The Soulpepper production of Feydeau's classic 1907 French farce, "A Flea in Her Ear" is a case of plusses and minuses. In general, the plusses outweigh the minuses, but for an expensive production that is part of the Mirvishes' season, there really should be far fewer minuses than there are. A well-directed farce has the power to leave an audience positively weak with laughter. Here one tends to feel more exhausted than purged.
In the play Madame Chandebise becomes obsessed with the notion that her husband's sudden lack of interest in sex with her means he has taken to seeing other women. To trap her husband she has her best friend Lucienne write an anonymous letter proposing a rendezvous an the disreputable Hotel Coq d'Or. Monsieur Chandebise, however, thinks the letter must be meant for his handsome friend Monsieur Tournel. Confusion multiplies since there are in fact two Monsieur Chandbises, the husband Victor and his nephew Camille, and worse, the servant who works at the Hotel Coq d'Or looks exactly like the husband. In the classic tradition of farce, the play becomes an increasingly intricate game of who knows what when with misunderstandings piling up until they collapse under they own weight.
The main flaw in this production is the lacklustre translation of John Mortimer. The humour is rather hit and miss with as many misses as hits. Frequently, the language is unidiomatic and actors often have awkward mouthfuls to speak. One might have thought that the author of the Rumpole stories would have made the text much wittier, or that Soulpepper would have commissioned a new adaptation.
The flaw is compounded by the direction of László Marton. After seeing such fine work for Soulpepper as his "Platonov" and "School for Wives", I was surprised to find the play not working as well as it should. Farces are like chocolate truffles--they are not necessary but they can be delicious. Yet, the more aware one is of the number of empty calories they have they less delightful they are. Farces are different from romantic comedies in that the complexity of the play lies entirely in the plot not in the characters, who tend to act primarily like bipolar machines. So-and-so will react this way when this happens, but the opposite way when that happens. In the frequent chase and escape scenes in this production, Marton has the actors toddle about in a row, arms jerking, as if they were wind-up toys. When actors react in unison to a situation, he has them hold their position, turns their heads to the audience, react, then turn back. In the hotel scene characters always seem to take the long way up and down the double staircase to get anywhere. For these chases he has Kevin Lamotte shift lighting from normal to "weird" and adds live piano accompaniment. Marton is trying to emphasize the generic and mechanical aspects of the farce, but farces are already so generic and mechanical the emphasis is not only unnecessary but leads to a self-consciousness which kills the humour.
This problem even extends to the set. While William Schmuck's five-door salon for Act 1 and 3 is quite lovely, he has designed an over-elaborate set for the hotel of Act 2 with thirteen doors. This is supposed to be a joke on the wall of doors of a typical farce set. Unfortunately, since the play requires only half as many doors, the crucial question of who is behind what door when, becomes confusing when it should be absolutely clear. If, because there are so many possibilities, we lose track of who is behind what door, the set-ups for the characters' mechanical reactions, and with it the humour, doesn't work.
That the show succeeds despite these misjudgements is due entirely to the work of a few seasoned actors. Principal among these is Diego Matamoros in the dual role of Monsieur Chandebise and the look-alike servant in the Hotel Coq d'Or. He finely distinguishes the two in posture, gesture and sense of humour so that we always knows who is who even when they are wearing each others clothes. Stephen Ouimette as his nephew Camille would seem to have gone downmarket from such former roles as Hamlet or Richard III, except that he proves he is also a master of the farce style. He uses hyponasal speech to simulate (incorrectly) a person with a cleft palate. Since it is far too politically incorrect to laugh at a person with such a malady, Ouimette makes Camille such a likeably dopey character that we laugh more at his personality than his speech defect. Tom McCamus does very well at capturing the vanity of Monsieur Tournel, who needs so little persuading to believe an anonymous love letter is meant for him. Most forceful of all is Tony Nardi as the murderously jealous, Spanish-speaking husband of Madame Chandebise's best friend. Like the other three actors, he knows that the best way to make a farce funny is to show that a character views the action with the utmost seriousness.
