- | - Cinderella - | - A Delicate Balance - | - Earshot - | - Eugene Onegin - | - La Fanciulla del West - | - Jump - | - Larry's Party - | -
- | - Our Country's Good - | - Pains of Youth - | -
- | -The Playboy of the Western World - | - Stones in His Pockets - | - Venus und Adonis - | - Zadie's Shoes - | -

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Cinderella
presented by NETworks, Pantages Theatre, Toronto, January 30-February 4, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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In 1956, Rodgers and Hammerstein were enticed to write a musical for the new medium of television. On March 31, 1957, the 14th anniversary of the première of their groundbreaking musical Oklahoma!, Cinderella was broadcast on CBS starring Julie Andrews and was watched by an audience of an estimated 107 million. This success led to two further remakes for television--one in 1965 starring Leslie Ann Warren and one in 1997 with Brandy (Norwood). For those who love it, the show has always seemed too charming to remain confined to the small screen. The original Hammerstein script is licensed to stock and amateur companies several hundred times a year, and it was in this version that Southern Ontario most recently saw the piece in Max Reimer's delightful 1998 production for Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton and the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga.

The current touring production now in Toronto has been newly adapted for the stage by Tom Briggs from Robert L. Freedman's 1997 television script and re-orchestrated by Andrew Lippa. It is fully to Max Reimer's credit that this new production, for all its star power, slickness and glitz, comes nowhere near, as his did, to capturing the show's inherent wistfulness and charm.

Director Gabriel Barre has retained the colour-blind casting of 1997 version to a joyfully liberating effect, with a white Queen and black King, white and black Stepsisters and a Filipino Prince. It is unfortunate that the main liability of the show should be the Cinderella herself, former teen pop star Debbie (now Deborah) Gibson. Although she has recently appeared in a number of musicals, she does not have a remarkable voice. It is strongest in its lower register but (unlike, say, Julie Andrews) loses power in higher or more sustained notes. In this respect, her duets with Eartha Kitt and Paolo Montalban always show her to a disadvantage. Unlike the other members of the cast, she sings each song as if it were another pop song not a show tune, with the annoying pop singer's habit of sliding entrances to each phrase. What succeeds with the audience, more than her singing, is that she has a real stage presence and is a rather good actress. Hers is not the waif-like step-daughter-made-servant who has to console herself with daydreams. Rather Gibson gives us a spunky All-American girl, temporarily inconvenienced by her family situation, who, like an Horatio Alger hero, knows she can make it if she just wishes hard enough. This approach might be appropriate if this were a show-biz story set in New York--but it is not. To make us care about her, Cinderella's plight has to seem dire enough to require supernatural intervention.

Her Prince Charming (here Prince Christopher) is Paolo Montalban (not Ricardo's son), who played the same role in the 1997 televised version. He is a real find who has everything going for him. Besides his good looks, he's completely at home on stage, can act, can dance and sings with a strong, warm baritone that puts Jon Cypher on the original cast recording completely in the shade. He turns Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?, which can sound faintly ridiculous, into a expression of genuine wonderment.

As the Fairy Godmother, Eartha Kitt, just turned 74, steals every scene she's in. Her famous subterranean voice is perfect for this supernatural character, who, as the rewritten book suggests, is really the ghost of Cinderella's mother. In Impossible, her familiar vibrato lingers on the final syllable in quite a delicious way. Speaking, she delivers the verse introduction to the show as if it were Shakespeare. Given her legendary status, it's fitting that she is accorded an additional Rodgers song, There's Music in You, to close the show.

As for the other roles, the adaptor Briggs has shortened the already small role of the King (Ken Prymus) and Queen (Leslie Becker) and taken away most of their funniest lines. The role of the herald Lionel (Victor Trent Cook) has been expanded, but Lippa's orchestrations for The Prince is Giving a Ball are so loud that the jokes involving the ruling family's names go unheard despite Cook's strong singing voice. Director Gabriel Barre has the role of the Stepmother played by a man (Everett Quinton) and the Stepsisters played by women (Alexandra Kolb and NaTasha Yvette Williams). Quinton plays the Stepmother so much like a woman that the point of the cross-casting is lost. It is much funnier, as in the Theatre Aquarius production, to have the Stepsisters played by men, so that when they are said to be ugly, they really are.

I'm of two minds about the inclusion of puppets to represent four white mice, a cat and the Fairy Godmother's companion bird. If Cinderella truly is alone when she sings In My Own Little Corner, the sadness of her situation is stronger and her compensation through imagination more poignant. If, as here, she has a chorus of cute little creatures listening to her, the wistfulness of the song is lost. On the other hand, the puppets created by Integrity Designworks LLC are quite adorable and are manipulated superbly. They were a big hit with the youngsters in the audience, including my accompanying 9-year-old critic Ryan. A number scenes invented for them are among the funniest in the show.

James Youmans' sets and Pamela Scofield's costumes are a delight. The peasants of the kingdom seem to go for garish colour combinations in a big way. Scofield makes an neat visual point by having Stepmother and -sisters, despite the elaborate cut of their dresses, favour these same low-class colours while the court they vainly hope to join is clad in subtle greys and pastels. Director Barre manages the numerous scene changes and transformations scenes smoothly and effectively. With lighting designer Tim Hunter, he makes especially good use of shadows, showing the pumpkin grow to the size of a coach and, most wittily, depicting solely in silhouette the various women of the kingdom trying to fit the glass slipper.

I could not warm to Andrew Lippa's re-orchestrations. It's hard to improve on Robert Russell Bennett after all. While extending some songs into dance sequences makes sense, it is a major flaw not to have Cinderella's wedding march be a variation on In my Own Little Corner as Rodgers intended. That transformation shows that Cinders' fantasy has now been made triumphantly real--but Lippa omits it.

Even if it is a good deal less subtle than it should be, you really shouldn't miss the chance to see this lovely show on stage. Even if Deborah Gibson does not surpass her predecessors, Paolo Montalban goes far beyond them. And, of course, you don't want to miss Ms. Kitt.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Eugene Onegin
presented by Opera Ontario
Hamilton Place, Hamilton, January 27, February 1 & 3; Centre in the Square, Kitchener, February 9.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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Though it is the ninth largest city in Canada, Hamilton has the country's fourth largest opera company after Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Opera Hamilton (now Opera Ontario) began life in 1980 presenting solely Italian operas.Eventually, it performed its first French opera ("Carmen" in 1986), its first German opera ("Die Zauberflöte" in 1996), and in 1999 its first American opera ("Susannah"). Now in its 22nd season, the company is presenting its first Russian work, "Eugene Onegin", the most popular of Tchaikovsky's ten operas.

At the performance I attended, the opera, for a number of reasons, did not catch fire until the second of its three acts. First, it struck me that conductor Daniel Lipton consistently chose tempi a degree or two slower than ideal. This did not affect the pastoral first scene where the characters are introduced, but seemed to dampen the excitement of the following Letter Scene and of the third scene when Tatyana is rebuffed by the man she has fallen in love with, Onegin. At the same time the strings of the Hamilton Philharmonic seemed to have difficulty with the numerous runs Tchaikovsky uses to signal pangs of emotion. The chorus, too, though producing an authentically rich Russian sound and with excellent diction, seemed underpowered in its initial appearances.

The primary flaw, and one I feared would undermine the whole opera, was the performance of Lisa Houben as Tatyana. Hers is a rich, darkly coloured soprano. Her character is supposed to be a shy, unworldly girl whose ideas of love come entirely from romantic novels. Houben's reticence seemed quite natural in Scene 1 when we first meet her. In the subsequent Letter Scene, when Tatyana cannot sleep because of the turmoil of emotions she feels after having met the enigmatic Onegin, Houben's continued reticence was completely contrary to what the scene demands musically and dramatically. Houben offered a careful singing of the words and notes, but provided virtually no characterization in the one scene when Tatyana fully expresses herself. There was no hint of the "reckless passion" she says she feels nor of her doubts about Onegin's character. Usually, it is this tour de force for soprano that sets the opera ablaze, but in this case there was smoke but no fire. As a result, in the following scene, it seemed quite natural that Onegin should reject her as too young to know what love is and too low in status for a man like him. Without a sense of how completely Tatyana has laid her emotions bare in the letter, we can't really appreciate how crushing a blow Onegin deals her with his cool rejection.

Fortunately, from the second act onwards everyone seemed to have recovered their vigour, with one powerful scene following the next to the emotionally complex conclusion. Outstanding in the cast is Bulgarian tenor Bojidar Nikolov as Lensky, the man in love with Tatyana's sister Olga and the one who introduces Onegin to Tatyana. His deeply felt meditation in Act 2 before his duel with Onegin justly received the loudest and longest applause of the evening. Nikolov's performance combines a magnificent voice with finely detailed acting. American mezzo Melanie Sonnenberg is well cast as Lensky's beloved Olga. Her vocal strength and projection of character perfectly match those of Nikolov. Both, in fact, provided the main source of energy in Act 1 and continued to do so in Act 2. Welsh tenor Jason Howard gives an excellent performance in the difficult role of Onegin, one that requires his character to move from hauteur to despair while remaining till just near the end, as in Pushkin's verse-novel, a mostly unsympathetic character.

