The Ausable Theatre is one of Southern Ontario's newest and smallest summer theatres. Now in its third year, the theatre is located in the village of Lucan (pop. 1900) about 30 minutes from both Stratford and London. The theatre seats only about 70. According to the bios in the program, most of the artists are involved in the alternate theatre scene of London. It is all the more surprising that this group should have as its primary focus the dramatic works of Robertson Davies. Davies' plays, of course, have long been regarded in academia as impossibly old-fashioned and arrière-garde. Jeff Culbert, the Artistic Director of the Ausable Theatre, however, believes that, taken on their own terms, Davies' plays are delightful, intelligent comedies that should not be neglected because of what is currently thought fashionable. Davies has so far featured in each season as one of their three productions. They inaugurated their first season in 1998 with a double-bill of "Overlaid" (1946) and "Eros at Breakfast" (1947).
The following year they did the full-length play "A Jig
for the Gypsy" (1954). And this year we have "Hunting
Stuart" (1955), Davies' last play produced at Toronto's Crest
Theatre and considered by many as his best play.
The Ausable production reveals the play as a highly amusing comedy of ideas, by turns farcical, satiric and fantastic, and quite undeserving of the professional neglect in which it has languished. The play begins in the mode of a drawing-room comedy à la Noel Coward as we find Lilian Stuart, the ambitious wife of an Ottawa civil servant, and her daughter Caroline in a fluster over the scandalous behaviour of Mr. Stuart's aged Aunt Clemmie and Caroline's decision to marry Fred, her psychologist boyfriend. Aunt Clemmie, who believes in countering others' negativity by "radiating positivity," is one of Davies' best comic creations. Her arrival only stirs things up and leads to the typical Davies' situation where the seemingly irrational older generation actually knows more and is more practical than the would-be rational younger generation. Once Mr. Stuart arrives and we are led to believe the worst about Aunt Clemmie, are we told that she has disgraced the family only by becoming the spokeswoman for a laxative called "The Flush of Youth."
It is with the arrival of the husband and wife scientists,
Dr. Shrubsole and Dr. Sobieski, that the play veers into the realm
of Pirandellian fantasy to become a kind of Canadian "Enrico
IV." Unlike the psychologist boyfriend who believes that
our nature is determined entirely by environment, Shrubsole and
Sobieski believe that we are the sum of everything we have inherited
and should seek to get in touch with humanity's "collective
unconscious." More specifically, their genealogical studies
have determined that the petty civil servant Mr. Stuart is in
reality the sole living descendant of Bonny Prince Charlie and
thus, according to them, the rightful heir to the British throne.
To prove this, Dr. Shrubsole has developed a powder, which, depending
on the amount inhaled, can take a person back to assume the personality
of a specific ancestor. When Stuart awakes as Bonny Prince Charlie
himself, all manner of hilarious complications ensue.
The principal butt of Davies' humour are those Canadians who seek a sense of superiority by trying find royal connections in their family tree. On a more general level, however, the point made in various contexts in the play (and perhaps too often) is that "we live in an old house," i.e., that when we marry we marry everyone related to our future spouse and that when we are born we are, literally, everyone who has contributed to our being. The inference is that instead of looking for a "new house," we should concentrate more fully on knowing the one we live in. Superficially this seems reactionary, but from a Jungian point of view it is meant to be liberating to know that everyone has a "king within" or, in fact, a whole universe within to know and explore. As Aunt Clemmie exclaims, "Space travel is nothing compared to this!"
As one might expect in such a small theatre, this is a rather low-budget production, but low budget does not mean low on imagination. Doug Peterman's simple set and Virginia Pratten's costumes effectively conjure up an Ottawa drawing room and its denizens circa 1950. Pratten's costumes for the eccentric Aunt Clemmie and the exotic Drs. Sobieska and Shrubsole were especially clever. Tim Culbert, working with a very basic set of lights, is particularly good at creating magical changes in mood for the various scenes of heightened fantasy. The whole production is tautly directed by Jeff Culbert, who has an excellent sense of pacing and knows how to build up a steady momentum in a comedy. He also knows when to pause the action to focus on a significant scene such as the healing scene in Act 2, which, though brief, gives a sudden, mysterious glimpse into the serious ideas underlying what might have seemed merely farce.
Of the seven actors, only Caitlin Murphy as Caroline Stuart turned in an unenjoyable performance. Unlike the others, she rushed virtually all of her lines thus giving herself no opportunity create a character or elicit humour. On the other hand, two of the cast turned in superlative performances that would be welcome on any stage. Lucy Williams as Aunt Clemmie was a delight throughout and in "radiating positivity" actually seemed to do so. Her reaction when Henry-as-Charles' "royal touch" heals her arthritic hand was especially moving. Ljiljana Malinich was excellent in the role of the exotic Dr. Sobieska, who is somehow able to maintain her scientific objectivity even in the most compromising circumstances. Virginia Pratten, Tim Culbert and Jayson McDonald are all Ausable regulars and all appeared in "A Jig for the Gypsy" last year. Pratten as Lilian Stuart did very well in giving variety to a demanding role that requires her to be in an ever-increasing state of exasperation. Tim Culbert was very funny as the meek but happy nonentity of a civil servant but could have made heightened the contrast with his other persona as Prince Charlie. McDonald, who had a hilarious cameo as a photographer in "A Jig for the Gypsy," was equally hilarious in the much longer role as Dr. Shrubsole, though he could have made more of having to deal with a wife so willing to commit adultery for the sake of science. Scott Holden-Jones as Caroline's boyfriend was excellent in distinguishing his two roles as the self-important psychologist of today and as his ancestor a 19th-century phrenologist (one of Davies' jokes, of course).
