On the evidence of the last three shows of his I've seen, Daniels Brooks is one of the very finest directors now working in Toronto. His direction of Goethe's Faust, Part 1 for the Tarragon in 1999 was extraordinary in bringing out the eternal modernity of that monumental work. His staging of Beckett's Endgame for Soulpepper earlier that year was also a triumph. And so is his production for them this year of Pinter's 1978 classic, Betrayal. Different as these three are, all of them involve characters poised on the brink of self-mockery and despair. Fittingly, Brooks is able to situate the mood in each on the knife edge between comedy and tragedy.
Uniting all three productions is Brooks's trademark minimalist style. In Goethe, this style helped sandblast away almost two centuries of received opinion and made the play seem new. For Beckett and Pinter, already writing in a minimalist style, there is no more suitable approach.
The plot of Betrayal follows the affair between Emma (Susan Coyne) and Jerry (Albert Schultz) and the way in which Emma's husband Robert (Diego Matamoros), who is also Jerry's best friend, comes to know about it. We first meet Jerry and Emma in a pub in 1977, two years affair their affair has ended, where Emma tells Jerry not only that her marriage with Robert has broken up but that Robert has known about their affair for four years. After a subsequent scene between Jerry and Robert, the scenes moves backward in time until we reach a hotel room in Venice in 1973--literally the central scene of nine--when Robert discovers his wife's affair with Jerry. We see the repercussions in two further scenes, before moving backwards twice more to 1968 when Robert first declares his love for Emma. The beginning of the play is thus the end of things for the characters, confirming the end of the affair and the marriage, while the end of the play shows us the beginning of the action, Jerry's declaration of love to Emma, that sets this destruction in motion.
In a play where the question "When did you know?" is so important and frequent, Pinter uses this non-chronological scheme to put the audience in the same predicament as his characters We are forced to piece together the sequence of events just as they do. Thanks to the clear markers Pinter puts in the playa tablecloth brought back from Venice or the age of Emma's son Nedan attentive audience can follow the action backwards and note the three times when it moves forwards. Thanks to Daniel Brooks's precise direction, we soon enough orient ourselves when the lights go up on each scene as to when and where we are. It is, however, built into the play that we should momentarily lose our bearings with each new scene.
Brooks knows precisely how to gauge what minimum is necessary to achieve the maximum effect on stage and the maximum multivalence of the text. John Thompson's set consists of two grey squaresone the playing area, one the back wall with a door set flush in it. This starkness moves the play out of the time period Pinter specifies to make it more universal. The presence and placement of certain key propstwo chairs, a hat stand, a table, a bar trolleyare all, along with Richard Feren's sound design, that is needed to tell apart the seven locations. Thompson's simple, well-chosen costumes tell us our direction in time primarily by making Coyne and Matamoros seem younger as the play progresses. The decision was made that Schultz as Jerry would wear the same costume throughout the play, while the other two have several costume changes. This decision seems to cast the action of the play as Jerry's own reflection. In the first scene Emma says "it's nice, sometimes, to think back", something Jerry refuses to do. But, as Brooks directs it, we the audience see the memories that Jerry has repressed. Jerry repeatedly discovers that knew far less what was really occurring than did the other two.
Andrea Lundy's expert use of light also suggests we are travelling backwards through memory. A sudden square of light becomes a picture, an oval is a mirror, a large rectangle a bed. A square border of light around the floor makes a room momentarily seem like a boxing ring as Jerry and Robert compete not only in business but for possession of Emma. Brooks thus locates his production between the naturalistic and the imagined. He calls forth the theatrical metaphor simply by having the actors themselves move the few props on and off the square set, so that what we see can be thought of also as a re-enactment.
A minimalist production places even greater weight on the words and acting. Albert Schultz as the most naïve of the three has the least interesting part. He plays Jerry as a kind of innocent, far less proficient at hiding his thoughts than Emma or Robert. As per Brooks's direction, he is not required to become younger as the play progresses. Susan Coyne as Emma gives one of her best ever performances. Her character is more expert than Jerry at hiding her thoughts, but Coyne allows us to see unspoken ideas flicker across her face and gives Emma an overall nervousness that belies the calm she tries to project. She also becomes noticeably younger and less racked with care as the action moves back in time.
Diego Matamoros turns in yet another superb performance, merging into a character in full control, completely unlike the pathetic, drunken doctor he played only two months ago in Platonov. He makes Robert a study of rage held tightly in check, bursting out only once in a single word in the central scene in Venice. He is superb at showing through gesture and intonation the varying degrees with which he has come to terms with his anger. Tony Nappo makes the most of his small part as the waiter in an Italian restaurant.