Elizabeth Turnbull and Jacqui Lynn Fidlar turn in fine performances in the character roles respectively of Mme Larin (Tatyana's and Olga's mother) and the dour servant Filiyevna. So do Giuliano Di Filippo as the foolish French tutor M. Triquet and Stefan Szkafarowski as Prince Gremin, who, though twice her age, becomes Tatyana's husband. He gives a moving performance of Gremin's oft-excerpted aria in Act 3 about the happiness his marriage has brought him. By Act 3, Lisa Houben's voice and acting had also improved. One can only conclude that she feels more comfortable with the role of Tatyana as the refined wife of Prince Gremin than as Tatyana, the impressionable teenager.

Wes McBride's set, built and owned by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, presents three tiers of floorboards from which burst the trunks of very realistic birch trees to either side, as if we are in a clearing in a forest. The trees remain in place during both indoor and outdoor scenes. Some may find this odd, but anyone with a knowledge of Russian literature will recognize this as an ingenious way to signal the sense of cultural inferiority that lurks behind even the grandest Russian façade. With such a simple set, it falls largely to Michael J. Whitfield's superb lighting to create mood. In Tatyana's Letter Scene, we gradually see, before it is sung, that Tatyana has stayed up all night and into the dawn. When she has sent the fateful letter to Onegin and suddenly questions what she has done, Whitfield makes us feel as if a cloud has suddenly passed over the morning sun. Whitfield uses the same effect in Act 2 for another fateful event--the tragic conclusion of the duel between Lensky and Onegin. After the ambiguous chill morning light, this suddenly darkening increases our sense of shock.

Nicolette Molnár's straightforward direction always makes the focus of each scene clear, even when multiple events and reactions are taking place. Only occasionally did I feel she positioned the chorus decoratively rather than naturalistically. Bengt Jörgen, aided by six members of his eponymous company, makes clever use of the confined area of the set's middle tier for the well-known dances in the last two acts. Energized perhaps by the swagger of these dances and the fine performances of Howard and Nikolov, Lipton's tempi quickened and with them the tense drama inherent in the music.

Setting aside the weaknesses of the first act, the audience on the night I attended gave the cast a boisterous standing ovation. That the audience should so enthusiastically embrace the introduction of repertoire new to the company I found very heartening. By slow degrees, Daniel Lipton, in his role as Artistic Director, has broadened the range of Opera Ontario and with it the perception of his audience of what constitutes opera. "La Traviata" with its string of hits is always assured success, but this performance convinced me that the emotional conflicts in "Eugene Onegin" are far more complex and communicated in a much subtler way. Although an artistic triumph, "Susannah" was not the popular success one had wished. Let's hope that the success this time of "Eugene Onegin" will encourage Lipton to continue to explore the wondrous diversity that opera encompasses.

© Christopher Hoile

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Canadian Opera Company presents the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of
La Fanciulla del West
Hummingbird Centre, Toronto, January 20 to February 4, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Although Puccini considered La Fanciulla de West (The Girl of the Golden West) his finest opera, in audience popularity it comes farther down the list than the composer's "big four." It is not the tearjerker that La Bohème and Madama Butterfly can be. For North Americans, the setting in the Wild West does not have the exoticism of Butterfly and Turandot. And even though the love triangle--law enforcer loves woman who loves outlaw--is the same as Tosca, the ending is not the tragedy one expects. In many ways the opera Fanciulla (1910) looks forward to is Turandot (1926). In both works the central conflict lies within the title character who must not only yield to her first experience of love but also proclaim that her example should end a cycle of retribution in favour of mercy and redemption.

While Turandot is set in a fairy-tale China, Fanciulla takes place in specific time and place now burdened with clichés from popular culture. Productions like the one conceived by Hal Prince in 1990 for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and now on display at the Hummingbird Centre, only emphasize the clichéd surface of the story through its ultra-realistic design. As the COC's recent productions of Butterfly and Turandot have shown, a more abstract approach to Puccini allows the mythic core of the opera to have a more direct impact. One is hard pressed to see past the clutter of Eugene Lee's sets and Vincent Liotta's detailed, almost fussy, direction to the heart of David Belasco's play that attracted Puccini in the first place. For Fanciulla to be effective, we must be able to see the inner turmoil of the central couple--the outlaw Dick Johnson, whose love for Minnie undermines the cynicism of his calling, and the "girl" Minnie, whose love for Dick shatters the tough exterior she has cultivated to get along in the man's world of the Old West. Unfortunately, none of this comes through in this production.

As Johnson, American tenor Michael Sylvester, displays his enormous, heroic voice when he chooses to unleash it, but too often one has the impression he is saving his voice between those glorious outbursts and thus undercharacterizes everything that intervenes. His rendition of "Ch'ella mi creda libero" in Act 3 is very powerful, but his acting abilities throughout the opera seem confined to following the director's blocking from A to B, and nothing more.

Bulgarian soprano Elena Filipova has most of Puccini's heroines in her repertoire--Mimi, Cio-Cio San, Manon and Tosca--but Minnie, at least as portrayed at the Hummingbird Centre, seems to suit her the least. The first three are characterized by their vulnerability and Tosca's self-confidence is sorely tested. But Minnie is completely different. She is a strong woman who lives alone by choice and has had to fend for herself in an almost entirely male environs. Her drama is how her first experience of love, and with a man she knows she should hate, permeates the hardened exterior she has created to survive. Despite a beautiful voice, Filipova simply doesn't have the vocal power or stage presence to communicate this. Throughout she seems for more like a refined countess exiled from a Viennese operetta than a tough gal of the West. Her eyes remain so glued to the conductor she hardly seems to interact with anyone on stage. Her focus is entirely on producing a pure tone and clear diction rather than on acting. It doesn't help that the director, Vincent Liotta, has saddled her with a large amount of fussy stage business, some of which makes no sense. Why, when she hears that lover Johnson has been shot outside her house, is her first reaction to make the bed and clear the dishes? Minnie's last-minute arrival by handcar to save Dick from hanging is too much like a parody of silent movies not to provoke laughter. Due to Sylvester's stolidity and Filipova's seeming distraction, we miss out on the emotional core of the opera entirely.

This central flaw is put into greater relief by the excellence of the acting, not to mention singing, of the entire rest of the cast. Canadian baritone John Fanning is not only in fine voice but gives a detailed characterization of Jack Rance, the sheriff whose bitterness that Minnie does not requite his love turns to disbelief and suppressed rage that his rival should also be the criminal he has been seeking.

Sandra Horst has yet again done a superb job in preparing the all-male chorus. Their unity throughout and the pianissimos they achieve in the introductory scene are something to relish. In the large array of individualized portraits of the men of the camp, Roger Honeywell, Joseph Kaiser, David Pomeroy, Stephen McClare, Andrew Tees, Leroy Villanueva and especially Alain Coulombe as one of Johnson's desperados, make more of their characters in a few minutes on stage than do Sylvester or Filipova in the entire evening. It is Fanning and the chorus who show us the excitement the piece should have.

Purely on a musical level, conductor Richard Buckley brings out exquisite detail and magnificent sound from the COC orchestra in this score so full of tonal variety and colour. The pacing and the balance of voices and instruments are perfectly judged. In this aspect, the performance is far superior to the last appearance of this piece here in 1983. But with the simpler design of Robert O'Hearn and the confident, big-hearted Minnie of Johanna Meier, the drama then was much more palpable. This Fanciulla is beautifully played and sung, but, fatal to Puccini, emotionally unengaging.

©2001 Christopher Hoile

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Stage Door Guest Review of
Jump
Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto, January 11-28, 2001
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Jump, a one-hour, wordless play by the much-acclaimed Daniel MacIvor, is the debut production of the Rat-A-Tat-Tat Theatre Company, who is giving the play its first production of since it first appeared at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace in 1992. The wordless play most Torontonians are familiar with is The Overcoat by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, which had such a successful run during the Canadian Stage season last year. But Jump antedates that supposedly "innovative" work by five years and, in my view, is far superior.