Among the women, Liisa Repo-Martell and Colombe Demers as Madame Chandebise and her best friend Lucienne present a study in contrasts. Demers is fully attuned the nature of farce that requires a strong outward presentation of character rather than psychological depth. Her poise and gesture along with the ability to carry off Lucienne's breakneck explanation (in Spanish) of the plot to her husband make her perfect for the role. Repo-Martell, on the other hand, is best known for finely nuanced psychological portraits. However, complex inwardness is the opposite of what farce requires, and while she does quite well, she doesn't give her character the strong external presentation it needs.
The rest of the cast succeed only partially in bringing off their roles. Jim Warren as the Chandebises' butler, Ric Reid as the doctor and Michael Hanrahan as the militaristic owner of the Hotel Coq d'Or all need to create clearer, stronger characters. Maria Vacratsis' talents are wasted as the hotel owner's wife, while Patricia Fagan as the hotel maid still needs more vocal coaching. Melissa Moore as the butler's wife, William Webster as the hotel's resident invalid and especially Cliff Saunders as the randy German sailor are all more successful in their minor roles.
The last professional production of Feydeau in Toronto and environs was Richard Monette's relentlessly unfunny "A Fitting Confusion" at Stratford in 1996. The same year saw Christopher Newton's hilarious production of the British farce "One for the Pot" at the Royal Alex. As Newton nears his retirement, we have to wonder who there will be in Ontario who has just the right touch to serve up these theatrical bonbons.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
To the uninformed, Gumboots may appear as a bizarre cross between Stomp and Riverdance. Like Stomp the show has a gritty industrial setting and is structured by a wide range of rhythms. Like Stomp the performers were initially mostly buskers whose talents were recognized by a producer, in this case Tale Motsepe, and whose repertory has been honed and organized into a theatrical entertainment. Like Riverdance, this entertainment showcases a particular culture and one of its dance forms, especially as related to the footwear used-here, the Wellingtons or gumboots of the title. But where Riverdance provides only vague bits of Celtic tosh for its thin narrative throughline, Gumboots is firmed rooted in a social and historical reality. Unlike Riverdance, which is so slick that it sometimes seems performed by well-programmed automatons, the smaller-scale Gumboots exudes a feeling of greater authenticity and a mood of far greater warmth.
The show, created by director Zenzi Mbuli and the Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto, highlights South African songs and the unusual dance form that developed among black miners in that country. Rather than pumping out the standing water in the gold mines miles below the surface, the mine owners found it cheaper simply to issue the miners with gumboots. Working in the darkness, the miners, sent to the Johannesburg area from their native villages, developed a way of communicating with each other by a system of slaps on their boots. In their "free" time, they entertained each other with dances in these boots where this slapping and the jingling of the chain rings added to the rhythm. To these rhythms are added the beautiful harmonies of South African song.
The general structure Mbuli has given the show is a progress from the simple to the complex. It starts with nothing visible on stage but two Wellies in a pool of light. Then six men enter in the back of the auditorium and begin an a capella song. By the end of the show the rhythm of gumboot stomping and slapping is augmented by two drummers and a keyboardist--first unseen, then visible--and by four more singer/dancers. The music is organized so as to show a typical day in the lives of mine workers in Johannesburg. It begins with a comic scene of the principal performer, Vincent Ncabashe, teaching the other miners to sing. They then move into songs about work and the "City of Gold" they are slaving for to a long central section about life after a day's work--thoughts of the women left behind, love songs, an hilarious courting song "I'm Too Sexy," party songs and drinking songs. Just when the tone seems to have lightened perhaps too much, there's a brilliantly evocative onomatopoetic song about the trains that bring the miners to Johannesburg, which in many ways encapsulates the whole show, moving, as it does, from a series of isolated rhythmic sounds to the integration of song and dance in the physical imitation of a train. This is succeeded by the most moving and equivocal scene of the show. Ncabashe tells us that "for every drop of water a man has lived and died in the mines." A water-filled square is opened in the floor and Ncabashe sings while dancing in it as water splashes with every step high in the air all over the stage. It amazingly transforms the joyful image from "Singin' in the Rain" into one of pain and tragedy.