Unlike Bogen Productions' Ashes to Ashes that played here earlier this year, the actors in Betrayal do not use British accents. Initially, I was worried that the actors were not using Pinter's frequent pauses to the greatest effect. I eventually came to think that Brooks, in Canadianizing the accents had also Canadianized the pauses, making them shorter than a British context would permit. Brooks allows the first few scenes to be played as a kind of comedy of misunderstood language. However, as the play progress the laughter becomes less and less so that Robert's confession of love to Emma at the end has, though the play's irony of hindsight, the impact of tragedy. Each of the characters has betrayed the others to the extent that they are no longer fit to make judgments of any kind since they have so compromised their own values. Language has been perverted so that it conceals more often than expresses thought. Brooks wisely omits the intermission Pinter suggests, giving the play in a mere 85 minutes a cumulative power that amazes.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
British playwright Terry Johnson's Hysteria won the 1994 Olivier Award for Best Comedy. Judging from the current Canadian Stage production of the play, 1994 was not a good year for comedy. Given the excellent cast and the highly imaginative production design, the blame for the unsatisfying impression the play makes must lie with the playwright and the director. In 1994, Tom Stoppard won the Olivier Award for Best Play. Compared with Hysteria, Arcadia is by far the richer, more assured work. While Stoppard had moved on, Johnson's play harks back to Stoppard's Travesties of 1974 as its model. Both plays concern the meeting of famous men outside of their native countries--James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin in Zurich for Stoppard, Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali in London for Johnson. In both plays the action of another play influences what we see on stage--The Importance of Being Earnest for Stoppard, the 1929 Ben Travers farce Rookery Nook for Johnson. It is, therefore, hard to credit Johnson with a very original conception. Much of the play seems like imitation Stoppard with a significantly lesser amount of wit per line. The play deals with a day in 1938 after Freud had moved to London and was dying of cancer of the jaw. Before a word is spoken, his doctor gives him an injection of morphine to ease the pain.
The action begins with an extended and not very engaging section in which a young woman appears, demanding to speak to Freud without revealing what she came to say. When Freud relents after much argument and she impersonates a former patient of his, "Rebecca S.," he loses all patience with her. She tries to embarrass Freud by disrobing, only to be hurried into the closet when Freud's doctor, Abraham Yahuda, arrives. He is furious that Freud intends to publish the tract "Moses and Monotheism," which Yahuda says will undermine Judaism as the worst possible moment. Finally, Salvador Dali enters to pay homage to Freud the honorary founder of Surrealism for his work on the unconscious.
At this point, the play shift gears into pure farce with Dali and the woman in various states of undress chasing each other about the room and with Freud attempting numerous feeble lies to explain these goings-on to his doctor. After the doctor exits, the play shifts into a very serious mode, lightened only weakly by Dali's comments. The woman reveals that she is Jessica, the daughter of "Rebecca S." Her mother was cured when Freud still held to his belief that hysteria was caused by suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. However, when after 1897 Freud abandoned that theory in favour of infantile sexuality, her mother felt abandoned and betrayed and ended her life in a mental institution. Jessica holds Freud directly responsible and wants to know why he abandoned his theory. The elements of bedroom farce that Johnson introduces with Dali don't mesh at all well with the very serious subject matter of Freud's cancer, his undermining of Judaism or the renouncing of his earlier views on hysteria which have driven a woman to madness and suicide. Nor do they accord well with the graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse of children or the horrors of the German bombing of London. Johnson's excuse is that Freud and Dali have both seen Rookery Nook and that what we see is Freud's surreal morphine-induced dream free-associating these events. Unfortunately, Johnson's dramaturgy is far too plodding and director Morris Panych's direction not fluid enough to overcome it. As it is, although Dali is the main source of humour in the play, his appearances always seem like unwanted distractions from the unfolding of Jessica's story. While in Stoppard farce communicates serious ideas as, in Johnson farce seems to interrupt and trivialize them. In fact, except as comic relief, it's difficult to know why Dali is in the play at all. The only parallel is that Freud punctures Dali's belief in Surrealism just as Jessica tries to puncture Freud's belief in infantile sexuality.
Panych does not overcome these difficulties in the script. Indeed, under his direction this "shocking, yet wildly funny comedy," as CanStage bills it, hardly seems like a comedy at all. While we are riveted by Jessica's story, the episodes of farce surrounding Dali garner only half or fewer of the laughs they aim at (at least at the final preview performance I attended). There may be a way to have the play slide into and out farce as the surreal set-up would suggest, but Panych does not manage it.