In a series of very short scenes, Jump presents a satire on the rituals of weddings from bridal shower and stag party to wedding banquet and dance. The rituals of weddings are a rather easy target for fun and have featured in drama since at least Petruchio wed Kate. What sets this satire apart is the sheer theatricality of its presentation. It is as if we were seeing a wedding presented by the Cirque du Soleil. The characters--the bride and groom, the twin sister bridesmaids, the mother of the bride, the wedding planner and the handyman--are all generic figures and the wedding rituals are shown in such contextual isolation that they appear inherently absurd. Where The Overcoat had the pretence of being a kind of live silent movie, the conceit in Jump is that all of the characters are aware that they are on stage in public view. MacIvor thus neatly uses the theatrical metaphor to reveal the wedding for what it actually is--a public show more valued for its form than what it represents.

This is an early work by MacIvor and it is not flawless. The various interludes involving the twin sisters of the bride add little to the play until very near the end, and the anger the bride and her mother feel toward the groom's flirting with one of the twins dissipates all too rapidly. What continually impresses, however, is the immaculate production itself.

Director Mark Lonergan has assembled an excellent cast. In this kind of comic nonverbal theatre, precision and timing is everything. In this the cast is flawless. Whereas in The Overcoat each scene seemed to end with a self-congratulatory "See, we all finished in time to the music," in Jump that ability is taken as a matter of course and the number of cues the cast must respond to--lights, video, moving props, and a wide range of musical styles--is much greater.

The most remarkable performance comes from Shaw Festival regular, Severn Thompson. Still as radiant as ever she successfully makes the incredible jump, so to speak, from the highly verbal works of Shaw to purely physical comedy. Her wonderfully expressive face conveys a wide range of all types of happiness, disappointment, resolve and aggravation. In a neat bit of casting, Thompson's real-life mother, Anne Anglin, plays the mother of the bride--apparently the first time both have ever appeared on stage together. Anglin expresses more comedy through expression, gesture and posture alone than most actresses can with words. As the groom, Scott McCord makes his character a delicious combination of narcissism, sleaze, dimwittedness and cowardice and is as limber as Ray Bolger's Scarecrow. Clinton Walker as the balletic wedding planner is the most like a Cirque du Soleil master of ceremonies-a very agile, dapper clown whose unctuous hospitality only thinly disguises a sense of malice. Much of the fun of watching Aviva Chernick and Sarah McDonald as the twin sisters is in seeing how, despite their visual similarity, their personalities diverge. This is probably meant to counter the ritual union of bride and groom, but it is a pity MacIvor did not give them more of interest to do. Brendan Wall is the handyman whose surly matter-of-factness comically undercuts any sense of glamour or sentiment in the proceedings.

Jump is the first play to take place on the stage Steve Lucas has redesigned for the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace. It is now has a very handsome proscenium arch with red velvet curtains--quite a surprise in a black box theatre. Lucas has also designed the sets and lighting for this production as he did in 1992. The stage is made to look like an elegant vaudeville house with a row of footlights enhancing the effect. His witty lighting includes the flashes in the hilarious wedding photo session to the mirror-ball effects for the dance. Wendy White's delightful costumes mischievously capture both elegance and vulgarity at the same time. All the characters, excluding the bride, are clad in various combinations of red, black and grey, thus blending in with the colour scheme of the set. This causes the bride, all in white, to stand out even more and to seem like a sacrificial victim to social convention. The actors' pancake make-up and the women's Kewpie-doll lip paint further the aura of old time melodrama. Tom Walsh is responsible for the clever and amazingly eclectic musical score whose constantly varying rhythms and styles give the cast far more to interpret than did the uniform use of Shostakovich in The Overcoat.

Reading the press kit only after seeing the show, as is my wont, I was pleased not to have perceived the political slant dealing with government cutbacks that Lonergan claims to have given the piece. The play works perfectly well as an inherent critique of wedding as theatre without the narrowing futuristic program Lonergan outlines for it. Nevertheless, he deserves kudos for bringing off with such panache a piece consisting entirely of stage directions.

At only an hour, Jump should be approached more as you would an appetizer rather than a main course. For a full evening, Jump might usefully have been paired with one of MacIvor's verbal one-acters to show the range of his abilities and those of the actors. But as everyone knows, a good appetizer can be scrumptious and can be the highlight of an evening. Anyone interested in a deliciously staged piece of pure theatre need not hesitate.

©2001 Christopher Hoile

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Our Country's Good
Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto, January 12-28, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

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Theatrefront's production of Our Country's Good, now playing at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, is a cause for celebration. Up-and-coming director Daryl Cloran has assembled a young cast bursting with talent the likes of which I have not seen since the heyday of Robin Phillips' Young Company at Stratford. With that talent applied to Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1988 Olivier Award-winning play, one of the few to deserve the appellation "modern classic," you have an evening of theatre that should not be missed.

Our Country's Good was first seen in Toronto in 1989 in the original production by Britain's Royal Court Theatre directed by Max Stafford-Clark. It was the highlight of the theatre season that year, but I was afraid I'd never get the chance to see Wertenbaker's wonderful play again. The play is based in part on Thomas Keneally's 1987 historical novel The Playmaker concerning the story behind the first-ever performance of a play in the penal colony of Australia when in 1789 a group of enlightened British officers allowed a cast of convicts to present George Farquhar's Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer. The goal of this social experiment, conceived of by Lt. Ralph Clark and sanctioned by the presiding governor of New South Wales but bitterly opposed by many, is to open the eyes of the convicts to a more refined way of life and self-expression through their acting of Farquhar's idealized characters and their elegant mode of speech.

This true story is fascinating in itself, but Wertenbaker expands the meaning of this incident to become a celebration of the transformational power of the theatre both for the actors and the audience. Theatre can overcome determinist views of character and class by displaying the multiple possibilities of character within each person and revealing social behaviour as itself a form of acting. The play avoids the sentimentality of this optimistic notion by simultaneously showing how ingrained the opposition to it is and how hard won the victory of Clark and his abused cast of convicts.

The very structure Wertenbaker gives play reinforces its theme about the transformation in that ten of the eleven actors play at least two very distinct roles. Wertenbaker does this to show that imagination is the primary weapon against type-casting. Thus, Xuan Fraser, who plays both an Australian aborigine and a ex-slave from Madagascar, also is cast as Arthur Phillip, the enlightened English governor of New South Wales. Similarly, three of the four women playing prisoners are also cast in one scene as male officers. Indeed, the Farquhar play they are rehearsing involves a woman who disguises herself as a man to be near the man she loves. When the subject is broached in the play whether the audience will find this doubling (in Farquhar) confusing, Clark answers that the audience will not as long as they pay attention and "People who cannot pay attention should not go to the theatre." Hear, hear!

Fortunately, the cast does a superb job of keeping their double (or triple) roles clear and distinct. While this is an ensemble work, there are a number of notably fine performances. Damien Atkins gives Captain Watkin Tench, who mocks the notion that criminals can be reformed, a haughty air and upper class accent in complete contrast to his other role as Ketch Freeman, the meek Irish hangman despised by all the prisoners. Shane Carty uses a complete change of voice and demeanour to distinguish the sober, enlightened judge David Collins from the comically flamboyant pickpocket and would-be actor, Robert Sideway. Andrew Pifko also uses change of accent and demeanor to separate his role as the brutal Scot, Major Robbie Ross, who regards the prisoners as little more than animals, from the prisoner John Arscott, who sees acting as a means, if only temporary to forget the squalor of the prisoners' conditions.

The roles for the rest of the cast are not so evenly divided. While Michel Protti has a scene as the prudish Reverend Johnson, his major part is a very affecting portrait of the Jewish convict, John Wisehammer, whose love of words seems to sustain him in this harsh environment. Similarly, while Danielle Wilson has an hilarious scene as a lubricious hag, her primary role is a deeply-felt portrayal of the prisoner Duckling Smith, in love with a midshipman but oppressed by his jealousy. While Aaron Franks has a role as a nearly inarticulate officer, his main part is as Duckling's lover, Harry Brewer, a former hangman haunted by the ghosts of his victims. His scenes with Duckling are very effective, but in the scenes of possession quiet intensity would have served better than vehemence.

Each of the remaining three women, though they also play male officers, have a single primary role. Araxi Arslanian, full of life and longing for her native Devon, is a delight throughout. Her role has a number of similarities with Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and it would be a treat if some creative director would so cast her. Molly Jane Atkinson plays Mary Brenham, who gradually overcomes her shyness in rehearsing the role of Farquhar's resourceful Silvia. While her accent may be a bit too upper crust for her part, her performance is otherwise very affecting. Patricia Fagan plays the crucial role of Liz Morden, a hardened woman hated by the officers and prisoners alike, but the sullenness Fagan conjures up is not really a sufficient substitute for suppressed rage and disgust one would expect.

The only actor assigned only one role is Craig Erikson, excellent as Lt. Ralph Clark, who formulates the idea of presenting a play, becomes its director and eventually must act in it as Silvia's beloved Captain Plume. Art proves a path to reality as his rehearsals with Mary Brenham help him to overcome his ludicrously sentimental worship of the girl he left in England for the physical reality of the woman before him.

