With "Anything That Moves" we have that grail that has seemed so elusive over the past two years--a hit Canadian musical. Even in its first incarnation as part of the du Maurier World Stage Festival, this work with music by Allen Cole, book by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Alisa Palmer and lyrics by MacDonald won a Dora for Outstanding New Musical. This newly revised version, a co-production by the Tarragon Theatre and Nightwood Theatre, proves that the show is still "outstanding". Conventional wisdom in New York and Toronto has it that new musicals should be based on well known material to attract an audience with "name recognition". But, as was painfully clear with both "Outrageous" and "Larry's Party" earlier this season, a well-known story can hamper creativity. A major source of "Anything"'s freshness is a brand new, funny, complex story we actually have to follow. Anyone familiar with MacDonald's play "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)" or her libretto for Nic Gotham's chamber opera "Nigredo Hotel" will find the same mixture of whimsy and wisdom here that made those works both hilarious and intriguing.
The plot is like the inverse of "La Cage aux Folles" without the drag. Joel, a self-effacing florist, meets Jinny, a researcher in an animal lab, and falls in love with her at first sight. In the first of a series of misunderstandings, Jinny assumes Joel is gay because he is introduced as the friend of the promiscuous Tyrone. When Joel points out Jinny's habit of subconsciously going after the wrong men, she simultaneously vows chastity for a year to get over her habit and friendship with Joel, the first man she can really talk to. To hold onto the relationship, the straight-arrow Joel finds he has to play at being gay and gets caught up in an ever-growing web of lies. The action climaxes in an hilarious dinner party involving Tyrone, a black lesbian undertaker, Jinny's mother and Joel's father as more truth than anyone was expecting comes out.
MacDonald's dialogue and lyrics are consistently literate and clever. In how many musicals today would characters use terms like "atavistic' or "semiotics" and discuss "Peer Gynt" or "A Streetcar Named Desire"? There's no dumbing down here and (surprise!) the show is all the stronger. "Anything" is rich with humour because it derives from so many sources--witty language, satire of modern mores, unexpected situations and, most of all, believable characters. She has us rooting for Joel and Jinny right up to the end. The one main flaw lies with Arthur, Joel's distant, kilted father. Arthur is not so much a character as a collection of symbolic functions. He is there primarily to create symmetry with Jinny's mother, Fleur, and his confession of a secret in Act 2 is used to motivate Joel's own confession of truth, but it also brings the giddy pace of the show to a halt and undermines the potential buoyancy of the finale.
Allen Cole has set MacDonald's lyrics to a wide variety of musical styles--from Latin to blues, from Sondheim to rock--yet all, given the piano and bass accompaniment, within a lounge framework. The unamplified accompaniment has the enormous advantage of allowing unamplified singing. While you don't necessarily go out humming the tunes, you do go out wishing to hear them all again, a much better gauge of a good show. A number of the songs are standouts like Jinny's enlightened/wistful "Because I'm Not in Love", Joel's declaration of love "There's Someone on His Way", Jinny's mother's rockin' "Menopausal Mama" and the send-up of Higgins's song in "My Fair Lady" in "Why Can't a Straight Man (Be More Like a Fag)".
The show could not be better cast. Glynis Ranney, who has been a major asset in the Shaw Festival's musicals, plays Jinny as a cross between Constance of "Goodnight Desdemona" and Amalia from "She Loves Me". Besides her pure-toned singing, always alive to the nuances of the lyrics, she is a fine actress who immediately creates a bond between the audience and her vulnerable, off-beat character. Tim Howar, in a thankful change from the psychotic Martin in "Outrageous", is a strong singer and makes the sensitive and literate Joel an appealing character. He captures the undercurrent of desperation in this ordinary guy who realizes that Jinny is his one chance at happiness. In the unintentional competition of straight WASP florist musicals, there is no question that Joel is more rounded and real that the vague and ethereal Larry of "Larry's Party".
In secondary roles, Juan Chioran is perfect as the superficial, self-obsessed lawyer Tyrone. After his singing Don Quixote and Dracula at Stratford, it's about time he had the chance to use is characterful voice unshrouded by an accent. Sandra Caldwell, as Alberta the lesbian undertaker, has a great sense of comic timing and a rich voice. She lets us glimpse a person who longs for something more than her façade as a tough-talking materialist would suggest. George Masswohl plays both a flirting waiter and the dour military historian Arthur. He does his best to make the wooden Arthur come alive, but is more at ease as the waiter. The most vibrant character of the show is Jinny's mother Fleur played so delectably by Judy Marshak. Fleur, a former alcoholic now 15 years sober, is a grief counsellor given to every form of New Age cant going. The scene between mother and daughter trying to outdo each other in postfeminist correctness is, in its finely observed human comedy, the most unforgettably funny scene of the show.
