The DVxT Theatre Company has mounted a superb production of Ibsen's classic proto-feminist play "A Doll's House". DVxT commissioned a new translation and adaptation of the play by John Murrell, who prefers the title "The Doll House". Murrell has updated the time of the action from 1879 when Ibsen wrote it to 1912, I assume because that is the year before the first major suffragette demonstrations in London. In that way he is reminding us of how Ibsen's prose plays seek to examine historical forces in the guise of domestic drama. While Murrell has brushed off the cobwebs in making the language very colloquial, his characters speak much more as if they were living today than in 1912. His adaptation could still use editing. Torvald Helmer really doesn't need to call his wife Nora "my little squirrel" or "my little songbird" quite so often to make us realize he sees her as more of a pet than an human being. Not every character should need to emphasize an important point by prefacing it with "Look at me". Despite such tics, Murrell does succeed in making Ibsen's language clear and forceful without sacrificing its subtext.
Director and set designer Vikki Anderson also succeeds in making this classic seem completely contemporary. The law of the time preventing a woman from borrowing money without her husband's or father's signature is only the specific circumstance that entraps Nora, much as the loss of strawberry handkerchief in "Othello" entraps Desdemona. Murrell's translation and Anderson's direction emphasize that Ibsen's point is the examination of the relationships between men and women in general. Nora comes to realize that Torvald's desire to protect his pet from the outside world, to have her as all his own, in reality masks his view of her as an inadequate human being, useful only as a pretty object. His protection, in fact, prevents her acquiring knowledge of the world or her self. Anderson is quite right when she says in her note that the struggle "to live with integrity is not time specific". This sense of the larger issues at stake clearly comes across in the intense performances she has drawn from her cast.
Fiona Byrne and Ben Carlson--both familiar faces from the Shaw Festival--give outstanding performances as Nora and Torvald. It helps from the start that they both look exactly as they are described. Both are frequently compared to 12-year-olds and both Byrne and Carlson have such youthful looks that they can easily make you see the girl inside the woman and the boy hiding behind a beard. Both roles require enormous range and resources. Over the three hours of the action Byrne traverses the arc of her character from girlish innocence to anguish and fear until she reaches the terrible maturity that requires her to leave home. She portrays the multiple currents of this character with such ease she seems born to play the part. Carlson has the difficult task of making Torvald's numerous patronizing and chauvinist phrases seem completely unintentional since they are merely part of the general assumptions in his society. He, too, does this with ease.
His rapid change from a man in full control to his complete breakdown in the last act is shockingly believable. Both Byrne and Carlson seem visibly to age before our eyes in the last scene of the play as the one seeks a new world and the other's falls apart.
The parallel couple of the subplot--Melee Hutton as Kristina, a former schoolfriend of Nora's, and Jordan Pettle as Krogstad, a former schoolfriend of Torvald's--are not as well matched. Hutton gives an excellent portrayal of a woman who has had to struggle all her life merely to survive and now finds that life empty. Unlike Nora, who keeps hoping for a miracle to save her from her Krogstad's toils, Hutton's Kristina is a woman who has given up hoping for the best long ago. Pettle has the right intensity for Krogstad, a man whose pain and desperation can find no outlet but in ruining Nora's and Torvald's life. But his diction and emphasis of key words do not have the same clarity as the others and undermine his effectiveness. Raymond O'Neill is excellent as the family friend and Nora's confidant, Dr. Rank, whose inherited disease makes him look at life more clearly knowing how soon he has to leave it and parallels Nora¹s growing awareness. Ellen-Ray Hennessy as Nora¹s family¹s maid shows that women can be smothering as well as men. Nine-year-old Asa Perlman gives a surprisingly assured performance as Nora¹s son Ivar.
Vikki Anderson has created a simple but effective set, with well-chosen furniture to suggest an early 20th-century Scandinavian drawing room. The most interesting feature is having a carpeted walkway around the apron of the stage so that people entering the Helmers' apartment must walk around three-quarters of the stage before entering up a step upstage left. This simultaneously suggests that the Helmers have their cozy/oppressive nest buried in the depths of the building and shows us from the start the only possible escape route. By having people pause on their way to or from the apartment, Anderson can play what is happening outside versus inside the Helmers' home. Shawn Kerwin has provided very effective costumes, making Nora stand out in her blue dress or tarantella outfit in contrast to the dark colours worn by all the others. She underlines Nora's decision to leave by having her change into a brown dress with a high-collared blouse, immediately making Nora look mature and serious. All is subtly lit by Bonnie Beecher, who provides just the right sickly after-the-party lighting for the final act. Even John Gzowski's music with its occasional dissonances helps suggest that all is not well.