I can't help but reflect on how much more enjoyable this low-budget production of an obscure Davies play was compared with the many big-budget productions of classic comedies that Stratford has been putting on over the past several years. Expensive sets, costumes and lighting do not make a comedy funnier or more effective. What Stratford has been lacking, but what the tiny Ausable Theatre has in Jeff Culbert, is a director who has insight into the comedy he is directing, knows how to communicate that insight to his cast and knows how to get the cast to communicate that insight to the audience. I very much look forward to their next Davies production.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
Musical Bard's production of Romancin' the One I Love started life as a musical called Shrew at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival in 1993. After several successful regional productions and two changes of title, it has now made its way up North. It is a faux 1939 musical based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew adapted by John R. Briggs with songs by him and the late Dennis West. The easiest way for a critic to dismiss this show is to ask,"Did they never hear of Kiss Me Kate?" On reflection, one realizes that the older world of opera has long tolerated at least two operas based on The Merry Wives of Windsor (Nicolai's and Verdi's) and two on Manon Lescaut (Puccini's and Massenet's) and that even the younger world of musicals has seen two based on Martin Guerre (Schönberg's and Leslie Arden's), and we should assume more duplications will follow.
John R. Briggs and Cole Porter's versions are different enough. Porter's primarily concerned with the backstage antics that parallel the onstage performance pieces based on Shrew. Briggs's version uses an abbreviated form of Shakespeare's actual text with musical interludes while updating the action to 1939 Miami and New York. The effect of hearing Shakespeare after the opening song-and-dance number is bizarre, but one does get used to it. So the real question is "If you are going to shorten and rearrange the text to make space for the musical numbers and update it to fit your new time and place, why keep the text at all?"
For this there's no clear answer, especially in light of John R. Briggs's direction. Hardly a line goes by without some bit of unnecessary shtick--the band adding cartoon-like sound effects, actors imitating Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and James Cagney (as if anyone thought that was still funny), lots of crotch-directed slapstick, etc. Now it's not as if the American director is alone in schlocking up this play. Just think of Richard Rose's 1997 production at Stratford updated to 1950s New York, spoken in New York accents and including a guest appearance, for no particular reason, by Marilyn Monroe. In both cases, the impression is that the director does not think the text itself is funny enough. The problem is that this mistrust of the text is communicated to the audience no matter how many would-be funny bits the director adds in.
Briggs's trivalizing direction is all the more the pity since
the producers for this show have come up with cast exploding with
talent. It's one of the few casts I've seen who can sing and dance
and, if allowed, could have played Shakespeare's comedy straight.
The two stars of the show are the Canadian Camilla Scott as
Kate and the American Brad Aspel as Petruchio. Scott is,
of course, familiar to Toronto theatre-goers for her fine work
as Polly in Crazy for You and more recently as the best
thing about Simon Callow's production of The Pajama Game.
She's the kind of performer who always gives 100% no matter what
the material and is able to establish an immediate rapport with
an audience. Aspel is the perfect match for her in this respect.
Whereas her forte is singing, his is dance which he makes seem
as easy and natural as walking. The charm both exude helps make
sense of Briggs's refashioning of the plot where Kate actually
falls in love with Petruchio so that the test of obedience at
the end is their conscious ploy to dupe the folks back home. Richard
Rose used the same approach in 1997 and for the same reason--to
defuse the play's misogyny. The rest of the cast is uniformly
excellent: Canadians Melissa Thompson as Bianca, Paul
Nolan as Lucentio, Derek Marshall as Tranio, Noah
Henne as Biondello, Michael Fletcher as Baptista, Larry
Mannell as Hortensio, Gerry Salsberg as Gremio and
Vincentio, and American Lloyd Culbreath as Grumio.
It is no surprise that this extraordinary cast shines when Briggs's hokey direction yields to Canadian Sergio Trujillo's exciting choreography. Trujillo's various interpretations of jive, swing and tango give the cast and the show verve and vitality. While everyone has mastered Trujillo's complex moves, the two Americans, Aspel and Culbreath, stand out as the tap-dance kings of the show. Unfortunately, after each of the many high-energy numbers, we fall back into Briggs's version of Shakespeare on a shtick.
