Fanny's First Play (1911) had the longest initial run of any play by Bernard Shaw. The current production at the Shaw Festival, the third in the company's history, makes clear why this should have been while proving that the work is still immensely enjoyable today. The play is an unabashed comedy with layer upon layer of satire building up to the point where virtually everything anyone says has one or more barbs attached. Todd Hammond, in his first major directing assignment at the Shaw, has been given a dream cast for this play which they bring off with great panache.
In the Induction to the play we meet the eccentric Count O'Dowda, who is so disgusted with the crassness of England and the modern age that he has moved to Venice where he lives and dresses as if it were still the 18th century. Although he has striven to keep his daughter Fanny unaware of the real world, he has sent her away to his own university, Cambridge. There she has written a play. To fulfill her wish he has hired professional actors to perform it and invited four London critics to see it in a private performance. Little does he suspect that the play will be an exposé of the futility of parental control of a child's experience and a satire on the notion of respectability. In the comically heavy-handed way of a novice playwright, Fanny introduces us to two families, the Gilbeys and the Knoxes, who each have to deal with the shame that their own carefully reared child has spent a fortnight in jail and has kept company with the most unsuitable kind of person. Both families are brought together in a conclusion filled with surprises where conventional morality is turned upside down. In the Epilogue we learn the verdicts of the four critics and Fanny's father on Fanny's first play.
Shaw's play is a delightful confection. Not only does he take aim at his usual targets of British hypocrisy and adulation of hierarchy, but also satirizes low-budget theatricals, dramatic conventions, theatre criticism and even himself. Without its frame Fanny's play's strict symmetry, epigrams and topsy-turvy finale make it seem very much like Oscar Wilde shading into Eugene Ionesco. Hammond and designer Teresa Przybylski have highlighted the proto-absurdism of the play to great effect so that the Gilbeys and the Knoxes seem like early versions of Ionesco's Smiths and Martins. Przybylski has costumed the two sets of parents in reversed colour patterns to make them seem interchangeable and Hammond has the same furniture used for both households. Przybylski has made the Count, the critics and other not involved in the play look very much like caricatures by Cruikshank. And her set where two odd neoclassical statues become supports for the impromptu stage curtain cleverly reinforces the relation of Induction to Fanny's play. Kevin Lamotte has contributed the witty lighting effects.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Hammond has drawn from them, as is necessary at the intimate Court House Theatre, finely detailed performances. Indeed, there are innumerable details you may find yourself savouring long after the show is over. David Schurmann (Count O'Dowda) displays his mastery once again at making even the most fanciful character believable. Severn Thompson makes clear the subtle distinction between Fanny, nervous on her own but filled with conviction, and Margaret Knox, the born-again realist in her play. Peter Millard and Nora McLellan are absolutely hilarious as proper Mr. and Mrs. Gilbey. They alone among those in Fanny's play give us the sense of actors acting and bringing their own routines to bear on a brand new work. This added nuance gives their performances an extra fillip of delectability.
Roger Rowland and Donna Belleville are fine as Mr. and Mrs. Knox, and, though lacking the added nuance of her counterpart, Belleville makes the repetitively pious Mrs. Knox deliciously humorous character. One may be surprised to see Peter Krantz cast as the Gilbeys' butler Juggins, but as it soon becomes clear he is perfect at making a Jeeves-like composure in face of the increasingly odd behaviour those around him into a rich source of humour. Simon Bradbury (Duvallet), with a slightly wandering accent, achieves the difficult feat of not making a caricature of an impassioned Frenchman. Robert Benson (Cecil Savoyard) shows us a proudly stodgy character who is unaware he is precisely the kind of philistine Count O'Dowda left England to avoid.
Caroline Cave and Matthew Edison in their first season at the Shaw are both impressive. Edison gives the erring Bobby Gilbey an imperfectly insouciant air while Cave makes his plucky friend Dora, a "daughter of joy" as Duvallet says, seem like a foretaste of Eliza Doolittle. Among the critics (who include George Dawson, Jeff Meadows and Todd Witham), all ready to abandon their principles when faced with a pretty authoress, William Vickers stands out as the self-important but perspicacious Mr. Trotter.
This is Shaw at his funniest and most accessible. The Festival last did this play in 1987. Given the regular rotation in which Shaw's plays appear at the Festival, you won't want to wait another 14 years to see it, especially when the present production is so well done it bursts with vitality and humour on every side.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Austrian playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) suddenly gained a higher profile in the late 1990s when two of his works drew worldwide attention. His novella "Traumnovelle" (1926) became the basis for Stanley Kubrick's last film "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) and on the West End and Broadway his play "Reigen" (1900), adapted by British playwright David Hare as "The Blue Room" (1998), became the must-have ticket of the season. "Reigen" itself has been filmed three times, the most famous being Max Ophüls' "La Ronde" (1950), and has even made into an opera by Boesmans (1993) and a musical by LaChiusa (1994). Ophüls' French title has stuck probably because the English translation "round dance" doesn't sound sensual enough for a play about seduction.
In accordance with its aim of "revealing the classics", the Soulpepper Theatre Company commissioned playwright Jason Sherman to produce a Canadian adaptation. While Canada's John Murrell is a playwright who has also mastered the art of producing stage-worthy adaptations of foreign classics, Jason Sherman is not. David Hare's "The Blue Room" had a running time of 100 minutes without intermission. Sherman's "La Ronde" (in the final preview I saw) runs three hours and 15 minutes including a 15-minute interval. On stage Sherman's version proves to be not just overlong but self-indulgent and in the final two scenes fatally tentative. In trying to make the dialogue sound "natural" with false starts, repetitions long pauses, Sherman seems to be imitating Pinter and Mamet without, however, the concision of either. Unlike Schnitzler, he often doesn't know how to end a scene so that they frequently outstay their welcome. Plays from the Austro-German repertoire are performed so seldom in Ontario I fear that audiences will not likely realize the flaws of this "La Ronde" are Sherman's not Schnitzler's.
"Reigen"'s innovative structure consists of ten duologues of seduction in which one partner continues into the next scene with a new partner. Thus, A meets B who then meets C until we come to A again and complete the cycle. The presence of every character in two liaisons makes ironic any expression of absolute feeling, making "La Ronde" one of the great anatomies of human self-deception. Just as Hare moved the setting from turn-of-the-century Vienna to contemporary London, Sherman moves it to contemporary Toronto. As in other adaptations he has retained Schnitzler's sequence but has had to change some characters--the Soldier to an Athlete, the Count to a Politician. Hare was able to capture the mordant humour the play is known for, but sadly in Sherman's hands most of the ten scenes are merely boring.