The audience was one of the quietest and most attentive I have been part of recently. I can only conclude that they were all Ibsen specialists on a night out, or, more likely, people who had come to see a well-known play but were, as I was, immediately caught up in the intensity of the performances and not released until Nora's famous slam of the door.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
"The Jubilee" (sometimes known as "The Anniversary") is probably the least produced of the one-act comedies Anton Chekhov wrote before 1891. I and about nine other people were treated to a perfectly dreadful production of the piece by a group called the Atrium Players. The director, Tatiana Chouljenko, besides her work in Canada, also directs the Atrium Theatre Group in Moscow. If this is the Russian way of doing Chekhov's one-acters, I'm glad I've been spared it until now.
The main problem is that Chouljenko has taken a text, which if performed straight, would last thirty minutes or less and tricked it out to a full hour. It would have been better to give us two short plays than do this. She begins, unpromisingly enough, with the cast reading from note cards a capsule description of why Chekhov is a great author. The play is then filled out with Russian songs and numerous dances by various combinations of the five actors in a choreography one might find in a preschoolers' pageant. At other times the actors pointlessly dash about the stage while Strauss polkas blare from the speakers. Chouljenko has obviously cast the play as a vaudeville except that the puerile filler overwhelms what little there is of the play. Besides having the actors act in a highly exaggerated style, she has them laugh at virtually anything anyone says as if the constant laughter from the stage will somehow infect the audience. It doesn't. I never thought that the worst production I would so far see of Chekhov should be by a Russian director.
The story is simple enough. A bank manager, Mr. Shipuchin, tries to calm his nerves before the fifteenth anniversary celebration of his bank where he hopes to attract would-be investors. He sets an underling to the task of writing his speech for him. First they are interrupted by the return of his flirtatious wife, Tatiana, and her insistence on telling a completely inconsequential story of the train journey she has had and the party she has just attended with her sister. Her story is itself interrupted by the arrival of a strange woman, Mrs. Merchutkina, who insists on having the bank compensate her for her husband's illness, despite the fact that the bank has absolutely nothing to do with her husband's employer. At the end, Shipuchin imagines he is being congratulated at the celebration for having kept the bank solvent by his firm grip on things. On its own, the play could be seen as a forerunner of the Theatre of the Absurd, a glimpse of Chekhov showing us the ridiculous in everyday life. However, when padded, as here, to twice its length, it loses any shred of subtlety. Chouljenko's production keeps saying "Look, how funny this is!" until it becomes tedious. In fact, absurdist comedies are funniest when the actors play them as deadly serious.
There is always some light even the most misconceived productions. Scott Bell is quite good as the bank manager seeming very much like John Cleese playing Basil Fawlty. He also has a strong singing voice. His singing of an aria from "Eugene Onegin" is the high point of the evening. Isabella Zatti as his wife is also good, though the director's interpolations make it almost impossible to follow her story. Edward Zinoviev, once an actor in Moscow, plays the strange Mrs. Merchutkina en travesti. He gives her wilful obtuseness in pursuing her unjustified claim an authentic East European flavour. Frank Srebot as the bank underling seems unable to deliver lines distinctly and without shouting. Wayne Roberts, as the man whom Tatiana is constantly flirting, has almost no lines and bungled even those.
The work is played on a bare stage with two chairs, a table and a piano. Olga Judeikin's costumes for the men make them seem like circus clowns, but strangely those for the women seem to try for period authenticity. Peter Cianfarani's lighting made no sense to me. Lights dim for no reason and turn red for no reason. Strobes are used extensively, I assume, to make the pointless dashing about seem "funnier."
The poster and programmes for the show say "Make 'The Jubilee' part of your Christmas season!" My advice is . . . "Don't."
©2000 Christopher Hoile
After his epic two-part play "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," the second part of which was titled "Perestroika," it seems logical that Tony Kushner in his next play should deal with perestroika in its country of origin. In many ways the 90-minute play "Slavs!" seems like an epilogue to "Angels in America," especially since its subtitle could apply to both works--"Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness." The question in both is how to rebuild life within a system, which once based on ideals, has now collapsed. The "problems of virtue and happiness" in both works is how they are to be achieved or maintained when all the traditional signposts for judging them have disappeared. Both pit idealism versus pragmatism, intellect versus emotion, fantasy versus reality. Stylistically, too, both mix so many genres that Polonius' classification of "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" is not far off the mark. "Slavs!" confirms that Kushner is one of the few American dramatists to follow in the path of Brecht in tackling big political topics in a non-naturalistic style. He is also one of the few to match strong intellectual content with poetic language and highly theatrical imagery.