Dennis West's imitation swing and blues music is often as good as the real thing, with the opening and closing numbers and It's a Tough Job as standouts. The 11-member band under the original conductor, Dale Grogan, has a glamorous big band sound. But more often that not, West's music is let down my Briggs's banal and uninventive lyrics. After all, the period when he has set the action prized cleverness in rhythm, vocabulary and rhyme (just think of the lyrics of Hart, Ira Gershwin or Wodehouse). So if you're going to make Shrew into an imitation 1939 musical, you'd better be at least as good as the originals--and Briggs is not. In terms of lyrics, the lowpoint in the show inopportunely arrives in what is supposed to be its most emotional scene when Kate sings Nobody Loves Me and is overheard by Petruchio. No matter how well, Camilla Scott sang it, the words came across as an especially sappy example of greeting-card verse.
Average devotees of song-and-dance musicals will probably enjoy this show despite all the objections I've listed. They will enjoy the handsome sets of the original designer, Dex Edwards, and the witty costumes of Canadian Jennifer Triemstra. It's possible that those who don't already know the play may find the complex plot hard to follow since it is rushed through as if it were a live-action cartoon. Most people, however, would notice that the show does not build in cumulative energy like a good musical should because of alternation between the vitality of Trujillo's song-and-dance sections and the staleness of Briggs's sections of dialogue. A different director and some song rewrites could make this a much more entertaining evening. But with so many great early musicals that deserve reviving, I couldn't help thinking while watching this ersatz swing musical how much I'd rather see this talented cast in, say, Kern's Sitting Pretty, Gershwin's Oh, Kay! or Porter's Gay Divorce.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
Last year the Soulpepper Theatre Company presented Chekhov's Platonov in what it called a "laboratory production." Laboratory or not, the production was fine enough that László Marton was awarded a Dora for his direction. This year Soulpepper has brought Platonov back after its laboratory testing, and it is even better than it was last year. The arc of the action is now in clearer focus, which is quite an accomplishment in a play where the relationship between no two characters is simple and where no character is certain of his or her motivation. The actors, all but one of whom was in last year's production, have now so grown into their roles that they make the many emotional twists they take seem completely natural.
Chekhov never bothered to edit the seven hours of the "comedy without a name" he had written in 1881 to a playable version. The task of translation and adaptation for Soulpepper fell to Marton and actor Susan Coyne. In my view, their version is superior to Michael Frayn's 1986 adaptation, Wild Honey, seen in the West End and on Broadway. The Marton/Coyne version is less melodramatic and shows us more clearly the prototypes of characters and themes to be found later in Chekhov's four great works. Their version is written in a highly colloquial Canadian English so that, even though characters have Russian names and speak of kopecks and rubles, the play could easily be set in any remote town in Canada.
The story concerns a group of friends whose centre is the town schoolteacher Platonov, once the brightest light of the group but who now is embittered by the aimless mediocrity he has become. All those around him see him as the man he was not the man he is because to see the reality would force them to recognize how they, too, have changed for the worse. The action is precipitated by the arrival in town of Sophia, the new wife of Platonov's friend Voynitsev. Sophia knew Platonov at university in the days when both were idealists. Their decision to rekindle their affair is clearly a vain attempt get back to the kind of people they once were. Since Platonov is married to his best friend's sister and since Voynitsev's step-mother is also sexually interested in Platonov, their affair also has the potential to ruin the lives of all around them. Platonov is so convinced of the pointlessness of his existence that he is incapable taking any action to halt the flow of events he finds himself in so that he and his community are swept away to a tragic end.
The text of the play has changed from last year with soliloquies drastically reduced or excised completely. What has increased are ironic allusions to the theatre and to other plays--to "Oedipus" and especially "Hamlet". Like Oedipus, Platonov is himself the plague that destroys his community, but unlike him, Platonov lacks the courage to punish or banish himself. Like Hamlet, Platonov is an intellectual caught in a complex series of events that his inaction only causes to become worse. Unlike Hamlet, Platonov has no longer has any nobility of mind or purpose and certainly no sense of "readiness". As he says, "Hamlet feared the Ghost--I fear life." The increased presence of these allusions gives the audience a touchstone to assess the confused actions the play presents and to throw into relief the unheroic reality Chekhov sees in modern times.
With two exceptions, the cast is superb. Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz plays the tour-de-force role of Platonov, on stage for virtually the entire three hours of the show. He makes Platonov's continually changing moods--from wit to self-pity to anger to foolishness--seem completely natural. He is someone who is helplessly watching himself sinking into a mire and he knows the affairs he has are only a temporary form of distraction since they ultimately drag him down further. Robin Stevan makes the role of Platonov's innocent wife Sasha believable. She makes us see that Platonov was drawn to her because of her simplicity and naiveté and that these allow her to love her husband despite his indiscretions. As her brother, the drunken doctor Triletsky, Diego Matamoros turns in yet another amazing performance of a character even farther gone than Platonov, readier to drink than see patients, seeking only to numb the pain of existing. Yet, in the end, he becomes a kind of Horatio to Platonov's Hamlet. Liisa Repo-Martell turns in an equally amazing performance as Triletsky's would-be girlfriend Grekova, the intellectual girl Platonov mercilessly teases but who so longs for love that if he says the word she can still be drawn to her tormentor. Nancy Palk as Anna Petrovna, Voynitsev's randy step-mother, perfectly captures the beautiful intellectual woman who sees she has wasted her life and, like Platonov, seeks out affairs to distract herself from uselessness and boredom. Susan Coyne, excellent in the crucial role of Sophia, is not amoral like Anna Petrovna but is attracted to Platonov because she thinks she can rejuvenate both him and her herself. As her husband Voynitsev, Stuart Hughes does all he can to make his character seem like a wealthy momma's boy, but his looks and general forcefulness make it difficult for him to be taken for the wimp he is supposed to be. Newcomer Christian Lloyd has taken over the role of the student Isaac from Mike Shara, who played it last year. Lloyd is adequate but is not impassioned enough to make us believe, as Shara did, that this is a version of Platonov as a young man. Michael Hanrahan is excellent again as the tramp Osip, who, though a thief and would-be murderer, is outraged at the immorality of his "betters."