In a play about the power of imagination to transform reality, Karla Faulconbridge has providing a simple but very clever set, sensitively lit by Wendy Greenwood. Its two tiers of planks and two angled masts can, with additions of canvas rigging, transform instantly from a ship to barracks to the outdoors to back curtain in the final scene.

Daryl Cloran has directed this complex, engaging play with great fluidity, clarity and assurance. His decision to have costume changes occur in full view of the audience and set changes in half-light rather than blackouts reinforces the play's structure as theatre about theatre. If there is a weakness in his direction, it is in not generating sufficient tension, particularly in a number of key scenes. In the original production, Captain Ross's humiliation of the actors was far more brutal and disturbing; Ralph Clark's acceptance of the reality of his love for Mary seemed harder won; and Liz Morden's abandonment of her code of silence had a far greater sense of release. Yet, Cloran's command of the whole and his insight into how the numerous short scenes are meant to play off each other is very impressive.

Such a fine production of such a wonderful play deserves the widest possible audience.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Larry's Party
Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, January 11-February 4, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

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Richard Ouzounian claims to have thought "musical" after reading Carol Shield's novel Larry's Party. I wish he hadn't. One can hardly think of a less likely source for an engaging musical unless one's goal is to prove to the world that Canadians actually are as boring as everyone imagines. Shields's 1997 novel deals with the life of an ordinary man, Larry Weller, who unreflectively glides through life allowing things to happen to him more than actually taking any significant action. His sole interest is in making garden mazes, after having losing himself in the famous Hampton Court maze during his honeymoon. He becomes internationally renowned for his work, though neither Shields nor her character show any unusual insight on the subject. Shields deliberately backgrounds Larry's unengrossing life of two marriages, two divorces, one child, a successful career by organizing the fifteen chapters of the book around topics like Larry's Love, Larry's Folks, Larry's Work, Larry's Threads. The primary interest in the novel is not the plot at all but rather the wealth of wryly observed detail that Shields marshals under each heading. She intentionally wants the reader not to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. To extract the plot from the book and leave the detail behind shows a complete misunderstanding of Shields's experiment.

Ouzounian takes the view that Larry is "an ordinary man living an extraordinary life." Unfortunately, his book for the musical never convinces us that there is anything in Larry's life remotely interesting. Ouzounian's song lyrics do not improve matters. Despite his professed love of musicals, he seems to have learned nothing of the craft of Ira Gershwin, Noel Coward or Cole Porter. The sentiments are numbingly vapid, the words wallow in cliché and the rhymes are strictly of the "June-moon" variety. The evening is rather like listening to a whole shelfful of Hallmark cards set to music.

Ouzounian has made the task of composer Marek Norman even more difficult by writing in verse of almost exclusively three beats per line. It's no wonder that, despite slight variations of tempo, the songs are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Not that Norman has much of a track record for inventiveness. His music for Dracula in 1998 was imitation Andrew Lloyd Webber; and his music here, while probably aiming for imitation Sondheim, winds up as anonymous easy listening. One might have thought that for a story covering a period from the 1950s to 2000, a composer would tap into the clearly varied styles of pop music to signal the passing of the years. But no, except for a boppy second number for Larry and a tasteless pseudo-musical hall number about salmonella poisoning, the music is all in the same innocuous style one associates with commercials for the government. The one successful song, Little Lost Lives, sung by Barbara Barsky (Mrs. Marek Norman), does approach some of the understated melancholy of Sondheim.

Given the uninteresting story and the relentlessly unclever music and lyrics, it's a wonder that the Canadian Stage found such a high-level production team and cast for a piece that should have been nipped in the bud. Robin Phillips' production is exquisite, becoming fey only when he has actors holding branches pretend to be a hedge maze being destroyed. Phillips also designed the set (executed by Hisham Ali) as a kind of pergola whose gauzy walls can unfold in different configurations. Visually it is a more potent symbol of the maze-as-house-as-life than anything in the novel or Ouzounian's book and lyrics. (Ouzounian's characters speak more often of life as pieces of a puzzle than as a maze, thus muddling the work's imagery.) Janice Lindsay's costumes more neatly typify and differentiate the characters than anything they say or do. For a story told in flashback, Louise Guinand's lighting casts a lovely glow of memory over the action.

Phillips has drawn as finely detailed performances from his cast as one can expect given that they have only trivialities to express. Brent Carver, with his look of a little lost boy, is perfect as the uncomprehending Larry and the way he colours and controls his voice is as immaculate as ever. Strangely enough, he frequently resorts to gestures and intonations in dialogue that he had previously used as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof last summer and which clearly don't suit Larry the middle-class WASP. Larry's first wife Dorrie, well played and sung by Susan Gilmour, is the character who undergoes the greatest change in the novel and the musical. She moves from being narrow and unlikable to self-confident and aware of her past shortcomings. It's too bad her big song about her newfound confidence sounds like an old Virginia Slims commercial.

The remaining actors all play three or four roles. Phillips' clear direction assures that this never becomes confusing. However, one can't help thinking that there are so many characters because Ouzounian has tried to include too many incidents from the novel whether they further the action or not. Among the women, Michelle Fisk, delightful in her prime role as Larry's no-nonsense sister, Midge, is alone in injecting much-needed humour into the proceedings. Julain Molnar as Beth, Larry's second wife, makes a good contrast with Dorrie--the intellectual versus the materialist--but giving her one song about eating crudités is hardly enough to establish her character. Barbara Barsky, in her main role as the wistful Charlotte, Larry's girlfriend after Beth, makes a much stronger impression. It is a treat to see Jane Johanson on the stage again as Larry's haunted mother, Dot, and three other women all made quite distinct through gesture and accent.

Among the men, Gary Krawford shows a versatility equal to Johanson's in portraying Larry's father, Stu, a British bus tour leader and two of Larry's self-important patrons. As Larry's best friend, Hersh, Jack Wetherall is given little more than a sitcom figure to work with; but as Larry's Nashville patron, Questly, he has something meatier--a strong man trying to deal with grief. Young Mike Nadajewski's main role is Ryan, Larry's son with Dorrie, who grows up with little knowledge of his father. Nadajewski shows he has a fine voice and is a versatile actor, but neither this nor his other three roles rise above cliché.

This is CanStage's second attempt this season to create a marketable musical by linking a well-known subject with a well-known adaptor and director. But Outrageous, despite a star performance, was all plot and no character while Larry's Party is no plot and no character . Outrageous had a drive and energy that suggested it could be saved if Brad Fraser would radically rework the book. With Larry's Party, one feels that the efforts of an extraordinary director and cast have been wasted on a work of irredeemable insipidity.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Pains of Youth
Theatre Voce, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Toronto, January 19-February 3, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

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Overt lesbianism, drug abuse, mercy killing, descent into prostitution, psychosexual mind games--all these are themes one might possibly expect in a current neo-noir movie. But they are all found in Pains of Youth, a play from 1926 by the German playwright Ferdinand Bruckner, only now receiving its Canadian première by Theatre Voce. This production shows that the praise for Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee for bringing such subject matter to the stage is really the result of a kind of cultural amnesia. Bruckner's play is only one of many written in Germany between the wars with a daring in content and structure that still amazes. Plays by Frank Wedekind, like Spring Awakening (1891) and the two Lulu plays (1895), may have paved the way for Bruckner, but he takes Wedekind's examinations of sex and depravity out of their semi-mythological context and reveals them, disturbingly, among the youth of his own time.

The German title for Pains of Youth is Krankheit der Jugend, i.e. "Sickness of Youth" which is a more accurate clue to the multilevel themes of play. Not only does the action taken place among a group of medical students but the play is a dissection of the directionless society between the wars that has produced a generation oppressed by confusion and purposelessness. The first discussion in the play as two friend cram for a medical exam is about phthisis (tuberculosis), symbolic of youth's sickness as an incurable disease characterized by a wasting away of the body from within. While the students are supposedly learning to heal others, they seek distraction from their anomie by lacerating each other. The parallels to today's youth are very clear and since Daphne Moore's (not entirely fluent) translation was produced in London in 1987, there have been a spate of student and professional productions in the U.K. and U.S. Thanks to Theatre Voce, we in Canada finally have a chance to see why.