The 90-minute show covers not just a typical day, but also the history of the mines themselves. The show includes the irony of a song lamenting the closing of the deadly mines because they have now become the displaced miners only source of income for their families. The conclusion is a prayer: "Keep me strong, give me long life, let me see the sunshine." We finally come to realize the truth of what Ncabashe had said near the beginning of the show, "The man who takes the gold took away the sun." The miners have been exiled not just from their villages but, in working two to three miles underground, also from the light. "Rishile" in the group's name means "sunrise."
The set by Australian Nigel Triffitt looks like nothing more than a paltry set of metal steps and a platform when the show begins. But as the show progresses elements are ingeniously added to it bit by bit until at the climactic water song it resembles a working mine rig with whirring wheels, cables and dripping water. The talents of British lighting designer, Gavin Norris, are put to the test since, until very near the end, the action is meant to take place in darkness, whether in the mine shafts themselves or in camps at night after work. Given these strictures, he cleverly manages to suggest varieties of surrounding darkness while still keeping the dancing clearly visible. Only the rock concert style lighting for two of the party songs struck me as out of keeping with the nature of the show.
It seems appropriate that the show should have its North American premiere at the Juste pour Rire Festival in Montreal last year. Gumboots is the kind of music theatre that gives you a natural lift. The tradition of gumboot dancing has transformed a symbol of mistreatment into a mode of self-expression. The performers¹ discipline shown in the precision of their unisons, harmonies and rhythms becomes a sign of the strength of community. By bringing this show to us, Future Artists Empowerment led by Tale Motsepe and the producer SFX Back Row (in charge of non-traditional forms of theatre) let us see for ourselves that human imagination can create art even in the most adverse circumstances.
After the beautiful but inane Disneyfied Africa of The Lion King, I found Gumboots to be a breath of fresh air--something real after something so fake. Young adults and children should enjoy this show, too, since it is so full of rhythm and vitality. And, unlike that corporate blockbuster, the music is a thousand times richer and has so much more heart.
©2001 Christopher Hoile
Master marionettist Ronnie Burkett's latest work, Happy, which premiered at the du Maurier World Stage festival last year, is the final instalment of his Memory Dress Trilogy comprising Tinka's New Dress (1994) and Street of Blood (1999). Happy just may be the greatest of the three. While still treating essential themes of human existence, the play is more clearly structured and more fully explores and integrates into the action Burkett's surprising interactions between marionette and manipulator. Irrespective of medium, Burkett proves once again with this work that he is probably Canada's greatest living theatre artist.
Happy is set among the inhabitants of a rooming house. The cast includes, among others, the World War II veteran Happy, our main guide through the play; young Carla, a would-be poet, and her husband Drew; the aged sad-sack Raymond, who does errands for the household; Lucille, whom Raymond long pined for, now an earthy, chain-smoking old woman in Capri pants and open blouse; and the blue-haired, faux-Filipino hairdresser Ricky, who has escaped Moose Jaw for the anonymity of the big city and lives with his unloved, obese boyfriend, Kenny. As we have come to expect from Burkett, all the characters are exquisitely sculpted, their fixed expressions seeming to change with minute alterations of posture and gesture under Bill Williams's detailed lighting. Burkett's manipulations and voicings are so individual and so precise his marionettes convey more character and more emotion that many a human actor I've seen.
Early on in the play, Carla's husband Drew suddenly dies. From this point on the play is structured around Carla's passage through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief with interludes for each stage performed by one of Burkett's most outrageous characters, Antoine Marionette, the emcee of the Grey Cabaret. Each stage is both marked and mocked by performers of the Cabaret like the cellist Jacqueline Dupression, the opera star Maureen Massey-Ferguson and the American crooner Perry Homo. The persona of the emcee allows Burkett ample opportunity for hilarious improvised remarks, taking well-deserved swipes at the CBC, the Governor General's Awards, the Stratford Festival "where actors can't walk and talk at the same time" and Larry's Party ("Now THAT was depressing!"). As should be evident, Burkett uses Kübler-Ross to structure the action while at the same time ridiculing the notion that human grief (or anything human, for that matter) can be so easily systematized. Carla's final stage of grieving has been suggested as her own all along, despite its deviation from the five stages theory.