The cast do their best with the material. Eric Peterson as Freud and Kristen Thomson as Jessica seem far more comfortable with the serious rather than the farcical elements of the play. David Storch as Dali and Peter Donaldson as Yahuda remain respectively comic and serious throughout. Peterson does very well at impersonating the founder of psychoanalysis, but becomes difficult to hear when he moves to the back of the stage. In many ways it is Thomson's fierce intensity as Jessica that makes us unwilling to switch into the farcical mode, but such intensity is what the script demands. Considered in isolation, Storch's Dali is a very funny caricature though his heavy Spanish accent fades as the play progresses. If Dali is meant as a counterpoise to Jessica, the strategy doesn't work since we are naturally more drawn to a character than a caricature. Yahuda is a thankless role for someone of Donaldson's calibre, Johnson having given him little of interest to do. Three other actors--Andrew Bunker, Roxanne Deans and Adam Pettle--appear as non-speaking figments of Freud's imagination in the surreal dénouement.
The most imaginative aspect of the show is Ken MacDonald's marvelous design. The off-white walls of Freud's study consist entirely of floor-to-ceiling built-in filing cabinets with a huge rolling library staircase to get at them, making the study seem also like an asylum. All the characters, save the black-clad Dali, are clothed in tones matching the walls. Does this mean the most eccentric of the four is the sanest?
Paul Mathiesen provides the admirable lighting. The show begins with projections of titles by Arash Vakili accompanied by agitated music as if we about to see one of Hitchcock's many films dealing with abnormal psychology such as Vertigo or Spellbound. The show concludes with a complex projected montage of Nazi soldiers, concentration camp inmates and a staring eye. In themselves both are well done, but neither suggests that what we are about to see or have seen is a comedy.
All in all, Hysteria struck me as a feeble attempt at a comedy of ideas that, unlike Stoppard's Arcadia or even Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, leaves one with little food for thought and little reason to laugh.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
A Dublin theatre critic pimps for a group of London vampires--yes, that's the story of Conor McPherson's one-man play St. Nicholas. After an acclaimed run of an abridged version at the SummerWorks Theatre Festival (Toronto's other fringe festival) in 1999, the ACME Theatre Co. now brings us a full-length production. McPherson wrote this play in 1997, just before The Weir, which won him so much acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. All of McPherson's work to date has had to do with story telling, and St. Nicholas could almost be considered a study for The Weir and explanation of the meaning of story telling in his other works. Where The Weir presents us with five people telling each other ghost stories, St. Nicholas presents us with one man telling the audience a story about vampires. Where The Weir is totally naturalistic with no breaking of the fourth wall, inS t. Nicholasthe wall is broken in its very first moments since the sole actor addresses his bizarre story directly to the audience throughout and even invites us to speculate on why we may find it hard to believe. I would recommend St. Nicholas to anyone who has already seen The Weir or who is planning on seeing the CanStage production later this year both because it sheds so much light on the other work and because it is a fascinating play in its own right.
The story the actor tells us in St. Nicholas falls neatly into two halves, separated by an intermission. In the first half, we learn that the actor speaking to us is portraying that most loathed of beings--a theatre critic. He enjoys the power he wields in making and breaking people's careers. He has a comfortable life in Dublin with the requisite wife and two children, one of each sex. He feels he knows none of his family, especially his daughter, and he longs for something more--to be a "real" writer or somehow to have real power, rather than making his living off the artistic endeavours of other. He drifts into alcoholism and a one point becomes so enamoured of the star of a Dublin production of Salome that when the show transfers to London, he flies there in hopes of seeing this young woman again. After a major drinking binge and failure to have any real contact with her, he wanders aimlessly and passes out. When he awakens, he encounters a young man named William, who is a vampire. In the second half, William not only invites the critic to his home but also offers to let him live there if he will regularly procure for him and his female companions young healthy people for their nourishment. To reveal any more of this tale would spoil it, but I guarantee you will hang on every word.
In Adam Bramble director Dean Gabourie has found an excellent actor to portray the Critic. According to McPherson's foreword to the play, the actor playing the Critic "doesn't act anything out. He just tells us the story." I can imagine any number of actors who would turn this one-man show into a star vehicle and thus go counter to what the playwright specifies. Bramble, however, shows the right humility in relation to the text--he is there as a medium for the text and not to promote himself. It is unfortunate that he uses a British rather than Irish accent, which would make the rhythms of the text sound more natural. At the final preview performance I attended, there was also a certain tentative quality about his movement and his pauses and re-entries into the story that I hope will work themselves out over time. Yet, he does succeed in making us interested in what happens to this thoroughly dislikable man, who is pleased to give bad reviews to everything he sees, often writing them before the event.