Director Ed Roy's neo-Expressionist production is brilliant. The boarding house where the action takes place is shown first from the outside covered with projections of various anatomical drawings. Consistent with this and the theme of the play, the house, like a body, is opened up to reveal Marie's room where the heart of the action is located. David Wootton has designed a slanted asymmetric bed as the focus for the room where the furniture otherwise consists entirely of piles of oversized books. Wootton thus neatly captures the conflict between intellect and desire that fills the play. Wootton surrounds Marie's room with two translucent wings, which in tandem with Michael's Kruse's imaginative lighting, become opaque when lit from the front, but when lit from behind show the play of sharp, distorted shadows of those in adjacent rooms capturing the eerie look of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the powerful scene when Marie's life is shattered, she smashes a (paper) mirror on the wall, but the lit cracks spread beyond the bounds of the frame to cover the whole room. Angela Thomas's costumes neatly bring out the nature of each character within the confines of a 1920s style--from the prudery of Irene to the seductiveness of Desiree. Shane MacKinnon and Kevin Quain play Quain's catchy Weillian music which you'll find hard to get out of your head. Roy has the two begin the action by making their way around the set before we ever see the characters, rather as if they were leading its doomed inhabitants on a dance of death.

To act in or view a play like this requires an adjustment to a style few North Americans have experienced. Bruckner, like the earlier Expressionists, writes staccato-like dialogue with few words per line. This was an attempt to make dialogue more natural and, by denying characters lengthy self-explanation, to show people as unable to verbalize their chaotic feelings. Not surprisingly, characters frequently contradict themselves even from one line to the next. If the amount of dialogue were considerably reduced and interspersed with pauses, the effect would be not unlike Pinter. To make sense of this style the actors must have a very clear notion of what the interior conflicts of a character are that can bring forth such contradictions and yet seem a consistent as a character.

The young actors succeed in this difficult task to varying degrees. Joel Hechter plays Petrell, once in love with Marie, who put him through medical school, but now, seemingly without guilt, he has transferred his affections to the virginal Irene. Hechter makes us believe that Petrell is at once intelligent but also completely unconscious of his opportunism or the hurt he causes. David Jansen brings a Chekhovian quality to the character of Alt, the doctor who can no longer practice, having served time for speeding the death of a suffering patient. His ineffectuality causes the women to mock him as an "old woman," but his position outside the personal intrigues of the plot gives him alone a sane perspective on the events. But hat is, of course, Bruckner's point--a sane perspective on chaos can only be ineffectual. The most crucial male role is that of Freder, who cynically plays mind games with the four women of the play, seemingly for his own amusement. Christopher Morris makes this a chillingly believable character who entices women with flattery and promises of love for the purpose of finding how far he can degrade them. He claims he is merely bringing about the fate these women were destined for, but his enjoyment of the women's confusion reveals him as an emotional sadist.

Compared to the men's roles, the women's are extraordinarily complex. Emblematic of the sickness of youth is Desiree. A member of the now redundant aristocracy, she is filled with a self-loathing thinly veiled by a pose of hauteur and is neurotically obsessed with the lost innocence of childhood. She states that everyone should shoot himself at seventeen to avoid the disappointments to come. Once in love with Freder, she seduces her friend Marie in a series of scenes that in Britain would have been outlawed from the stage until 1967. Fiona Highet is superb in the role. She makes the subtext of Desiree's contradictory actions clear in every scene by revealing her as someone who seeks vain distractions in life to cover her longing for death. As the boarding-house maid Lucy, Erin MacKinnon, fresh from the George Brown Theatre School, puts in an excellent, finely detailed performance. She makes all too believable how this country girl falls under Freder's malign influence as he gradually leads her to view her self-worth only so far as she pleases him by discarding her moral scruples.

Unhappily, the remaining two actors do not create a sufficiently strong subtext for their characters to make to make the contradictory manifestations we see credible. The other characters give a clear description of Irene as still a virgin and proud of the superiority she thinks that gives her but unscrupulous enough to enjoy taking Petrell from Marie. Linda Prystawska's perfunctory line delivery, however, never matches that description or suggests a consciousness of Irene's duplicity. Anne Page, co-artistic producer of Theatre Voce, has the pivotal role in the play as Marie, whose tidy view of the world is shattered when Petrell, the man she thinks she'll marry, defects to Irene. Surrounded by Freder's cynicism and Desiree's seductiveness, Marie, an embodiment of her lost generation, gradually becomes unhinged and open to anyone with a stronger will--a chillingly prescient metaphor of things to come in Germany. However, while Page is able to communicate the complex emotional through-line of her character, her line readings to be effective require a far greater range of nuance than the uniform vehemence she gives them.

Despite these imperfections, Ed Roy's imaginative production makes a very strong case not only for this play but for reviving a host of other remarkable plays of the period that have languished too long in obscurity. We should be grateful that a company like Theatre Voce is willing to take such risks to enrich the theatre scene in this city.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Venus und Adonis
Canadian Opera Company, Hummingbird Centre, Toronto, January 19, 23, 25, 28, 31 and February 3, 2001. Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

The Canadian Opera Company's production of Hans Werner Henze's Venus und Adonis is the most exciting production they have presented since their acclaimed double-bill of Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung. Experiencing so powerful a work so perfectly performed gave me a rush of adrenaline unlike anything I've felt at an opera performance for some time. Any national opera company should be expected to further the development of opera by its own composers, and the COC has a programme for that very purpose. But to make the latest work by a living, foreign composer part of a company's regular season takes a courage of conviction few general managers of opera companies on this continent possess. We are extraordinarily fortunate in Toronto to have such a man of conviction in the person of Richard Bradshaw.

Bradshaw conducted the North American première of Venus und Adonis at the Santa Fé Opera last summer and has brought the work to Toronto, convinced that it is a masterpiece. Such is the integrity of the piece and of the COC's performance that he convinced me, and, from the chorus of bravos Wednesday night, many others besides of the validity of his judgement. I left the theatre exhilarated from having seen a great performance of a great new work.

There are, of course, people who, although they may read new novels and see new films, somehow fear new music. I know of people who can't come to terms with any music written after Mozart. But for anyone who is able to deal with the Richard Strauss of Salome or Elektra, Henze's music should provoke no terror. Henze's music for this opera is rather like topiary hedges of holly--simultaneously lush and harsh, yet confined within clearly defined forms. The work is divided into 17 sections. The first 16 sections fall into only three categories--madrigal, recitative, and bolero and dance-song--with the 17th as a lament and epilogue. There are only three characters in the opera, all playing opera singers rehearsing roles for an opera based on the story of Venus and Adonis--the Hero-Player as Mars, the Prima Donna as Venus and Clemente as Adonis. The most unusual and innovative aspect of the work is that the inner thoughts of these three characters are acted out by similarly clad dancers Thus, while the Hero-Player is reading his newspaper and the Prima Donna is rehearsing her part, their dance-doubles circle each other around the room revealing to us the raging thoughts the two singers are hiding under a guise of nonchalance. Eventually, even the dance-doubles bring out more elemental, libidinous aspects of themselves--a mare as Venus, a stallion as Adonis and a boar as Mars. The orchestra itself into three groups, each assigned to accompany the actions of one of the three characters and his/her dance-double.

The work achieves an extraordinary richness in how these various sets of threes play off each other. Far more interest and complexity is compressed into the mere 75 minutes of this opera than in most others three times as long. One viewing is not enough fully to compare and contrast the façades the singers present to each other versus the violent danced interactions of their thoughts. As the work progresses an enormous tension builds up between the violent emotions sung and danced and the strict formality of the work's design. Only when the inevitable catastrophe occurs, as dictated by the myth, is the tension released in a lament for Adonis and a contemplation of this world from the perspective of the next. It is an amazing moment that caps a work full of amazing moments.

In the production of this work that seeks to unite the worlds of dance and opera there is not one weak link. The three principals--Timothy Noble (Mars), Susan Marie Pierson (Venus), Alan Woodrow (Adonis)--not only have huge, rich Wagnerian voices, but are also fine actors. Functioning as a kind of Greek chorus, the six madrigalists--Shannon Mercer, Krisztina Szabó, Allyson McHardy, David Pomeroy, Andrew Tees and Alain Coulombe--display an exquisite blending of voices and balancing of vocal lines in the Gesualdo-like music Henze has given them. The dancers, all members of the Canadian troupe Dancemakers, combine breath-taking athleticism with incredible precision and detail of movement. The work of Robert Glumbek (Mars), Carolyn Woods (Venus) and Jay Gower Taylor (Adonis) is astounding. The choreography of Serge Bennathan, Artistic Director of Dancemakers since 1990, combines a quirkiness, violence and passion perfectly suited to the music. It is the most imaginative choreography I've seen outside of Matthew Bourne.

John Conklin's set, representing a rehearsal hall with three walls and a ceiling with a skylight, seems innocently realistic until we recognize that this box will soon become an arena of death and gateway to the afterlife. The juncture of the floor with the footlights on the stage is a kind of no-man's land of crumbled floorboards as if the room we see has been torn from the rest of the building. Here, too, is where the only suggestion of nature lies, so often referred to in the madrigals. David Finn's lighting is non-naturalistic, changing suddenly to reflect the shifts in mood from one section to the next. David C. Woolard's costumes are an improvement on those in the Santa Fé production since, through colour co-ordination, he more clearly links each opera singer with his or her dance-double.

