Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Meeting John Malkovich

How often does one run into a bigger-than-life seasoned Hollywood actor, and of all places, in Toronto’s Chinatown? The Toronto Film Festival fever hasn’t hit the city yet. But it happened, on a gorgeously sunny Saturday afternoon in winter, without a speck of snow on the ground, and with temperatures soaring to 9 degrees Celsius.

My wife and I were sipping our obligatory cup of tea last Saturday afternoon in one of the teahouses across from the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on Dundas Street West. We had just seen Future Folk at the Theatre Passe Muraille on Ryerson Street, a few blocks away from Chinatown on Spadina. It was quite a letdown and we were disappointed with how the drama played out, a play that tells of the struggles of Filipino nannies seeking a better life in Toronto. Not that the stories were not believable, but the entire play was “big on heart, low on everything else,” as the Toronto Star Theatre critic Richard Ouzounian described it.

Future Folk used a mix of music, dance and drama to depict the abuses suffered by our Filipino nannies from their employers, and of their feelings of homesickness and quiet desperation after being separated from their families back home. The music and dance sequences were exquisite but the dialogue and plot was weak and unconvincing, with many holes that needed plugging. We’ve seen this dance-and-song routine a few times when the Sulong Theatre Collective was still developing their play at Kapisanan Art Centre. At the time, with just the songs and the dance segments, the effect was riveting. It was the least we expected when the play evolved into a disjointed conversation among the characters once they added the dialogue.

There were times too when the play’s actors wanted to connect with the audience but did not elicit their empathy because of lack of foreshadowing. Personally, I would have preferred a little estrangement. Bertholt Brecht used this device by focusing more on the central ideas in the play, thus allowing the audience to have an emotional distance from the actors to give them the time to reflect on what is being presented.

The play was much too short to cover the depth and seriousness of its theme. Perhaps, some of the scenes needed more dramatization, instead of being narrated to the audience. Showing rather than telling could have allowed the plot to unfold new tensions in the lives of the characters.

Future Folk is an attempt to prick our consciousness about the complex struggles of Filipino nannies. The Sulong Theatre Collective, although sincere in its depiction, comes a tad short of its aim. One redeeming feature though is that the majority of the audience who watched the play was not of Filipino background, which tells us that others are already listening and are interested to see and hear more about Filipino productions in Toronto.

To soak our disappointment, we decided to walk around Chinatown. The sun was up and the air was balmy. We finally settled on a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese pho restaurant for our favourite soup and spring rolls. Next, we ambled east along Dundas Street towards Kim Moon Bakery to buy lotus hopia, red bean pastes and sesame balls.

We passed by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and decided to see the exhibits in two of the art galleries across the street. The Bau-Xi Gallery, one of the few galleries we liked since settling in Toronto in the late ’80s, has continued to amaze us every time. Not only with the paintings hung on the white walls, but also by its minimalist and spare space. Established in Vancouver in 1965 by a young artist named Bau-Xi Huang, the Bau-Xi Gallery expanded and opened another gallery in Toronto in 1976. The gallery continues to promote contemporary Canadian and Pacific Northwest art. Before we left, the receptionist offered us a glossy Bau-Xi Gallery catalogue, plus a handful of beautiful postcards.

The Bau-Xi photo gallery next door featured a collection of landscape photographs of Iceland by Vancouver artist Eszter Burghardt. Burghardt’s Wooly Sagas 2010 fine art photographs were almost like watercolour paintings or oil on paper. Not one of the paintings or photographs in the two galleries was within our reach pocketwise, however, so we just tried to savour every bit of craft and imagination the artists gave through our eyes.

Soon we found ourselves at our de rigueur stopover—our other favourite watering hole—the teahouse on the corner of Dundas and McCaul Streets, which served organic coffee and tea. It was here where I was first introduced to Gunpowder tea, but that Saturday I wanted the calming brew of organic Chai instead. The teahouse was quite busy that afternoon. We took a corner table. Across from us were a group of women and a young baby boy in its mother’s arms. From snippets of their conversation, we figured they were all related. One of the women was the boy’s grandmother and the other elderly woman was her sister. We sipped our tea and nibbled the sweet desserts we bought from Kim Moon. Soon after, the group beside us rose to leave. All the women were by then teasing the baby boy who seemed amused. From the other end, a group of young Asian women sat on a table with a young Asian man who, like the baby boy, appeared to enjoy the company of women.

At a quarter past five, a tall enigmatic man, wearing a black kupi cap and a light brown leather jacket and accompanied by a woman in a black coat, entered the teahouse. My wife’s back was facing the counter so she could not see the people who just came in. I know this man, I said to myself, and whispered to my wife that John Malkovich, the actor, was by the counter ordering coffee.

How could I forget John Malkovich, the lecherous seducer Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons? As the menacing leader of a group of prisoners aboard an ill-fated airplane transporting them to another prison, Malkovich’s portrayal of Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom in Con Air was so intimidating and creepy. And as the daunting assassin Mitch Leary in The Line of Fire, opposite Clint Eastwood, Malkovich made the villain’s unforgiving role so easy, so frightening, yet so unforgettable.

I searched for my pen in my coat’s inner pocket and nudged my wife to ask John Malkovich for his autograph. At first, she thought I was just teasing her but took the dare. She turned her head towards the actor, quickly pulled out the Bau-Xi Gallery catalogue from her duffel bag, and proceeded to pursue our person of interest. Without so much as a sputter, she asked the visiting Hollywood celebrity: “Are you Mr. Malkovich?” And he replied very softly: “Yes, I am John Malkovich.”

My wife was star-struck stunned that she couldn’t say anything more than: “E..r.r... So you must be in town for a location shooting?” And he said, “Yes, I am working on a project here.”

So my wife asked him if he could sign his name on her Bau-Xi book. He just nodded, flashed his famous smile, and signed away.

All this time, I just watched my wife and John Malkovich, who was very obliging and affable, engage in fan-celebrity conversation, centuries away from the threatening roles he had deftly portrayed in films. As a former news reporter, my wife found it easy to talk with the actor, too. He was far from stand-offish, and conducted himself discreetly and with great humility. I was simply content to hear Malkovich speak in his very distinctive voice, which was once described as “a reedy, faintly, orgasmic drawl.”

On Sunday morning, we read in the Toronto Star that John Malkovich was in town to shoot a big-budget espionage movie with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman. The Star also reported that Malkovich would be back in Toronto this June to play the lead role in the Luminato Festival’s opening event, The Infernal Comedy, where he will be the only actor on stage. Again, Malkovich will be in his natural element as Jack Unterweger, a modern-day Jack the Ripper. He will be joined by a 40-piece baroque orchestra and two sopranos performing famous death arias by Mozart, Haydn and others on behalf of the 11 prostitutes Unterweger strangled with their bra straps two decades ago. Indeed, being John Malkovich must be one eerie adventure in the world of eccentricity.

As for myself, I would like to see Malkovich, if things fall in the right places, in a motion picture adaptation he plans to do of the Arnon Grünberg novel, The History of My Baldness. Without much on his pate himself, this one would be really one hairy tale to watch as it unravels.

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