Camellia Koo's set consists only of a chair, table and piano, but she did find the perfect antique chair to suit the Gothic atmosphere. Eric Sage and Judith Sandiford's lighting is especially good in creating a creepy greenish aura for the vampires' home, but their changes of light tend to be too rapid to suit the mood. Peter Chapman's sound design includes bar noises and jingle bells whenever the title character is mentioned, but are too abrupt and too loud.
One might well wonder whether this show would be more effective
as a radio play instead of being staged since a person's imagination
would be freer to engage with the text. That is, however, precisely
why McPherson wrote it as a stage play. He has the Critic interrupt
his narrative to step off the stage and wander into the audience
to question whether the tenets we hold true in science are any
more fantastic than his story. Both, he claims, are ultimately
questions of belief. This digression, like the play's staging
itself, is meant to remind us constantly of the artifice of our
situation as audience--that we decide to believe the actor is
a character and that his story is true. McPherson leaves the conclusion
deliberately ambiguous. Was this encounter with vampires the product
of an alcohol-drenched mind, a dreamt vision of journalists living
off the lives of others or an actual supernatural event? As with
old St. Nicholas, some things exist and can change us simply because
we are willing to believe.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
Tom Stoppard's delightful confection The Real Inspector Hound (1968) and the lesser work After Magritte (1970) were both written when Stoppard would still have been classified as a purveyor of the Theatre of the Absurd. The paradoxes about art and reality are much simpler and more superficial in these early plays than one finds in his recent, almost elegiac works. Inspector Hound is both a knowing satire on theatre critics and a hilarious spoof of the murder mystery. Two critics, Birdboot and Moon, are so good at projecting themselves into the mystery they are watching that they literally become involved on stage in what they see. After Magritte, though not as interesting, is a suitable companion piece since it also concerns an inspector who turns out to be both the main witness and the alibi for a crime he is investigating but which never happened. As performed by Kitchener's local professional theatre company, Theatre & Company, these two one-acters make for a very entertaining evening.
Nicole Lee's direction of Inspector Hound was fine in ensuring that the essentials of the play come across, but in general, I felt she gives the play too rapid a pace. Judicious use of pauses would have allowed more of Stoppard's many jokes and jokes within jokes to register with the audience. A number of very funny lines and even some stage business are missed by having things move along too quickly. She does, however, manage the transition smoothly from the critics watching the play to actually being in the play. She also makes sure that the acting style of the two critics is clearly different from the intentionally hokey acting of those in the play within the play. Alan K. Sapp is especially good as the critic Birdboot, who reveals more about his womanizing the more he tries to deny it. Andrew Lakin as Moon, the frustrated substitute reviewer, is excellent at portraying the would-be intellectual, able to read any meaning to any material no matter how trivial. Both make the most of showing their amazement at suddenly finding themselves on stage. The characters of the play within the play are all caricatures, but some are captured better than others. Peggy Wrightson is hilarious as Mrs. Drudge, the maid of the Muldoon Manor, who can manage to clean a whole drawing room without noticing a corpse under the settee. George Joyce perfectly captures the typical Colonel Mustard role of Magnus, a wheelchair-bound curmudgeon. Linda Bush is very fine as Cynthia, the grand lady of the house, who is as concerned with her appearance as with anything she says. On the other hand, both Matt Lancaster as Simon, the mysterious philanderer, and Elana Post, as Felicity, the woman he has thrown over for Cynthia, do not enunciate clearly enough so that all the humour of their lines comes through. Mike Peng, who seems to be putting on a Scottish accent as Inspector Hound, is not always easy to understand. Nevertheless, Stoppard's satire of dramatic conventions and the impossibility of objective criticism comes across quite clearly.
After Magritte, a less substantial piece and much harder to put across, became under Producing Artistic Director Stuart Scadron-Wattles' imaginative direction the best production I have seen of it. The play begins with an absurd tableau (not unlike one of the Belgian painter's canvases) for which we gradually see the underlying causes and is about an absurd image of a hopping man, interpreted differently by everybody, for which we eventually discover the rational explanation. Linda Bush and Alan K. Sapp are excellent as the ballroom-dancing husband and wife under investigation. Their scene of bickering while executing a complex tango is the highlight of the play. Peggy Wrightson is fine in the lesser role as the husband's tuba-playing mother as is Elana Post as the snooping policewoman, Holmes. Mike Peng is again the inspector, Inspector Foot this time ("Foot of the Yard"), who without the Scottish accent is excellent at making Foot's lengthy and ultimately pointless series of accusations and suppositions as entertaining as possible. It is all cleverly topped off with Magritte-inspired curtain calls.