Elkhanah Pulitzer's precise direction succeeds in the daunting task of co-ordinating the singers with the dancers so that the relation between them is clear. Richard Bradshaw brings out the strange beauty beneath the score's surface dissonance and makes us relish its unusual harmonies as if we were experiencing an alternate reality. Henze's opera is preceded by excerpts from John Blow's 1681 masque Venus and Adonis. This not only introduces us to the story but also points to the masque as an antecedent structure for opera in its linking of song, madrigal and dance.

Seeing the COC bring off the latest work by a contemporary master in a production equal to anything the great opera houses of Europe can offer is a liberating experience. Richard Bradshaw trusts the company to meet new challenges and trusts the audience to do so, too. I left the theatre thinking that if they can do this work with such dedication and conviction, they can do anything. I hope the success of Venus und Adonis will encourage Bradshaw to bring Toronto further 20th-century masterpieces that the conservative opera establishments of New York, Chicago and San Francisco are so loath to embrace. I have my own wish list of Adams, Birtwistle, Ligeti, more Henze, Martinu, Messaien, Prokofiev, Ruders, Sallinen, Schoeck, more Richard Strauss, Tippett, Walton and Zimmermann. But Bradshaw has established such a trust in his judgement with this daring work, I am sure we will be willing to accept whatever adventure he next chooses to present us. A production of the integrity of Venus und Adonis opens the eyes, ears and mind. I, for one, am ready for more.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Zadie's Shoes
Factory Theatre, Toronto, January 3-February 11, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

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Zadie's Shoes by Adam Pettle is one of the finest English-language Canadian plays I've seen for several years. Although this is Pettle's first full-length play, it shows a greater elegance of structure and means than many many recent, highly praised works by more experienced authors. Unlike the Governor General-award winning Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley, this play does not contain walking symbols spouting clichés as if they were profundities. Unlike David Young's Glenn, this play is not an intricate formal exercise providing no insight into its subject. Unlike George F. Walker's Heaven, this play is not a would-be shocking adolescent satire on religion requiring a lecture at the end in case we didn't get the point.

No, Zadie's Shoes far outshines these plays because it has a set of true-to-life characters so fascinating I wished the play had been longer just to find out more about them. Their language is not artificial, pretentious or arch but rather completely natural, each character having his or her own well-defined mode of expression. The themes that link the characters' lives do not feel stamped onto the work from above, as in all three of my counter-examples, but rather arise of their own accord from the characters' interactions. As a result, you will find more thematic connections among the characters the more you think about the play, rather than suffering the intellectual Chinese food syndrome that would-be trendy plays induce. The play succeeds so well, in fact, because it follows no particular trend at all and instead allows the story to shape the play.

The story concerns a Jewish waiter, Benjamin, a compulsive gambler like his father and grandfather ("zadie") before him. His girlfriend Ruth has given up the conventional treatments she has undergone for her cancer and instead has saved enough money for both of them to fly to Mexico, where she will undergo an alternative therapy. Benjamin has kept the extent of his habit secret from Ruth, especially since he has now lost more money than he can repay. His troubles have drawn him to enter a synagogue where he meets a elderly man, Eli, who claims to be a prophet but who also likes to bet on horses. Armed with a tip from Eli, Benjamin bets all the money Ruth has set aside on a horse and enlists the help of a racing acquaintance, Bear, who is trying to dry out from addictions to alcohol, heroin and gambling, among others, to cover up for him. Meanwhile, Ruth tries to tell her two sisters, Lily and Beth, about her plan to go to Mexico, but their incessant bickering makes it impossible. Though never explicitly stated (the play, unlike so many, assumes an intelligent audience) we come to see that both Benjamin and Ruth are betting all they have--he his money, she her life--on a kind of salvation. The only explicit parallel is between Benjamin and the curler Beth, the action intercutting between his crucial horse-race and her crucial national match. The play evolves implicitly into an intriguing meditation on the importance of belief--whether religious faith or belief in luck.

It pains me to say so, but of the seven actors, the least effective is Jordan Pettle (Adam's older brother) as Benjamin. While he looks right and his facial and gestural language is perfect, his weakness, as in previous shows, is his line delivery. Unlike the other six, he rushes through all his lines with little care for clear diction, variety of rhythm or breath control. It is a testament to Adam's tight structure, that we become involved in the story despite how Jordan plays the central character.

The rest of the cast is excellent. As Ruth, Kelli Fox turns in her fourth splendid performance in just eleven months, setting herself new challenges in moving from prudish daughter in Easy Virtue to the imperious Step-daughter in Pirandello's Six Characters to the amorous lesbian security guard in Slavs! to the cancer-ridden Ruth, whose suffering she makes uncomfortably real. Torri Higginson plays her older sister Beth, an already uptight woman who has become so focussed on her upcoming tournament she has lost concern for anyone else, including her husband Sean. Juno Mills-Cockell makes the younger sister Lily into a more interesting figure than the drugged-out New Age flake she first appears to be.

Paul Soles, best known for his 16 years as the host of television's Take 30, proves to be a fine stage actor. His role as Eli, in the wrong hands, could have been made a caricature or ruined by shtick, but Soles avoids this to make him a fascinating character--enigmatic, yet warmly human. In telling the delightful stories Pettle has given him, he becomes a kind of chorus to the action. Soles also plays the deeply flawed father who haunts Benjamin's dreams. Benjamin's acquaintance (and Lily's boyfriend), Bear, was created by Randy Hughson, but taken over by James Kidnie when the play's run was extended. Kidnie makes Bear the most vivid character in the show along with Soles' Eli. He has the jittery speech and demeanour of someone whose has fried his brain far too many times and now must muster what little will-power he has to avoid a relapse. Each of his exit lines provoked enthusiastic applause. The single flaw in the play is that the character Sean, Beth's neglected husband, is underwritten. Paul Essiembre, in a major shift from more forceful roles, does what he can with Sean, but there is not really enough to work with.

Much of the play's vitality and truth-to-life stems from Jackie Maxwell's clear, detailed direction. Sue LePage's set has a large section of risers occupying the central playing area of the Factory Theatre stage, thus forcing most of the action to take place in smaller areas to the extreme right or left. There must be a more elegant solution than this. Her costumes, however, especially for Lily, Bear and Eli, suit the characters perfectly. The starkness of the set is softened and the story's mood enhanced by Robert Thomson's wide range of lighting effects. Marc Desormeaux's sound design makes the intercut horse race and curling match particularly vivid.

I left the theatre elated that finally here was a play that deserved praise not for being another goodish Canadian work, but for being an excellent play tout court. I am eagerly awaiting Adam Pettle's next.

©2001 Christopher Hoile

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Earshot
Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto, February 13-March 18, 2001.
A Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

If anyone is wondering why Randy Hughson had to leave Adam Pettle's Zadie's Shoes when it was extended, they need look no further than the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space. There Hughson is the sole player in Morris Panych's latest play Earshot. Hughson plays Doyle--unkempt, unemployed, single and thirtyish--who is disturbed mentally and physically by his hyperacute sense of hearing. (Panych has Doyle say it is "infrasonic", but that is incorrect since Doyle hears sounds both above and below the normal pitch humans can hear.) Doyle cannot just hear a pin drop, but a pin dropping through the air before it hits. The 80 minutes of the play is made up of a series of short scenes separated by blackouts constituting one nonstop complaint by Doyle about the sounds he hears around him, particularly of his neighbours above and below and to the left of his apartment. The sounds of his neighbour to the right, Valerie, he cherishes since he is in love with her.

The plot, such as it is, involves Doyle's composing and sending of a letter to Valerie declaring his love and pointing out that by the time she has finished reading the letter he will have shot himself out of love for her. Unfortunately, Doyle's complaint and this plot are not enough to sustain even 80 minutes. What is humorous and unusual about Doyle's circumstances in the first 20 minutes soon becomes merely tedious and repetitious for the next hour. It is difficult to believe that someone who has had such bizarrely acute hearing since childhood should still be jolted by every sound and should still be ranting about his condition as if it were new. I suppose, in targeting his various neighbours for infringing on his hypersensitive ears, the play is meant as a kind of theme and variations. But the theme is extremely limited and the variations are not all that varied. Doyle ultimately wishes all his neighbours dead, save Valerie, so they won't disturb him anymore. The minute cataloguing of all their various auditory transgressions might be relished on the page, but on the stage is devoid of dramatic interest.