This is a great pity since the production itself is superb. Most North American directors carry on as if Brecht and Artaud never existed, but German director Herbert Olschok like the best European directors has absorbed their techniques and found new ways of adapting them. Olschok has poised the Soulpepper troupe's acting style precisely at a point midway between the naturalistic and the satiric. He gives the characters a signature gesture to accompany their main preoccupation. This makes the characters distinct, but it also shows each is prey to a mechanical reflex of thought not unlike the impulse to sex that unites them all. The approach to each union slides from naturalism into the choreography of modern dance. Coitus itself is signalled by an abrupt change of lights, the freezing of the couple into a Munch-like scream and the stunning saxophone improvisations of Colleen Allen. Olschok has Allen begin the play and lead the gradually increasing numbers of characters we've met across the stage as they effect each scene change. He thus neatly underscores the main theme of the play that the longing for oblivion in sexual union is not unlike the longing for death. Allen becomes a kind of Pied Piper in this round dance that is also a dance of death. The characters may speak of love but it is increasingly clear that this cross-section of society uses this word only as a ploy to obtain self-gratification, each character falling in love with the image he or she has projected onto the other. In this way "La Ronde" uncannily anticipates Patrick Marber's "Closer" by 97 years.
Designer Astrid Jansen has outdone herself with a set that is a work of art in itself. The central set element has three hinged wings in dusky shades that the actors push into various configurations to suggest the play's ten different settings. Downstage right is a smaller curved wall that actors also roll into place to add detail to these settings. Soon enough one notices soon that both set pieces are being moved in circles, the curved wall making smaller circles in the shadow of the large trifold wall--a wonderful example of the design reinforcing a play's theme. German designer Joachim Herzog's costumes instantly characterize each player.
Ideally the cast of five men and five women will each have equal weight since one of Schnitzler's critiques of mechanical sex is the interchangeability of partners. Sherman's adaptation creates inequalities. Tony Nardi quickly becomes the audience favourite as the obsessive-compulsive Husband with the odd notion that marriage should be a series of affairs between husband and wife separated by periods of friendship. Fastidious as this may sound it, of course, brings marriage down to the level of all the play's other couplings and is further ironized by the Husband's lust for the Girl in the next scene. This is the way the humour of the play should work and in Nardi's two scenes it does. Martha Burns as his Wife is also excellent, ridiculously obsessed with the time in her liaison with the Student and justly bemused by her Husband. Allan Hawco is very fine as the Student awkwardly seducing the Maid and later acutely embarrassed by his sexual failure with the Wife. Oliver Becker is comically intense as the self-obsessed Writer in his scene with the Girl, but is badly let down by the poor writing in his scene with the Actress.
There are difficulties with all the other female roles. Holly Lewis doesn't have the experience or vocal command to bring off the crucial role of the Hooker, the character who begins and ends the play. Stephanie Baptist and especially Patricia Fagan don't make the subtext of their actions clear enough so we understand how they find themselves in their situations. Nancy Palk could certainly make a grand Actress, but her scenes are so poorly written that neither her motive nor character is clear. Kyle Horton as the Athlete doesn't have enough assurance to bring off this obnoxious character. And strangely enough, Dean Gilmour, famous for his work with Theatre Smith-Gilmour, seems totally miscast as the Politician. This character, alone among the ten, is capable of reflection. Many of his insights, such as the impossibility of living in the moment, draw together the themes of the play. The mixture of philosophizing and sexual dalliance seems quite believable with Schnitzler's Count. With Sherman's Canadian senator (as might be expected) it is impossible to credit anything he says. Thus, the last two scenes of the play fail miserably and there is nothing Gilmour can do to remedy Sherman's misconception of the part.
I cannot recommend that anyone see Soulpepper's "La Ronde" in its entirety. The audience buzz at intermission was lively with many people seeking parallels with other plays and films. At the end of the play the audience was justifiably disappointed. Those curious to have some experience of a well-directed and well-designed "La Ronde", would do well to see the first half and leave at intermission thus sparing themselves the depressing experience of witnessing an adaptor's abilities desert him utterly thereby ruining a great play.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
In this the sixth season of the Royal Bank Festival of Classics, John Wood, who directed the company's inaugural production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," returns to direct one of Shakespeare's least-often produced plays, "Pericles, Prince of Tyre." This is only the third professional production of the play in Canada in the last 50 years. Both previous productions were at Stratford--Jean Gascon's in 1973 and Richard Ouzounian's in 1986. Wood's highly enjoyable production makes one wonder yet again why this play should be so neglected.
Though not included in the First Folio, "Pericles" was written about 1607-08 and judging from the frequency of its reprinting became one of Shakespeare's most popular works. It is the first of a series of Shakespeare's later plays now known, due to the efforts of Northrop Frye, as the Romances. These include "The Winter's Tale," "Cymbeline," "The Tempest" and, even less-often produced, "The Two Noble Kinsmen." In the form of old-fashioned adventure tales, all of these deal with the themes of time and fortune and portray the natural cycle of birth, death and rebirth. All include scenes of divine intervention and may be said to illustrate Hamlet's view that "There is a Providence that shapes our ends."
"Pericles" is an epic tale set in several locations around the eastern Mediterranean. As if to highlight the fantastical nature of the story and the inability of the stage to depict it, Shakespeare makes extensive use of a chorus just as he had earlier in "Henry V." We follow Pericles' journey from youth to old age, through good luck and ill, meeting and losing his wife Thaisa, witnessing the birth during a storm of their daughter Marina and losing her though mischance. All three struggle to remain virtuous despite great odds and the play concludes with moving, unlooked for reunions.
The Royal Bank Festival of Classics makes no use of a fixed stage or a back wall. Rather, bleachers accommodating about 300 people are set up around an ancient willow with a view of the rest of the park and the nearby shore of Lake Ontario. In 1996 Wood picked this site for Shakespeare rather than the park's existing band shell. For a play like "Pericles," that involves so many sea voyages and where the power of nature is so often embodied in tempests and shipwrecks, this natural setting could not be more perfect. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco's set is really nothing more than a wooden boardwalk that circles round the tree, rising up behind it and descending again after crossing a small brook. It thus neatly and simply suggests the cyclical themes of the play. A wooden platform used only at the beginning of the play to represent Antioch and never used again seems unnecessary. His costume design situates the action somewhere in the 1930s or '40s, but the camouflage suits for the guards at Antioch and Antiochus' "oriental" costume seem out of synch with the rest of the design. Michael Kruse well manages the transition from natural to artificial lighting but saves his more magical effects for the miraculous occurrences at the close.
Director John Wood makes excellent use of such an open playing area. When Pericles flees Antioch for guessing the king's heinous secret, Wood has the actor run from the wooden circle about a hundred yards into the distance. When two fishermen enter he has them walk with their nets from the lakeshore up to the circle. In Mytilene when we first meet the bawd and the pander, Wood has them drive up in an old pickup truck and play their first scene lit solely by its headlights. Later when they come back they pull up past the circle with a portable wooden bordello in tow. At the end we glimpse the Temple of Diana, where Thaisa has taken refuge, in the distance beyond the willow. This constant breaking of the boundary of the wooden circle is exciting because it suggests a world beyond the immediate confines of the playing area, just as the play looks to a world beyond the actions it portrays.