Dennis Horn has designed the sets and costumes for both plays. In Inspector Hound he visually distinguishes the young pseudo-intellectual Moon from the pompous over-the-hill Birdboot so we can almost predict their points of view just by looking at them. He has wittily dressed the cast of the play within the play in costumes of the early 1950s, suitable for a take-off on an Agatha Christie mystery. After Magritte is set in the late 1960s and is decked out appropriately. Given the three-quarter thrust of the Market Theatre stage, the sets for both plays are simple but effective. Stuart Scadron-Wattles has designed the lighting for both plays. I especially liked the effect he creates for the "intermissions" in the play within the play in Inspector Hound.
It's good to see this small theatre company, now in its eleventh
year, giving many people their first look at these early plays
by Stoppard. Those who already know his work will be pleased with
Theatre & Company's lively productions; those who are new
to Stoppard will want to see more.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly, as staged by the Alumnae Theatre, is a glistening gem of a play. It seemed odd in 1980 that a play so consciously old-fashioned a play should win the Pulitzer Prize for drama when so many new developments were happening in both America and Britain. But, as can often happen, by avoiding faddishness the play has avoided becoming dated. As it is, the play is a kind of valentine to the sensibilities of an earlier time and to the hope that people can cast off what William Blake called "mind-forged manacles." Perhaps, that is why the action takes place on Independence Day.
The 97-minute play is set in an old boathouse on a farm in Missouri in 1944. Matt Friedman, a Jewish accountant, has come here to ask the former belle of the town, Sally Talley, to marry him, despite not having seen her since the year they spent one happy week together. The play begins with Matt's direct address to the audience and to the sound- and light-people, not unlike the Stage Manager in Our Town. But, having established the artifice of the play, the playwright, unlike Wilder, never again has Matt so interrupt the flow of the action. Matt describes the action as a waltz, and so it is. It is a verbal and emotional dance of two people who recognize each other as outcasts-Matt because of his religion and immigrant background, Sally because of her anti-capitalist views that don't sit well with her factory-owning family. As we learn, both harbour a secret that makes them think the other will not be able to love them. The play thus has much more in common with the psychologically subtle comedies of Marivaux than with the typical American play of gradually unearthed secrets of O'Neill, Miller or Williams. The play follows the intricate maneuverings of these two lonely people as both try to break through their own defensive shells to reach the other.
There's no denying that such a delicate play could, in the wrong hands, easily wallow in nostalgia and sentimentality. Fortunately, this production is in exactly the right hands. In fact, it is difficult to imagine the play being better directed and performed than it is here. Paul Babiak as Matt and Tabitha Keast as Sally are perfectly cast. Babiak shows us someone who has grown accustomed to using jokes and clowning as a way buffering his own loneliness and deflecting any inquiry into his past. Babiak is expert at bringing off the numerous accents and imitations his character is required to perform. He is also excellent at showing us that all this show-offishness is merely a mask for his far more serious inner self. Keast's Sally is just the opposite. Externally, she is all reserve and propriety. But like Babiak, she also shows us how this brittle façade may hide remembered pain and a fear of rejection. The two actors have a natural rapport on stage superior to that in any two-hander I've seen this year. Both make the potential for anger and offense in their characters so strong that it prevents the potential sweetness of the play from cloying.
Director P.J. Hammond has given the play a wholly natural ebb and flow and has encouraged the finely detailed performances of her cast. Most importantly, she has established precisely the right tone for the piece by making ever present the danger that this love story could easily collapse. Stewart Vanderlinden has created the broken-down boathouse of the set by imaginatively incorporating architectural elements of the Alumnae's own Studio Theatre. This boathouse is the "folly" of the title, built by one of Sally's relatives, and a symbol of something seemingly useless and broken that can be transformed, like the characters, to something romantic when perceived the right way. Shannah Davison has provided period costumes perfectly suited to the characters and their intentions. All is evocatively lit by Michael Spence from the harsh lights up during Matt's direct address at the beginning to the beautiful scene in the middle of the play when the two smoke together lit only by a kerosene lamp. J.R. Rudge's sound design brings in all the natural sounds one might expect in the countryside on a southern night in July.
