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- | - If Cows Could Fly - | - Laura - | - Merchant of Venice - | - Night of the Assasins -| - Private Lives - | - Sound of Music - | - Twelfth Night - | - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - | -

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More 2001 Reviews: Here and Here and Here and Here and Here

Private Lives
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, May 31-November 4, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Both the Stratford and the Shaw Festivals have produced hugely successful revivals of Noel Coward's scintillating 1930 comedy "Private Lives". In 1978 Robin Phillips' production for Stratford starred Brian Bedford, Maggie Smith, Nicholas Pennell and Andrea Martin. In 1983 Denise Coffey's production for the Shaw starred Christopher Newton, Fiona Reid, Jim Mezon and Nicola Cavendish. While this, Stratford's second production, does not reach the same degree of perfection as either of the two mentioned, it is still highly enjoyable and should prove very popular.

"Private Lives" is probably Coward's finest play. In its symmetry and it high ratio of wit per line, it is a worthy successor to Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest". We meet Elyot and Amanda Chase, who after a stormy marriage have been divorced for five years and have now remarried. As coincidence will have it, both couples have been given adjacent rooms with access to the same terrace in the same hotel in the south of France on the first night of their respective honeymoons. On meeting again, both Elyot and Amanda realize they are still in love and flee their new spouses, Sibyl and Victor, to seek refuge in Amanda's Paris flat. Confusion ensues.

Beneath its glittering surface of epigrammatic wit the play is a satire on all forms of conventionality-of femininity (in Sibyl), masculinity (in Victor), marriage, religion, the integrity of the individual and even of death. As director, Brian Bedford is fully aware of these depths. He subtly brings these themes out through slight emphases or by slowing the pace without endangering the overall rhythm of the play. This is most noticeable in Act 2, when Bedford allows a mood of reflection to settle over the play-acting of Elyot and Amanda so that we see their apparent flippancy as a mode of thumbing their noses at the cruel joke time plays on us all. It is greatly to Bedford's credit that he makes us see so clearly the existential point to Coward's seeming frivolity.

As an actor Bedford shows off yet again his impeccable sense of comic timing. Few actors at Stratford can accomplish so much with quick glance or a slight pause before a key word. The one worrying aspect of his performance is the self-congratulatory way he has taken to delivering his lines. This tends to remove the freshness from Coward's dialogue and with it its humour since one never feels that the actor has bothered to merge with his role. In fact, for much of the play Bedford speaks his lines directly to the audience rather than to the other actors as if he were a commentator on the action rather than a participant. This is, I suspect, one of the pitfalls of self-direction.

Sparring with Bedford, Seana McKenna (Amanda) inevitably comes off second-best in timing. (Indeed, only Maggie Smith is his equal.) McKenna has a tendency, especially in Act 2, to begin every sentence on the same squeaky high note before descending into a normal tone of voice. This repeated pattern of intonation is distracting and lessens the impact of what she says. On the other hand, she makes Amanda a far more real character than Bedford does Elyot. While Bedford gives little sense of what Elyot is really like, other than beautiful speaker of clever lines, McKenna gives Amanda a more fully rounded personality showing that quirks and fears underlie her seeming triviality.

Wayne Best and Sarah Dodd play the new spouses. Best is good at capturing Victor's bluster and self-satisfaction, but this one-note approach misses the point, stated outright in the text, that beneath all his pretense of manliness, Victor is actually a coward. Sarah Dodd, in her most important role yet at Stratford, is a thoroughly delightful Sibyl. With her spot-on timing, crisp delivery and adroit gestures, she may be the comic actress that Stratford has long been lacking. Kim Horsman, returning to Stratford after an absence of eleven years, makes memorable the small part of Louise, Amanda's grumbling, sneezing, French-speaking maid.

John Lee Beatty's sets and Jane Greenwood's costumes are not consistent with the time of the action or the background of the characters. In Act 1 while Kevin Fraser's lighting conjures up a soft, moonlit evening, Beatty presents us with attractive rooms of a grand hotel on the Côte d'Azur and Greenwood clothes Amanda and Sibyl in appropriately light, flowing summer dresses. But by Act 2, set only "a few days later" according to the stage directions, Greenwood shifts forward two seasons to give Amanda an overdone winter-weight suit. Meanwhile, the flat Beatty gives her for Acts 2 and 3 is a Belle Époque mansard renovated to look more like an art deco bank vault than a private apartment and is filled with a miscellany of unattractive furniture. Beatty and Greenwood seem to think Amanda is guilty of the bad taste of a nouveau riche, contrary to any such indications in the text. One would think they could somehow have more appropriately reflected the elegance of Amanda's wit and person.

All of the various difficulties I've mentioned in acting and design prevent this "Private Lives" from ranking with the best productions of the past. Yet, for most people these problems will not matter. In overall impact Bedford's taut direction, his insight into the text and the actors' clear, natural delivery of Coward's sparkling dialogue transcend these flaws to reveal how great a comedy "Private Lives" really is.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Twelfth Night
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford, May 29-November 2, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Twelfth Night" is the least necessary Shakespeare revival on this season's Stratford Festival playbill. Of the Festival's 49 seasons "Twelfth Night" had 3 productions in the first 25. In the following 24 seasons it has had 6 more. Anyone approaching a play too often produced will have to have something new to say to justify another mounting. Antoni Cimolino, directing for the first time at the Festival Theatre, does not. Rather than arriving at a fresh interpretation, Cimolino's inexperience leads him to imitate some of the worst habits of other Shakespeare productions at the Festival. Albert Schultz's low-budget "Twelfth Night" for Soulpepper last year is still the clearest and most incisive production of the play I have yet seen. Cimolino's production proves that a big budget, lots of costumes and even veteran actors cannot make up for a lack of directorial insight.

The play begins with Duke Orsino's famous lines: "If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken and so die". The return to normality after surfeit is the theme of the play and the reason it is set on Twelfth Night, the last day of the Christmas season. Cimolino is able to find this theme in the main plot involving the self-indulgently romantic Orsino, but not in Olivia, who has mourned her brother for more than a year and will entertain no male visitors. As Cimolino has Michelle Giroux play it, Olivia, contrary to the text is not deeply in mourning at all. That she should fall in love with Orsino's messenger, the girl Viola disguised a boy, thus loses its point. The same is true in the subplot involving Olivia's cousin Sir Toby Belch, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia pompous servant Malvolio. Unlike Albert Schultz, Cimolino shows no understanding of how the subplot is related to the main plot and treats it as merely a series of farcical interludes. He has missed the fact that Sir Toby is as guilty of excess as Orsino and Olivia in the way he toys with other people like Aguecheek and Malvolio. Like Orsino and Olivia he, too, surfeits on the excess of his own joking as he states outright in Act 4. Cimolino ignores the text and tries foolishly to milk humour out of Feste's taunting of the imprisoned Malvolio when Sir Toby and Feste have both had enough of their prank. To miss the connection of the central theme to Olivia, Toby and Feste shows only a superficial understanding of the play. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Cimolino gives not one visual hint that the action is occurring on Twelfth Night.

A former assistant director to Richard Monette, Cimolino has fallen into Monette's now-standard anything-for-a-joke style. After having done very well at building up a believable, detailed world on stage, Cimolino destroys it by making Sir Toby and Aguecheek so over-the-top and Malvolio's letter and cross-gartered scenes so cartoonish that any sense of realism, theatrical or psychological, is lost. He has moved Shakespeare's Illyria to Greece in the 1920s, it seems, only for its local colour. Change of location has no point unless it has some interpretative function. Here is does not.

Cimolino is not helped by designer Francesca Callow. Superficially she captures the look of Greek village costumes, but, like Cimolino, has no sense of the importance of social status in their chosen time and place. Why do they allow Malvolio to appear in his undershirt before his mistress when he is purposely trying to impress her? Why does she costume Olivia's maid more extravagantly than her mistress? Why does she give Olivia a spring dress that makes her look more like a streetwalker than a countess?

While his lighting for the opening storm scene is very effective, Steven Hawkins' low-intensity dappling for most outdoor scenes never captures the crisp, clear light that Greece is known for, even when characters speak of the bight sunlight. Berthold Carrière has provided pleasant setting for Feste's well-known songs and some lively bouzouki music, but why do we keep hearing "Lara's Theme" from "Dr. Zhivago" as a leitmotif if this is Greece?

Besides important weaknesses in direction and design, the production suffers from weaknesses in acting. Neither Sean Arbuckle (Orsino) nor Michelle Giroux (Olivia) has the technique to play such major roles. Neither is capable of expressing more than one emotion at a time and switch from one to the next as if changing lanes. Arbuckle has poor voice control and Giroux never varies her intonation or her gestures. On the other hand, James Blendick (Sir Toby), Michael Therriault (Aguecheek) and Peter Donaldson (Malvolio) are known to be fine actors, but, as directed by Cimolino, Therriault's pratfalls and the over-emphatic acting of both Blendick and Donaldson soon become tiresome.

On the plus side, Tara Rosling (Viola) in her Stratford debut is a real find. She has an unusual voice, but unlike Arbuckle or Giroux, she gives her character detail and nuance. Domini Blythe (Maria) has such presence she lights up whatever scene she appears in. And William Hutt (Feste) could teach the younger generation volumes about phrasing, comic timing and sotto voce projection. In lesser roles Nicolas Van Burek (Sebastian), Paul Dunn (Fabian) and Robert King (Antonio) all do well, but John Dolan (Captain and alternate for Feste), in an otherwise clearly-spoken production, is alone in being incomprehensible.

One would think that being Executive Director of the North America's largest repertory theatre would be a full-time job. But Antoni Cimolino obviously wants to add to his handful of past directing credits. Directors working at Stratford should be the very best in their field, not just those who want to keep a hand in. To maintain its vitality Stratford needs to seek out some of the large number of innovative and experienced directors Canada has brought forth. Judging from this superficial "Twelfth Night," Cimolino should stay behind his desk.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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The Merchant of Venice
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford, May 28- November 3. 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

It seemed fitting in the trial scene of Act V when Nicolas Van Burek playing Gratiano accidentally knocked the scales off the desk of Paul Soles (Shylock). Soles was not able to put the scales back together and neither was his fine performance able to save a show knocked terribly off-kilter by the poor direction of Richard Monette. Only during the trial scene did any modicum of tension arise, but coming after four acts of tedium this was far too late. Anyone who saw Marti Maraden's highly intelligent production in 1996 will gain nothing from this new "Merchant".

The main difficulty is that Monette's direction seems totally unengaged with the play. As with his "School for Scandal" in 1999, his rudimentary blocking has more to do with abstract patterns than with communicating characters' relationships. It is as if there were a large X across the Festival Theatre stage. In virtually every scene Monette lines up the actors along one or both of these diagonals. The character with the longest speech stands in the centre of the X to be replaced after a shuffle with the next character with a long speech. One notices this pattern within the first half hour. Two and a half more hours do not make it more interesting. Since the pattern is unrelated to the dramatic action, the effect is more like seeing a dull pageant than a play with any pretense to realism.

The show gets off to a bad start with an under-rehearsed opening where Bassanio explains his plight to his friend Antonio. It is so tentative the the set-up for the play's action is left unclear. Things get worse with the introduction of Launcelot Gobbo, who in fleeing his master Shylock debates his decision with his conscience played by a squeaky rag doll. I realize that Monette likes to include stuffed toys in every show he directs as a type of signature, but after thirteen years this joke has worn very thin. Monette's direction of Paul Dunn (Gobbo) seems inspired more by the slapstick of Sunday morning cartoons (including a whoopee cushion) than by Shakespeare. We reach the nadir of the show with the arrival of the Prince of Morocco, the first of Portia's suitors. Monette switches from a cartoon to a racial stereotype that not just Arab-Canadians will find offensive. Did Monette forget that this is a play about the evils of stereotyping? Why else would he ask us to laugh when the Prince bows to pray and bangs his head? Why does he have him belly-dance or brandish his scimitar and cry out like a samurai as if the Near and Far East were the same? With these antics and the impossibly thick accent he gives the Prince of Aragon, the meaning of the casket scenes--that we cannot judge by externals--is completely lost and the underlying seriousness of the play totally derailed. The ending with a spotlight on Jessica weeping at Shylock's fate would be good, but by then Monette's misjudgements have long since taught us to distrust the production.

Good acting can seldom overcome poor direction. Unluckily, with few exceptions, the acting in this "Merchant" is only adequate at best. The major exception is Paul Soles as Shylock. Soles, making his Stratford debut at age 70, is playing the part originally meant for Al Waxman, who died in January. Soles is the only actor to give his character any realism or depth. While he does not project the same power and subtext that Douglas Rain did in 1996, he avoids any of the staginess of Brian Bedford in 1989. He portrays Shylock as an ordinary, imperfect human being whose daughter's elopement with a Christian motivates his insistence on having his "pound of flesh". It is sad that his interpretation should occur in such a poor production.

Lucy Peacock gives a proficient performance as Portia, though without the nuance stronger direction could have provided. The love between her and Bassanio is so mismananged that her aggressiveness in pursuing Shylock at the trial seems like unmotivated hatred. This makes her such a villain the comedy of the lost rings at the end doesn't work. Sarah Dodd (Nerissa) is excellent as her comic foil. In small roles Joseph Shaw (Old Gobbo) and Raymond O'Neill (Salerio) acquit themselves well. There are difficulties with all the remaining actors. Peter Hutt's Antonio is a one-dimensional bigot, filled with suppressed rage and little else. Donald Carrier (Bassanio) spouts Shakespearean syllables but communicates none of their meaning. He is such a cold fish, even when he wins Portia's hand, it is impossible to guess what Portia sees in him. David Snelgrove (Lorenzo) is bland and Adrienne Gould (his beloved Jessica) delivers all her lines with the same intonation. Brian Tree's Duke of Venice seems more a nonentity than a high authority. As Bassanio's friends Nicolas Van Burek (Gratiano) and Timothy Askew (Solanio) do nothing but shout. And the trouble with Paul Dunn (Launcelot Gobbo), Rami Posner (Prince of Morocco) and Tim MacDonald (Prince of Aragon) is not their acting per se but the imbecilities they are asked to perform.

The show is at least lovely to look at thanks to Ann Curtis's period Venetian costumes. Her research has led to the inclusion of yellow rouelles used at the time to identify male Jews. Kevin Fraser's lighting is generally murky, save for the odd spotlight, and his use of lights representing stars extending onto the walls on either side of the stage makes Belmont look more like Las Vegas. Loreena McKennitt's song settings are all pleasant, but the Middle Eastern motif repeated for every appearance of Shylock or Jessica soon becomes tiresome. Monette actually resorts to suspense music, just as in a movie, in an effort to supply the tension good direction would have done.

Monette recently told the Toronto Star that "the work we are doing here [in Stratford] is comparable to any other Shakespeare that's being done in the world--and probably better". Anyone who saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's four outstanding productions in Ann Arbor just two months ago and who then sees this "Merchant" will find Monette's statement ludicrous.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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The Sound of Music
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford, May 31-November 4, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Forty-two years after it first appeared on Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" is more popular than ever. This is largely due to Robert Wise's 1965 film version starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Usually, a film of a musical is considered as only one possible version of it while subsequent stage productions continue to redefine it. This has happened recently with Sam Mendes's stage version of "Cabaret" that now makes the film version look weak by comparison. Wise's Oscar-winning film, however, has such a perfect mix of song, scenery and sentiment that in the popular mind it has become the definitive version of the work, making it difficult for any stage version to compete with it.

Kelly Robinson's production for the Stratford Festival shows that this musical really belongs on the stage. He is so successful in finding its theatrical vitality that once audiences adjust to the differences between the stage and screen versions, I have no doubt they will want to see the Stratford production again and again.

People who know only the film will have to accommodate themselves to the various ways it has diverged from the stage musical. Maria and the Abbess sing "My Favourite Things" so that later when frightened by a thunderstorm Maria and the children sing "Lonely Goatherd". Frau Schraeder, a music-hater in the film, and Max sing two numbers cut from the film with Georg von Trapp--"How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way to Stop It". In the film Frau Schraeder breaks with Georg because she realizes he really loves Maria; in the stage version Georg breaks with her for her willingness to collaborate with the Nazis. Rather being off-putting, exposure to the original ought to spark many lively debates about the merits of each.

Director Kelly Robinson and designer Ruari Murchison seem intentionally to have made the show look as unlike the film as possible as if to tell us "Leave your preconceptions at the door". For one thing the palette for the costumes is completely different with pinks and greens replacing the dominant blues and lavenders of the film. We enter to find the wooden Festival stage covered with a circular floor of orange marble. The wooden balcony and staircases are removed so that a rock face can rise from the floor to just below the orchestra loft. My first reaction was that such an abstract set seemed more suitable for Wagner than Rodgers and Hammerstein. And I certainly could have done without the hanging balcony, wide as the stage, covered in a row of pink Alps. While the set does not work very well for the interior of the von Trapp villa, it is excellent for the abbey, the outdoors and especially for the final scene at the music competition.

The primary reason this abstract, potentially forbidding set works is due to the lighting of Michael J. Whitfield. His endlessly inventive combinations of projected patterns with appropriate light levels for each time and place tells us instantly where we are and what time of day it is. The finale with its roving spotlights at the concert and its chill light as the family hides in the convent are quite thrilling.

In his first show on the Festival stage, Robinson directs with great assurance. He makes full use of the stage (and the auditorium) and has created such a natural flow of action that several directors of Shakespeare for that stage could learn much from him. His direction blends seamlessly with Sergio Trujillo's exciting choreography. In fact, it is this highly inventive choreography--the extended balletic sequence for Liesl and Rolf after "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", the clever movements accompanying "Do Re Mi" and "So Long, Farewell" plus the beautiful ländler and waltzes--that will win people over to the stage version.

Aside from two problems, the cast is very fine. It's too bad the two problems are Cynthia Dale (Maria) and C. David Johnson (Georg von Trapp). Dale, with her lower voice and gamine looks, is a fine alternative to Julie Andrews. She sings the well-know songs beautifully and with very clear diction. The problem is that to project Maria's impetuosity and vivacity, she speaks her lines for more than half of the show as rapidly as possible. Without the nuances of varied speech patterns, her Maria becomes one-dimensional. The opposite is true of Johnson. He uses the dialogue to show that Georg's strictness is really a cover for a man with feelings. The problem is that he can't sing, causing a few cringe-making moments during "Edelweiss" in the concert scene.

The children--Shannon Taylor (Liesl), Jordan Dawe (Friedrich), Megan Barker (Louisa), Adam Dolson (Kurt), Lisa Manis (Brigitta), Alicia Thompson (Marta), Aislinn Paul (Gretl)--are extraordinarily good. As one might expect 7-year-old Aislinn steals every scene she's in, but the level of talent of these young actors is so high that one admires them because they're good at what they do not just because they're cute. The other actors are all well cast. Jeanne Lehman (Mother Abbess) not only delivers the operatic "Climb Every Mountain" everyone expects but gives a personality to a character who can seem merely symbolic. Cory O'Brien (Rolf) is a fine singer and athletic dancer. The dance, a pas de deux really, between him and Shannon Taylor is the highpoint of the evening. Mary Ann McDonald (Else Schraeder) and Raymond O'Neill (Max Detweiler) seem exactly like two characters from a 1940s movie come to life--she the vamp, he the talent scout. The 1965 film makes a point about Frau Schraeder's dislike of music, but McDonald's clear voice and O'Neill's adeptness at comedy should persuade people to accept the very different way these two are presented in the stage version.

"The Sound of Music" is often accused of being just so much kitsch and hokum. Robinson's approach, with the aid of Murchison's abstract set, suggests that, although based on the real Trapp Family Singers, the musical is really a fairy tale in historical disguise, where Cinderella wins the Prince not by shoe size but song. The show should make a perfect family outing. For anyone wanting holiday from cynicism, book now.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford, May 29-November 2, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Whoever thought to have Noel Coward's "Private Lives" and Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" play on the Avon stage in the same season made a very clever decision. Both plays involve two couples who bicker and tear strips off each other. Both involve violence and swapping of partners. But while the threats in Coward play are never serious, they are in Albee as George and Martha and their two unsuspecting guests Nick and Honey are forced through a dark night of the soul to see the illusions that have guided their lives vanish with the dawn.

American director William Carden has given the Stratford Festival a mediocre production redeemed by some great performances. Frequent theatre-goers will know that only three years ago Ontario saw a much finer production directed by Michael Shamata at the Grand Theatre in London. Both productions starred Peter Donaldson as George. That Donaldson was so much more effective in London underscores for me how much more incisive Shamata's direction was than Carden's.

Carden's production pulls its punches. This may make it easier on the audience, but it is unfair to the play and the actors. He makes Act 1 of "Virginia Woolf" into such an all-out laugh riot one would never know the play had any depth . As a result, Act 2 suffers since he has taught the audience to laugh a things which said in a different intonation would not be funny at all. Only in Act 3 does he decides to get serious, but since he has not allowed the actors to give the multilayered performances they could have done, the act seems totally unrelated to the rest of the play. The personality of the character Martha, for instance, seems miraculously to shift during the interval from brazen to reflective.

Shamata's production was so strong because he captured the real menace that lies so near the surface in the remarks of George, Martha and Nick. He allowed the variety in line delivery necessary to bring out the multiple layers of the text and the characters. This approach led to a steady increase of tension right up to the requiem at the very end. Carden does none of this. He is content to have Acts 1 and 2 played pretty much like a sitcom with the flattening of characters that implies. Act 3 is very well done, but lacks the richness and inevitability better preparation would have provided.

Carden is abetted in his superficial approach by the design. American designer Ray Recht has given us a typical Broadway set, a room filling the stage opening and crammed with detail to the point of fussiness. The trouble with such ultra-realism is that it has no interpretive function and thus could just as well suit Neil Simon as this particular play by Albee. In contrast, John Fergusson for Shamata provided a unit set on either side of which the back of the stage was visible. This immediately suggested the void that surrounds the action and of which all of the characters are afraid. Before each act it was rotated slightly to show how Albee re-views the relations of the four characters. Needless to say, a set like Recht's does none of this.

As is the Broadway habit, the set is overlit. Stifling Michael J. Whitfield's creativity, Carden asks for light levels so high the set looks like a bar with its cleaning lights on rather than anything connected to the nominal light sources on stage. This means that the break of dawn, so crucial to the play's symbolism, does not register. The one element of the design that does work are the costumes of Amela Baksic. She at least has taken her cue from the text with the black kimono she give Martha which helps link an image of her in the past with the present.

Given the narrow parameters Carden has given them, all four actors give fine to excellent performances. Carden knows from the text that Martha is "loud and vulgar". Therefore he has Martha Henry play Martha so big from the beginning that there is nowhere for her to go. This continues through the first two acts with diminishing returns. We really should not have to worry if her voice will give out. Where Shamata allowed Brenda Robins to show moments of fragility quite naturally from the start, Henry has to wait until Act 3 to show another side to her character. Subtlety and nuance are what we are used to from Henry and she uses the loosening of Carden's straightjacket to redeem the rest of the play with a stunning performance.

The same can be said of Peter Donaldson (George). Throughout Acts 1 and 2, Carden has Donaldson say virtually all his lines in the same deadpan manner because the contrast with the overloud Martha always gets a laugh. Released from these strictures in Act 3, Donaldson is finally allowed to characterize his part more fully, just as he did over all three acts for Shamata. Finally, we see that the plan to destroy Martha's illusions that Carden has George conceive in spite in Act 2 may really have been conceived in love.

Sean Arbuckle (Nick) is much better here than he was as Orsino in "Twelfth Night". As a guest, much of Nick's personality and allegiances are expressed in subtext. Since Carden is uninterested in subtext and since Nick is mostly passive in Act 3, Arbuckle never gets the chance to make him a forceful or clearly defined character. The surprise of the evening for me was the excellent performance of Claire Jullien (Honey). Honey seems like a simp but in fact is far more aware of things than she lets on. Jullien is fully alive to this and gives us glimpses of her awareness through the drunken stupor Honey uses as a cover.

It is regrettable that Shamata's finer production of this play for the Grand Theatre will have had less exposure than Carden's production for Stratford. Like "Long Day's Journey into Night", "Virginia Woolf" is seldom produced because of the great demands it makes on the actors and the audience. Carden has decided to reduce those demands by trivializing the play's first two acts. Still, he does finally rise to the occasion in the third act. For the sake of that third act and the performances that are at last allowed to bloom in it, I would recommend this production to anyone who has never seen the play on stage. At least that act gives a glimpse of how magnificent the whole work might have been in other hands.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Laura
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, May 24-July 14, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Last year when the Shaw Festival programmed J.B. Priestley's "Time and the Conways" in the usual mystery slot, I had hoped that the Festival had finally outgrown the need for these insubstantial entertainments. But "Conways" did not do well at the box office, so this year the Festival has compensated by programming two mysteries--"Laura" by Vera Caspary and George Sklar in the first half of the season and "Love from a Stranger" by Frank Vosper based on Agatha Christie in the second half. Even the musical this year is "The Mystery of Edwin Drood". In the past these mysteries have chiefly justified themselves by the strength of the acting and direction on display. With "Laura" flaws in acting, direction, design and in the play itself combine to produce a less than satisfactory evening's entertainment.

The story of "Laura" is best known through the 1944 movie by Otto Preminger that has become one of the classics of film noir. Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive, has been found murdered and the detective investigating the case becomes as obsessed with her as all the other men in her life. Vera Caspary with the help of George Sklar wrote a play based on her 1942 novel but producers showed no interest in it until after the movie appeared. Even then the play was not a success, closing on Broadway after only 44 performances. Seeing the play only confirms that Caspary and Sklar, who did not write the screenplay to the film, were just not very adept at translating the novel to the stage. Neither the characters nor their motives are clearly delineated, the language is often awkward and, damagingly, there is little sense of mystery or suspense.

Director Neil Munro's trademarks of overlapping dialogue and placing actors behind furniture or with backs turned to the audience tends to further obfuscate the material. He quashes virtually all the humour in the play except for a few lines of Laura's maid, humour that would provided some contrast to the tedious goings-on. As if still under the spell of Priestley, Munro is keen to make us wonder when the action we see is happening and even if it happened. He does this by giving the actor playing the detective exactly the same complex routine after entering at the beginning, middle and end of the play. At the end as at the beginning, formerly empty seats when suddenly illumined by a flick of his cigarette lighter briefly reveal the ghostly cast of characters while the detective contemplates Laura's portrait. This is brilliant in itself, but it's hard for us to ask whether all we have seen is real or only the detective's reverie when the story itself has been so uninvolving. Inexcusably for this kind of play, Munro has staged the final shootout in such an ambiguous way that much of the audience could be overheard to wonder who was or was not dead at the end.

The difficulties are increased by Yvonne Sauriol's peculiar set design. At Laura's penthouse apartment the walk-out terrace is half a storey higher than the living-room. Thus not just the living-room but the whole apartment must be "sunken". This makes the final chase scene very awkward and one crucial entrance impossible to understand. In mysteries as in farces the geography of the set has to be absolutely clear. We have to know who is where and what leads where or no tension can be built. Here the set is confusing and over-fussy. Sauriol provides six planes of action while Munro almost exclusively uses only three. Her costumes, however, are all straightforward and appropriate to character. Ereca Hassel provides the highly complex lighting, including fades within fades, that Munro requires.

Usually the Shaw heightens the theatrical interest of its mysteries by casting them with its most experienced actors. This is largely true in "Laura" except in the title role. Jane Perry, in her first major role at the Festival, does not capture the complexities of her character. Laura is an ordinary but plucky woman who has been made over into a successful sophisicate by her Pygmalion, an acid-tongued journalist named Waldo Lydecker. As in Shaw's version of the legend, this Eliza Doolittle has come to surpass her creator much to his chagrin. To understand the story it is crucial to see this, but Perry gives us only an ordinary woman playing at sophistication, not the creation reclaiming ownership of herself. It is also crucial that there be some sexual magnetism between Laura and the detective, but here there is none.

It is good to see Michael Ball (Waldo) playing something other than the crotchety old men he is usually assigned. For the 1940s the hints are as clear as they could be that Waldo is a homosexual, but to play this up too much, as Ball does, means we don't take he claim seriously that he loves Laura. He does indeed love her--not as a person but as his possession. As Detective Mark McPherson, Ben Carlson communicates a general world-weariness rather than a specific obsession with Laura. In this the script gives him no help and neither does Munro, who is content to show this by having Carlson stare at Laura's portrait and play her music.

The secondary roles are all well taken. Stephen McQuigge, in his Shaw Festival début, makes a strong impression as the teenager, Danny Dorgan, obsessed with Laura and so does Patricia Hamilton as the landlady and Danny's worried mother. Kevin Bundy makes Shelby Carpenter, Laura's leech of a Southern suitor, suitably weak-willed. But Mary Haney, playing Laura's maid Bessy, the only character who seems at all true to life, injects the play with much-need humour and can bring down the house with her delivery of such simple lines as "Dinner is served".

All in all this production is a disappointment. If, after seeing the play, you try to sort out your confusion by renting the film version, I can tell you, you will only find yourself even more confused since it and the play diverge in several important ways. Only the original novel will clear up the difficulties that Caspary and Sklar created in adapting the novel to the stage and that Neil Munro's direction has only made worse.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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If Cows Could Fly
Artword Theatre, Toronto, June 21 to July 14, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Paula Citron, Classical 96 & 103 FM

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One of Artword Theatre's specialties is producing solo productions about the Canadian experience. Currently, Artword is running Allan Merovitz's musical play "If Cows Could Fly" about growing up Jewish in the Ottawa Valley. Because Canada is a land of immigrants, these stories have a wide appeal because, in effect, each is a reflection of why our own families came to a new land.

Merovitz is most familiar as the former lead singer of the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, and music plays a large part in "If Cows Could Fly". The singer is blessed with a light, expressive, folk song voice, and the show cleverly interweaves Yiddish and Klezmer songs with Ottawa Valley Celtic fiddle music. Merovitz is supported by musicians Jarl Anderson and Ronald Weihs who also supply appropriate sound effects when needed. Merovitz is a gamin-like, energetic, charming performer who portrays all the various and eccentric characters with gusto. Weihs also directs with just the right touch of both humour and pathos.

The first part of Merovitz's story is his maternal grandfather's flight from Poland and cross-European journey until his final destination in Canada. The second half picks up Merovitzx's family in Smith Falls, where his Zaide finally settled. While the change of scene could be smoother with a few more details, the contrast is fascinating - his Zaide leaving to find a better life, and the life that the family ultimately found, both the good and the bad.

"If Cows Could Fly" is running at Artword Theatre until Jul. 14. I'm Paula Citon, arts reviewer for CLASSICAL 96 & 103 FM.

 

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Night of the Assassins
Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto, July 5-14, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Among the 105 entries in this the 13th edition of the Toronto Fringe Festival is the English-Canadian première of "Night of the Assassins" ("La noche de los asesinos") by the Cuban playwright José Triana. The play first published in 1964 probably owes too much in theme and structure to Jean Genêt's classic "The Maids" published 17 years earlier to have gained a foothold in the international repertoire. Nevertheless, as the HAM Theatre production demonstrates, "Assassins" has merits of its own.

Where in Genêt's play two maids who are also sisters fantasize about and ritually enact the death of their hated mistress, in Triana's play a brother and his two sisters fantasize about and ritually enact the death of their hated parents. In both, themes of alienation, domination and submission are explored through role-playing. But where Genêt focuses primarily on power and the meaning of power in a meaningless universe, Triana, who fled Cuba in 1954, focuses on change and how change can be defined in a absurd world. In Genêt we actually see Madame the object of the maids' hatred. In Triana we see the parents only as they are acted out by the three children, all taking turns at the roles. Indeed, the children act out not only these roles but those of visiting friends, the policemen investigating the murder, the lawyers at the trial, the psychotherapist for the boy and even the Devil and Death. The children not only mentally enact the murder every night and imagine its future consequences, they also act out for each other the past injustices that have led to their hatred and even the flawed relationship of their parents, the source of their parents' harshness. The children dimly seem to recognize that their parents feel as trapped in their lives as parents as they do as children. It may be this realization that has kept the murder only in the realm of fantasy. But just as there is no unity between parent and child there is none among the children who continually bully and threaten each other. Oppression has bred oppression.

As one might imagine this kind of play makes huge demands on the actors. While all three could learn more about diction, emphasis and voice control, they do manage the hard part of making it absolute clear what role they are playing when even when there are shifts from one line to the next. Hart Massey plays Lalo, the oldest and the one assigned to do the deed should they ever bring themselves to do it. He generally is overly vehement and calls attention to his acting even in his primary role. In contrast, Juana Awad as Cuca the next oldest and Marilo Nunez as Beba the youngest, are quite natural in their roles and capture more the sense of children playing a morbid game.

Mark Christmann has directed the play intelligently though at only 70 minutes within a 90-minute time slot, the play could have benefited from a less breakneck pace. Lina Falomkina's design is not attractive and she leaves us unclear as to the children's ages. Triana probably intends some parallel between these three children and those ancient parenticidal siblings Orestes, Electra and Chrysothemis, but nothing appears either in the direction or design to bring this out. Paul Cegys provides the versatile lighting and Pedro Ojeda and Juan Carlos Valencia the live music which Christmann uses to good effect and could have used more often. The play would be more effective in a more up-to-date translation than Sebastian Doggart's. Yet, whatever the failings of the production, this is a rare chance to see a play by Cuba's most famous playwright. Anyone interested in the Latin American drama or byways of absurdism should not hesitate.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

 

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