Director Alisa Palmer prevents the show from drifting into the world of sitcom buy keeping the action focussed on human concerns. Except for the Arthur problem of Act 2, she keeps the complications of the plot clear while building up dramatic tension though a good sense of pace. Astrid Janson has managed to design a set with seven entrances for the small Tarragon stage that because it is so muted never shouts "farce". Under Andrea Lundy's sensitive lighting the space is easily transformed from interior to exterior. Janson has the freest rein in her designs in Tyrone's clubwear and especially in the nouvelle Earth-goddess outfits for Fleur. Valerie Moore's ballroom-influenced choreography makes excellent use of the triangular stage area. The composer himself is at the piano.
While the character Arthur requires a rethink or excision, the show's merits are so abundant I heartily recommend it. Ann-Marie MacDonald's talent has so far flitted from genre to genre producing success wherever it lands. Let's hope music theatre experiences another visit of its invigorating touch.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
This Hotel by the fine Toronto actor Alex Poch-Goldin received rave reviews at the 1998 Toronto Fringe Festival and is now revived in an 85-minute version by Planet 88 in association with Theatre Passe Muraille . Hotels have functioned as symbolic loci of inner turmoil for as long as they were large enough or isolated enough to seem alienating. They can be a microcosm of this the world as in Vicki Baum's "Grand Hotel" (1929) or of the next as in Sartre's "No Exit" (1944). It doesn't take too long to think of numerous examples of hotels as analogues for the psyche in such films as "Psycho" (1960), "The Silence" (1963) or "The Shining" (1980). The metaphor is so common it appears in rock songs from Elvis to the Eagles. Therefore, when we see a new play using the hotel as metaphor, we are naturally curious what the author will do that is different.
In the case of "This Hotel" the answer is nothing much. In the first scene Lester, flowers in hand, comes home and sees his wife Arlene in the arms of another man and with every intention of continuing the liaison despite Lester's presence. Lester leaves in dismay, his home dissolves into a hotel where he finds himself checking in for short stay. The fly-obsessed Bellhop tells Lester the five doors to his room hide secrets, dreams or empty corridors. Scenes follow in seemingly random order showing various versions of Arlene's affair, Arlene as a Southern belle named Estelle and her lover as an Italian named Rex, the mysterious guest Louise initiating an affair with him, the Bellhop as hotel prostitute with a deeply conflicted married man named Monty and Lester's first meeting with Arlene . After a sudden feeling of remorse, Lester returns home. There is no other man but there is also no resolution.
There are problems with both the scenario and language of the play. To have the Bellhop as psychpomp explain several times what the hotel means suggests that Poch-Goldin is unaware of how clichéd his central metaphor is. Even the Bellhop's secondary metaphor comparing people to flies caught in a spider's web is a cliché. While the numerous short scenes are juxtaposed in interesting ways, it is not clear that they are linked associatively as one might expect in a dream or leading in any particular direction if the hotel is the kind of purgatory it seems to be. Aggravating the problem is language that is resolutely prosaic and thus totally at odds with the setting. It is neither rich in poetry, rich in subtext or rich in wit as are, respectively, Strindberg, Pinter and Stoppard in similar circumstances. Perhaps this is why the most effective scenes are those mimed to music or played in silence.
Nevertheless, the play could not have a better production. What the dialogue lacks in invention, director Kelly Thornton and her design team go all out to supply. The magical dissolution of Lester's house into the hotel is accomplished by the superb coordination of Steve Lucas's cleverly designed set, Peter Freund's lighting and Richard Feren's soundscape. One ingenious set element can change with a certain amount of fuss from couch to bed to table to bar. Angela Thomas's costumes--attractive for the women, humorous for the men--are also designed for the rapid transformations of characters even on stage. Gizella Witkowsky provides the choreography, most notably the menacing tango for the Bellhop and Louise near the start of the show.