The Alumnae Theatre has begun its 2000-2001 season on a high note. This show should attract anyone who loves fine acting fully alive to the subtleties of human interactions. Bring someone you care about to see it and treat yourselves to an early valentine.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
Last year Douglas Beattie's new Touchmark Theatre debuted in the Co-operators Hall of Guelph's River Run Centre with the Tennessee Williams' rarity Kingdom of Earth. This year they return to the same venue with B.C. playwright Morris Panych's 1995 black comedy Vigil. This play has had numerous production in the U.S. and Canada and is currently being held over yet again at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C. If you have missed this wickedly funny show in its recent productions at the Tarragon in Toronto or the Grand Theatre in London, don't pass up the chance to see it in the more intimate venue in Guelph.
The story is about Kemp, a middle-aged man who has left his job at a bank and travelled more than a thousand miles to be at the bedside of his Aunt Grace, who he has not seen in thirty years. She had written him to say she is "old and dying," but his expectations of a quick inheritance of some sort are gradually frustrated by the woman who, for the next two years, shows no signs of major decline much less immanent death. The play proceeds through a rapid series of very short scenes ringing every imaginable comic variation on Kemp's increasing frustrated question, "Why aren't you dead yet?" Kemp, used to living a solitary existence, is content to insult his aunt, rail against the world and relate tales of his youth as the unloved child of an alcoholic mother who wanted him to be a girl and a manic-depressive father who was a failed magician--all without expectation of a response from his aunt, who indeed says nothing throughout the entire first act. The explanation for this bizarre situation suddenly comes to light in the second act by means I will certainly not reveal lest I spoil the fun. What I will say is that this explanation causes us to re-evaluate all that has gone on before and results in an entire shift of mood from the relentlessly cynical gallows humour that precedes it to an ending that is unexpectedly but genuinely moving.
To mount this fine production, Beattie has called on a cadre of some of the best-known people associated with the Stratford Festival. The director is none other than Martha Henry, fresh from her success in directing Elizabeth Rex. Vigil is a work that could be played in a number of different styles--from the zaniness of Monty Python to the menace of Pinter. Henry has taken a realist approach in making the situations and statements, no matter how outlandish, arise from the characters. This has great the advantage of making the characters who seem so absurd in the first act plausible and empathetic in the second, so that the total change of mood near the end becomes understandable. We see it is merely the author's delay in supplying key information that causes us to perceive the action of the first act as so bizarre since Panych wants us to see the absurd in the guise of the realistic. To that end, Allan Wilbee provides a naturalistic, very cozy apartment for Grace and appropriate costumes for her and the unkempt Kemp. A major symbol in the set, visible during the frequent blackouts, is the luminous dial of the mantle clock, its hands whirling around. We thus are never allowed to forget the themes of time and mortality even between scenes. The play is beautifully lit by Louise Guinand, who not only lets us see the changing light of the seasons out the large window stage right but also highlights objects important to Henry's interpretation of the play, particularly Grace's Christmas gift to Kemp. Luke de Ruiter provides clever, often humorous background sounds that let us known what is happening in the wide world outside.
Stephen Woodjetts, best known to Stratford audiences as a composer and music director, appears as the self-absorbed Kemp. Woodjetts decision to play Kemp as a bitchy homosexual may help the audience to pigeonhole his character earlier, but that is not necessarily a good thing. Kemp explains that he has been so messed up by his unloving and repellant parents that he has become completely asexual. He became disillusioned with life at such an early age that he has become the most cynical, morbid misanthrope you'll ever hope not to meet. He has no friends of any kind and his sole fond memory of contact with any other human being is of his aunt's visit thirty years ago. Woodjetts does make us glimpse this sense of desperation beneath Kemp's constant outpourings of negativity. The great advantage of Woodjett's portrayal is that his manner is so completely deadpan that there is no sense that his character is aware that the outrageous things he says and does are funny. This, of course, as the best actors and directors know, makes the comedy even more hilarious. Henry and Woodjetts also perfectly control the transition in the second act when statements and actions similar to those made earlier by Kemp are no longer meant to evoke humour.
Joyce Campion is perfectly cast as Grace, a role she also played at the Tarragon. Though silent through the entire first act, Campion has such presence that a mere gesture or facial expression from her varied repertoire is more than enough to counterbalance Kemp's stream of words. When she does speak the few lines she has, we hang on her every word since each one is, as one might expect, crucial to our understanding of the play. As always, she is a joy to watch and it is a pleasure to see her in such a major role.
Touchmark Theatre has thus scored another success and can only be good news to the community that their season has increased to two plays a year. Do try to take in this play both for its own merits and since it makes a fascinating pairing with their next production, the great Irish comedy The Playboy of the Western World.