Burkett, without a puppet for medium, begins the play by saying, "I like to dream of colour--not in colour, but about colour." This begins an opposition between life as colour and death as greyness that continues throughout the play. Grief, a kind of abstention from life, is also grey. Ultimately, the play focuses on the dilemma of desiring to hold on to the memory of a loved one and the necessity of letting go, and by extension the need to let go of any past in order to go forward. This is encapsulated in an intensely moving episode Happy recalls when a fellow soldier convinces a concentration camp survivor not to succumb to the death that surrounds and haunts her but to let him be a become for her a new reason to live. Three-quarters through the play it becomes clear that many of the characters "living" in the rooming house are, in fact, only vivid memories that the living have not yet relinquished. What are we really? How can we be happy not knowing? The title character concludes, despite the glimpses into the profound unhappiness around him, that it is because of rain that we have the colours of the rainbow to cherish.
The set Burkett has designed is a marvel of symbolism and economy. It appears as a large sideboard, which, when revolved, is the set for the Grey Cabaret positioned above a beautiful model of the rooming house. Whenever a death has been acknowledged, Burkett produces a grey plate to place in the racks of the sideboard--a sign of something simultaneously concrete and fragile. This sideboard and the floor are of blond wood and all of the marionettes' strings are white to set off the colour of life and memory the characters represent. And as Burkett tells us, "Wood remembers."
Burkett's interactions with his creations, which were so jolting in Street of Blood, are here integrated into the regular flow of the action. Repeatedly, marionettes lean against their creator's leg in need of support or in gestures of joy. Burkett expands the range of his creations from stationary dolls who must be moved by hand, to a full-sized puppet manipulated from within, to disembodied heads of characters, to (in brilliant move) traditional Punch and Judy hand-puppets to act out Carla's stage of anger, the Carla puppet ultimately battering Burkett's bare hand in grief at her loss. The levels of metatheatricality Burkett calls forth with such simple means are mind-boggling. Eeriest of all, Burkett experiments with having his creations remain still while he signals their conversations solely through changes in his voice.
Ronnie Burkett is a marvel and his latest play is as profound as it is moving and humorous. It is also continues Burkett's inquiry into the relation of creator and created, inherent in his craft, but here made explicit through the play's theme and its enactment. The Japanese have no qualms about regarding Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) as their greatest playwright despite the fact that he wrote almost exclusively for the puppet theatre. Burkett has so broken the bounds of what puppet theatre constitutes, we, too, should have no qualms about recognizing his greatness, not just in the realm of puppet theatre, but in theatre in general.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Michel Tremblay's 1973 play "Hosanna" about a Montreal hairdresser who idolizes Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra has proved remarkable durable. A particular test of this durability is the current production at Tallulah's Cabaret in the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. This is the Canadian première of the Scottish translation of the play done by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay. The same duo's 1988 translation of Tremblay's "Les Belles Soeurs" as "The Guid Sisters" was a big hit at the du Maurier World Theatre Festival in 1990.
My first reaction was panic that I would not be able to understand a single word. But soon the ear adjusts and the alien accent and vocabulary become enjoyable instead of off-putting. Still, it has to be said that I more often got the gist of what was said rather than picking up every word. The small glossary provided in the programme is little aid against the full onslaught of colourful Scots expressions. Luckily, the benefits of this new translation far outweigh the difficulties it poses. Just as "joual" is a dialect of French so is Scots a dialect of English. This gives the language greater authenticity than performing the work in Ontarian English or in English with a Québécois accent. From a political point of view, Scots and "joual" are both linked to a national identity subsumed with a larger political entity, and are thus further linked to the separatist movements in both regions. And most of all, the Scots translation provides the experience of characters with their own linguistic integrity which is simultaneously similar to but definitely different than that of an ordinary English-speaking audience. Perhaps that is why the duo's continuing translations of Tremblay have been so popular in Scotland, where one critic has called Tremblay "the greatest playwright Scotland never had".