Shakespeare's chorus is the 14th-century poet John Gower, whose "Confessio Amantis" is the primary source for the plot. John Wood's innovation is to remove any references Gower makes to himself and to have the actor Patrick Garrow also play Pericles' trusted friend Helicanus with no change of costume or demeanor. This device may decrease the distancing that Shakespeare intended, but having the story told by someone intimately involved in it increases the sense of immediacy. Garrow's clear diction and sense of authority makes him well suited as our trusted guide.
On the particular evening I saw the show, clear diction was absolutely essential since a strong wind out of the northeast swept from the lake unimpeded over the playing area. On the one hand this made the frequent allusions to wind and wave in the text extremely vivid. On the other the actors had to use more effort than usual just to be heard, necessarily resulting in a loss of subtlety in the performances.
Nevertheless, a number of actors did very well despite the trying circumstances. Jonathan Eliot gives a fine performance in the title role, more believable perhaps as the hopeful youth than the embittered old man, but still able to bring a sense of wonder to the two climactic recognition scenes. Krista Sutton gives a lively intelligence to the young Thaisa and grace and dignity to her mature self. Deborah Hay is able to make Marina's virtue seem so natural that it could indeed disarm the lustful. Melee Hutton is strong as Marina's enemy Dionyza, who uses reason as a cover for evil. Chick Reid's is excellent in two roles that could not be more different--the loving nurse who cares for the infant Marina and the decrepit bawd who wants to see her deflowered as soon as possible. Michael McLachlan plays several roles but is best as Lysimachus, Marina's would-be ravisher, converted by her virtue to her cause.
Among the others, Michael Krek does not have enough presence as the vicious Antiochus and makes a caricature of his role as a pander, yet he strikes just the right note of sympathy as a fisherman willing to help Pericles in his misery. John Fitzgerald Jay does not distinguish fully enough Cleon, a king with compromised morality, from the virtuous king Simonides. Andrew Penner (Cerimon), Erin MacKinnon (Hesperides/Philoten), Cyrus Lane (Escanes/Leonine) and Blaine Bray (Boult) round out the cast.
My favourite production of this play remains the 1986 production at Stratford with Geraint Wyn Davies as Pericles and Renee Rogers as a singing Gower. The production as a whole was more controlled and at the conclusion reached greater depths of emotion. Yet, this production has enough good qualities, especially in John Wood's brilliant use of the natural setting, that anyone interested in experiencing a play by Shakespeare that should be far better known need not hesitate.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
In 1987 a late opener at the Shaw Festival was Ian Judge's production of J.M. Barrie's 1904 play "Peter Pan". It received such critical and popular acclaim that Christopher Newton and Duncan McIntosh restaged it for the 1988 season making it one of the Festival's biggest hits. Rarely does the Shaw Festival mount new productions of works by authors other than Shaw. So one might well wonder why Christopher Newton wished to revisit this play.
It takes only a first glimpse of Never Land to realize that Newton has something quite different to say about this play. In Judge's hands the play became the kind of "Boy's Own" adventure story familiar from such adaptations as pantos, musicals and the Disney cartoon. Cameron Porteous' wonderfully detailed sets made Peter's fantasy world seem real. Why Peter would never want to grow up and leave his exciting world was obvious, especially since Judge heavily satirized the real world of London and its mind-numbing conformity. Newton makes this "Peter Pan" into his "Tempest". In his second last season as Artistic Director, Newton seems to be saying farewell to play-acting and acknowledging the power of a world ruled by time.
Newton has seen that the approach most familiar to us assumes that Peter's vision is not flawed. He sees Wendy not Peter as the central character and Peter's world not hers as the danger. Since so many of the Lost Boys escape Never Land in order to live in the real world, Peter's refusal to join them becomes more perverse than heroic. Never Land is more a world of nightmares than dreams. The text clearly states that each of the groups of Never Land live solely to kill the others and where all seasons occur at once--ideas traditionally associated with chaos. Peter's famously claims "To die will be an awfully big adventure". But our narrator tells us, "If he could get the hang of the thing his cry might become 'To live would be an awfully big adventure!'" From Wendy's perspective Never Land is both tawdry, terrifying and devoid of love. Life, not a quest for death, should be celebrated.
Newton's view makes the parallel between Peter and Hook clear. Each claims to be a leader but in fact those under them do what they please. Peter refuses to grow up while Hook is afraid of time (i.e., the crocodile with the clock ticking inside it). Both make noble speeches ultimately devoid of content. The primary difference between the two is that in Wendy Peter has found a mother (or source of order) for the Lost Boys, while the pirates have none. Never Land is a place where the fun of play-acting has deadly consequences.
In line with Newton's interpretation, Sue LePage's design and Kevin Lamotte's lighting emphasize the artifice of the story. Unlike Porteous' sets which filled the stage with three-dimensional realism, LePage's clearly look like sets placed on a bare stage. The Darling's bedroom is two-dimensional as is our first view of Never Land. The longer we are in Never Land the more realistic the sets become--first with the Lost Boys underground hide-out and then with the pirates' ship which this time looks more like a scrap-metal freighter than a frigate. As imagined by Newton and Lepage, Never Land is like a rubbish tip of popular escapism. The mermaids dance to Gershwin's "Shall We Dance?", Hook listens to the Gypsy Kings in his cabin, the Lost Boys sing a World War I song, Tinker Bell is dressed like a 1920s flapper and the pirates look like contemporary gang members
Newton's new view also effects how the primary roles are played and reveals the work as a critique on male/female roles. We see that Barrie, in contrast to the usual 19th-century appraisal, sees men as fickle fantasists and women as sensible realists. This goes a long way to explaining in a more profound way why the men in the play "need a mother". Newton adds the character of the maid Liza (implied by his 1929 preface) who serves as a narrator and whose commentary derives from Barrie's own and from his 1908 novel "Peter and Wendy". This narrator both distances the action from the audience and provides a female perspective on it that emphasizes the dangers of becoming a Lost Boy and of giving in to the nightmare world of Never Land.
Sherry Smith is perfect as this narrator making her schoolmarmish enough to give her character but forthright enough for us to grant the truth of what she says. She is also delightful as the bird who saves Peter from drowning in (symbolically) her perambulator-shaped nest. As Mrs. Darling, Goldie Semple exudes a warmth, humour and love that makes the children's' desire for escape seem all the more capricious. Fiona Byrne has the plum role as Wendy, who we see in this production not only as a girl but in the extended 1908 epilogue as a mature woman with her own daughter. The distinction she makes between the two is remarkable. In the younger we see an infatuation with Peter she thinks is love; in the older a rueful recognition that her infatuation was just that. The two other darling children are well played by Pete Treadwell (John) and Devon Tullock (Michael).
Newton, who played Mr. Darling/Captain Hook in 1987-88, directs Jim Mezon to play it in a totally different way. Mezon succeeds in what one might think the impossible task of making Mr. Darling more quirkily interesting than Captain Hook. No doubt most people will miss the villain's usual flamboyance, but underplaying the role makes it seem that Peter's view of his archenemy is inflated. Dylan Trowbridge is superb as Peter giving his energy the demonic edge of an incubus and seeming wilfully not to want to understand the real world Wendy values. His desire not to be touched seems pathological rather than merely whimsical. As a ball of light Tinker Bell is given an obnoxious electronic voice appropriately in tune with the rather nasty things she says. In corporeal form, Jane Johanson gives her a mixture of grace, mean-spiritedness and devotion.