The show is played on Victoria Wallace's brown box of
a set where the walls and stovepipe rise almost the full three-storey
height of the du Maurier Theatre. The effect is to make the characters
seem as if they are at the bottom of a well, which pretty much
is how the characters see themselves. This time there are more
costume changes for Coyne and Palk as befits their roles. Wallace's
costumes range from the attractive outfits of the wealthy women
to descending levels of grubbiness in Platonov, the doctor and
Osip. László Marton has asked for and received
from lighting designer Kevin Lamotte a kind of extreme
contrasts in light and dark often seen in modern European productions.
In a party scene, low lights at the front make the characters
cast huge shadows on the back wall as we realize they see themselves
as shadows of their former selves. In the only outdoor scene,
the stage is neatly divided between the dark of the front half
of the stage and the brightness of the back half near Platonov's
house. Marton uses this stark contrast to distinguish what the
characters do in private in the dark from what they say
in public in the light.Marton has managed to shape and control a play, which in less skilled hands could easily seem chaotic. He and his actors have mastered the rapid mood changes between farce and pathos the play constantly demands. And despite this control, Marton has drawn performances from the actors that are so natural they seem improvised on the spot. Having seen this production twice, I know they are, in fact, the product of the highest art.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
Fun, fresh and frenzied, A Midsummer Night's Dream Project has everything you could hope for in a Fringe Shakespeare: cigarettes, noisemakers, women playing men's roles and four pairs of clumpy ski boots.
Director Robert Ross Parker's adaptation is excellent, managing to squeeze all five acts into 60 minutes using only seven actors. Though the cuts to the text obviously had to be brutal, they have been made judiciously -- the only part of the play that feels like it's been cut beyond recognition is Titania and Bottom's comic coupling.
Acting from the whole ensemble is generally strong, and the doubling-up allows most of them to stretch themselves in wildly different roles. Some of the actors, lacklustre in their roles as lovers, finally come alive when they switch parts.
One of the director's innovations is to turn Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals" (Bottom, Quince, etc.) into clowns who communicate using only monosyllables (such as "Ma!" or "Hey!") and squeaky toys. At the end of the show, instead of performing Pyramus and Thisbe for the newlywed nobles, they do a two-minute version of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- again uttering only monosyllables -- an idea inspiring in both concept and execution. If grunts and kazoos sound unbearably pretentious, don't be put off: the clowning is so good that it's all perfectly comprehensible and entertaining.
Not quite every idea works (I was never fully convinced by
the ski boots), but the play goes at such a clip that the bits
that don't are quickly lost in the mad, delightful rush."
The Ausable Theatre is proving to be a very welcome addition to the summer theatre scene in Ontario. In this their third season they have put on a play by Robertson Davies (the fourth in their series), a première by Jayson McDonald and now Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come!, a classic of modern Irish drama. The niche it is creating for itself is an enviable one--intelligent plays, well acted and thoughtfully directed.
Friel is probably best known for such plays as Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), but Philadelphia from 1964 was the play that first made him famous. It shows us a glimpse of the life of the 25-year-old Gareth O'Donnell the day before he is to leave his village of Ballybeg for a new life with his aunt and uncle in America. Friel's innovation in telling this story is to have Gareth played by two actors--Gareth (Public) and Gareth (Private). As one might guess, Gareth (Public) is the one seen and heard by all the others characters while Gareth (Private) is seen and heard only by Gareth (Public). This split is no mere dramatic trick but rather is central to one of the primary themes of the play--the conflict between what one thinks and imagines in private and what one actually says and does in public. Like all of Friel's plays, Philadelphia is also concerned with memory, specifically to what extent we are inprisoned by our memories and to what extent memory inhibits action. As Gareth (Public) packs his tattered suitcase to leave the town and the father he thinks he hates, memories of his past crowd in upon him and, despite the satirical comments of Gareth (Private), weaken his resolve. Ultimately, he comes to see that he is leaving a past he has not fully understood for a future that is even less clear. Anyone who has ever left home or has seen someone leave home will be able to appreciate Gareth's dilemma and why he (literally) is so divided.
As Gareth (Public), Jayson McDonald showed a range and depth I had not suspected from his more limited roles in the Ausable's two previous Davies' plays. He fully communicated the confusion of elation and regret of a young man about to leave his unloved home for the unknown. Ausable Artistic Director Jeff Culbert energetically played Gareth (Private), who tries to keep Gareth (Public) psyched up for his trip by playing out fantasies of lie in America based entirely on popular culture, mercilessly caricaturing the people in Gareth's life and satirizing key events in his past. This is a difficult job since Gareth (Public) keeps coming across photographs, letters, invitations, that remind him of his links to Ballybeg.