While all of the characters remain enigmas to each other and the audience even by the end, Poch-Goldin has written a number of strong scenes and the excellent cast makes the most of them. Not that long ago Randy Hughson was lonely man suffering from hyperacute hearing in Morris Panych's "Earshot". In "This Hotel" he is a lonely man suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations. It is a sign of Hughson's skill that he has sharply delineated what in lesser hands might have been very similar portrayals. Brenda Bazinet clearly differentiates her two roles as Arlene and Estelle. Arlene has transformed her secret suffering into a deliberate cruelty against Lester that even she finds distasteful. Estelle comes straight from Tennessee Williams country, true to a fantasy husband she imagines roaming the world for her. Veronika Hurnik oozes sensuality as the elegant nymphomaniac Louise in great contrast to Antoinette, French-speaking maid. Richard Zeppieri plays Alene's lover and a caricatured Italian harassing Estelle, differentiated mostly by the latter's accent and gestures. His third role, however, as the nerdish, firmly closeted Monty he plays with gusto and makes him the funniest thing in the show. It took me far too long to figure out what Alon Nashman as the Bellhop was doing. At first it seemed that he was actually supposed to be several different people working in the hotel. Only when he changed outfits in full view was it clear that he was one person vainly pretending to serve functions of desk clerk, bellhop, bartender, lounge entertainer and prostitute. This could have been quite humorous if it had been directed more clearly.
I am very much in favour of plays that make an attempt to escape the strictures of realism in which so much North American drama is still bound. But as any of the great anti-realist plays of the 20th century demonstrate, this kind of play must have a fresh outlook and some internal consistency to be effective. With film noir inspiring some of the language and many of the situations and the hotel-as-psyche already a well-worn trope, "This Hotel" presents us with more clash of clichés than a new world with its own rules. The final tableau of Lester and Arlene is meant to make us re-evaluate all the has gone before, but, since I had lost interest in them well before the end, I felt little inclined to do so.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Ontario's "The Merry Widow" is a winner. It's the kind of evening in the theatre that has a great start and just gets better and better. The love of the cast and musicians for this operetta pervades every aspect of the performance from first to last.
"The Merry Widow" ("Die lustige Witwe" in German) has been one of the world's most popular operettas since it premièred in Vienna in 1905. Its music is of such a high order of invention that it has become one of a handful of operettas to join the repertory of the world's great opera houses. Like "Die Fledermaus", "The Merry Widow" is set in the contemporary world of its creators which it has since come to immortalize--1870s Vienna in "Die Fledermaus" and Paris at the turn of the last century in "The Merry Widow".
The operetta begins in a whirl of activity in Paris at the embassy of the tiny fictional country of Pontevedro. Hanna Glawari, the young widow of the wealthiest man in the country, is in town and it is of vital importance to Baron Zeta and the embassy clerk that she marry another Pontevedrian as soon as possible--and not one of the score of Parisians pursuing her--so that her millions will not leave the country and bankrupt it. Unfortunately, Danilo Danilovich, the most eligible Pontevedrian in Paris wastes his affection on the "grisettes" of Maxim's and his money on gambling. He also has an aversion to Hanna since she spurned his love when they were young. In the deliciously laxity of Paris where marriage vows are meant to be broken, the baron's own wife is having an affair with a Frenchman which his own bumbling prevents him from discovering. Whether Hanna and Danilo will ever get together and whether Valencienne and Camille will be found out are the twin threads that lead us through Lehár's incomparably melodic score.
This production is so successful because all of its elements are in harmony with the work and with each other. Canadian director Brian Deedrick, unlike so many who approach comic opera, has wisely decided that the work is funny enough on its own without added gimmicks, gags or updating. He directs the operetta with the same attention to detail and character as if it were a comic play where the cast just happens to break into song and dance. Scene after scene is staged to heighten the dramatic impact of the work, whether it is Hanna's entrance tossing banknotes at her money-hungry admirers or the non-singing scene of Act 2 when a waltz offstage subtly rekindles Hanna's and Danilo's memories of love. The vitality that courses through the stage action is matched by the taut conducting of the young American Alexander Frey. At every turn he chooses the perfect tempo and leads the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony to play this familiar music with such freshness that it sounds newly minted. There is so much dance in this operetta that Allison Grant's choreography shares equally in its success. Whether it is the many expected waltzes, the series Pontevedrian national dances, the boisterous can-can of Act 3 or the hilarious routines for the men in "Ja, das Studium der Weiber ist schwer", her work, like Deedrick's and Frey's, is always imaginative and elegant.
Opera Ontario has borrowed a beautiful Art Nouveau-inspired set from Virginia Opera and rented an exquisite set of costumes. Stephen Ross's lighting so blends the set and costumes you would not know they were from different sources. He creates an especially lovely mood of nostalgia in the garden scene of Act 2.
The all-Canadian cast is well-attuned to operetta style. Theodore Baerg more fully characterizes the rakish Danilo than I've seen before. He makes clear that Danilo's life of pleasure is really an attempt to distract himself from love lost as he makes clear in his increasingly bitter reprise of "Da geh ich zu Maxim" in Act 2. His strong, ringing baritone and intelligent phrasing ideally suit the suaveness of his character. In the title role Eilana Lappalainen, a fine actress, gives us a Hanna by turns elegant, folksy, sentimental and wild. She certainly must be one of the few opera singers who can hold her own in a can-can line! Still, there is no disguising the fact that her powerful voice becomes squally under pressure, with her top notes clear only if floated. Because it lies lower and is sung softly, the "Vilja-Lied" in Act 2 is her finest moment.
In secondary roles, Liesel Fedkenheuer, fresh from the COC Ensemble, gives a vocally and dramatically assured performance that makes Valencienne's vacillating scruples about her affair both comic and believable. Kurt Lehmann's Camille de Rosillon is not quite up her level, pleasant but not as powerful of voice and not making enough of the comedy or romance of his role. The comic roles of the pompous Baron Zeta and the harried clerk Njegus are played to the hilt by Gregory Cross and Jim White. Their interactions are laugh-out-loud funny. White even has the chance to display his dancing skills familiar from his many Stratford appearances. Hugues Saint-Gelais and André Clouthier are Danilo's ineffectual Parisian rivals, with Clouthier making the more positive impression. The contribution of the chorus and dancers is excellent.
Deedrick has made the right decision in having the large swathes of dialogue that set up the action played in English while the classic songs are sung in German. It is one of the peculiarities of the perceived split between "popular" and "high" culture that the top price tickets for this eminently accessible, highly entertaining operetta with a cast of 39 and with 51 musicians in the pit should cost less that the equivalent ticket for a big musical in Toronto or Stratford with fewer personnel on stage and with at most 15 amplified musicians. If this "Merry Widow" had a longer run, I would not hesitate recommending it to people for their first opera. They would find that opera is not as alien as they might suppose. Now that the Canadian Opera Company has moved into more abstruse repertoire, I am glad to see a company like Opera Ontario picking up the kind of large-scale operetta that the COC has seemingly abandoned. In future, I hope we see more of Johann Strauss, Franz Lehár and even Emmerich Kálmán in Hamilton and Kitchener. For, a production like this where all the elements come together can truly raise one's spirits. At the end of the show when the audience is showered from above with Pontevedrian banknotes, it suddenly seemed like New Year's Eve in May.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" (1939), one of the world's greatest novels, is also one of the least read. Joyce took the technique of stream-of-consciousness he used in "Ulysses" (1922) to its ultimate point in "Finnegans Wake" in what has been called "stream-of-unconsciousness". The dream-language of the novel, which Joyce called a "universal history", besides defying normal punctuation and grammar, has the highest quotient of polyglot word-play and allusion per line of any work ever written. A person has to surrender to this language in order to enter a realm where the world of myth and the world of the individual are one.
It thus might seem all the more impossible that this work could ever be successfully adapted for the stage. Yet Craig Walker, Artistic Director of Theatre Kingston, has accomplished this feat with great aplomb. Most stage adaptations of novels have two failings. Attention to character is often sacrificed to an attempt to cover as much plot as possible, and the language used to move the plot forward often becomes tediously prosaic compared to the detail and expansiveness a novel allows. Walker's adaptation avoids both these pitfalls. The novel itself has no conventional plot and is more concerned with the series of dreamlike transformations its archetypal family undergoes. As plays like "Stones in His Pockets" or "The Island" show, the natural mode of theatre is transformation where the attitude of play, in all its meanings, can change anything into anything else at will. It is the highly theatrical nature of Walker's adaptation and direction that makes the novel feel so at home on stage. Given the incredible richness of the source text, the language of the play, even when modified or translated from the original, never loses its sense of polyvalency. On the one hand, this means that is it pretty much impossible to catch every word, especially when the language is so full of nonce formations, allusions and puns. On the other hand, after some initial resistance, the mind pleasurably situates itself somewhere between consciously and subconsciously apprehending the action. It is an important achievement of the play to create in an audience this unusual but enjoyable mode of perception.