Among the Lost Boys Mike Wasko (Tootles) and Neil Barclay (Slightly) stand out, the first as pleasantly dim-witted and second as a would-be know-it-all. Among the pirates Norman Browning makes Starkey an ineffectual grumbler while Bernard Behrens is hilarious as the preoccupied tailor Smee.
While exposing the deeper themes that Barrie himself came to see in his play, Newton does not overlook spectacle. Besides the beautifully executed flying sequences, John Stead has staged two impressive fights in two different styles--a hugely enjoyable minimalist underwater battle in the first half and the most realistically chaotic slugfest I've seen on stage in the second.
Few people going to "Peter Pan" will be prepared to have to think about what the play means. But for those open to Newton's approach the play will never seem merely a child's fairy tale again. At the end children were suitably delighted, but Newton has so powerfully staged the epilogue about tyranny of time and the transience of innocence, parents' sniffling and subdued sobs could be heard throughout the auditorium. This may be a production that not only entertains families but brings them closer together.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Noel Coward is very popular in Ontario this summer with productions of "Private Lives" at Stratford, "Shadow Play" at the Shaw, "Hay Fever" at the Gravenhurst Opera House and "Present Laughter" by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company. While the other productions are all safely set in the periods Coward specified, Soulpepper, true to its goal of reinvigorating the classics, has given "Present Laughter" a more experimental production which luckily does not compromise the play's humour.
Design is not normally the prime topic for discussion in a play by Coward, but in this case it is. When you enter the Premiere Dance Theatre you can't help but notice Guido Tondino's handsome set. The clean lines, the colour scheme of black, white and grey with a touch of natural wood, the rotary phone, the old movie projector suggest that the owner, West End matinée idol Garry Essendine, has bought the latest (for 1939) Bauhaus-influenced flat. But, hold on, there's a multicoloured Andy Warhol-like print of Juan Chioran (Garry) on the back wall. Maybe this is really supposed to be a modern-day loft. As with the set, so with the costumes and accessories. The valet may wear a bowler, but he has a spiky punk hairdo. Garry's producer may wear a suit with an Edwardian cut, but he wears sandals, has a pony-tail and carries a cell phone. The obsessed fan, Roland Maule, has laptop and a digital camera.
This is a play where people have servants, where one sails rather than flies to Africa and, indeed, where a person can be enormously famous from acting in plays rather than in television or movies. The play is, after all, Coward's satire on his life as a celebrity and the introduction of modern devices could seem like intrusions. On the other hand, setting the play firmly in 1939, as in the 1990 Shaw Festival production, risks making the play seem merely like a period comedy with no contemporary significance.
Tondino's design that makes us ask "Is it now or is it then?" is precisely what director Joseph Ziegler is after. The play may be Coward's satire on himself but it is also a satire on the cult of celebrity in general. Coward makes clear via the three outsiders to Garry's "family" of secretary, ex-wife, producer and manager that they see in Garry only what they want to see. The mad fan Roland, the star-struck debutante Daphne and his producer's wife Joanna all claim that they are the only ones who see and appreciate the "real" Garry Essendine. This is all the more ironic since Coward also clearly shows that there may not be a real Garry Essendine. He is a performer both on and off the stage so that it is impossible to tell when he is acting and when he is not. Since Coward generalizes this theme to include all the other characters, the play, especially when not presented as a period piece, become a critique of the nature of personality. Ibsen's "Peer Gynt", mentioned twice in the play, contains the famous onion metaphor that could apply to all of the characters--we are merely a series of layers but have no core. Such depths, not just the surface wit, are what make Coward's plays last.
Ziegler and his cast fully bring out both the wit and what lies behind it to make this both an hilarious and intellectually stimulating evening of theatre. He has given the play a perfect pace so that seemingly haphazard incidents gradually crystallize into structure and the humour builds and builds until the riotous final scene. He makes us see, before it is said, that this seemingly realistic glimpse into the life of a star actually takes shape as that most theatrical of genres--the French farce.
The cast is excellent. Juan Chioran, in his first appearance with Soulpepper, plays Garry as someone whose life is so theatrical the mask has stuck. Even he can't tell when his emotion are real or not. For a character who mostly indulges in a series of tantrums, Chioran does not make the mistake of starting out too big, but rather always keeps something in reserve for general brouhaha of the ending. Chioran's character is always "on" leaving us wanting to have a glimpse of the real Garry. But that is the point.
If Garry is selfless in a literal sense, his ex-wife Liz is selfless in a figurative sense. As played by Martha Burns, she is the calm centre of Garry's life, the stage manager of the convoluted plots he gets himself into who can rewrite them to have a happy ending. Nancy Palk shows that Monica, Garry's faithful secretary, gives him the logic and efficiency he himself lacks, and lets us see the suppressed love underneath the stiff exterior. Patricia Fagan gives her best performance yet for Soulpepper as the calculating Daphne. Brenda Robins is magnetizing as the equally calculating but mature Joanna and manages to exude sensuality despite the dreadful frock Tondino has designed for her.
Rick Miller lends the obsessed fan-from-hell Roland an upsetting, dangerous edge that well suits this 21st-century vision of the play. Michael Hanrahan gives us a confident, materialistic Henry (Joanna's husband) and Neil Foster a tortured Morris (who is having an affair with Joanna). In lesser roles, Joyce Campion, Garry's Swedish spiritualist maid, can get a laugh merely through her deliberate walk and dialect-distorted vowels. Allan Hawco gives a assured performance as Garry's jaunty, no-nonsense valet--quite a stretch from the melancholy prince in "The Triumph of Love" just last month. Charmion King is delightful as Lady Saltburn, the unsuspecting mother of the errant Daphne.
Guido Tondino's costumes (except for Joanna's) are attractive and give the sense of the 1930s as reinterpreted in 2001. Louise Guinand provides the kind of lighting that is so natural one completely forgets that primary light sources are not the ones on stage.
There is no doubt that most people would prefer their Noel Coward the old-fashioned way. We've been trained to think of his works as light, witty comedies and nothing more. Soulpepper's experiment of keeping us off-balance as to the period of the action proves that a play that provokes laughter can also provoke thought. I am certain that this kind of experiment with 20th-century drama will only become more common the further we move away from that century. At its best, as in this production, Soulpepper dusts off the classics and makes them seem brand new.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
For the second year in a row the Shaw Festival has chosen as its lunchtime show a play from Noel Coward's 1935 cycle of nine one-acters collectively titled "Tonight at 8:30". Last year we had the highly successful "Still Life". This year is the equally enjoyable "Shadow Play". Both focus on a couple at the parting of the ways, but while "Still Life" remains in the real world, "Shadow Play", subtitled "A Musical Fantasy", seeks to portray the realm of the unconscious.
After five years the marriage of Victoria and Simon Gayforth has reached a crisis. Simon is receiving the attentions of another woman, and Vicky in revenge is encouraging the friendship of another man. To calm a raging headache, Vicky takes three sleeping pills instead of her usual two. Vicky tells her friend Martha "it would be so much easier, wouldn't it, if we had music when things go wrong". She soon finds out. As the pills take hold, strains of the musical she has just seen waft through her mind as she in her reverie relives her relationship with Simon in reverse chronological order. Coward uses this short piece to explore the notion of how people use dream and art as a way of understanding reality. Indeed, by the end we left to wonder where Vicky's dream begins and where it leaves off. A melancholy tone of faded ideals hangs over the work. As with "Still Life", there is more material in the 45 minutes of this show than in many a full-length play.
One could hardly ask for a better cast. Patti Jamieson ably captures Vicky's mixture of fragility, frustration and confusion and her voice is well suited to music of this period. Patrick R. Brown seems born with the poise and elegance of the 1930s that so naturally inform his movement, speaking and singing. Together they are a delight in all three numbers of the show.
The rest of the characters are mere sketches but the cast is able to suggest a background for each in the space of only a few lines. This holds for Karen Wood (Vicky's wide-eyed maid), newcomer Gabriel Burrafato (the couple's rigid butler), Blythe Wilson (sensual and calculating as Simon's "other woman") and another newcomer Jeff Madden (Vicky's rather louche "other man"). Jillian Cook has the largest of these secondary roles and shows that Vicky, though adrift both in real life and dream, has in her friend Martha a steady anchor. Guy Bannerman in his brief appearance makes the most of Martha's bluff husband. Third newcomer David Leyshon is hilarious as an upper class twit straight out of P.G. Wodehouse.
Director David Savoy carefully shades the reality that begins the play into the increasingly surreal musical dream world to which Vicky succumbs and brings out the intriguing ambiguity of the ending. William Orlowski again proves a master at designing exciting, intricate choreography for a small stage. Judith Bowden's black Art Deco backdrop and futon-like bed do not really conjure up the "well-furnished, rather luxurious bedroom" the text specifies, but the unusual dressing table that can metamorphose into a number of different objects including a train compartment and a car is quite ingenious and captures the recombinatory nature of dreams. All is enhanced by Jeff Logue's wide range of lighting effects.
The real star of the production, however, is music director Paul Sportelli. Based on the scores for the play's three main songs--"Then", "Play Orchestra Play" and "You Were There" along with fragments of the Charleston "In Pink"--Sportelli created the arrangements, reprises and underscorings required for almost three-fourths of the show. Sportelli's music is perfectly in tune with Coward's style and becomes the prime shaper of Vicky's dream world.
"Shadow Play" is rare, experimental Coward last presented by the Festival back in 1971. No fan of Coward or of unusual musicals will want to miss it. One viewing is really not enough to savour all there is to this confection. In fact, directly after seeing it, I whipped round to box-office and bought tickets to see it again.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
As a follow-up to last year's Oscar Wilde celebration, the Festival this year is celebrating Robertson Davies. There are staged readings of three of his plays along with a fully staged production of Richard Rose's adaptation of Davies' first novel, and the first of what became the Salterton Trilogy, "Tempest-Tost" (1951). The rationale behind this adaptation is that not only does the novel deal with the Salterton (aka Kingston) Little Theatre's attempt to put on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" but also it is known that Davies first conceived of the story as a play and, fed up with the difficulties getting plays performed properly, recast the story as a novel. In making the move from playwright to novelist Davies found his true métier. To transform "Tempest-Tost" back into a play and thus undo Davies' work is a rather peculiar way of celebrating him.
As it turns out, Rose has not really turned the novel into a stand-alone play but rather has taken whole swaths of dialogue from it and put it on the stage irrespective of whether the dialogue has been adequately set up within the play. Thus, Mrs Wildfang and Bonnie-Susan are discussed as candidates for the role of Juno, before we have been introduced to either one to know why the discussion is supposed to be funny. Thus, Valentine the director is told in an extended speech not to criticize Mrs. Pottinger's make-up before we know who Mrs. Pottinger is or have seen clear examples of her work--and so on throughout the play.
Besides this, much of the dialogue Rose has taken from the novel is funny only because of the narrator's commentary on it or because we've been given the characters' backgrounds. With both omitted in Rose's adaptation, line after line, funny in the novel like Professor Vambrace's introductory remark "Wet", falls flat like a series of punch lines without set-ups.
What will most distress those who know the novel is Rose's treatment of Hector Mackilwraith. As one might expect at a Shakespeare festival, Rose foregrounds the humour of the Salterton Little Theatre's first attempt at Shakespeare at the expense, however, of Hector's story. Judging from this adaptation, one would never know that Hector's story is the main plot of the novel. Indeed, Davies' original subtitle for it was "The Life, Pathetic Love, Tragical Death and Joyous Resurrection of Hector Mackilwraith, B.A."
On the positive side Rose's foregrounding gives us extended scenes of the cast rehearsing and performing "The Tempest", referred to in the novel but which on stage become the funniest scenes of the play. On the negative side, when Hector's story is backgrounded, the Little Theatre scenes, while mildly satirical, lose their point. In the novel Hector, a drab math teacher in a normal school, appears as the archetypal Canadian-without-Art. His harsh and distinctly unpleasant childhood make him seek security by making gods of planning and common sense. Doing moderately well with the bare necessities is all that matters. His first contact with Art and Beauty in the form of the Little Theatre and Griselda Webster completely overturn his staid world in ways equally comic and pathetic and draw to him despair and suicide. Davies' meaning is that only regular contact with Art and Beauty can balance the rational and irrational in man.
In Rose's adaptation none of this, including Davies' meaning, comes across. Rose refuses to portray Hector as anything other than a figure of satire. Even the monologues Rose gives him where the unhappiness of Hector's life could come out are used only to enhance the satire and he directs actor Richard McMillan to add gestures to make them more ridiculous. Only in the play's last moments does Rose try to capture the novel's mixture of comedy and pathos but by then it is far too late. After losing the novel's complexity of tone and making a clown of the novel's central and most emblematic character, it's not surprising that the play is bland.
That said, the production itself is excellent. Rose has assembled a fine ensemble cast. Given how his role has been curtailed and distorted, Richard McMillan gives a very winning performance. One can only dream how superb he could be if Rose had allowed the character more than one dimension. Other outstanding performances come from Kate Trotter as Nellie, the queen bee of the Little Theatre; Brian Tree as the pompous Professor Vambrace and truly hilarious as Prospero; Tara Rosling as Pearl, the shy, oppressed daughter of Vambrace, also overturned by first love; newcomer Michael Schultz as the intellectual Solly Bridgetower, also in love with Griselda; and Jonathan Goad as the egocentric Lieutenant Roger Tasset, who mistakenly looks on Griselda as an easy lay.
The others are also fine: Robert King (Nellie's agreeable husband), Les Carlson (Tom, the Welsh gardener, Araby Lockhart (Mrs. Pottinger, the vision-impaired makeup mistress), John Dolan (Major Pye, the overbearing technical director), Jane Spence (the buxom Bonnie-Susan), Michelle Giroux (restrained for a change as the snobbish Griselda), Adrienne Gould (Griselda's tomboyish younger sister and maker of cider) and Kim Horsman (Mrs. Wildfang, prompter and devoted fan of Vambrace). Benedict Campbell is rather too much as Humphrey Cobbler the musician, while Rose's adaptation has given Lucy Peacock in the important role of the director Valentine Rich very little to do.
Graeme S. Thomson's attractive set and sensitive lighting understatedly conjure up the large garden where most of the action takes place. Charlotte Dean's costumes locate us in the 1950s and accurately reflect each character's personality. She obviously enjoyed designing the overly literal get-ups an amateur group might devise for "The Tempest". The only jarring note is Don Horsburgh's music, meant to depict a clash of the 17th and 20th centuries, but sounding merely cacophonous.
Those who do not know the novel will find the show a moderately diverting entertainment but will leave with little notion of what Davies' intended. Those who do know the novel will be pleased to see many of the characters perfectly embodied on stage, but they will also be disappointed to find that both adaptation and direction go for the easy laugh rather than complex emotion--not really the best way to celebrate a great writer.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
This year, in what would seem to be a ploy to cash in on the success of "Elizabeth Rex", Stratford has debuted the stage version of Findley's radio play "The Trials of Ezra Pound" first broadcast on CBC in 1990. Though severely flawed as a play, "Ezra Pound" turns out to be the best directed production so far this season.
Unlike "Elizabeth Rex", which rather fancifully imagined Elizabeth I slumming it with a troupe nondeferential actors, "Ezra Pound" is at least founded on intriguing historical fact. Pound (1885-1972) was one of the most important poets of the 20th century. He nurtured the careers of most of the famous writers of the period, including T.S Eliot, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. His own style, Imagism, changed the way English poetry was written and imbued in his life's work, the encyclopaedic epic poem "The Cantos" (1925-72). Disgruntled with the United States of his time, he moved to Italy in voluntary exile. He did not return until 1945, when he was arrested on charges of treason for radio broadcasts to the United States of Fascist propaganda laced with vicious anti-Semitism. His aberrant behaviour led to a trial in 1946 to determine whether he was sane and thus fit to stand trial. Pound's supporters saw that only if Pound were found insane would he be spared the trial for treason and the death penalty.
Findley has chosen a topic that involves a number of important questions: How can the same mind that produces poetry also produce morally objectionable propaganda? At what point should the expression of hateful opinions become a punishable offence? Is confinement to a mental institution better than a death sentence and how can this be decided by a jury? Findley does deal with all of these questions but he sets the play off on the wrong foot by focussing the entire first act on a clichéd subject irrelevant to Pound's case--the fine line between genius and madness. As a result Act 1 threatens to become an analogue to Peter Shaffer's "Equus" with Pound as the horse-blinding boy and his psychiatrist Wendell Muncie as Dysart. This leads nowhere since, as we discover at the end of Act 1, none of the examining psychiatrists, including Muncie, believes he is insane. Only toward the end of Act 2 is the question of the limits of free speech raised which could more usefully have served as the focus of the whole play.
In the play Pound's private thoughts and encounters in his hospital room overlap the proceedings of the trial itself. We the audience and jury are asked to judge the case, but Findley has unfortunately neglected to present us with any evidence. Repeated we are told how great a poet this thoroughly disagreeable old man is. Why then are less than a dozen lines of Pound's poetry cited in the entire play? Repeatedly we are told how loathsome Pound's broadcasts were. Why then do we hear only a snippet from one of these about Roosevelt and his "Jewish gang" and not more about his outright support of Fascism and the Holocaust? By the end all Findley has actually shown us about Pound is his temper, his concupiscence and his difficulties with what seems to be a urinary tract infection.
That the play works at all is due to the brilliant direction of Dennis Garnhum and the fine performances of his cast. Garnhum gives the play the kind of intelligent minimalist staging rarely encountered at Stratford. The simple tables and chairs of John Thompson's design are set up in a symmetric pattern front to back in Act 1, side to side in Act 2, to represent both the courtroom and the hospital. Thus, the placing of the judge and prosecutor changes four times during the show. Not only does this give the audience different physical perspectives on the action that suggest we view it from different ethical perspectives as well. It also makes clear that there is no way out for Pound no matter what the verdict. Wendy Greenwood's precise lighting ensures we know when events occur in court, in hospital or in Pound's mind.
Of the fourteen actors six are making their Stratford débuts and ten are appearing only in this production. Garnhum draws taut, controlled performances from all of them. David Fox makes Pound a tempestuous old man to whom self-censorship is unknown. It's a strong performance that makes it easy to see how he could broadcast reprehensible speeches but difficult to see why he should have any American supporters. He gives us virtually no glimpse of Pound as a great poet but then neither does the play. Ric Reid (Wendell Muncie) has the play's second most interesting role as a psychiatrist under pressure to give false evidence in court. Jerry Franken lends the star witness Winfred Overholser great presence and authority even when his plan is undermined. David Storch makes the prosecuting attorney Isaiah Matlack a vivid character both driven and calculating.
Tom Barnett as Pound's defense attorney Julien Cornell cannot match Storch in intensity. David Francis (Pound's friend William Carlos Williams) and Hazel Desbarats (Pound's wife Dorothy Shakespear) both succeed in the difficult task of making their concern for such an extreme egotist seem as believable as possible.
The rest of the characters are there for purely functional or symbolic purposes. Findley having neglected to flesh out their personalities, the actors do very well at giving them some weight. These include Frank Adamson (the Chief Justice), Shawn Mathieson (a Justice Department man), Damien Atkins (a toady), Michele Graff (a mistress) and Ashley Wright (a dissenting psychiatrist). Jane Spidell gives the reporter Ellen Deutsch (historically "Andrew"), whose purpose is to give the Jewish reaction to Pound's trial, as much passion as the text allows. Roy Lewis plays Arthur Beatty, the hospital's black custodian, who seems to be in the play for the dubious motive of qualifying Pound's racism--i.e., Pound may be a virulent anti-Semite but he can get along with black people. Beatty is also there so that in the last line of the play Pound can also claim to be a "custodian".
"The Trials of Ezra Pound" is not as contrived as "Elizabeth Rex" and unlike the latter does bring up a number of important questions, but the thinking behind it is fuzzy at best. The rigor of Garnhum's direction and actors' committed performances hold our attention in the theatre. Once outside, the flaws in the play make it crumble to bits.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
Diana Leblanc has directed some of the finest productions in the history of the Stratford Festival, most notable "Long Day's Journey into Night" in 1994 and "Death of a Salesman" in 1997. She has also directed one of its most notable bombs--the "Macbeth" of 1999. "The Seagull", I am sorry to say, falls into the latter category.
"The Seagull" (1896) is the first of Anton Chekhov's four great masterpieces that have had a profound influence on modern drama. They attempt to reproduce the way people actually speak leaving more left unsaid than said. They forego standard plots and substitute for action conversational variations on a particular theme. And they are written not for stars but for an ensemble of actors. For a Chekhov play to work every part, no matter how small, must be as well played as the larger parts or the careful pattern the author has constructed will fall apart.
Unlike the Shaw Festival, Stratford from its very beginning has been built on a star system, not an ensemble system, which means that a director of Chekhov at Stratford has to have especially firm control over the actors in order for the play to cohere and for its themes to come across clearly. Leblanc's main failing is to provide seemingly no control whatever. As a result the theme in this the most diffuse of Chekhov's four masterpieces is completely lost and the play devolves into a series of unconnected star turns. This plus an ill-conceived design concept and poor acting from the couple who are the story's focus make "The Seagull" a must-miss in the current season.
As usual for Chekhov the play is set in a manor in the Russian countryside where a varied group of people attempts unsuccessfully to combat the boredom of country life. Chekhov is particularly interested in the self-deceptions people practice in order to convince themselves to go on with life. Despite its tragic ending, Chekhov labelled the play a comedy because of the series of unrequited love affairs that unite the principal characters. The schoolteacher Medvedenko loves Masha who loves the would-be writer Konstantin who loves the would-be actress Nina who loves the well-known writer Trigorin who falls in love with her but can't break from the hold of the well-known, self-centred actress Irina Arkadina. The comedy is man's ability to desire what he cannot attain and focuses on the young central couple who feel both jealous of and suffocated by the older generation. The comments of a doctor, Irina's elderly brother and various servants provide differing perspectives on how to live in the midst of failure.
Leblanc has not been able to draw from the cast the consistent acting style so necessary in an ensemble play. Martha Henry (Irina) gives us excerpts of a number of past roles without giving her character a coherent personality. Rod Beattie (the doctor Dorn) has not been able to expunge Walt Wingfield from his delivery or manner. Brian Bedford (Irina's brother Sorin) does at least attempt to play an aged gentleman, but one can still notice his familiar routines behind the long beard and within the confines of his wheelchair. By contrast, Lally Cadeau (Masha's mother), Brian Tree (the groundskeeper Shamraev) and Peter Donaldson (Trigorin), alone among the senior cast members, create individual characters whose roles serve the whole of the play instead of standing out from it.
Leblanc starts the play on the wrong foot by having Sarah Dodd (Masha) deliver her famous line "I'm mourning for my life" as if it were a joke rather than the serious statement it proves to be. From then on Dodd's presentation of this character is never clear. Aaron Franks (Medvedenko) seems pretty much a nonentity. Worst of all are Michael Therriault (Konstantin) and Michelle Giroux (Nina) who represent the unappreciated younger generation. Their actions affect the actions of all the other characters and their frustrations are the throughline of the play. Unfortunately, neither actor is up to the part. Konstantin is torn between his desire to gain the favour of the older generation and to rebel against them. Therriault's performance is merely bluster and confusion. Nina is frequently compared to a seagull ever drawn to the lake and so can be considered the title character. But Giroux's performance is a disaster on every count. Her delivery and gestures are no different from what she does as Olivia in "Twelfth Night" or Griselda in "Tempest-Tost". Chekhov constantly demands that characters show thoughts and emotions beneath the often banal surface of what they say. This is totally beyond Giroux, who in Nina's all-important final scene with Konstantin, abruptly shifts from happiness to despair to resignation, illustrating the text on a line per line basis but never discovering its overall meaning. When she speaks of the horror she feels when giving a poor performance on the stage, a palpable ripple of embarrassment coursed through the audience with just such an example before them.
The presence of actors and authors and the performance of Konstantin's symbolist play in Act 1 must have given Leblanc and designer Astrid Janson the notion of staging the play as if it took place now in a rehearsal hall. We have a plain wooden set surrounded in back with horizontally suspended layers of blue cloth, meant, I suppose, to suggest the sky and lake we hear of so often. Janson hasn't solved the transition from Act 3 to 4 and so has doors in their jambs set up in Act 3 where the cast walks through the absent walls to go downstage, while in Act 4 they suddenly function as doors. The costumes are all contemporary with the slightest hint in their cut of the 19th century, though many will wonder why a serving girl is wearing red basketball shoes. Louise Guinand's lighting has created a beautifully dreamy atmosphere that the rest of the production itself never lives up to.
This is a production that will
convert no one to Chekhov. With its incredibly weak direction
and its poor performances, this lyrical play seems merely boring
and pointless. Anyone lucky enough to have seen Neil Munro's exciting
production for the Shaw festival in 1997, with Ben Carlson as
Konstantin and Jan Alexandra Smith in a riveting performance as
Nina, will know how gripping and moving this play can be. The
present production will make most people want to move to the nearest
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
According to Bernard Shaw "the quality of a play is the quality of its ideas". Often, especially in his later work, the quality of his ideas is better than the quality of the play they are meant to inform. "The Millionairess" (1935), now making its fourth appearance at the Shaw Festival, is a case in point. After watching this play with its monomaniac title character and its dissatisfying comic conclusion, one leaps to the programme notes to find out what it's all supposed to mean. There Ronald Bryden helpfully explains that Shaw meant to write a comedy à la Ben Jonson using the character Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga Fitzfassenden to represent the type of people who become the Hitlers and Mussolinis of this world. Yet while the famous monomaniacs of Jonson or Molière are either purged, punished or isolated, Shaw's Epifania gets everything she wants.
The play finds Shaw in one of his more garrulous moods. Only at the end of the second act does the play reach any dramatic nub. Dissatisfied with her husband and her would-be paramour, Epifania, the richest woman in England, meets an Egyptian doctor and instantly must have him. However, Epifania's father and the doctor's mother have each required that their children set a test for any intended spouse which must be fulfilled before they may wed. Epifania's test requires that her future husband turn £150 into £50,000 within six months; doctor's requires a future bride to live on 200 piastres for six months. Given this double test, Shaw fittingly compares Epifania to a fairy-tale princess. The third act, the most concise of the four, finds Epifania seeking work in a sweat shop. To reveal how or whether she and the doctor successfully pass their tests would ruin what little dramatic suspense the play has. Suffice it to say that by the conclusion, contrary to what we would like to see happen, Epifania is unchastened and, like all the other characters, remains unchanged. We are left to wonder why this fairy-tale princess acts so much like an ogre. In "Arms and the Man", "Major Barbara" and "Pygmalion", Shaw is able to blend fairy-tale with satire and social criticism. Here the disparate elements don't gel.
A play this unfocussed requires incisive direction to make it cohere. Allen MacInnis, who did such a masterful job with "In Good King Charles' Golden Days" in 1997, here seems clueless. He adds silent movie-like credits, location inter-titles and irising in and out of scenes. This is diverting enough but has no interpretive function and, after all, the play takes place in the sound era. He really doesn't know what to do with the talky first act except to have the actors switch chairs periodically and cross their legs in synch. He manages the middle two acts well enough, helped by John Stead's great fight scene in Act 2, but still reveals no particular take on the action. The final act is again a muddle where MacInnis resorts to having actors give their longest speeches directly to the audience as if this will somehow clarify the play's meaning.