As Gareth's elderly, taciturn father, Dale Bell is absolutely superb. A man of the old school, S.B., whom Gareth (Private) always refers to as Screwballs, is not used to considering what his feelings are much less formulating them in words. His attempt to express to his housekeeper what he is feeling about his only child's leaving home is heartbreaking. As Madge the overworked housekeeper, Carol Robinson-Todd is also excellent. She makes the scene when Madge's modest hope of having a niece named for her is dashed especially poignant.
All of the secondary roles are well cast and well played--Mark O'Brien as both Senator Doogan and Con Sweeney, Don Reid as both Ben Burton and Canon O'Byrne, Andrew Gibbes as Master Boyle (Gareth's teacher who once went out with Gareth's mother), and Sam Shoebottom, Jason Rip and Justin Scott as Gareth's supposed friends whom he has to remind that he is leaving. Shannon Topinka is very well cast as the girl Gareth loved and might have married. She suggests an innocence and fragility that makes Gareth's later verbal attack on her seem particularly unfair as he uses her for a convenient focus for all his frustrations.
Ausable regular Virginia Pratten is hilarious in the
key scene when Gareth recalls his mother's sister, Lizzy Sweeney,
first making the offer to him to come to Philadelphia to live
with her. As she becomes increasingly intoxicated, she praises
all the material conveniences life in America has afforded them
only to reveal that she and her husband have actually been miserable
in having no one there to share their life. The scene is important
because it is the only real glimpse we get of what Gareth is leaving
Ballybeg for. Life with this loud, unhappy, potentially smothering
woman, especially as Pratten plays her, presents a very dubious
alternative to his present situation and makes Gareth's dilemma
seem more like a choice of the lesser of two evils.
Niki Kemeny has assembled an appropriate collection of furniture to represent the two rooms in the house of a humble general store owner. Virginia Pratten has suitably costumed all fourteen characters, giving herself the brightest costume as Aunt Lizzy and Topinka understated clothing as Kate. She dresses both Gareths identically except that Gareth (Private) wears a darker sweater vest than Gareth (Public). Tim Culbert, working with only 15 instruments, effectively lit the stage and used changes in lighting to distinguish scenes from the past Gareth remembers from those in the present. Co-directors Rachel and Scott Holden-Jones shaped and paced the play very well and in the second half of the play draw subtle performances from McDonald, Culbert, Bell and Robinson-Todd that are among the best I have seen this summer (and that includes the two big festivals!). In particular, the scene between Bell and McDonald as a father and son who make a last attempt at having a conversation after years of non-communication is riveting and superbly judged.
Anyone with an interest in Irish drama should consider a detour from Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford to see this production done simply but with great feeling and understanding.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
After an unsuccessful summer with John Gray's Rock 'n' Roll last year, the Canadian Stage's Dream in High Park returns to Shakespeare with Sarah Stanley's new adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Theoretically, it was an interesting idea to have a lesbian feminist director take on the play by Shakespeare most easily labelled as misogynist; in practice, however, Stanley's cartoonish direction trivializes the play and makes a muddle of the action so that she ultimately undermines her desired emphasis. She reverses the genders of Kate and Petruchio and has the actor who plays Kate also play Christopher Sly in the Induction. In the original, though Kate may submit at the end, she has been a more than equal match for any man in the play. In Stanley's version the male actor, since he plays both the framing character and the strongest character in the play, becomes even more prominent than in the original.
Initially, I was glad Stanley included the seldom-performed Induction in which Christopher Sly is throw out of a tavern for drunkenness and wakes up in the house of a merchant who wishes to play a joke on him. Sly is led to believe he is the master of the house who has been asleep for 15 years. The servants then perform the play, The Taming of the Shrew to entertain him. While this set-up is simple enough, it causes endless problems in Stanley's production primarily because she hasn't decided if Sly is watching a play or having a dream. She has him fall asleep partway through the first lines of the play performed for him. Then she substitutes someone to remain sleeping in his bed in the second balcony above the stage so that the same actor can play Kate. But then she occasionally replaces the substitute with the original actor as Sly so he can respond to the action below. Not only does this not make sense, it also requires "Kate" to be absent from important scenes, including her own wedding (!), so that the actor playing Kate can climb all the way back up to his bed. It is incredible that no one took Stanley aside to point out how damaging and awkward this toing and froing of Kate/Sly is in involving the audience in the action. It would have been far better to have had the wall that reveals Sly's bed to close on it until needed at the end. Even with all of Stanley's substitutions, the bed still remained empty for half the play, thus destroying her over-elaborate conceit of having Sly watch himself as Kate.
I'm all for gender reversal if there is some point to it. Robert Lepage reversed all the genders in the Macbeth he directed at Hart House in 1992 , a production that clearly demonstrated that Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff are both stronger than their war-obsessed husbands. By reversing only Kate and Petruchio, the effect seems merely a peculiarity. Stanley's point could have been better made if she, like Lepage, had reversed all the roles. As it is, she seems to be castigating the women like Bianca and the Widow for being women. Why else does she visually link Bianca with Marilyn Monroe? (Or is this just a crib from Richard Rose's 1997 Stratford production?) The one point Stanley does make is by having Petruchio turn up at his wedding in a woman's gown. That is strange clothing everyone comments on and in itself makes a comment on the strange ritual of marriage. The emotion of the moment is ruined, however, by having him marry a substitute so that Kate/Sly can return to his bed.
A strong cast might have been able to overcome the confusion and weakness in the direction, but that is not the case. Best by far is Yanna McIntosh as Marian Hackett in the Induction and Petruchio in the main part of the play. She has the outrage and vulnerability of Hackett and all the swagger and bravado one expects in Petruchio. Given her stage presence, one can only feel sorry she was never promoted when she was at Stratford to play all the famous Shakespearean women in trousers like Viola, Rosalind or Imogen. She not only masters all the grueling action of the many fight scenes, she also has the best diction in the cast. Not at all her equal is Jordan Pettle as Kate/Sly. All of Kate's rages at which the men cower lost their force since Pettle could not modulate his voice and only shouted. Only near the very end of the play did he move into a different mode of speech, but by then it was too late to start building a character. >From the start the all-important tension between the two characters is non-existent.
There are a number of fine actors in the secondary roles, all hampered to some degree by Stanley's direction (Roy Lewis as Baptista, Patrick Conner as Tranio, Louis Negin as Vincentio, Patrick McManus as Lucentio, Michael Spencer-Davis as Grumio and Carly Street as Bianca). Stanley unaccountably places the best scenes of Lucentio and Bianca in a cramped section of the first balcony even though the main stage below is free, making them pop up and down as in an old Laugh In skit.
The more minor roles receive sub-mediocre acting from Janet Burke as the Widow, Paul Haddad as Biondello, Anand Rajaram as Hortensio (and, confusingly, as Licio), Glen Cairns as Gremio, and Joris Jarsky as Curtis. The four men all deliver their lines in cartoon voices and/or funny accents. I found it strange that Stanley, who wears her correct politics on her sleeve, should have Rajaram perpetually whine and cringe and then underline his exits with Indian music.
Troy Hansen's modifications to the basic High Park set were fine but misused and the show was effectively lit by Andrea Lundy. Hansen's costumes placed the action in the 1970s with the men mostly in leisure suits and everyone but Kate and Petruchio in Day-glo colours. Day-glo, as the director's note suggests, is the colour of dreams. It may be in the short, funny dream sequence in Mamma Mia!, but over the length of an entire play it merely seems like bad taste. The numerous fights were well staged by William Malmo, but I trust it was the director's idea, not his, to include so much slapstick that it made the show too often seem like The Three Stooges go to Padua.
Despite the heroic efforts of Yanna McIntosh, this is the worst version of Shrew I have seen so far. Earlier this year, I chided John R. Briggs for the cartoonish direction of his musical adaptation, Romancin' the One I Love, but this show makes his look like a masterpiece of subtlety by comparision. At least his show was consistent and frequently very funny and the actors, though all singers and dancers, all spoke Shakespeare better than the majority of the cast in this very disharmonious Shrew.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
Twelfth Night is the Soulpepper Theatre Company's first foray into Shakespeare and its first presentation involving their Young Company. The play was to have alternated with Romeo and Juliet, but an injury sidelined the Romeo and forced cancellation of the production. Soulpepper was formed by former members of Robin Phillips' Young Company at the Stratford Festival, young actors who, after working alongside more experienced actors, were eventually to have taken their place in the Stratford company. That never happened. Now Soulpepper has formed its own Young Company, and the vitality and variability that were present in the Stratford Young Company productions are plainly visible here.
I should say at the start that this is one of the most intelligently spoken Twelfth Nights I have ever seen. Soulpepper has always emphasized text-based productions, eschewing the expensive sets and costumes that encumber so many Stratford shows. The entire cast speaks Shakespeare's verse so clearly and naturally that every line makes sense. Lines that are often throw away are given purpose, endowing the whole production with unusual clarity and integrity. Credit is due to the Soulpepper training courses, to Albert Schultz, the director, and to the talented cast he assembled.
Unlike so many Shakespeare productions nowadays, this one does not force a concept on to the play, but rather works from the text outwards. As a result, this Twelfth Night does not become "The Malvolio Show," as it has been virtually every time I've seen it; rather, the Malvolio plot becomes what it should bea subplot that is the comic reflection of the romantic main plot involving Orsino, Viola and Olivia. Schultz makes this parallel perfectly clear at the ending, placing Orsino and Viola on stage right and Olivia and Sebastian on stage left, Malvolio entering between them holding the fateful letter. All three -- Orsino, Olivia and Malvolio -- all absolute and high-minded in different ways, have each been made a fool. Orsino marries someone he had thought was a boy, Olivia marries someone she doesn't know and Malvolio believes a forged love-letter. All three have believed what they wished to believe based solely on appearances, hence the subtitle to the play, "What You Will."
By integrating the Malvolio plot into the rest of the play, all the scenes with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are no longer the pointless, boisterous interludes they usually are but rather reinforce the play's theme of purging through surfeit. Indeed, in this production Aguecheek becomes as comic a figure as Malvolio and Toby and Maria become dual agents of the plot. It's true, when the comic scenes are not played up as if they were the raison d'être of the play, they are not quite so knee-slappingly funny; at the same time, the play as whole makes much more sense and gains in depth and mood far more than it loses in farcicality. Only on two or three occasions does Schultz add in gestural references external to the play to get a laugh, a technique I hope he will keep in check.
The mix of new and seasoned actors is of laudable benefit to the new actors, but it can lead, as here, to an unevenness in performance. Of the three young actors in major roles, Kristin Booth as Olivia is the most impressive. Her presence and delivery are very assured, but she could have more fully characterized her role. Patricia Fagan, whose performances I've enjoyed at George Brown College, is an excellent choice for Viola. Fagan is especially good at communicating conflicting emotions, which is pretty well Viola's situation throughout the play. With more voice coaching she will be an even more effective performer. Richard Clarkin as Orsino has the clearest diction of the young actors and a fine voice, but there seems to be little passion or personality behind what he says. David Stemer is physically well matched with Fagan, his "twin," but seems unable to speak his lines very pointedly and so misses out most of the humour of his part. Christian Lloyd as Fabian and Curio fails to make much of an impression.
These young actors are surrounded by seasoned actors of a very high calibre. Chief among these is John Neville as Feste giving the finest performance of that role I have seen. This is Shakespeare's wisest fool who knows that the people around him will only gain knowledge if they are allowed to make fools of themselves Neville's Feste becomes the focus for a sense of melancholy and bemused acquiescence that pervades the whole production. Neville's singing of Ted Dykstra's lovely arrangements of Feste's many songs is a real delight. Schultz even allows Feste to eat a banana as he talks to the imprisoned Malvolio -- a Soulpepper in-joke relating Feste speaking into the void to Neville-as-Krapp speaking into his tape recorder. It is a pleasure to see Oliver Dennis in the central role of Malvolio. His performance is expertly judged to mine all the humour of his character and yet not overwhelm the main plot of the play. What is clearest in his performance, that never is when, say, Brian Bedford plays the role, is that Malvolio is Olivia's servant as much as Maria is and no supposed amount of moral superiority on his part can alter that fact. Dennis also generates enough sympathy for Malvolio in the Sir Topas scenes that, for a change, we, too, feel the joke on him has gone too far.
The senior members of the so-called "kitchen scenes" are all excellent -- Randy Hughson as Sir Toby Belch, Steven Sutcliffe as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Maria Vacratsis as Maria. Importantly, Hughson does not play Sir Toby as merely a drunkard as happens far too often. Rather this is a man fully aware of what he is doing. He amuses himself by gulling Aguecheek and feels it's his right to enjoy himself as much as he wishes in his kinswoman's house. Yet, Hughson's Toby can suddenly speak in dead earnest to shatter the mood of revelry. Now that we see a serious side in Toby, his attraction to the practical-minded Maria also makes more sense. Sutcliffe's hilariously dopey Aguecheek is nuanced enough that, for a change, the parallel between him and Malvolio is clear. In the remaining roles, Michael Hanrahan gives Antonio an intensity often missing in that part and Dragoslav Tanaskovic, as an accordion-playing musician helps cast a melancholy mood over the play and later is visually quite funny as the priest.
The play is staged on an almost entirely bare stage. John Thompson's set design consists of a huge blue cloth that hangs from the third storey of the du Maurier Theatre and various functional benches, tables and risers, all in uniform style, that in diverse combinations suggest the different scenes. With such a minimal set, it is primarily Louise Guinand's imaginative and highly evocative lighting that establish the mood of each scene. Sean Breaugh's costumes, placing the action in the mid-19th century, are clever in making Viola and Sebastian really look like twins and in relating Sir Toby and Aguecheek to Orsino and Olivia, who are, after all, their social equals.
While clarity of both plot and speech seem to have been Schultz's prime concerns, the play is not staged with quite the imagination one might find in his own mentor, Robin Phillips. Schultz's best invention is to set a crucial interview between Orsino and Viola on a dock, with Orsino going for a swim and asking the embarrassed Viola to join him. This scene cuts to the heart of the situation in a way no other scene does. Schultz's attempt to place the play in the frame as the Sea Captain's story, is not emphasized enough to be worth the bother and adds nothing to the play anyway.
Nevertheless, despite its imperfections, this Twelfth Night is well worth seeing because so much about itits mood, its clarity, its intelligenceis so right.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
Anyone who has never seen the way Molière is often performed in Europe will be in for rather a shock when they see Soulpepper's production of School for Wives. While over here even Molière's greatest plays are done primarily as light, frothy entertainments, in Europe critics and directors have long known that one source of Molière's greatness is that his comedies actually deal with serious issues and often come as close to tragedy as the comic genre will allow. In 1995 Ariane Mnouchkine famously set Tartuffe in pre-Revolutionary Iran, with the result that Tartuffe's power became much more frightening than comic. On a much smaller scale, Hungarian director László Marton brings about a similar effect in a School for Wives that is poles apart from Richard Monette's production of the same Richard Wilbur translation for Stratford in 1991. Where Monette's version was visually bright and sunny, Marton's is dark and almost Dickensian in atmosphere. Where for Monette Brian Bedford as Arnolphe, though a petty tyrant, remained perfectly charming throughout, Joseph Ziegler for Marton is an ill-natured, self-torturing monomaniac. Where Monette allowed every line to be merely a joke, Marton makes us see in Arnolphe's tyranny over his would-be wife the uncomic spectres of misogyny and class prejudice. This very dark version of Molière will not be to all tastes, but it will be an eye-opener to those who previously have never seen just how serious his plays can be.
As in so many of Molière's plays, the central figure, Arnolphe, is consumed by an obsession--in this case, with the fear of cuckoldry. In order to avoid the kinds of taunts he hurls at other men, he has had a girl, Agnès, brought up from the age of four with the sole purpose of becoming his wife. He has deliberately made sure that she is completely ignorant of life, the better to follow his orders blindly. After her miseducation in a convent, he has kept her mewed up in a house and guarded by two servants, also chosen for their ignorance, until she is of age to marry him. Marton makes clear that Arnolphe's perversion of Agnes's life is a sign of his own not-so-hidden perversion. Despite all his well-laid plans, a young man, Horace, son of an old friend, has fallen in love with Agnès and she with him. Much of the comedy in the play arises from the fact that Horace does not realize that Agnès's keeper is the "friend" to whom he reveals all his plans. Yet, even this comic plot reaches a near-disastrous conclusion before all is made well by a deus ex machina. As in Tartuffe Molière uses this device to show that only something extraordinary can divert the course of the play from tragedy.
Marton's dark vision of Molière's play confronts us when we first enter the theatre. Julia Tribe's set shows a high, metal circular fence surrounding Arnolphe's house and looking more like a cage than a fence. The irony of the play is that while Arnolphe is trying to cage Agnès, in fact it is he who has no mental freedom, so bound up are his thoughts with his idée fixe. Marton has moved the action from the 1662 of the play's first performance to the early 19th century, the high point of Romanticism in France. This fits perfectly with the theme of the play of love as a reforming power, superceding all rules and conventions. Tribe's astute costumes instantly inform us of the characters' relationships--Arnolphe primarily in black, Agnès in white, and the others in earth tones. The servants' dilapidated clothing shows us their mistreatment before we hear of it, while the rich outfits of Arolphe and his friend Oronte place them in the upper middle class. Andrea Lundy's lighting is far removed from the pristine effects she uses in Betrayal. Here she creates a gloom in the house even when it is day and by frequently backlighting Arnolphe's makes him (literally) a darker figure.
Unlike Brian Bedford's charming and self-satisfied Arnolphe, Joseph Ziegler appears harried and obsessed from the start. After all, he has overseen a 14-year plan to turn another's life to his own uses. Where Bedford, as is his wont, addressed Arnolphe's frequent soliloquies directly to the audience, Ziegler plays them as tortured interior monologues we happen to overhear. This conveys the unsettling impression of a man trapped in his own pattern of thought. Ziegler succeeds so well in making Arnolphe a study of a disturbed personality that we can actually pity him when his horrid plans are at last overthrown and we see him in a state of despair. The counterforce to this monomaniac is the raisonneur figure, Chrysalde. Robert Persichini is an interesting choice for this role. As the voice of reason, this kind of character is often downplayed. Persichini, however, has the large stature and sonorous voice that makes him dominate Arnolphe in each of their encounters, thus giving greater weight to his careful outlining of Arnolphe's folly.
Whereas Ann Baggley was a relentlessly perky Agnès for Monette, Liisa Repo-Martell turns in a finely nuanced performance. We see her move from a girl who has been made deliberately stupid to a woman in fearful rebellion against the man who did this to her. In the scene when Arnolphe makes her read the maxims of marriage, we see slowly dawn on her the realization that her guardian is really a monster. It is really quite chilling. As her lover, Horace, Matthew Edison accomplishes the difficult feat of giving a quirky, interesting personality to an otherwise generic role. I've never seen one of these smitten young fellows played so well.
As the two benighted servants Raoul Bhaneja and Kristen Thomson are comic but in a more limited way than usual. Marton chooses not to have them realize the wrong of what they are doing, thus restricting the range of their roles. In an approach I've never seen before, Marton has the slapstick they engage in cause us not to laugh but wince. They thus extend rather than relieve the unpleasant atmosphere of lasciviousness and danger. Jim Warren makes the small role of the Notary humorous and memorable, while William Webster as Horace's father and Mark Christmann as Agnès's round out the cast.
For years now at Stratford, classic plays have been trotted out with little sense that their directors have anything in particular to say about them. This production, like Soulpepper's Don Carlos, The Misanthrope and Platonov before them, dusts off an old classic and makes it new. Let us hope Soulpepper continues this process.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile