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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ford's Focus: Andrew Cuk

Andrew Cuk in Lit Moon's Hamlet

A Classic Innovator
by Barbara Ford
New York Bronx-boy, Andrew Cuk, is in his eighth year as a Montrealer living on the Plateau and commuting to the West Island campus of John Abbott College where he teaches theatre history to four semesters of both the technical and performing theatre strains.  The hybrid Italian-Basque-Slovenian left New York in 1988 (though still visits family often) and after a stint in Arkansas and a 5-year span in Seattle, he went back to school for a Master degree in Dramatic Arts in Bellingham, Washington.  He then headed to the Golden State to pick up his Ph.D. at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

It was there that the current Playwrights’ workshop Montreal Board President met John Blondell and the Lit Moon Theatre CompanyHe ended up staying there for 20 years doing the kind of theatre he loves but wasn’t sure other people wanted to see, that is not until he met Blondell.  Cuk is drawn to non-linear story-telling, preferring more experiential theatre that defies time and space.  “I like messy boundaries. At first, I thought I was alone but Lit Moon gave me hope that there were other people out there who would appreciate what I saw in my head.” 

Cuk as Dorine in Tartuffe
Cuk travelled to Europe with Lit Moon, broadening his network over the years and enabling him to perform, direct and teach on two continents.  A company highlight while Cuk was a member was the completely non-textual adaptation of Gogol's Diary of a Madman entitled The Visions of Aksenty Ivanovich that played at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe. During the course of our phone chat Cuk mentioned Gdansk, Poland more than once.  Not a city often mentioned when interviewing a North American artist, I was intrigued.  Legend has it that after Shakespeare’s death his company travelled to and performed in Poland so as a tribute, the country hosts an annual festival.  While there, Cuk saw the most memorable Hamlet in an abandoned shipyard building where the audience moved throughout the vacant structure to follow the story.  “Hamlet’s father rode in on a white steed … it was fantastic. Those Eastern Europeans really love their Shakespeare!” In an effort to quench the regional thirst for the Bard, Lit Moon brought its own Hamlet to the fest in 2004, toured it to Prague and the Montreal Fringe the same year with an encore production at Centaur’s 2005 Wildside Festival.

Cuk’s parents met in Argentina after WWII and since his bilingual talents tend towards Spanish, a trip to South America was bound to happen eventually. Stranded in Chile, having lost his visa, he met the charming Dot Wojakowski, who was back-packing with a fellow McGill student and similarly stuck in Chile though lacking a smooth command of the language.  Cuk befriended the two and over the years, having lost all contact at one point, eventually reunited and rekindled.  Still living out west and tiring of the commute from Santa Barbara Cuk finally moved to Montreal in 2003 and the two are now husband and wife.   

Cuk manifested his desire to have his own company with Canis Tempus in 2005, announcing its birth with Juliet and Romeo, a two-hander Fringe gender-bender, with Cuk as Juliet and Mercutio among others, and garnering the Montreal Gazette’s stamp of approval when it called the production “exceptionally beautiful and exciting”.  The following year, Juliet and Romeo toured to the annual Lit Moon Shakespeare Festival, playing alongside productions from the United States, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Cuk’s unique combination of text, live sound (Peter Alec Fedun creates most of his sound scapes), stylized movement and visual design proved to be critically appealing there as well with the Santa Barbara News-Press declaring that the “meaning of ‘tragedy’ in Juliet & Romeo leans closer to that of a modern news story: a bloody, senseless mess and a waste of two lives” too far from any sense of normalcy to even garner hope.”  

In 2008, Cuk’s penchant for the classics drove him to adapt the 17th Century Cervantes novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha, into a play.  Initially workshopped at the Casgrain Theatre on the John Abbott campus, it moved to the Portuguese Association on St. Urban, where the company spent a month taking full advantage of the building’s architectural quirks to create a customized environment for the production.  Cuk purposely stationed the audience in the balcony so they had to sit forward and crane their necks to watch the action.  The Mirror’s Neil Boyce wrote: “Cuk’s ambitious, multilingual abstraction of the Quixote legend is a disjointed affair combining movement, effects, masks and music … one has to admire the freedom the company felt in trying everything as they explored the possibilities of the iconic story.”  Trying to wrap his head around a non-linear story is what Cuk prefers to see as well as produce.  “I do want people to be pricked. I like to get them out of the complacency of sitting & watching. If they walk out and go out to dinner, I failed.  But if they argue for 3 hours at the pub, I’ve done my job.”

In between Canis Tempus productions, Cuk directs John Abbott students in a wide range of projects including musicals such as Urinetown: The Musical, Evita and Godspell and most recently, at the 2010 Next Wave Festival of New Musicals, Daisy and the Wonder Weeds. Access to a constant stream of willing and energetic talent keeps Cuk fresh and the students challenged and though he has ample opportunity to stretch his own imagination as a writer and director, he greatly misses the creative process he enjoyed most when he was with Lit Moon.  “We would work on a project for a year … everyone collaborated, experimented, went away and thought, then came back with new ideas.  But,” Cuk confides, “that’s hard to do with a small company and very little money.” He routinely takes a stab every 6 months or so at various government granting agencies but despite highly positive feedback, has received only one travel grant to take a production to Gdansk.  Like so many other passionate theatre professionals in this city, funding comes out of his own pocket. 

Davide Chiazzese in Sala XVIII
His latest creation, Sala XVIII (now playing at Theatre Ste-Catherine) came about through the opposite approach. For this he chose to get the whole script on paper before going into rehearsal. Inspiration came from various sources: a mosaic guard dog at the entrance of a wealthy merchant’s home in ancient Pompeii, images of Venus, erotic images from Pompeii’s antiquated brothels and Anontio Varone’s book Erotica Pompeiana: Love Inscriptions on the Walls of Pompeii, which deciphers cheeky Latin captions like “Aphrodite made me stand tall!” Cuk’s further discovery that many erotic, religious and cultural artefacts had been locked away in Sala XVIII at a museum in Naples and that, until 2000, were completely off-limits to women (even female archaeologists), presented a cluster of curious factoids too rousing to leave unexplored.

Cuk in Hamlet
Besides penning and directing Sala, Cuk also plays two characters: a homosexual opera singer living in Naples and the singer’s deceased grandfather.  It’s an identity piece in which, like much of Cuk’s favourite theatre, the lines between time, space and people are blurred. With a simple set by Peter Vatsis that utilizes TSC’s balcony and brick wall to great advantage, Cuk and his fellow actors, Sara Rodriguez, Davide Chiazzese and  Christopher Moore, use masks and movement to create a highly visual and provocative theatrical experience.  

With the Montreal theatre scene fairly exploding in the last few years, attracting people to a short run is a challenge but Cuk is not without daring in this department. Montreal Fringe organizers still use his PR onslaught as a prototype to guide newcomers in their bids for media attention.  For a month prior to the opening of his play, Cuk started a weekly teaser campaign that began with a sole image and added more components each week until the French press finally called Fringe headquarters begging for a reprieve.

Though his French is not as good as he’d like, that doesn’t keep Cuk from attending French theatre though he does tend towards the more visual, less textually-based productions.  On the whole, he finds that the French sector is more poetic and experimental … right up his alley … though he readily admits that Anglo companies are loosening up more and trying new things. Lepage is an obvious choice for Cuk and once, after seeing the 6-hour Three Dragon trilogy, saw an opportunity he just couldn’t resist. He stood at the exit handing out flyers for his production of Hamlet, having learned just enough French to let people know he had a show in the Fringe that was a short 60 minutes long!  Another testament to his wily publicity skills.

You can still catch the last two performances of Sala XVIII today (January 22) at 2 and 8 PM.  

Next Week in FORD’S FOCUS: Lakeshore Players’ Murray Napier.

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