Alastair Hudson as Hosanna and Tony Nappo as his/her biker boyfriend Cuirette give excellent performances. A Glasgow native, Hudson has perhaps an easier time of it than Nappo, but only the occasional slip of a vowel suggests that this is not Nappo's native lingo. At first Hudson's Hosanna is so unpleasant in looks and personality, one wonders how he will ever win over the audience's sympathy. But this he does. He makes Hosanna's initial harshness a sign of his barely suppressed anger and humiliation. The harshness is necessary to explain why all of Hosanna's supposed friends would single her out for such a cruel joke at the Hallowe'en ball. Hudson delivers Hosanna's long monologue of Act 2 so expertly, one wishes that Cuirette's speeches did not overlap with it. Hudson communicates Hosanna's unreconciled feelings of rage and vulnerability with great feeling laced with a tone of bitter self-mockery.
Tony Nappo also shows us clearly the anger of his having betrayed Hosanna projected onto other things. Just because he is unaccustomed to identifying or articulating his feelings doesn't mean he doesn't have them. Nappo, like Hudson, is excellent at communicating surface and subtext at the same time. Cuirette struggles to forsake the toughness of his leatherman pose to reveal real caring and love for his partner.
Wendy Thatcher, best known as a veteran actress of the Shaw Festival, shows she is also a fine director. She makes the parallels between Hosanna and Cuirette very clear-both characters having constructed a persona that has begun to clash with the real person within. When both Cuirette and Hosanna disrobe, it is clear that they are discarding their personae along with the costumes that having in numerous ways become prisons for their inner selves. Thatcher gives us the uplifting sense that both characters have moved to a state of unknown but greater freedom.
David Wootton's sets and costumes are intentionally tawdry. They reflect the inhabitant who has little money and no space to achieve the grandiose effects he would like. The load of bric-à-brac Wootton crams on the small stage is the physical equivalent of the overpowering cheap perfume said to pervade Hosanna's apartment. He shows a place ripe for airing and clearing out. Wootton makes Hudson as Hosanna-as-Taylor-as-Cleopatra look really quite dreadful which better suits what is actually described in the play. Richard Monette actually made quite a passable Elizabeth Taylor in 1974. Alastair Hudson in Wootton's gaudy oversized gown looks more like Monserrat Caballé with too much make-up. As with the set the costume suggests that the time has come to discard a now-pointless illusion. All is lit by Jeff Logue, who has achieved a maximum number of sensitive lighting effects with a minimum number of instruments.
It is a pity that this production playing in such an intimate space (only 75 seats) should have such a short run. It deserves a wider audience. Alastair Hudson's transformation at the end from Taylor-as-Cleopatra to Hosanna to his real self is quite amazing. As Hallowe'en passes into All Saints' Day, an ordinary, nice-looking young man emerges into the world from his garish cocoon.
2001 Christopher Hoile
Seana McKenna's performance as the dying poetry professor in Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit presents us with that strange paradox of a great performance in a not so great play. The figure of a dying articulate person in the antiseptic environment of a hospital is so prone to cliché, one wonders why playwrights or audiences are still drawn to it.
People at the turn of the 18th century were obsessed with the figure of the Dying Poet, like Goethe's Werther or Vigny's Chatterton. Poets no longer have the cachet they once did, but dying does. So, at the end of the 20th century we find an obsession with the Dying Wit. The basic irony in both figures is really the same--a highly perceptive, intellectual mind trapped in a decaying body and acutely aware of the irony of its captivity. The main representatives of this subgenre--like Whose Life Is It Anyway?, numerous AIDS dramas and innumerable disease-of-the-week movies--are relentlessly dreary because the arc of each plot is necessarily the same and the emotional responses preprogrammed.
Wit (written in 1991, first performed in 1995) mostly rises above the clichés of this subgenre by recognizing them as clichés. Its main character, Vivian Bearing, begins the play by speaking to the audience and telling us she has less than two hours to live (i.e., the length of the play). Such frequently direct addresses, comments on scenes she plays as scenes in "her play" and her anticipating what we expect, as per the genre, to happen next provide much-needed comic relief and the metatheatricality is appropriate to a play where so much of the imagery is drawn from so pointedly a self-aware poet as John Donne.