With the audience seated on either side of the playing area, the action takes place in the space between the opaque glass door and windows to the Salmon House pub and detailed bar (with one support rising as a gnarled tree trunk) designed by Lindsay Anne Black. The bar is surmounted by a inclined bed where our hero-dreamer, HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker or "Here Comes Everybody" inter alia) is discovered asleep with his wife ALP (Anna Livia Pluribelle or "Art, literature, politics" inter alia). We see HCE impugned with sinning with two girls in Dublin's Phoenix Park, his rise (up a ladder), his (literal) fall, his presumed death, and, laid out on the bar for his wake, his awakening or resurrection. Until dream-dispelling dawn, he and his wife and their battling twin sons, Shaun and Shem, and their daughter Izzy find their lives recapitulating every Western myth involving fathers, wives, sons, daughters, lovers, from the ancient legend of the giant Finn McCool to Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to figures of Joyce's own Ireland. Walker has each stage of the action, with chapter titles projected on the pub door, involve a different form of theatrical invention--whether it is two gossiping washerwomen by a blue cloth as the river Liffey "drying" their clothes on the knees of those in the front row, Shaun's fable of the Gracehoper and the Ondt played out with Black's clever puppets, HCE's supposed sin acted as a shadow play behind the pub door or the mimed Wagnerian opera of Tristan and Isolde. Irish dance and lively songs in the Irish style, also by Walker, and punctuate the action enhancing both the pub-like atmosphere and the nature of the play as performance. Kathryn MacKay's costumes set us in the specific period of the action, with Shem the artist clad as the young Joyce, while Dan Rider's inventive lighting plays a major role in grounding us in the reality of the pub or freeing us into the realm of myth.
Some episodes are modernized. Walker has made the riddles of Chapter 9 into a television quiz show complete with applause sign and has turned the homework section of Chapter 10 into an hilarious illustrated school lesson about cyclical interpretations of history and myth from Giambattista Vico past Joyce's own time to Northrop Frye. Both scenes link the action to the present while providing an overview of its themes and structure.
The cast is uniformly excellent, though, inevitably, some can project Joyce's/Walker's dream-language more clearly than others. It is invidious to single out members of such an ensemble piece, but I must say that Rosemary Doyle (ALP) navigates her way through some of the most difficult language in the play with particular clarity, while Mo Bock (HCE) perfectly captures the humour, anger and befuddlement of someone sleepwalking through the ever-changing landscape of his mind. Esther Barlow (Izzy), Mark Hauser (Shaun), Kevin Head (Tom), Patricia Murray (Kate) and Stephen Sheffer (Shem) all acquit themselves well both in their primary and subsidiary roles.
There is no doubt that the better you know the novel "Finnegans Wake" the more you will get out of the play, but then a thorough study of the novel is itself a life's work. The play basically gives us a cross-section of the novel attractive in its own right. My companion who knew nothing of the novel, had no trouble following the action or the transformations of the characters and clued into the sense if not every last word of the dialogue. For the adventurous theatre-goer "Finnegans Wake" will prove an exciting and illuminating evening not unlike the best offerings at the Shaw Festival's Court House Theatre. This is Theatre Kingston's first visit to Toronto. In view of this assured production and the high order of talent on display in all departments, let's hope a another visit is in the offing.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
As the Marivaux revival continues apace in Europe, John Van Burek continues his effort to make the 18th-century playwright better known in Canada. Last year his company, Pleiades Theatre, brought us Marivaux's most famous play "The Game of Love and Chance" (1730). This year they bring us "The Triumph of Love" (1732) again translated and directed by Van Burek. This production is more successful in a number of ways and shows why Marivaux's plays--written in elegant prose, aware of their own artifice, focussing on the psychology of the characters--should appeal more to an audience today than they did in their own time.
"The Triumph of Love" ("Le Triomphe de l'amour") plays like a cross between Shakespeare's "Love's Labours Lost" and "Twelfth Night". The work is set in the garden of the philosopher Hermocrate and his sister Léontine, who have foresworn the passionate world to devote themselves to reason and to raising Agis, in their care since rescued from prison where a usurping tyrant had confined his parents. Into the scene step Léonide, the current ruler of Sparta and niece of the now-dead tyrant, and her servant Corine. They have both disguised themselves as men to gain access to the philosopher's retreat and to Agis, with whom Léonide has been in love since first she saw him. In order not to be immediately ejected from the retreat, Léonide woos first Léontine in her male disguise as Phocion and then her brother in her female persona Aspasie. At the same time, she cannot reveal her real identity to Agis because she is afraid he will hate her because of her uncle's evil deeds. Léonide seems to sink ever deeper in a sea of lies as brother, sister and Agis announce their intention to marry her.
The retreat into philosophy from "Love's Labours Lost" thus replaces the posturing of Orsino and Olivia in "Twelfth Night". As Van Burek points out, Marivaux skewers the belief in his own time, especially as expounded by Voltaire, that the "logic of the mind" is more beautiful than "the chaos of the heart". At the same time, the play is proto-feminist fairy tale where it is the princess who braves the two dragons to rescue the captive prince and restore order. One is left amazed that such a marvellous play has not gained wider currency.
The central role of Léonide/Phocion/Aspasie is by far the longest and the most varied. Unfortunately, Amy Price-Francis is not quite up to its many demands. Initially, she carefully differentiates her roles as ruler, false female lover of Hermocrate, false male lover of Léontine and true female lover of Agis. But as the play progresses, these distinctions, so necessary to the part and to the comedy, dissolve and Price-Francis falls back on an all-purpose breathless delivery to signify emotional agitation regardless of context.
That the play succeeds despite this is due in large part to the assured performances of the rest of the cast. Philippa Domville is superb as a haughty woman who crumbles as she tries vainly to resist the belief that someone may actually desire her. Domville plays the role with such psychological subtlety her Léontine seems like a cousin of Racine's Phèdre. Ross Manson plays her brother's similar dilemma of principles versus feeling in a more broadly comic style. While Domville makes us feel uneasy that her character is so deceived, Manson makes us smile to see a philosophical charlatan exposed.
Allan Hawco, only a year out of the National Theatre School, shows great promise as Agis. He is expert at playing conflicting emotions as when, having just proclaimed his hatred of women, he realizes that his new-found best friend is really a girl or later when he shows Agis's pain at being rejected mingling with his anger at Léonide's multiple deceptions.
Among the various servants, Helen Taylor makes a positive impression although the plucky Corine, even as the male Hermidas, has little to do. Paul Fauteux as Hermocrate's valet Harlequin uses an acting style completely unlike the others, his poses and hand gestures constantly recalling this figure's commedia dell'arte ancestry. Despite this directorial decision, Fauteux allows quirky individuality to shine through this generic exterior. A degree lower than the house servants is Damis the gardener, given a hilarious performance by Michael-Spencer-Davis. Van Burek has translated the dialect of the original into colloquial Canadian speech, so that Damis's phrases like "No big deal" provoke laughter merely by their incongruity. Spencer-Davis's deadpan delivery and hangdog look as he schleps about the stage make his performance along with Domville's the most memorable of the evening.
Van Burek has given us a clear, modern translation of this masterpiece, preserving the elegance of Marivaux's extended sentences. It is therefore all the more puzzling that as director he should choose to give the play too rapid a pace. He allows Price-Francis to barrel through her lines in the second half as if speed of elocution were more important than sense. Léontine, Hermocrate and Agis all face dilemmas that completely unravel their previous views of themselves. They deserve more breathing space to ponder, and we to relish, their strange predicaments.
Andjelija Djuric's set and costumes ingeniously blend or juxtapose 18th- with 21st-century styles. Two Louis XV chairs stand in a grove of thin-trunked trees, but the stage legs are of translucent plastic with stylized branches behind which loom two inner borders, the second one mirrored and reflecting the audience. This visually reinforces both the conscious artifice of the play and its modernity. Léonide's costume--an 18th-century frock coat covering a sexy red velvet body stocking--reveals her as a modern woman acting within antiquated strictures. For Agis and his guardians, three characters in conflict with themselves, Djuric blends both styles. One seldom sees designs like these that so intelligently use a contrast of periods as a mode of interpretation.
Justin Haynes attempts to do the same in his music, with minuets drifting into jazz fusion and vice versa. Paul Mathiesen's lighting subtly controls mood except for abrupt shifts to a spotlight for the characters' asides.