After beginning its 2000-2001 season with three severely flawed productions in a row--Shrew, Outrageous and Hysteria--the Canadian Stage Company in this co-production with the Manitoba Theatre Centre has finally come through with a fine if not particularly insightful production of Conor McPherson's Olivier Award-winning play The Weir. Compared with Ian Rickson's original production (which played here as part of the du Maurier World Stage festival in 1998), the CanStage production misses some key elements of the play. Yet the fine acting of the cast still makes the work a moving experience.
McPherson's play could hardly be simpler--five people gather in an Irish pub on a stormy evening. Three of the four men tell ghost stories to give the one woman, new to the village, a taste of the folklore of the area. They decide to stop for fear of frightening her until she tells a story more frightening than any of theirs. In the original production it was clear from the start that the four men barely tolerated each other and felt no sense of community. The oldest, Jack, was an embittered, unpleasant old man. Jim, who still lives with his mum, was looked on with derision. And both along with Brendan, the bartender, looked on the nouveau riche Finbar, owner of the town's hotel, as an upstart and assumed he has dishonorable intentions towards the woman, Valerie, to whom he has sold property and has been escorting around the town.
Jackie Maxwell, the director of the CanStage production, has played down all the tensions among the men that Ian Rickson had highlighted. For her, the men's continual derision of each other is just part of a hearty conviviality. In so directing the men, she misses one of the main points of the play. In Rickson's production it was clear that all sense of community had been lost, each of the bachelors living in isolation, their village now a place only touring "Germans" seem to enjoy. The group photo at The Weir over the fireplace shows how there was a sense of community in the past. Valerie's visit caused the men to share stories of the past and when she shared her very personal story we felt a new community had been born. By misinterpreting the jibes at the beginning, Maxwell fails to portray the great change that is meant to come over the group during the 90 minutes we see them. In Rickson's production, Valerie's story drew forth an extremely personal story from Jack, who up until then had been derisive and antisocial. He told her the story of his own false pride and loneliness. When Jack is played as a likeable old codger from the beginning, as in Maxwell's production, this confession loses its force.
Despite losing a major part of the subtext of the play and with the subsequent narrowing of the range of characterization, McPherson's play is so well written and so well played that the work still retains much of its power. Premier among the actors is Barry MacGregor as Jack. Though disallowed the major transformation in Rickson's production and though contrary to the author's intent, MacGregor is still excellent in playing Jack as a cantankerous geezer whose bluster thinly veils a warm heart. It's good to see this fine actor in such a major role in Toronto. John Jarvis as Finbar, Robert Persichini as Jim and Ann Baggley as Valerie are all excellent in telling their various tales. Jarvis lacks the hardened exterior that we would expect the local business success to have and which would make his story's effect on him even more remarkable. Persichini's slightly benighted Jim gives his story a deadpan delivery that makes it even more chilling. After Persichini brings dead silence to the audience, Baggley has a hard act to follow, especially since her story is the climax of the play. But she, too, manages to have the audience hang on her every word. I only wish she had maintained the emotion of the story right through to the end of the play, instead of switching out of it after Jack's final story. Oliver Becker is perfectly cast as Brendan the bartender, a sort of rational pillar for the troubled souls of the village to lean on. His comic timing is superb.
Irish designer Francis O'Connor's unit set is one of the finest naturalistic sets I've seen on the Bluma Appel stage, showing us a poorly maintained Irish pub, carefully broken down with stains and broken plaster with heavy beams leaving the room open to the sky just as are our highly realistic characters are to the supernatural. He is also responsible for the well-observed costumes.
In the original production, once the lights were switched on in the pub they remained at the same intensity throughout the show until the bartender switched them off. This was in full accordance with the naturalistic set and the fact that the play's time and the stage time are identical. Rickson's point, with his fuller understanding of McPherson's text, was to make the telling of the stories alone the source of the bonding between the group without recourse to theatrical effects. Maxwell, however, misses this point and has lighting designer Kevin Fraser gradually lower the lights on the teller of a tale until we see virtually only a lit face in the darkness. This is very effective but also contrary to the spirit of the text. What is really inexcusable is Maxwell's allowing sound designer Jamie George to add faint spooky voices in the backround during the telling of each tale. Again, the stories need no reinforcement. McPherson is interested in the power of words not stage technology.
Maxwell stepped in to replace Michael Langham, who withdrew for family reasons, just two weeks before rehearsals were to begin. Under the circumstances she has done a very creditable job. The sense of a community being reborn may be missing, but, by emphasizing the emotions involved in the stories, Maxwell at least shows the men change from scepticism to a cceptance of the female newcomer in their midst. The audience leaves with the feeling of having seen a quiet masterpiece.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
"Whiteness equals racism equals capitalism" - that is the message as it is literally stated in White Mice by the Chalmers Award-winning playwright Darren O'Donnell. I missed the play when it appeared as part of the du Maurier World Stage Festival in April this year and was eager to see this remount presented by Mammalian Diving Reflex. As the quotation suggests, this play is really a one-sided lecture about racism, specifically racism in white people, disguised as a play. O'Donnell even provides a bibliography on racism in the program. What makes this lecture-as-play based on a sociopolitical conspiracy theory watchable is the sheer theatricality of its presentation.
Before the play begins, we have Naomi Campbell and Darren O'Donnell's beautiful set to contemplate. On its own, it one could imagine it as an installation in an avant-garde museum. On a square platform are a high square table and two tall chairs. On the table is a large wheel of cheese and a knife. Beyond the mouse hole entrance and the see-through wall is a void where 19 globes marked with Earth's continents and longitudes seem frozen in the midst of rising from the floor to the ceiling like bubbles in a glass. Spacey New Age music by murr [sic] contributes to the surreal atmosphere. It is therefore no surprise when the lights go down and then up to reveal two barefoot men facing us with long elegant tails protruding from the back of their trousers.
The plot, such as it is, concerns two brothers, Robert (Darren O'Donnell) and Douglas (Bruce Hunter), who live together in their mouse hole in Toronto. Each short scene has Robert arriving home in an increasingly agitated state, perturbed that racism may be inherent in those with white "fur," that capitalism furthers racism, that white culture consists entirely of appropriations from non-white cultures, that the northern hemisphere has effectively enslaved the southern, that Hitler saw the white man's genocide of the natives in North America as a model for his own genocide of Jews, and that the only cure to all these ills and the shame of being white is the extermination of the white race. Douglas is portrayed as a fool for hoping and believing that things are getting better. Robert sends him out to look at the world "without blinking" and he returns convinced of the horror he brother has expounded. In a real play of ideas there is at least some pretense of voicing opposing points of view. Think of the pacifist Shaw writing Undershaft's convincing defense of arms-making in Major Barbara. Well, that doesn't happen here. There is only one point of view and (given the bibliography) only one valid point of view. The only fact that would undercut Robert's statistics-filled lectures is that he finally admits that he has learned all this from a brown mouse with whom he is in love but who has dumped him. However, this itself is damning since it means that even Robert has appropriated his self-flagellating political views from the Other. All there is left is to talk about is nothing or popular culture which, as we all know, is a capitalist product to make us forget about nothingness.
What helps save this lecture-as-play is that O'Donnell shows us he is aware that this is a lecture-as-play as when Douglas remarks "Here we go again" when Robert launches into another tirade. O'Donnell also makes us aware that he knows his metaphor is transparent. Robert slips once in speaking of "white people" and quickly corrects himself to say "mice" whereupon the two brothers suddenly act more mouse-like than at any point in the show. O'Donnell has the actors become increasingly aware that an audience is watching them until finally Robert actually steps into the audience when the mass murder of white people is on his mind. The mice stutter in high voices turning key words such as "ca-ca-capitalism" and "privilivilege" into nonsense. They engage in slapstick fights and childish arguments of "Yes it is -- No it isn't" that make them seem more like clowns than mice. All their extreme gesturing and posing is emphasized by R. S. Armstrong's imaginative lighting. Most of all, O'Donnell and Hunter as actors are superb in their comic timing, rapid-fire delivery and quick changes of mood.
Excising all mention of racism, slavery and genocide known to occur now and in the past among non-white peoples does not excuse these ills in white people but it does lessen the impact of his argument. Surrounded as our two mice are by space and other earths, I naturally assumed O'Donnell would approach these problems in human beings in general, much as he takes on logic itself as a boundary to thought in the later play Boxhead. Unfortunately, O'Donnell privileges the white race as the sole purveyor of racism, thus denying in others humanity's infinite capacity for evil. O'Donnell must feel his ideas need to be mitigated in some way or else he would not have spent so much effort in doing so. Yet, as soon as one exits the theatre, the attractive, comic and self-aware theatrical coating O'Donnell has given his philosophic pill dissolves, leaving one with the deadening feeling of having sat through an 80-minute-long harangue.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
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Speaking of which, here's what the playwright had to say about Christopher's review...