Doyle's prime target is Mrs. Noon, the elderly woman living to his left, whose husband has died two weeks ago and who still wanders the apartment calling his name. Doyle savage critique of her age, her infirmity and the pointlessness of her continuing to live will strike fans of Panych with a sense of déjà vu (or is it déjà entendu?). Doyle's long, complex, multi-adjectival sentences and tone of bleak irony are in no way different from those of Kemp in Panych's play "Vigil" of 1995. Doyle is really just Kemp with a new ailment. His longing for the unattainable Valerie is a substitute for Kemp's longing for parental attention. Even the ending of the two plays is strangely similar. Doyle's efforts, like Kemp's, bring about exactly the opposite result he intended--a result, indeed, that he did not know he actually wanted. Beckett, of course, could take a figure from a two-person play and make her the sole character in a one-person play (e.g., Winnie in "Happy Days" becomes Mouth in "Not I"), but Panych is not Beckett and the isolation of the character does not bring with it an increase in intensity or implication.

Randy Hughson makes an heroic effort to make this unrewarding material engaging. Indeed, his acting, combining frenetic gestures with deadpan delivery, is the main source of interest in the evening. Ken MacDonald's neo-Expressionist set, under John Thompson's lighting, is also a joy in itself. He presents us with Doyle's skuzzy apartment finely detailed and beautifully broken down, but with its lines so askew and its perspective so forced that its depth is an optical illusion. As with Hughson's acting, MacDonald's visual interpretation of the play is more intriguing than the play itself. As one might expect a work so obsessed with noise, the sound design is of utmost importance. Here Derek Bruce succeeds handsomely with speakers placed both under and above the set and to either side to mimic the locations of Doyle's neighbours and the sonic disturbances they make. The sounds are so precise that once Doyle introduces them we really don't require further elaboration.

Panych, directing his own play, makes some odd choices. Ultimately, we have to wonder why Doyle is speaking at all and whom he is addressing. Panych makes clear that Doyle's own chewing disturbs him, so why doesn't his incessant talking? If we are supposed to be overhearing Doyle's thoughts, why does it seem that Doyle is expounding them to an audience and one he frequently addresses directly? This rapport with the audience causes our sense of Doyle's isolation to evaporate. By contrast, there was a far greater sense of isolation and heightening of tension in "Vigil" between the abusive Kemp and the kindly, non-responsive woman in bed.

Despite MacDonald's wonderfully skewed set, I can't help but think that this play about sound would be more effective on the radio. Then Doyle's monologues would seem less like addresses to the audience and more like thoughts overheard. Then, too, an ambiguity could be developed as to whether the sounds Doyle hears are actually outside his head. Then, a more complex soundscape could be created to render the noises of the outside world simultaneously (as Doyle must hear them) rather than sequentially as clarity in the theatre necessitates. As it is, there is less in Panych's latest play than meets the ear.

©2001 Christopher Hoile

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The Playboy of the Western World
Touchmark Theatre, River Run Centre, Guelph, February 16-25, 2001.
A Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Southern Ontario is very lucky to have seen three fine productions of John Millington Synge's 1907 masterpiece "The Playboy of the Western World" in just the past 12 years. In 1990 a touring production by the Abbey Theatre of Dublin stopped for performances at the Elgin Theatre. In 1996 the Shaw Festival mounted a production so popular it was brought back in the following year. And now we have a production by the Touchmark Theatre in Guelph in only its second season. Anyone who has seen previous Touchmark shows will not be surprised to learn that of these three this production is the one that most clearly communicates the meaning of the play. Not only is the text the most clearly spoken, but the underlying themes of the play are never obscured.

With eleven characters, "Playboy" is the biggest production Touchmark or (its predecessor Stagecraft) has mounted. For director Doug Beattie this is obviously a labour of love. Both the Abbey Theatre and the Shaw Festival productions took an ultra-realistic approach to the play which is fine for capturing the play's surface activity, but misses the many layers of meaning below the surface. Beattie, however, recognizes, as he states in the programme notes, that the play is "a fleshed-out and multi-faceted fable". For a play with a main character named Christopher Mahon ("Christ-bearer man"), who wins acclaim in another land for having killed his father, mythic resonances of both the Passion and of Oedipus are not far away. The highly poetic prose that Synge's characters speak constantly expands the realm of the action from a small village to the "Western World" itself, as the title suggests. Beattie gives his blocking patterns just the right degree of abstraction for us to see the mythic structure of the story below. This is particularly evident in the various struggles for control occurring throughout the play--two women Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quin, playing a tug-o'-war with Christy's arms; the Widow Quin and Christy feeling a sense of exultation while standing on a table; or Christy sitting in the same pose on the same stool by the fire after killing his "da" a second time, while hoping for the same awed response he received earlier. It's very rare to find a director who knows how to make the archetypal substrate of a play shine through its naturalistic surface with such clarity.

Dennis Horn's imaginative set and costumes support Beattie's approach. His set is realistic enough with its counter, hearth, doors and window, to present us with the pub where the action takes place; but a large portion of the back wall is cut out to overlook an abstract background, thus making the setting look simultaneously particularized and general. Renée Brode's lighting, primarily a realistic reflection of the various times of day in the action, will suddenly shift to highlight significant events.

Michael Spencer-Davis is the best Christy Mahon I have seen. He achieves the difficult task of investing this weakling-made-hero with an amazing intensity. This allows Christy's revolt against his not-so-dead father to arise naturally from his character rather than seeming like an abrupt plot twist. Having no whiff of a dashing air about him and making sure that none appears, Spencer-Davis makes clear what is so often lost in other productions that Christy is a neutral template onto which the townspeople of this village in County Mayo have projected their desire for adventure and their longing for the extraordinary. A major source of humour in the play is the disparity between the grandiose view the people have of Christy and the fearful, inexperienced young man we see before us. Beattie and Spencer-Davis maintain this disparity well into the final act, thus keeping the play's main theme of the conflict of illusion and reality constantly in focus.

Kim Horsman's is also the most sympathetic portrayal of Widow Quin I have seen. She shuns all caricature of the widow as a scheming, licentious woman, and instead gives her a desperation and intensity to match Christy's. Her character has been ostracized for having killed her husband, the main story-teller of the village. Horsman makes clear that it is the widow's profound loneliness that makes her use whatever means necessary to attract Christy, another outsider. When she sees that he can't be turned from his love for Pegeen, her sorrow is devastating.

Neil Barclay also shuns caricature in the role of Shawn Keogh, Pegeen's cowardly cousin who so desperately wants to marry her. He makes Keogh a young man, aware of his various flaws, who doesn't want his one chance at happiness to escape. As Pegeen Mike, Krista Jackson gives an adequate performance but not one with the nuance or intensity of the other three principals. Pegeen, a tavern keeper's daughter, is supposed to be a tough young woman, scornful of the weakness she sees in the men around her. She refers to herself as "the fright of seven townlands for my biting tongue". The irony of her life should be that by falling in love with Christy, she falls harder than anyone else in the village for what is only an illusion. Jackson, unfortunately, does not sufficiently establish Pegeen's toughness or suggest the contradictory emotions Pegeen must feel once she has fallen in love for the first time and with someone she hardly knows.

Ian Deakin and William Fisher turn in richly comic performances as the play's two fathers. Deakin as Pegeen's father, hilarious when tipsy, believes anything he can't fathom is "God's will". Fisher gives an appropriately menacing performance as Christy's seemingly indestructible father, who, however threatening, is nearly led to believe he's a lunatic.

As two habitués of the pub, Matt Lancaster and David Kirby do not create especially vivid characters. In contrast, Melissa Mae Lloyd, Melissa Good and Carolyn Campbell, as girls from a neighbouring village, give the finest group performance I've seen in a long time, functioning, in the precision of their movements and responses, as a kind of comic Greek chorus.

Looking back at Touchmark's first two seasons, all three plays presented have been characterized by the kind of meticulous productions and intelligent, insightful direction we might expect to see in the best work at Canada's major theatre festivals. Thanks to Touchmark, we don't have to wait until summer for fine theatre in Southern Ontario. I very much look forward to their next season.

©2001 Christopher Hoile

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Stones in His Pockets
Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, January 9-February 25, 2001.
A Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

"Stones in His Pockets" is a show no lover of theatre should miss. The simplicity of its staging and its complete emphasis on the acting abilities of its two cast members is a healthy restorative for those fed up with the over-produced musicals and plays one finds on Broadway or at Stratford. The show gives the lie to those who think that the "magic of the theatre" has something to do falling chandeliers or descending helicopters. This play shows that the real "magic of the theatre" can occur on an empty stage with minimal props and with just two talented actors who become the medium between the playwright's story and our imagination.

The play premiered at Dublin's Lyric Theatre in 1999, was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival and has been the best-selling play in London's West End ever since it opened there nine months ago. The Mirvishes have scored a coup by bringing Toronto the original Dublin/West End cast. In fact, this must be the first time a show playing in Toronto has received Olivier Award nominations back in Britain--a Best Actor nomination for both actors and a nomination for Best Comedy.