William Schmuck has designed four highly distinctive sets--a grandiose lawyer's office, a seedy pub restaurant, an grungy sweatshop (the most impressive of the four) and a hotel lobby, the first good art deco set I've seen all year. Why, however, the first should be non-realistic with its see-through walls, the third wonderfully exaggerated and the second and fourth highly realistic is hard to understand. The different styles only underscore the director's lack of a point of view. Schmuck gives Epifania delightfully outré costumes that appropriately set her apart from the plainness of the other characters. Michael Kruse's lighting aims for realism despite the sets' differing styles.
The primary reason why this second-drawer Shaw continues to be produced is that it offers a superb showcase for an actress in mid-career. It's hard to think of many plays other than Brecht's "Mother Courage" or Dürrenmatt's "The Visit" where a woman larger than life, both symbolic and realistic, so dominates every scene. The challenge of this character is to make this profoundly egotistical materialist fascinating who in real life would be insufferably obnoxious and to give nuance and variety to someone who does not change. Sarah Orenstein gives a superlative performance, especially fine in highlighting Epifania's strength, cruelty and quicksilver temperament. Yet ultimately, when charisma or charm are called for she tends to substitute guile or coyness. To make the ending work there has to be some suggestion that she wants some escape from her prison of money despite everything she says. But an actor can't be expected to supply a subtext when the director hasn't seen the need for it.
Shaw intends the meeting of Epifania and the Egyptian Doctor to be a meeting of equals as their parallels tests suggest. But he has makes things very difficult for the actor who appears only in part of two acts while Epifania blazes through all four. The Doctor's humility and devotion to Allah is meant to counter her self-centredness and devotion to Mammon. Nigel Shawn Williams does very well at portraying a calm that withstands her tantrums but ultimately he needs to project far more clearly a mystical inner strength to counter her outward force.
The other characters, all well played, exist solely as foils to Epifania. Peter Millard (the lawyer Julius Sagamore) gives cool reason and practicality to counter her rage and whims. Peter Krantz (her husband Alastair Fitzfassenden) is quite funny as the dim-witted male to counter her quick-wittedness. Severn Thompson (her lowly rival Patricia Smith) shows the simple, domestic love to counter her all-consuming passion. David Schurmann (Adrian Blenderbland) shows a sickly fascination with what great wealth can buy while for her it has lost all interest. John Clelland is effective as the Hotel Manager who delivers a paean to Epifania's greatness.
William Vickers and Donna Belleville give excellent performances as the two most realistic characters of the play, the owner of a sweatshop and his wife. Only in their scene when they agonize over how to confront a woman who threatens to dominate them does the play ring true.
The program notes at the Shaw Festival are always exemplary, but the implications of a play should be discernable in the performance itself, not only in the notes. Superficial direction is the last thing a problematic play like this requires.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile
As a tribute to Gratien Gélinas, the great Québecois actor and playwright who died in 1999, the Blyth Festival has mounted his last play "The Passion of Narcisse Mondoux" (1986). Every aspect of this production is a pleasure and the performances of the two actors are so winning they convince us that this is one of few great Canadian comedies.
The play is set in the fictional Québecois village of Saint-Esprit-en-Bas. Widower and retired master plumber Narcisse Mondoux notices in the newspaper that the secret love of his life, Laurencienne Robichaud, wife of the interim mayor, has become a widow and thus pays his respects at the funeral home in order to see her. There like a good-hearted and bumbling Richard III, he begins to woo her as she mourns by the coffin of her husband. To his chagrin a trip to Florida he has already agreed to take with another widower means he will not be able to see her again for two months. The rest of the play takes place at Laurencienne's home on his return where has visited on the pretext of unclogging the drain she mentioned to him at the funeral home. Feeling it is now or never, he painstakingly reveals the love he has harboured for her for 40 years while his male-chauvinist attitudes and general ineptness increasingly distance him from the woman he longs for.
When the play first appeared in 1986 there were grumblings that it was hopelessly dated by its discussions of feminism and machismo as if they were new concepts. The passage of 15 years has now made this seem less important. Narcisse's avoidance of being called up for World War II and the mention of Margaret Thatcher and Jean Sauvé as contemporary figures places the action within specific historical limits. By mentioning that other villages in Quebec have female mayors, Gélinas' intention is clearly to show that new ideas have so far managed to bypass Saint-Esprit-en-Bas. The focus of the play now is not so much the issues that the characters discuss but the nature and interplay of the characters themselves.
Blyth regular Ted Johns is superb as Narcisse. His resemblance in his three-piece suit to Dickens's Mr. Pickwick makes his all-consuming passion all the more unlikely and all the more humorous. Yet, the primary source of humour is the total inadequacy of the language Narcisse uses to express the emotion he feels. On top of his propensity to malapropisms, every time he reaches for a metaphor to elevate his speech it betrays the down-to-earth notions in the back of his mind: "I long for the day when my hammer and tongs can work in your forge," or when he tries to convince her that passion is still possible at his age, "An old barn burns faster than a new one." Johns' delivery with his wavering extended vowels is a joy throughout. His Narcisse begins as over-confident and boastful but gradually comes to realize with some discomfort that the more he tries to explain his feelings the more he risks alienating his beloved. He gives Narcisse the endearing quality of trying to plunge valiantly ahead all the while his task seems ever more hopeless. It is truly a performance to cherish.
Mary Long makes Laurencienne the perfect foil for Narcisse. She negotiates the subtle change from perplexity that someone she hardly knows feels is so obsessed with her to a mixture of amusement and annoyance verging on dislike for a man who despite all the evidence feels men are innately superior to woman to distain of his ignorance of village politics. Most crucial of all, she gradually shows the dawning awareness that beneath the veneer of this buffoon with his ill-chosen words and outdated notions there is an honest, innocent soul with a good heart ready to do anything he can to please her. To make the ending believable, the actress playing Laurencienne has to make this awareness that that Narcisse may actually be worthy of her love seem perfectly natural. Long accomplishes this by showing us early on that Laurencienne does not reveal all she thinks in what she says, always reserving a final judgment until she has observed things more closely. She, too, gives a masterful performance.
Director Linda Moore is fully alive to the subtle dynamics of the play and knows how to build the comedy to bigger and bigger laughs. She carefully alters our perspective so that by the end we are no longer laughing at the characters but laughing with them. Her compassion for the human foibles of Narcisse and Laurencienne suffuses the play with warm sense of generosity that stays with you long after the performance is over. Brian Perchaluk has designed the sets and costumes in a palette of soft colours with a nostalgic cast, giving Laurencienne quite a handsome sitting-room and Narcisse a humorous outfit in what the plumber thinks is the latest style. Ereca Hassell enhances the warm mood with her lighting even giving Narcisse a golden ray from heaven when he prays to the Holy Spirit for guidance. The projections of newspaper articles, postcards and photos are all wittily conceived.
I can't imagine a better production of this delightful play where every detail has been so well thought out. Anyone stifled by the overproduced, unfunny comedies on offer at Stratford should drive the extra hour to Blyth for an example of how a good comedy of character should be performed. It's like a breath of fresh air.
© 2001 Christopher Hoile