"Slavs!" is made up of a prologue, three acts and an epilogue all set between 1985 and 1992 in the crumbling Soviet Union. While the Tarragon calls the play a "satiric vaudeville," it actually traverses a series of styles in a regular way. The prologue is a scene of Monty Pythonesque satire with two babushkas sweeping snow and arguing in elaborate vocabulary over the more arcane niceties of Marxist doctrine. When Party officials pass by on their way to a meeting, the two revert to caricatures of ignorant peasants, only to resume their discussion when the officials are gone. Act 1 continues in the satirical mode as the officials gather to listen to a speech by the world's oldest living Bolshevik. The central opposition in the play between head and heart is made clear in contrasting the Bolshevik, who cannot live without a theory, and the next oldest Politburo member, who is willing to leap (literally) into the unknown future. The Bolshevik dies of a brain aneurysm and the other from a heart attack brought on by his leaping. Act 2 makes a transition from satire to comedy. It begins in an archive of the preserved brains of all past communist leaders, but focuses on the unrequited love of a boring apparatchik for the woman who works there. Only with great difficulty is she able to convince him she not only dislikes him but is a lesbian. Act 3 moves from comedy to tragedy. It is set in a doctor's examining room in Siberia. The doctor, the lesbian's lover, wants a visiting official from Moscow to do something about all the deaths of children from cancer caused by radiation leaks. The doctor's criticism is continued on a powerfully personal level when the Lithuanian mother of the mute child to be examined sees the official's lack of interest as another of a long series of abuses she, her family and her people have suffered under the Soviet regime. The Epilogue set in heaven questions whether it is actually possible to achieve a paradise on earth by means of ideology.
In the hands of a less sensitive director this play with such disparate moods could easily become a shambles. Fortunately, Tarragon Artistic Director Urjo Kareda matched this play with Dennis Garnhum, a young director whose clarity has put him much in demand. In 2001 he will direct shows at the Canadian Stage, Stratford and the Shaw, which must be a first. He handles the multiple genres and moods of the piece masterfully and moves us from satiric derision to a kind of enlightenment at the end--quite a feat in such a short space of time.
In this he is aided by a superb ensemble of actors whose roles require rapid switches between ages and genders throughout the play. Maria Vacratsis shows her versatility in three totally different roles--the theorizing babushka of the Prologue, the ancient Bolshevik speaker and Lithuanian mother overcome with sorrow and rage. In this last role she is very powerful. Kelli Fox, a familiar face from the Shaw Festival, clearly relishes the chance to play her two very ungenteel roles--a pompous male conservative Party member in Act 1 and the lesbian archivist of Acts 2 and 3. The long scene in Act 2 when she becomes increasing drunk and randy is a tour de force performance. Brenda Robins takes quite a stretch when she plays the aged forward-looking official who dies from leaping and the concerned lover of the lesbian archivist. It's quite an eye-opener how expertly these female actors bring off their male roles. The two male actors are not given roles quite as demanding. Both play babushkas and are quite funny, but both are simple caricatures. Ashley Wright plays the apparatchik who tries in vain to woo the lesbian archivist. He gives the character a Chekhovian awareness of his own ridiculousness. Randy Hughson plays the uncaring Moscow official visiting Siberia. The off-hand way he sets out his nationalist party's fascist, anti-Semitic agenda is quite chilling. I should also mention Adanya Dunn, who plays the child so well and, in a daring move by the playwright, expertly delivers a speech in the Epilogue that basically summarizes the meaning of the play.
John Jenkins, the set and costume designer, and Andrea Lundy, the lighting designer have clearly worked closely together in creating this piece. What we first see on the bare stage is a pile of snow in the shape of a hammer and sickle; but once it is swept away the shape is still there as a projection of light. Similarly, the creepy atmosphere of the brain archive is created not just by the collection of brains in bottles placed around the stage but also by their being lit from below. The play is staged in the round as if it were a kind of circus, a sense heightened by Gregg Coffin's music.
Anyone who was fascinated by "Angels in America" will want to see this production, a sort of condensed version of the same themes seen from the point of view of the ex-superpower. I wish we did not have to wait six years to have Kushner's plays staged in Toronto since a certain urgency in their appeal goes missing. Still, we are lucky when we do see them if they are given such a fine production as this.
©2000 Christopher Hoile
"Peter Pan: The Family Musical That Won't Grow Up!", now playing at the Elgin Theatre, is not to be confused with the 1954 Charlap, Styne, Leigh, Comden and Green musical that made Mary Martin famous. Rather, this is one of Ross Petty's annual English-style pantomimes that he has been producing in Toronto for 14 years and the first panto-style production of "Peter Pan" ever in Canada. It is also the most sophisticated panto Petty has so far brought us. Instead of some of the ramshackle scripts we've had in the past, this script, adapted by Petty himself, has a very clear throughline, and the comic interludes that often bring the narrative to a halt are more integrated into the story. Also, unlike earlier pantos which have used pre-existing music from various sources, this one has new songs and lyrics Petty has commissioned from the children's songwriting duo, Judy and David Gershon. This gives the show a more unified feel, but also tends to make it seem more like a musical with the sections for audience participation added later.
The Gershons' songs, written in styles from lullaby to blues, are not particularly memorable except perhaps for the title song. The song with the most energy to it is the rap song "Hook, Hook" that opens the second act and is one of the few successful uses of rap I've heard in a musical. The rest are all pleasant enough in a generic way, but nothing really soars like "I'm Flying" from the 1954 show. One song, "The Mermaid Blues", while a showpiece for the singer, is much more likely to appeal to adults than to children.
That show works so well is largely due to the exceptional cast Petty has assembled. Sheila McCarthy, after too long an absence from the stage, is the perfect Peter Pan. Besides the slim build and spiky red hair, she has just the right quirkiness, energy and good humour for this boy who won't grow up. Her infectious sense of fun lights up every scene she's in and she's great at rallying her troops of young audience members to her side. She also flies and lands beautifully. Will someone please revive the 1954 musical for her!
After his absence from last year's "Cinderella", Petty again takes up his traditional role as the villain. His first entrance on a moose got a resounding round of boos, as much for him as in comment on Toronto's sculptural folly of the summer. But Petty keeps the boos coming with his swaggering, hair-flinging portrayal, comic asides and haunted-house laugh all the while sending himself up. As one might expect, he was the favourite character of the 9-year-old critic who attended the show with me.
This is the third panto appearance of Ernie Coombs (aka TV's Mr. Dressup) and the one where he seemed the most comfortable on stage, especially given all he has to do as the Storyteller and Finnegan, the butler who comically goes undercover among the pirates. Among the other actors, Robert McCarrol is a stand-out as Smee. He has amazing energy and is very funny. My young critic's favourite scene in the show is when Hook lets Smee act as captain and Smee immediately adopts a boot camp commander's voice and orders Hook around. Jayne Lewis is excellent in her two roles as Mrs. Darling and Clarice, the mermaid. She uses a lovely operetta voice when she sings as the former, but can really growl when she sings the mermaid's fish-pun-laden blues. It is difficult to know what Sharmaine Ryan is doing with the role of Tinkerbell, because her words are so hard to understand, even when she is not speaking "fairy language".
The acting and singing of the principal children are excellent. It's just too bad that Martha MacIsaac (Wendy), Adrian Morningstar (Michael) and Mitchell Freed (John) are given so little to do since they are clearly so talented. In contrast, 9-year-old Stephen Joffe as Tootles, a boy newly captured by the pirates, has quite a lot to do and can certainly hold his own with any of the adult pirates.
As usual, the sets and costumes are of unknown provenance, but in this case are especially handsome. The pantos in Toronto are usually the only time we get the chance to see old-fashioned scenery composed of legs and drops, so perfect for a storybook atmosphere. Everyone will enjoy the scene when Peter and the darling children fly out of their window and over the roofs of London through the starry night sky. Steve Ross's lighting, involving much use of follow spots, is not especially subtle and is probably not meant to be. The fights staged by Joe Bostick are curiously not very exciting. Glen Kotyk has ably directed and choreographed the 2 1/2-hour show but could improve the pacing. The first half tends to drag a bit during the pretty but largely unnecessary street scene in Kensington that introduces the characters and tries to set up real-life parallels for the "fictional" characters later on. The right pace isn't really reached until we're among the pirates. After that, everything moves along well and the second act begins with a burst of energy in the rap ode to Captain Hook accompanied by some smooth moves from the pirates. For the adults, Kotyk has cleverly turned some scenes into parodies of other musicals, in particular "A Chorus Line" and "Les Misérables".
Most importantly, Ryan, my accompanying 9-year-old critic, was entranced by the whole spectacle and couldn't wait for the second act to begin. He might not have got all the topical jokes aimed at the adults, but he did get the many jokes aimed at children which I didn't. He clearly had fun booing, talking back at the stage and singing along. Already knowing the story, he said the show was better and a lot funnier than he had expected. And would he see it again? -- he certainly would. Need I say more? Christopher Hoile
©2000 Christopher Hoile