The immediate target of the play is the arrogance of the Hollywood film industry. A film crew takes over a village in County Kerry to shoot a period epic "The Quiet Valley" with two supposedly famous American stars as the leads. Everyone in the village has been recruited as an extra at £40 a day to supply local colour. The locals regard the crew with a mixture of envy and resentment which reaches a climax when a drowning occurs (by the means found in the title) setting the priorities of the grieving village against the money-driven timetable of the production crew.

Séan Campion and Conleth Hill play the two extras, Jake and Charlie, through whose eyes we see the events of two days unfold. Jake is a local who always carries with him a copy of the screenplay he has written in hopes that this will be his key to fortune if only he can get someone to look at it. Charlie is a drifter who has come to Kerry to make a bit of money. The interaction between the two--Jake the optimist, Charlie the pessimist--is interesting enough, when gradually the two begin populating the stage with eleven other characters from both the village and the movie crew.

Conleth Hill is assigned the more widely differentiated set of characters, most notably the preening, condescending movie star Caroline Giovanni, who is not quite as witless as she seems to be. She is having a difficult time mastering an Irish dialect, and the scene where she tries unsuccessfully merely to nail down the word "father" is hilarious. Hill also plays Jack, the overly suspicious, pot-bellied security guard; Clem the cynical British director; his exasperated assistant director Simon; Gerald, the village priest; and Finn, the lifelong friend of the addict Sean, both as an adult and a child.

Seán Campion is assigned a generally more serious set of characters, the main exception being Ashley, the ever-hyper assistant to Simon and daughter of a famous director, who constantly jumps about asking everyone to "Settle". Campion also plays John, Caroline's unlucky dialect coach; Mickey, an ancient local hero who claims to be the only surviving Irish extra from John Ford's classic film "The Quiet Man"; and Jake's cousin Sean (now and as a child), a troubled 18-year-old drug addict who feels humiliated by being rejected as an extra and later by being thrown out of a pub for bothering Miss Giovanni.

Critics who speak of an actor's playing one role well as a tour de force simply haven't seen this show. At first, Hill and Campion leave the stage to return as a different character using an altering of posture, voice and gesture to signal the change. As the action revs up and more characters are introduced, the two need only a simple half turn to transform themselves. These sudden shifts are so quick and the characterizations so precise that at times it is difficult to believe that there are only two people on stage. This is especially true near the end when Hill and Campion manage to evoke the entire cast we've seen in a wordless, unbelievably funny Irish dance sequence meant as the film's finale.

Director Ian McElhinney, Jones's husband, deserves praise for consistently choosing exactly the right pace for every scene. He also ensures that the constant shape-shifting of his actors is not an end in itself but a means to telling a story of wide-ranging moods, beginning in satire, deepening in tragedy and ending with comic affirmation.

As a critique of that most expensive and high-tech of entertainments, it is fully appropriate that the design of the show be as simple as possible. Jack Kirwan's set consists of only a backdrop of clouds in a sprocket-holed frame and a long line of shoes. Under James C. McFetridge's lighting, the backdrop takes on as many moods--from menacing to benign--as does the plot, as do the actors. The only props, a trunk on wheels and a box, serve as everything--desk, table, bar, chair, fence.

Though billed as a comedy, "Stones in His Pockets" addresses a number of serious topics. The attack on Hollywood is also a general attack on the appropriation of culture. The Americans' wish to present a picture of an Ireland full of "quaint" folk conforming to American preconceptions is not unlike the British in Brian Friel's "Translations" who want to make Ireland more acceptable by Anglicizing Irish place-names. Jones contrasts America, where stories are only concocted for gain, with Ireland, where story-telling is a way of life and the soul of a community. Commenting upon the death of the young man referred to in the play's title, the village priest says, "Imagination is a curse in a country like this"--a common theme in Irish literature where the wealth of imagination comes up against the everyday reality of poverty. But just as Jake and Charlie find a way to tell a story where "the extras are the stars and the stars are the extras", Jones's play and its miraculous performances point to the transformational power in anyone who is willing to imagine.

©2001 Christopher Hoile

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A Delicate Balance
Theatre & Company, Market Theatre, Kitchener, February 16-March 3, 2001.
A Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

In its eleventh season, Theatre & Company continues to provide Kitchener and the surrounding area with theatre more challenging than many larger companies would attempt. Unlike his best known work Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee's later A Delicate Balance (1966) is more subdued, more abstract and more enigmatic. Both plays deal with nights of confusion and terror ending on a symbolic Sunday morning, but where Virginia Woolf presents us with some resolution of the central problem, A Delicate Balance does not. Even the central problem itself is not clear in the later play. To make such a play work requires very clear direction and a cast who understand how their roles fit into the puzzle Albee has created. Luckily, director Stuart Scadron-Wattles and his troupe prove themselves more than equal to the task.

The play is set in the smart living room of the wealthy Agnes and Tobias. Agnes is meditating aloud about the pleasure it would be to go mad, realizing that as long as she can speculate on the subject it will not have happened. The main thorn in proper Agnes's side is her proudly drunken sister Claire, who has come to live with them after quitting an Alcoholics Anonymous retreat. Soon Agnes and Tobias learn that their daughter Julia has broken up with her fourth husband and will also be returning home to live with them. Before Julia arrives, however, Harry and Edna, best friends of Agnes and Tobias, pay a surprise visit. It turns out to be even more of a surprise when the couple make clear that they have actually come not just to visit but to live with Agnes and Tobias in order to escape the unnamed "terror" that has made their own home unlivable. This intrusion which so closely treads on the boundary of friendship, on the rights of host and guest, upsets "the delicate balance" of the household in ways grievous to all but Claire, who watches everything, including her own life, from the sidelines.

The play is well acted by all and everyone has mastered Albee's complex poetic prose, but I must single out Alan K. Sapp for giving a particularly fine performance as Tobias. It is crucial to understanding the play to see that Tobias is in the midst of struggling with his own "terror". The nature of this terror is unclear, but it has to do with his reaction to the death of his young son Teddy, his subsequent refusal to sleep with Agnes and his and Harry's cheating on their wives with the same woman. Sapp's carefully detailed performance shows Tobias to be on edge from the beginning, with his unease growing to a kind of desperation in his confrontation with Harry near the end. By making this undercurrent of fear so evident in all he says, Sapp helps us see that Harry and Edna are really doubles for Tobias and Agnes. The one couple may have fled a horror in their home, but Tobias sees an abyss of horror opening in his own. Once this is established, we can see that Harry and Edna are also doubles for Claire and Julia, both of whom have fled discord in the outside world to seek comfort with Agnes and Tobias.

Linda G. Bush gives Agnes a brittle but superior aura and an acid wit, while Alyson Scadron-Wattles (her real-life daughter) gives Julia a forcefulness and temper that make it easy to see why she might not be very good at marriage. Both characters are perfectionists in a far from perfect world.

Kathleen Sheehy makes the alcoholic Claire a bemused observer of the action not unlike one of Shakespeare's Fools. Her deadpan delivery of Claire's wry comments punctuates the performance with laughter. She also has impeccable timing and a great knack for impersonation.

Robin Bennett and Andrea Tutt play the "visiting" Harry and Edna differently from what I have seen elsewhere--he with a European accent and she with an imperious air. It seems a bit odd at first but it does reinforce the idea of their arrival as a kind of invasion.

The play is staged in the round at the versatile Market Theatre. Now having seen it done this way it is hard to imagine anything more appropriate for a play all about people observing other people and trying to infer meaning from their actions. Adding to the effect, Mike Peng has created an attractive, clean-lined sunken living room for Agnes and Tobias, thus making it into a kind of pit or arena where the characters struggle for dominance.

Director Stuart Scadron-Wattles adds another layer of meaning through his blocking. The characters seem to move continually in a counterclockwise vortex, with arrivals from the three entrances adding energy to the spin. As dramaturg Henry Bakker's excellent note points out, there is a kind of void at the centre of the play, a fall into nothingness feared at some level by all the characters. Scadron-Wattles' blocking makes the characters appear as debris swirling round this central void before their final descent. He has given the play a slightly slower pace than usual with the great advantage of allowing the imagery and allusions in Albee's complex language to register. He has not succumbed to the temptation (as other directors have) of allowing the comedy purveyed by Claire to dominate and thus distort the play. He also permits long silences reign to signify characters' internal debate over what should or should not be said. My only quibble is that he makes Harry and Edna's first entrance so hearty, we don't really see the full effect on them of the "terror" that has made them flee their home.

It is very heartening to see a small regional theatre company choose exciting repertoire outside the usual rehash of Broadway fluff one too often encounters. When performed this well and in an intimate venue such as the 166-seat Market Theatre, intriguing plays like Albee's have much greater impact. I hope the success of this play encourages Theatre & Company to bring us more Albee, whose work they seem to understand so well, and other such plays that entertain while challenging us to exercise our minds.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile


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