of white and native cultures through the story of a 19th century Saskatchewan Cree who becomes a wanted man after shooting a cow on crown land. Its first act recounts the story of what happened to Almighty Voice, while the second features him as a ghost in whiteface, engaged in a vaudeville routine which parodies the assumptions of a white audience.

“The great challenge of Almighty Voice is how to reconcile the naturalistic first act with the post-modern second act,” Greyeyes told CBC News.

“When Daniel David Moses wrote this 20 years ago, it was ahead of its time. The kind of theatrical consciousness he was working with was from post-modern literature, audiences weren’t ready,” he added.

Audiences catch up

But Greyeyes argues audiences now have a new appreciation for the work — they accept that they’re in an “alternate universe” in that second act. Their awareness of aboriginal stories has been built through news events such as Stephen Harper’s apology to the natives, the residential schools hearings and stories such as Attiwapiskat.

Greyeyes says he sought to make the story more “cathartic and emotionally satisfying” by putting the relationship between Almighty Voice and his wife into the foreground.

“Basically, it’s a love story and the scene of the wedding night is at the heart of the play. That really grounded it and made it universal,” he said.

PuSh mixes dance, including Dances for a Small Stage which has featured the work of young choreographers such as Crystal Pite, alongside film and visual arts as well as theatre. Armour says audiences are varied, some with a real interest in local work, some who seek out the unconventional, others who look for work from places that might be prohibitive to travel to.

The B.C. arts scene had a spurt of creative initiatives with the Cultural Olympiad in 2010, but a round of provincial funding cuts has contributed to underfunding for a theatre scene with enormous potential, he says.

“The challenge in the immediate present with PuSh and the avant-garde scene is we need the private sector to step forward,” Armour said. “We need corporate support and engagement and it’s a mission of mine to speak to that — to say the arts in Vancouver are on a par with anywhere in the world.”