However, just because the play calls attention to itself as yet another play about the central speaker dying, doesn't mean it is not manipulative. Edson gives us feminist stereotypes not characters. Bearing's primary physician, his fellow and her father are all self-absorbed and uncaring. The physician and fellow treat her overtly as an object of research not as a person. Bearing's female professor and the nurse, however, are just the opposite. The insensitive fellow ignores Bearing's "Do not resuscitate" order while the sensitive nurse defends it. In the classroom scene one male student is stupid while one female student is bright. The only corrective to this is that Bearing herself realizes she was often too hard on her students, though that confession seems minor compared to the coarseness with which the doctors treat her. Bearing also says that the doctors are dealing with her as objectively as she did John Donne's poetry--she has become their poem--but the trendy text-as-body metaphor doesn't counteract the simplistic division of morality along gender lines built into the play. Frankly, Ronnie Burkett gives his marionettes better rounded personalities than Edson gives human actors.
Edson wants us to feel Bearing's extreme loneliness but has contrived an improbable situation. Despite being in hospital for eight months, Bearing has only one visitor, and then only near the end--her old teacher who has found out only by accident that she is there. Although Bearing has said she has no family and no one to notify in case of emergency, how can she have taught at a university for so many years and become famous and yet have no friends, no acquaintances, no colleagues or even any students, past or present, who like her enough to visit her? The answer is, of course, that Edson has simplified things to make Bearing's situation more pathetic. Except for her now-dead father and her former professor, Edson doesn't want to confuse the issue "a woman confronts her death" with extraneous characters. But the result is that we know virtually nothing about this woman who speaks to us for 100 minutes except that she is a dying professor who specializes in Donne's Holy Sonnets. We actually know more about Beckett's non-intellectual Winnie as she confronts her bizarre demise than we do about Edson's would-be realistic professor.
Edson's insistence on the theatrical metaphor and her allowing Bearing self-conscious irony as her sole characteristic only shifts our interest away from the story itself and entirely on to the acting of it. Canadian Stage (and its co-producer the Vancouver Playhouse) are very lucky to have Seana McKenna (pictured, above left) as Vivian Bearing, a role she plays as if it were written for her. It is a magnificent performance. McKenna builds her character from the ground up, without relying on previous roles as she sometimes has in the past. Her timing of Bearing's humorous remarks is perfect. Her painful gradual decline, both physical and verbal, is presented in minutely observed stages. This is all the more impressive because Edson¹s self-conscious script requires her continually to break the mood with direct addresses to the audience.
The rest of the cast do the best they can with their underwritten parts. Jim Mezon's talents are totally wasted in the caricatured figures of the insensitive Dr. Kelekian and Bearing's uninterested father. Alex Poch-Goldin succeeds in the difficult task of making the unbelievable callousness of Jason Posner, the fellow treating Bearing, seem like unchecked enthusiasm rather than a generic example of male insensitivity as it is written. Kristen Williamson, as the unintellectual nurse who befriends Bearing, makes her character completely natural and believable. But the most positive impression among the secondary characters is made by Joy Coghill (pictured, right)as Bearing's former professor. Her climbing into bed with the suffering Bearing and reading the children's book, The Runaway Bunny, to her former pupil, is the most touching moment in the play. Marjorie Chan, Kevin Loring, Geneviève Steele and Todd Thomson round out the cast as students and lab technicians, though if Edson had not so contrived Bearing's loneliness, they could have also been put to use as additional visitors.
Pam Johnson has designed appropriate medical garb and a suitably stark, antiseptic set that looks so brand-new and squeaky clean it is unlike any hospital you're likely to visit in Toronto. The set, like Kevin Lamotte's harsh lighting, is supposed to support Edson's clichéd view of a hospital as an alienating environment. Personally, the dingy, run-down hospitals of the real world strike me as more depressing.
Glynis Leyshon has given the work impeccable pacing, speeding and slowing the action as necessary to get the most out of every scene. Ultimately, though, the play stands or falls on the performance of the central role. And Seana McKenna's performance really is the sole reason for seeing this otherwise negligible play. That Wit won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 along with virtually every other American drama award going, says more about the current drought in serious American drama than it does about the actual merits of the play. If you want to learn about ovarian cancer, see your doctor. If you want to learn about John Donne, read his Holy Sonnets. If you want to learn about confronting death, see a secular or religious counsellor. But if you want to watch a morbid and unenlightening (but beautifully acted) spectacle of someone dying before your very eyes, then this play's for you.
2001 Christopher Hoile