Despite imperfections, this is a lively production, well worth seeing for anyone with a love for classic theatre, French or otherwise. As with Pleiades Theatre's offering last year, this production makes it clear that Marivaux's delightful plays should not be rarities but standard repertoire.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Colas et Colinette", written in 1790 by Joseph Quesnel (1746-1809), a Frenchman who had settled in Canada, is the first original piece of music theatre composed in North America. Yet it was Godfrey Rideout's reconstruction of the work in 1963 that made it and Quesnel known throughout Canada. Quesnel's only other surviving work "Lucas et Cécile", also an opera, was advertised for production in 1808 but never performed.
Like the earlier work, "Lucas et Cécile" is a "comédie mêlée d'ariettes" (comedy interspersed with songs). What Rideout did for "Colas" in the 1960s John Beckwith had done for "Lucas" in the 1980s. The only problem was that, while the complete libretto had survived for "Colas", "Lucas" had only its "ariettes" but no "comédie". At this point enters the small independent opera company, Opera Anonymous, to commission a libretto from Brad Walton, known for his witty prologues to performances by Opera Atelier and for the cult opera "The Loves of Wayne Gretzky". This English version with aria translations by Alexander Wiebe had its world première at the Glenn Gould Studio on May 25. It is a resounding success. Walton has created a lively and humorous context for those "ariettes" that should make "Lucas" as well-known as "Colas".
Walton has ingenious concocted a plot to make sense of the seventeen musical numbers of the surviving autograph score. In it he is true to the comic conventions and to the social concerns of the period. Like Catherine Johnson's extraordinarily clever book for "Mamma Mia!", Walton's dialogue sets up the arias so naturally it seems more as if he has merely translated the original libretto rather than supplied a new one. Add to that its abundant wit and comic invention and one is convinced Walton has supplied the perfect foil for Quesnel's little musical gems. Wiebe's translations of these arias are so expert one would think they were the original texts.
Walton's plot is suitably simple. Lucas and Cécile are in love but her parents oppose their relationship. Cécile's father, a rich farmer, is consumed with the notion of progress and believes his daughter's only hope of rising in status is by marrying the educated grammar school teacher Du Sotin. To marry Lucas, a farmer who is illiterate and "imperfect of hygiene", means Cécile and her children will never rise in the world. Needless to say, Du Sotin lives up to the central syllable of his name ("sot" = fool) and proves to be an egotistical dandy concerned not with love but Cécile's dowry.
Tenor Brian Duyn, a fine singer and good actor, was well cast as the down-to-earth Lucas. A few weak top notes aside, he made Lucas an ardent and thoroughly likeable fellow. The thinnish speaking voice of Marcia Bunston as Cécile gave no hint of her rich soprano that made one wish Quesnel (or Beckwith) had added more ornamentation to show it off. As Thérèse, Cécile's mother, Nina Scott-Stoddart was a joy. Not only does have a lovely, clear-toned mezzo voice but she is an excellent comedian who immediately won over the audience. Though buffo baritone Ross Darlington playing the Mathurin the father, was fine in his singing, he was not word perfect in his dialogue, causing the comic momentum of the work to falter. Tenor Shawn Henry, however, made Du Sotin, along with Thérèse, the most engaging character of the show. His posing and gestures, pompous and effete, told us his character before he said or sang a word. His reading of a ridiculous poem written about the sleeping Cécile, likening her bosom to milk and himself to a cat, was the non-musical highlight of the show. David Mosey was suitable grave as the headmaster who has found Du Sotin to be a fraud.
Edward Franko's unfussy stage direction always found the humour in the work without gimmickry. Conductor Kevin Mallon drew a fine performance from the 11-piece Aradia Ensemble with crisp rhythms and a beautifully blended tone. The music, as in "Colas and Colinette", sounds much like very early Mozart, not profound but filled with pleasing melodies. To replace the absent overture, Aradia gave a lovely reading of the Symphonie op. 3, no. 4 by Johann Christian Bach, a contemporary of Quesnel. Matti Sevink designed the attractive costumes, exaggerated as might be expected for would-be "bourgeois gentilhomme" of a father, his wife and the pedant. Toomas Kilp provided the unobtrusive lighting.
It would be sad after the fine work of Beckwith, Walton and Wiebe in resurrecting this charming opera if it should live for only one performance. Luckily, Opera Anonymous has announced that it hopes to tour the show throughout Ontario in the 2002-2003 season. As a blend of talent old and new, this Canadian confection will give you two hours of unassuming pleasure.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile