Henry IV Part 1 & 2 - | - Henry V - | - Good Mother - | - Inherit the Wind - | - Macbeth - | - The Mystery of Edwin Drood - | - Picnic - | - The Tempest - |- Uncle Vanya - | - Wingfield on Ice - | -

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Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival
Part 1 June 1-September 29; Part 2 June 27-September 29, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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The fact that this year the Stratford Festival is presenting both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV with Douglas Campbell, one of North America's greatest Falstaffs, is all the reason you need to see them. Although Henry IV, Part 1 has had four previous productions at Stratford (the last in 1984), only twice before, in 1965 and 1979, has the Festival staged its partner Henry IV, Part 2. The next largest Shakespeare festival in North America regularly works its way through the Bard's canon including the 10 history plays in the First Folio. But Stratford has laboured under the misconception that they are not "box office." This year both parts of Henry IV were virtually sold out before they opened. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 22 years to see them again.

Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 are the middle two plays of Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy of history plays beginning with Richard II and ending with Henry V. In them Shakespeare explores the origins of civil war in England and the Hundred Years War with France which was the subject of his First Tetralogy, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3 and Richard III. Shakespeare's questions in the Second Tetralogy are "How did things go so wrong?" and "What was life like in an England heading for a moment of glory followed by disaster?" In Henry IV, Part 1 we see in the title character someone still longing to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for having wrested the crown from Richard II making Henry the first English king to break the royal line of descent. He is faced with two types of rebellion. On the political side are the supporters of Mortimer, who would have been next in line at Richard's death, and others alienated by the usurping king. On the personal side is the Crown Prince, Prince Hal, who rather than helping his father, spends his time in taverns and brothels accompanied by a famed "misleader of youth," Falstaff. Due to the success of the rebels, especially of, Hal's contemporary Hotspur, Hal finally proves his worth in battle to his father.

Henry IV, Part 2 (renamed by the Festival as Falstaff) is one of Shakespeare's most modern plays. Long before Beckett it makes waiting its subject. The rebellions of Part 1 are still not extinguished and England is waiting for peace. Henry IV, now grown ill, is waiting for death and some sign that the power he stole will be secure in his son's hands. Hal, too, is waiting for the moment when, as he predicted in Part 1, he will throw off his companionship with Falstaff and the others and make himself appear greater for this transformation. Falstaff and his friends are waiting for Hal to become king so they will receive the preferments they mistakenly believe their friendship with the future king will bring them. It is a portrait of a diseased and dying world shot through with irony.

Three main characters and a host of minor ones continue from one play to the next. Although named for Henry IV, the figure who towers over both parts is Falstaff, played magnificently by Douglas Campbell. Falstaff is often cited as the greatest character Shakespeare ever created since he encompasses all the opposites that make up human experience--good and evil, love and lust, truth and falsehood, comedy and tragedy--a man intent upon life and pleasure at all costs yet constant in his fatherly love for Hal. It may seem impossible to play a figure who embodies all the world has to offer and is still a realistic character, but Douglas Campbell does it with ease, his timing, gesture and delivery so perfect that you cannot imagine anyone else in this role. Falstaff is mainly the butt of ridicule in Part 2, but in Part 2 it is his turn to ridicule the young and old who have accepted a life less large. Hal's rejection of him at the end of Part 2 shocks both him and us.

It should be no surprise that none of the other actors can match Douglas Campbell's performance. Benedict Campbell as Henry IV has virtually no grasp of the complexities of his character. In Part 1 he is all poise and efficiency but in Part 2 (continuing the story immediately from where Part 1 left it) he is suddenly at death's door. The text clearly states that Henry reign was never free from care and that it is his guilt over having usurped the throne and having plunged England into civil war that has so weakened him and contributed to his death. Benedict Campbell gives us no sign of this in Part 1 and, except for one cough, shows no signs of the infirmity he suffers in Part 2. In Part 2 he is so intent in showing us how sick Henry is that all of the all-important speeches that finally give us a glimpse into this tortured ruler are unclear amid his rampant scenery-chewing. It is a performance that weakens Part 1 and nearly ruins Part 2.

Prince Hal, alone among the three major characters, continues beyond Parts 1 and 2 becoming the title character of Henry V. He is also one of the most duplicitous characters Shakespeare ever created. As he explains early in Part 1, he considers Falstaff and company as merely a foil to make his reformation "Show more goodly and attract more eyes." Realistically, it's doubtful that Hal can spend all his time with his lowly comrades and feel nothing for them. Banishing his friends to become king has to be seen to wound him, too, or else he is merely a cad. Graham Abbey, with his strong Southern Ontario accent, is very good at showing us a young man playing hooky from the court, but seems unable to plumb the depths of his character. We see disdain for Falstaff but no love. He says he loves his dying father but it doesn't ring true. His performance is adequate but superficial.

Among the cast of 26, many playing multiple roles, there are a number excellent performances: Barry MacGregor, the rubicund, megarhinal Bardolph; Ian Deakin, the "crafty-sick" Northumberland and the bold woman's tailor Feeble; Thom Marriott as Sir Walter Blunt; and Sara Topham, who plays a moving Lady Mortimer, Hotspur's wife, although all her lines are in Welsh. In Part 2 Keith Dinicol is very fine as the introductory chorus Rumour and as the swaggerer Pistol, whose language overflows with sesquipedalian expressions and literary references. William Needles (the timid Justice Silence) and Lewis Gordon (Justice Shallow with the would-be madcap past) bring down the house in each of their scenes together.

Jonathan Goad plays Hotspur, Prince Hal's rival in Part 1. He captures the choler and charisma of this impetuous young man, but often at the expense of clarity of diction. Stephen Russell is fine as the stern Lord Chief Justice, who tries to keep Hal and Falstaff in check, but, despite his Prospero-like garb, he plays the would-be Welsh magician Owen Glendower no differently. Richard McMillan does not differentiate in his playing of the Earl of Worcester in Part 1 and the Earl of Warwick in Part 2 which is confusing since the two characters are on opposing sides in the civil turmoil.

The normally excellent Diane D'Aquila never manages to get a hold on the character of Mistress Quickly and her mixture of love and exasperation regarding Falstaff. The usually reliable Kate Trotter turns in quite a bizarre performance as Doll Tearsheet in Part 2, shouting her lines in such an odd accent it's impossible to know what she's saying. Neither Robert Hamilton (Hal's brother John) nor Evan Buliung (Hal's friend Poins) delineates their character clearly.

Some of these failings have to be put down to Scott Wentworth in his first directorial assignment at Stratford. Unlike the other three Shakespeares on offer at Stratford, in these Wentworth at least shows he understands the overall meaning on the plays. The map covering the stage in Part 1 emphasizes the threat the rebels pose in dividing the kingdom. The pillow-as-crown gesture Henry IV makes near the end of Part 2 echoes the same gesture Hal and Falstaff make early in Part 1 and highlight the choice Hal must make between his pseudo-father and his real father. Wentworth is very skilled in making good use of the stage, but he could have used more theatrical gestures to highlight the parallels between the various plots. And he falls short when it comes to clarifying the characters' complex relationships. What has made the Henry IV plays popular even in non-Anglophone countries is not just Shakespeare's insight into politics but also his portrayal of personal relations. Under Wentworth's direction the main characters all seem isolated from each other and many crucial scenes are played with the characters standing as far apart as possible. Besides this, Wentworth's habit of having one scene begin before the previous scene is over often means the key summary lines of each scene are often lost.

Patrick Clark's stage design is thankfully minimalist and recalls Stratford's heyday when Shakespeare could be played on an unadorned stage. Yet, people will find his costume choices odd. The court are clad in 19th-century outfits. Hal and his mates look as if they've come from the 1970s with wide collars, unbuttoned shirts and necklaces. Falstaff and Mistress Quickly are costumed with a Renaissance cut in Part 1 and a 19th-century cut in Part 2. Henry in his important meeting with Hal in Part one looks distinctly unkingly in his plain shirt and suspenders.

Given the monochrome stage design it is Louise Guinand's masterful lighting that sets mood and location. John Stead has created the fights including the exciting broadsword battle between Hal and Hotspur in Part 1.

In 1979, the last time Stratford gave us both parts of Henry IV, Peter Moss directed with Lewis Gordon as Falstaff, Richard Monette as Prince Hal and Douglas Rain as Henry IV. The present production in no way surpasses that in insight, humour or emotional depth. But that was a long time ago. At least the current production generally shows what the plays are about and has one compelling central performance.

For fear that the Festival will continue to neglect Shakespeare's Histories, that I may have to wait another 22 years to see them and that there seems to be no one on the horizon who will ever play Falstaff as well as Douglas Campbell, I've planned to see both parts twice.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Henry V
Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival, June 2-November 4, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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The Henry V now playing at the Stratford Festival is the most misguided production of this play I have ever seen. All five productions of Shakespeare currently on offer at Stratford provide only superficial readings of their texts. Jeannette Lambermont goes these one better by given us a reading that is not only superficial but also directly contrary to the text. What we have is a Henry V that is conceptually a mess. Add to this a perverse design concept and a weak performance by the actor in the title role and this Henry V becomes another must-miss at Stratford.

Henry V presents us with title character's threefold triumph: over insurgents at home, over the French at Agincourt and over the French princess Katherine in courtship. Its most notable structural feature is a Chorus who sets scenes, fills us in on past and future events and constantly appeals to our imagination to give fullness to the actions played out before us. "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them, Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth; For 'tis your thoughts must deck our kings" or later "Still be kind, And eke out our performance with your mind." The play is the most theatrical of the canon with the Chorus regularly bringing to our notice that we are watching a play, a totally inadequate representation of a real historical event. The subject of the play is the power of language to fashion reality in the theatre, politics and love.

Lambermont has not grasped this. Instead of having us "eke out" the performance with our minds, she has a large screen at the back of the stage showing still or moving images to set scenes and portray the action. We don't need to "think" that we see horses when they are mentioned because she shows us a video of them. With this bit of technological hubris she ruins Shakespeare's fullest meditation on the relation of theatre to reality. As if that gimmick were not enough, Lambermont has decided that Paul Dunn playing the Boy should also be an amateur videographer documenting the action. We are periodically treated to his jerky efforts and to a speech delivered "Blair Witch"-like into his camera and shown on the screen behind. Is there a point to this? No, Lambermont has simply let her inimical concept to triumph over sense. Besides this, Lambermont has an itinerant musician, Jill Vitols, playing an amplified cello to provide live accompaniment. I didn't mind this when the music served to cover scene changes but when the cellist adds illustrative plucks and glissandi while actors were speaking it is clear Lambermont has really no respect for Shakespeare's words.

Dany Lyne's design provides no relief from this nonsense. For a play where the action is specifically located on the "unworthy scaffold" of a bare stage, Lyne has designed set with a trench in the orchestra pit, a playing area on the stage apron and a huge ramp on what looking like a ship-builder's scaffold fallen askew--another willful misreading of the text. Lyne's costumes carry on the stylistic mishmash from Patrick Clark in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. All the English, except Henry when in state, wear black and in battle look like World War I soldiers. The French are clad in powder blue Renaissance outfits that make the men look like members of a cross-dresser's society. Bonnie Beecher does her best in trying to make the many black-on-black scenes look less tawdry but her best moments are a series of spot lit battle excerpts.

The dog's breakfast the Lambermont and Lyne have made of the work might somehow be palatable if it were seasoned with fine performances, but, alas, this is not the case. Graham Abbey simply does not have the presence let alone the charisma to make a convincing Henry V. The delivery of Henry's famous speeches is loud but not rousing. Except for his pontificating it is often hard to pick him out from his soldiers. His pronounced Southern Ontario accent was fine when he was Prince Hal slumming it in Henry IV, 1 & 2. But as King Henry it makes him sound like the leader of a high school debating team not like a British monarch. He is best in his wooing of Katherine where he must seem awkward and uncomplicated.

Undermined as she is by the director, Seana McKenna makes a good Chorus, though her sometimes arch approach makes her seem more like a reader at a children's' story-hour than the mediator between Shakespeare and a present-day audience. For the finest performances one has to look to some of the minor characters--Brad Rudy (Exeter), Bernard Hopkins (Archbishop of Canterbury), Diane D'Aquila (back in form as Mistress Quickly), Keith Dinicol (Pistol) and Barry MacGregor (Bardolph). Domini Blythe (Alice) and Sara Topham (Katherine) make the English lesson of Act 3 and the wooing scene of Act 5 the two best scenes in the play.

The rest of the cast is adequate to mediocre. Nicolas Van Burek (Dauphin) soon becomes annoying with his overemphatic delivery, and Wayne Best (the Welsh Captain Fluellen) uses an accent that seems to locate Wales somewhere between India and Pakistan.

For me, the best production of Henry V was the one at Stratford directed by John Wood in 1989 with Geraint Wyn Davies as Henry and William Needles as the Chorus. Besides deep insight into all aspects of the play, that production had what this production so sadly lacks--a sense of irony. With Needles dressed as an elderly war veteran, we could not assume that his portrayal of the events was accurate. Where Lambermont makes Henry's frequent appeals to God sincere, Wood made them look like another calculated political move far more in keeping with the devious Prince Hal of the earlier plays.

The only reason to see this Henry V is if you have already seen "Henry IV, Part 1 & 2" and want to see how the story continues. Stratford has presented the play four times before but never in the same year as the two that precede it. If, however, you are only interested in Henry V, don't waste your money. Take Jeannette Lambermont's approach to its logical conclusion--rent the video.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, May 25-October 27, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

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The Shaw Festival recently expanded the Festival's mandate to include not just works written in Shaw's lifetime (1856-1950) but also modern works set within that period. Last year this led to the production of the charming Bock and Harnick masterpiece "She Loves Me" from 1963. This year it has led to the production of the vastly inferior Rupert Holmes musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" from 1985. One need only reflect that "She Love Me" did not win a Tony for best musical and that "Drood" did to see that annual awards are no guide to quality. Problems with the work itself, the direction and the design--but not with the admirable cast--make "Drood" one of the lesser shows on offer at the Shaw this year.

When I saw the original production in New York, I thought it a mildly amusing but unimportant musical. To hear the work now, unamplified and with a cast of Shaw Festival's calibre, only shows up the work's flaws. Based on the novel Charles Dickens died before completing, "Drood" uses votes from the audience to determine the identities of the murderer, the lovers and the disguised detective. The show is cast in the form of a musical-hall entertainment with frequent comments by the Chairman and presentation of the action in highly stylized scenes. The latter aspect was considered innovative by those unaware of Brecht and Weill's "Threepenny Opera" of 1928. The former aspect has been so imitated by dinner-theatre shows that it has lost its excitement. Without its gimmicks, the show tells Dickens's complicated story in such a sketchy way it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for it. Holmes, particularly in the first act, gives us one short, instantly forgettable song after the next, each too reliant on lacklustre melodies and parlando style to sink in. Act 2 at least has the kick-line number "Don't Quit While You're Ahead" and Drood's final song "The Writing on the Wall," but that's rather slim pickings for a full-length musical.

Director Dennis Garnhum and designer Allan Stichbury do not help matters with a design concept that makes nonsense of the music-hall setting. The Royal George Theatre built in 1913 stands in quite nicely as a music hall and the actors who greet you in late 19th-century dress add to the period effect. Why then does the stage become see-the-back-wall modern on the other side of the proscenium with most of the action played on various bits of scaffolding? In the original production scenes were played against painted drops as per period practice. To a modern audience painted drops already connote artifice. To go beyond that to modern stage scaffolding totally undermines the music-hall atmosphere the actors try so hard to maintain. And this atmosphere is ultimately the raison d'être of the show. Besides that, Garnhum has the actors play their parts in a deliberately clichéd manner that has more to do with television comedy than the 19th-century. In trying to treat this trifle as if it were "Six Characters in Search of an Author," Garnhum and Stichbury have outsmarted themselves. They are so busy in unnecessarily undermining theatrical conventions they forget that if we are not somehow involved in the story then the point of the voting which takes up much of Act 2 is lost.

Shaw ensembles have before been able to shine despite misguided direction and weak vehicles, and this is the case here. Primarily, it is Neil Barclay as Your Chairman, mediating between the audience and the action and as Mayor Sapsea acting in it, who holds the show together by the sheer force of his genial personality. He and a few other cast members seem to know that the show is at best a bit of silly fun and thus keep the show anchored. The performances less burdened with obtrusive shtick make the strongest impression. These include Blythe Wilson (Edwin Drood), much more entertaining and effective than Betty Buckley in the original, and Corinne Koslo (Princess Puffer), whose mixture of humour and intensity makes each of her scenes a pleasure.

Michael Querin with his strong voice would have made a much stronger impression as John Jasper, Drood's uncle, if Garnhum had allowed him to portray this tortured character in a more realistic way. The same goes for Guy Bannerman in the comic role of Bazzard and Douglas E. Hughes (Reverend Crisparkle). Tracy Michailidis (Rosa Bud), with her lovely voice would have made a better impression if her diction were clearer. Jeff Madden (Neville Landless) and Jenny L. Wright (his sister Helena) in underwritten roles make little impression at all. Cameron MacDuffee (Durdles) and Jeff Lillico (Deputy) are already caricatures in Holmes made worse by Garnhum.

Two bright spots in the production are Kelly Wolf's delightful period costumes, though I have to say I enjoyed the personal costumes she gave the actors when they mingled with the audience more than their stage costumes. Allan Stichbury provides the very inventive lighting. Timothy French's choreography is more standard-issue Broadway than the kind of clever work we're used to seeing at the Royal George.

As the performance progressed I couldn't help thinking of the greater shows that would so much better show off the talents of the cast. "The Threepenny Opera" is one and "Sweeney Todd" another. I do hope the expansion of the mandate won't mean the abandonment of operettas or the musical comedies of the 1920-30s that the Shaw pulls off so well. I'm sure the Festival chose "Drood" to showcase the music hall, a type of theatre that was so important in the period of the mandate. But when the director and designer go to such lengths to destroy the atmosphere they have set up, they also destroy any reason why such a work so weak should be mounted at all. "Drood" is a soon-to-be justly neglected musical directed to please no one.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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HurlyBurly at the Canadian Stage Theatre, Toronto, September 7-29, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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September 7th marked the arrival of a new theatre company on the Toronto scene, HurlyBurly, dedicated to the production of Shakespeare in Toronto indoors in small theatre venues. Their inaugural production is "Macbeth" in the 241-seat Canadian Stage Theatre on Berkeley Street. Toronto and environs already has several companies dedicated solely to Shakespeare but they play in schools or outdoors. The nearest company with an emphasis on Shakespeare indoors is, of course, the Stratford Festival, but its smallest venue is twice the size of the Canadian Stage Theatre. So indeed HurlyBurly has found an unoccupied niche in Toronto's cultural gallery.

HurlyBurly's "Macbeth" boasts a fine cast and visually striking design. Matthew Kutas's direction, however, is strictly hit-and-miss. Kutas's less good ideas tend to negate the effect of his good ideas and prevent the production from reaching the kind of impact more consistent and incisive direction would have provided. This is not a great "Macbeth," but it is far superior to Diana Leblanc's "Macbeth" at Stratford 1999 and to Edward Gilbert's for Toronto Arts Productions in 1980, and it has more interesting ideas than many another I've seen.

Among Kutas's good ideas is playing up the friendship between Macbeth and Banquo in their first scenes. This successfully establishes the norm for human interaction from which Macbeth so rapidly falls away. Kutas has Lady Macbeth played by someone who seems half Macbeth's age. This gives the pair's relationship a whole new twist. Lady Macbeth's youth and obsession with death thus link her back to Juliet in love with an aged Romeo, who has to prove his vigor by carrying our her gruesome fantasies. Kutas also has the brilliant idea of having the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth carry about a basin of water in which she washes her hands. This nicely epitomizes her mental anguish: Is she washing blood off her hands or washing her hands in blood?

The most notable aspect of the production is the inclusion of the two Hecate scenes excised from every previous production I've seen and never so far presented at Stratford. These scenes are normally cut because scholars agree that they are late additions not by Shakespeare to serve as an introduction to two songs for the witches (not here performed) by Thomas Middleton. Besides their dubious background, the appearances of Hecate, a goddess of the underworld in charge of sorcery, severely limits the meaning of the play. All the events of the play as we learn are preordained by Fate. Any illusion that the characters have free will is thus discarded and they are revealed as mere puppets. This determinist view is common among Shakespeare's contemporaries like Webster and Middleton, but without the authority of the goddess herself, the play becomes a much more ambiguous meditation on the nature of man's free will. Nevertheless, I was delighted finally to see these scenes staged and they should give frequent theatregoers much food for thought.

Kutas's worst decision is to have Jamie George's atmospheric sound design run almost without break through most of the play including during the characters' most important soliloquies. I don't mind soundtracks for setting moods or covering scene changes, but I do prefer to have Shakespeare's words to the talking. The sound is sometimes so obtrusive that I couldn't hear what was being said. This totally defeats the purpose of performing Shakespeare indoors in a small venue where otherwise a mere whisper, unaccompanied, can be heard throughout the auditorium. Among other bizarreries of the staging, including pointless scene changes and having the most long speeches delivered downstage centre to the audience, is having Lady Macbeth fall asleep on floor before intermission where she remains, until the lights fade for the first scene after intermission when she gets up and exits. "Why?" one may well ask. He has Macbeth deliver much of his address in his second scene with the witches while walking downstairs off stage. And he leaves the moveable stairway in reversed position making the final battle extremely awkward.

Carolyn M. Smith's set is a stark blood-red lacquer box with a second storey walkway at the back and the aforementioned stairway. In contrast the actors' rough, medieval outfits makes them seem like outsiders trapped within the cold, cruel mechanism of Fate. Paul Mathiesen's lighting is superb. The frequent fogging of the stage allows him to emphasize the way beams of light cut through it from every direction including from slits in the two sidewalls. James Binkley's fights, however, are rather too deliberate.

Lindsay G. Merrithew (Macbeth) gives a finely nuanced performance in the first half that had me reaching for superlatives. In the second half, however, as Macbeth sees himself trapped by Fate, Merrithew shouts almost all lines thereby losing subtlety just when the text demands more of it. When not shouting his line delivery, as in the famous "Tomorrow" speech, is oddly flat. Ruth Madoc-Jones (Lady Macbeth) is variable but in a different way. When speaking slowly she brings out the meaning in every line. Her chilling sleepwalking scene shows a Lady Macbeth, who is not merely troubled by conscience but insane. Yet when speaking rapidly she emphasizes the meter so heavily the lines become nonsense. Michael Fletcher makes Duncan a tougher, nobler king than is usual but unaccountably makes Siward seem like a elderly British twit.

Most of the actors are much more consistent. Paul Miller (Macduff) is excellent throughout, making one wish he appeared on stage more frequently. The same is true of Derek Boyes who makes Banquo's hearty good humour a perfect foil for Macbeth. Elizabeth Brown is very strong in the contrasting roles of the imperious Hecate and the very human Lady Macduff. Michael Ferguson (Porter/Doctor) clearly distinguishes his two roles, but odd direction makes his Porter's scene is more muted than usual. Patrick Garrow (Malcolm/Murderer) and newcomer Rylan Wilkie (Donalbain/Seaton) both give intelligent, well-spoken performances.

On the other hand, the tendency to speak verse as prose (also common at Stratford) afflicts both Andrew Moodie (Lennox/Menteith) and Richard Harte (Fleance/Bloody Captain). Michael Krek (Rosse) occasionally has this difficulty as well as often being inaudible. Marcia Brackett, Joanne Kelly and Tricia Lahde (the Three Witches) do as well as they can under the burden of the overly grotesque movement assigned them.

If HurlyBurly does not make the same cometlike appearance on the Toronto theatrical firmament, as did Soulpepper in their inaugural production, much talent and potential are evident. This "Macbeth" with the same cast and design team needs more consistent direction and more fine-tuning to move from being merely "interesting" to "exceptional." Let's hope they make this move in their next production.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Uncle Vanya
Soulpepper, du Maurier Theatre, Toronto, July 31-August 25, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

Chekhov plus Soulpepper plus director László Marton equals great theatre. With ³Platonov² in 1999 and 2000, adapters Susan Coyne and Marton had shape a coherent play from the raw material of a rambling unperformable work. With ³Uncle Vanya² in John Murrell¹s crisp translation, the company begins with a masterpiece of world theatre and makes it seem brand new. As with ³Platonov², Marton draws incredibly detailed performances from the entire cast, performances so natural they seem improvised. With the characters and their situations brought so fully to life, this now becomes the best production of this play I have seen.

We are subtly drawn into the world of the play long before it begins with the distant booms of Richard Feren¹s soundscape coming ever closer until the translucent plastic curtain before us streams with rain. The curtain rolls upward to reveal a floor of overlapping carpets to a wall-less room furnished, it seems, from a junk shop and surrounded with a border of real mud. Ensconced within Michael Levine¹s set are four people, our title character completely covered with a sheet, as if they were also so much detritus.

Unlike previous productions that misguidedly try to add glamour or nostalgia to life in the country in 19th-century Russia, Marton and his design team have emphasized Vanya's and his niece Sonya¹s poverty. Allusions to this abound especially in the explosive third act, but this is the first time I¹ve seen a director take them seriously. Vanya and Sonya have scrimped for 20 years so that Vanya¹s brother-in-law Serebriakov could go to university and have the leisure to write articles. To highlight the waste of this financial sacrifice, Michael Levine gives Serebriakov and his second wife Elena stylish new clothing while the entire rest of the cast look as if they¹ve lived in the same clothes for years. The central room of the house is lit by a single bare light bulb that has to be moved from lamp to lamp. When the electricity fails in Act 2, Kevin Lamotte gives us the highly realistic effect of how dark a room would be if lit by only two candles. This physical darkness underscores the metaphor various characters use about their lives: a glimmer of light far off gives one the courage to go on despite pain and suffering.

For the visiting Dr. Astrov and, tragically, also for Vanya, this light is Serebriakov's wife Elena. For Sonya it is the idealistic Astrov. For the whole family it was Serebriakov, who has proved not to be the brilliant man they had supposed. For Vanya's mother it is her political pamphlets; for the aged servant Marina, her religion. After the hopes of each have been dashed, Sonya's final speech about the rest they will find in the next life shows that she and Vanya, like the elderly around them, have already given up on hope in this life.

The cast shows us ensemble acting at its finest, each actor equally strong so that the multiple links among them become apparent. Diego Matamoros gives a heartbreaking performance as Vanya. He makes Vanya seem a kind of derelict in his own house. He shows more clearly than I've ever seen how the death of Vanya's sister has contributed to his meditation on his lost youth and wasted life. Matamoros fully captures Vanya's mixture of self-loathing, rage, despair, clownishness and hopeless love. This is the most impressive male performance I've seen all year and its completeness makes the previous Vanyas I've seen look like unfinished sketches.

Liisa Repo-Martell gives an equally rich performance as Sonya, shy, convinced of her plainness, giddy in love, crushed that it is unrequited, seeking solace as she always has in work. Albert Schultz is excellent as Dr. Astrov, who knows his plans for conservation and reforestation are only a way of making up for the lack of love in his life. Kristen Thomson succeeds in the difficult task of garnering some sympathy for the bored, indolent Elena, who nevertheless ruefully recognizes that by marrying Serebriakov she has thrown away her youth. As Serebriakov, Robert Haley is every bit as infuriating as weak, narrow-minded, hypochondriac academic can be who repays all the coddling he receives with complaint.

The rest of the characters have all resigned themselves to their fates in a way that the other characters hope, vainly, never to do. Joyce Campion (Marina) is as delightful as ever as the old servant whose religion makes her see all human beings as fools in God's eyes and whose contented knitting counterpoints the agonies of the others. Michael Simpson (Telyegin, known as "Waffles") plays Vanya's tenant who comically but realistically has resigned himself to the curse of his homeliness. Charmion King (Maria Voinitsky, Vanya's mother) is imperious in presence but is foolish and cruel enough to think more highly of her son-in-law than of her own son. And roaming the stage is William Webster (Yefim), a bent-over servant seemingly beneath the others' consideration.

Marton has focused this production on the mental strategies the characters use for survival. The mud, the storm, the rain only reinforce the tenuousness of man's life on earth and the need for spiritual as well as physical shelter. This is a bleaker interpretation than usual but one that rings truer and clarifies more aspects of the play than any other I've seen. All those involved in the directionless Seagull now playing in Stratford should be bused in for an object lesson in how Chekhov should be performed. If La Ronde was a misfire, this Uncle Vanya proves yet again that Soulpepper can also achieve greatness.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Good Mother
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, August 22-September 27, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

The final opening of Stratford's 2001 season is "Good Mother" by 26-year-old company member Damien Atkins. The play won the inaugural UBC Creative Writing Residency Prize for an unpublished script in 1999 and was workshopped at Stratford in 1999 and 2000. Inspired by a song by Jann Arden and an interview with a family on Oprah Winfrey, "Good Mother" has much more in common with a television movie of the week than with the best recent drama from Britain or Canada. Yet, Atkins clearly has talent and his play has inspired the cast to give performances of great power.

The play covers two years beginning when 42-year-old Anne Driver, in the midst of preparing for her daughter Nancy's 18th birthday, has a debilitating stroke. Act 1 of the play focuses on Anne's gradual recovery--waking from her coma, her first word and walking on her own to her recovery of a little but not all of her memory. In tandem with this we see the frustration and guilt of her family, as they now must care for the woman who used to care for them. After a flashback to the incidents immediately preceding the stroke, Act 2 shifts to resolving two romantic subplots--one between Nancy and her boyfriend Richard, the other between Anne's husband Ben and Anne's sister Louise.

The play has a number of structural problems. It may be exciting to begin the action with Anne's stroke, but this means that for half of the play we are repeatedly told what a "strong" woman, "supermom" or "fighter" Anne is without our having any direct experience of it. We are given some glimpse of this in the important flashback of Act 2, but the focus shifts all too soon from what Anne used to be like to an argument between mother and daughter over Nancy's boyfriend.

The play is also over-reliant on coincidence to move the plot forward. As least four times characters planning or engaged in a sexual encounter are surprised by precisely the character who shouldn't see them. This is an easy way of thickening the plot but it makes the romantic characters look incredibly unaware of their surroundings. A more experienced playwright would cut the melodrama of these discovery scenes and begin with the discussion of the fallout.

Besides this, the cause of a number of arguments and situations is based on information we don't have. Nancy argues far too often that her parents are stricter than other parents but nothing we see seems to support this. Both parents seem to dislike Nancy's boyfriend, but it is just generic parental disapproval or grounded in something specific? What exactly is the past history of Ben and Louise if Ben can so easily slip into a relationship with her after Anne's stroke? Many of these problems could be solved if the flashback were more extensive or if the play began with Anne in good health. Only then could we judge more clearly which problems Anne's stroke has caused and which were pre-existing.

Despite all this, there are a large number of effective scenes--Anne's rejection of Ben when he tries to sleep with her again, Ben's collapse into tears when viewing old slide with Anne, Nancy's two dreamt conversations with Anne, the final tableau and all the scenes between Anne and her lively home care nurse. Atkins has an ear for natural speech, though Nancy speaks in far more complex sentences than one would expect from an angry 18-year-old. The flashback of Act 2 establishes a very interesting theme that I wish Atkins had more fully explored. There we hear Nancy tell the healthy Anne that she isn't her mother any more just as she says later referring to her disability. Atkins has Anne's neurologist say outright that it is not Anne but the family's perceptions of her that are causing them grief. Atkins could expand on this theme if he could free himself more fully from a straightforward realistic narrative, as he does briefly in the flashback and two dream conversations. This would lift the work from its semblance to a banal teleplay to a work making more use of the possibilities of the theatre.

Director Miles Potter has drawn committed, highly detailed performances from the entire cast. Chief among these is Seana McKenna's amazing performance as Anne as she struggles with right-brain damage. Not only is her portrayal painfully realistic as she shows Anne's difficult piecemeal recovery of some functions, but she shows us Anne's personality as it periodically shines through the prison that is her body. It is surely the most powerful female performance at Stratford this season.

Wayne Best as Anne's husband Ben gives one of his best-ever performances, fully communicating the conflicting emotions of his character. Anne's sister Louise is the only character Atkins grants much subtext, but Jane Spidell beautifully brings out her unspoken conflict of what is right and what she desires. Michele Graff as Nancy has to cope with a character who repeatedly flies off into pretty much the same fit of anger. All delivered at a shout these fits become tiring. In her quieter moments, however, Graff is able to bring out a fuller sense of her character. Andrew Dodd, aged 11, plays Nancy's brother, Boo, with more assurance and naturalism than most of the adult actors in training at Stratford.

The smaller roles are all well taken. Kim Horsman brings out the humour in Anne's overly brusque neurologist. Yvonne, Anne's wisecracking home care nurse seems parachuted in from a sitcom, but Lisa Horner makes her an appealing character. Shawn Mathieson well portrays Nancy's awkward, oversexed boyfriend. And the author himself plays the geeky medical researcher who first breaks the news of Anne's condition to her husband.

Peter Hartwell's design is very simple making use of slides (by Michael Besworth and Daryl Cloran) projected on two angled screens to locate each scene. Wendy Greenwood's lighting is crucial in establishing the varying moods of the piece, as is Peter McBoyle's detailed soundscape, particularly enjoyable in the movie theatre scene.

The play itself may have its difficulties but many in the audience were obviously moved by it. The roles Atkins created clearly spoke to the actors to have drawn such emotionally engaged performances from them. Damien Atkins is at work on another play for the Festival. Let's hope that there he finds his own voice.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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The Tempest
Canadian Stage, High Park, Toronto, July 10-August 26, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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After last year's incredibly poor production of "The Taming of the Shrew," this year's CanStage Dream in High Park, "The Tempest," comes as a welcome relief. While there are flaws, director Michael Shamata shows a far clearer understanding of the play than was evident in the last two productions at Stratford. And the best seats here are one-sixth the cost at Stratford.

Shamata's insight is that Prospero need not be the ancient man we see so often see on stage. His daughter Miranda is 15 years old, only three when she and he were exiled from Milan. Prospero says he has spent a third of his life on the enchanted island where he landed after his brother usurped the throne, which means he could be as young as 36. A vigorous middle-aged Prospero rids us of the usual all-knowing figure clad like Father Time, and gives us an angry, fallible man who has meditated on revenge for the 12 years of his exile. Through this simple stroke, Shamata links Prospero to Hamlet and highlights the difference between the two. Unlike mass carnage that ends the delayed revenge in "Hamlet," "The Tempest" ends in forgiveness and acknowledgement of sin. The emphasis on Prospero's anger and thirst for vengeance clearly links the main plot with the parallel plot involving the stranded court party and the plan to kill Alonzo and with Stephano-Trinculo plot and Caliban's plan to kill Prospero. Unlike so many directors, Shamata does not make the Stephano-Trinculo scenes all drunken blather and nonsense. Rather he makes the Stephano a mean drunk who still thinks clearly enough to use others for his own ends, again reinforcing the parallel with Antonio, Alonso and Sebastian and, of course, Prospero himself. The main flaw in Shamata's direction is that in making Prospero so angry he seems to have denied him a sense of irony so that most of the humour in the scenes between Prospero and Miranda is lost.

A stronger Prospero might have overcome this difficulty. But John Jarvis does not seem able to present so complex a character. We get his anger and self-absorption all right, but lose many other qualities--a mixture of happiness and sadness at losing Miranda to Ferdinand or at giving Ariel freedom, a rueful perception of his own vanity when he breaks up the wedding masque. Jarvis's finest moment is when Prospero recognizes with some chagrin that the spirit Ariel has a more humane view of his captives than he does.

Recent National Theatre School graduate Manon St.-Jules is also weak as Miranda. She shows us her innocence and wonder at seeing such new sights as young men, but does not project the lively intelligence within that her chess game with Ferdinand suggests she has.

Flat performances in two such major roles might seem to doom the play, but it is buoyed up by the fine work by the rest of the cast. Principal among these is Oliver Dennis (Stephano), who makes the drunken butler one of the play's most interesting characters, a bully and a coward, brighter than those around him but too dim to see his own folly. Patrick Galligan (Trinculo) makes the jester's innocence the perfect foil for Stephano's meanness.

The roles of the court party are all well taken. Most Ferdinands seem like milquetoasts, but Todd Hofley gives him a nobility that carries him through Prospero's trials. Both Alex Poch-Goldin (Antonio) and David Jansen (Sebastian) are excellent as the two outright villains of the piece. Michael Spencer-Davis (Alonso) is convincingly guilt- and grief-stricken. Keith Knight (Gonzalo) doesn't really get much humour out of the role but his bookish manner makes clear the likeness between him and Prospero. In an unusual casting choice, Shamata has Adrian played by a boy, Grade Seven student Ross Ward. This works just fine, Ward acts well and it gives variety to the court party, but I don't see its underlying purpose.

In another unusual move Shamata has Ariel played by a mature woman, Tanja Jacobs. This makes Ariel not the mischievous Puck-like figure we are used to but rather more like a goddess of nature. Indeed, she is clad much like the other spirits we see. She moves stately on to do Prospero's bidding rather than flitting off. While, again, the humour of this character is lost, it makes the opposition of Ariel and Caliban not that of spirit and matter as it usually is but rather of nature and man. This makes Prospero's farewell to Ariel and acknowledgement of Caliban take on a new, clearer meaning. Brandon McGibbon is very effective as Caliban, who is here not a monster but clad like a dirt- and blood-begrimed native inhabitant of the island. Unlike in so many performances, this Caliban's words are always clear and McGibbon makes this being's longing for something beyond himself shine through his words. Gavin Hope, Crystal Martinez, Jennifer Rayner and Jennifer Warren, all fine singers, are the graceful spirits.

Shawn Kerwin's design with its shoji screens, pine tree and pool give Prospero's island a distinctly Japanese look, carried out in Prospero's ronin-style outfit and the Issey Mikaye-inspired garb of Ariel and the spirits. By contrast, she costumes the court in early 20th-century formal dress. All is well-lit by Bonnie Beecher. Speech and movement are carefully timed to Jamie George's impressive soundscape. Less successful, Don Horsburgh's music tends to sound like children's songs for synthesizer.

With all three plots pointedly paralleled, this is a very clear-sighted presentation of a play many find obscure. If only Shamata had retained the humour and irony possible in the Prospero-Miranda-Ariel scenes, this production would rate very high on my list of "Tempests." Even as it is, the general conception of the play will probably lead more people to understand it than others that focus mostly big laughs and special effects. With only a $12.00 suggested donation, you have everything to gain.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Wingfield on Ice
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford, August 21-October 12, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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Dan Needles' series of Wingfield plays starring Rod Beattie has become a national institution. The previous four installments have already achieved more than 2700 performances across Canada and the United States. The fifth installment, which had its first preview at Theatre Orangeville on March 28 this year, has just opened at the Avon Theatre in Stratford and will only increase the series' popularity. "Wingfield on Ice" may be Needles' finest play so far.

The series began in 1985 as a series of comic vignettes about Bay Street stockbroker turned farmer Walt Wingfield and his difficulties in fitting into country life. Over the years these anecdotes, told in the form of letters to a newspaper editor, have become more closely linked in exploring a common theme. "Wingfield on Ice" takes on perhaps the biggest theme of all--birth death and rebirth--while losing none of its trademark country humour.

The play finds Walt in his fifth year as a farmer in Persephone township. Walt's wife Maggie is now eight months pregnant. Walt's anxiety over the event is increased by his realization that country life is not as peaceful as he thought. He has seen that feuds passed from generation to generation riddle the community and he wonders if such an environment of discord and hatred is actually a better place than the city to raise a child. What initiates this train of thought is his discovery that his old neighbour the Squire has not spoken to his brother in over 50 years over an unknown past event. Walt's attempts to patch this up only make things worse. In addition, he finds that Maggie herself is on the outs with Isabel Lynch over a false view of Maggie's mother's religious views. These and other more minor disputes are paralleled with the comic rivalry between Maggie's nephew Willy and Mrs. Lynch's "almost purebred" collie. But the divided community is put to the ultimate test by the onslaught of an ice storm (whence the title) and the devastation it leaves in its wake.

Not only is this latest "Wingfield" more challenging in its theme, it is also more challenging for its star, Rod Beattie. Beattie gives us reprises of characters familiar from the earlier plays--Ed the editor, Maggie, her stuttering brother Freddy, her nephews Willy and Dave with their funny laughs, the humourless Don, Calvin Curry and the taciturn Squire. But Needles has given Beattie at least twelve more characters to impersonate, the most, I believe, of any the series. These include three more women of widely differing ages, Don's son, Maggie's doctor, a vet, a Bible-quoting constable, a soldier, an auctioneer and Pooky the collie, thus vastly enlarging the fictional world of Persephone Township. Beattie perfectly characterizes all of these keeping them distinct through voice, posture, and gesture, able to slip from one to the other in mid-phrase, all with consummate comic timing. Earlier this year I praised Séan Campion and Conleth Hill of the West End hit "Stones in His Pockets" for these very abilities. I was pleased to be reminded by "Wingfield on Ice" that in Rod Beattie we have an actor every bit their equal.

As in the previous four installments, Douglas Beattie provides the crisp, clear direction. Louise Guinand's lighting cues are tied closely to the text and always establish the appropriate mood. There is, however, no doubt that the 1100-seat Avon Theatre is not the ideal venue for a Wingfield play. John Thompson's adaptation of the set common to all five is surrounded by good deal of void and Rod Beattie is miked to fill the auditorium and to save his voice. At half the size the Tom Patterson Theatre would have been more suitable as it was for all the previous appearances of the series at Stratford.

A person does not have to have seen the previous four plays to enjoy this new "Wingfield." Needles has used his rural setting and characters to convey ideas of universal import. The play is just as funny as its predecessors, but its examination of the possibility for new hope and of hope deferred is both moving and thought-provoking. As usual Beattie will tour of "Wingfield on Ice" around Ontario and beyond. If you can't make it to Stratford, the next stops are Theatre Orangeville (November 6-25), the River Run Centre, Guelph (December 6-8) and the Grand Theatre, London (March 5-25, 2002). Those who have been following the Wingfield series will need no encouragement. For those who have not, see this one.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Inherit the Wind
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford, August 14-November 3, 2001.
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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Inherit the Wind" is the best production Richard Monette has directed since "Amadeus" in 1995. It helps that the play is not a comedy he thinks needs improvement. It helps that the play presents issues in black and white and that the characters are not complex. It also helps that the courtroom setting for most of the action prevents his falling back on the all-purpose blocking pattern he has used far too often. Monette's forte is the creation of atmosphere and here with the help of Peter Hartwell's period design and Kevin Fraser's effective lighting, he transports us back to the small fictional town of Hillsboro, Tennessee, in the 1920s when one of the most important trials un US history takes place.

The play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee was first produced in 1955, the same year as Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", and like Miller's play deals with the paranoia of the McCarthy era in the guise of an earlier event in American history. While Miller chose the Salem witch trials for his much subtler examination of the anti-communist witch hunts of his own day, Lawrence and Lee choose the so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925, that pitted two of the greatest lawyers of the day, Clarence Darrow and Williams Jennings Bryant, against each other over the question whether Darwin's theory of evolution should be taught in schools. Such teaching was illegal in the state of Tennessee (and technically remained so until 1967) and the trial of substitute teacher John T. Scopes became a test case over the separation of church and state in the classroom.

Both the specific issue of faith versus science and the more general issue of "thought-control" are, unfortunately, still relevant. The main flaw of the play is that it presents these issues in an entirely one-sided way. The townsfolk of Hillsboro may be pious but they are all portrayed as bigoted, closed-minded yokels proud of their ignorance. Schoolteacher Scopes (renamed Cates) and his girlfriend Rachel are the only exceptions and become the local Romeo and Juliet in the authors' hokey attempt to give the controversy a personal angle. The mass rallies of placard-waving populace in support of Bryant (renamed Brady) are meant to remind the audience of the rallies in support of the dictators of World War II and the Cold War. Darrow (renamed Drummond) enters the town like Daniel into the lion's den. With all odds against him, he is set up to be our hero. Whatever he says is Right and whatever Brady says is Wrong. The coup de théâtre of putting Brady on the witness stand functions to ridicule Brady's literal interpretation of the Bible and Brady's subsequent collapse and death and the turning away of his followers is made a sign of abject defeat of belief at the hands of logic.

The play is highly theatrical and the parts of Brady and Drummond are great roles for two strong senior actors, but there is no doubt the play merely preaches to the converted. The authors do nothing to present the townsfolk as other than mean-spirited fools. Here, making the most important directorial choice in the play, Monette steps in. By cross-casting the show with "The Sound of Music", Monette is able to make the most of the frequent singing of hymns mentioned in the text. Given a powerful body of singers, these hymns so beautifully sung go a long way to suggesting that faith can also produce something of value and strength.

With the outcome of trial and the verdict of history already known, the dramatic interest falls to the interaction of the two great lawyers. One could not ask for more well matched sparring partners than James Blendick (Matthew Harrison Brady) and William Hutt (Henry Drummond). With his strong, sonorous voice, Blendick easily conjures up the three-time presidential candidate who has come to believe his own publicity. Blendick masterfully captures the full range of this character from his smug self-importance, the self-doubt confessed to his wife, his confusion as he falters under Drummond's interrogation to his despair as no followers stay to hear his final remarks. William Hutt's character does not have such a wide emotional arc, but Hutt has always been an expert in giving a character's unspoken thoughts as much force as his words as when Drummond recovers himself from his anger at having all his expert witnesses rejected only to conceive a new plan. He gives us a character whose logic and self-control masks the passion of his commitment to justice.

Claire Jullien (Rachel Brown) and Tim MacDonald (Bertram Cates) give fine performances in the underwritten parts of the young lovers. Robert King (Reverend Jeremiah Brown) does not have the power or presence a revivalist preacher should have. As a result the prayer meeting before the trial has nowhere near the impact that it does in Stanley Kramer's classic 1960 film. The conflict between father and daughter, necessary to give the subplot weight, is also not presented as forcefully as it should be.

Peter Hutt is a Baltimore journalist, E. K. Hornbeck, sent to cover the trial. He plays Hornbeck as such a thorough cynic we wonder why he shows such anger at the verdict. Douglas Chamberlain (the bumbling Mayor), Domini Blythe (Brady's wife) and C. David Johnson (the Judge) all make the most of their minor parts. But for many the most memorable star after James Blendick and William Hutt, will be the 22 people who play the townsfolk, jurors and spectators. Monette manages their crowd scenes cinematically while still giving each member individualized characteristics. Ultimately, it is the townsfolk who give the play its realism and the hymns their emotion.

As a plaidoyer for tolerance and the right of the individual to think freely, the play would be more effective if it did not so blatantly make use of ridicule. Yet, its spectacle, its music and its two powerful central performances make it the one play on the Festival stage you won't want to miss.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, May 26-September 21, 2001
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile
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I have seen all 14 plays on offer at Stratford and 9 so far of the 11 at the Shaw. At this point I have no hesitation in declaring "Picnic" at the Shaw the finest production of a play by far at either festival. Author William Inge (1913-1973) has stood in the shadow of compatriots Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. But director Jackie Maxwell has taken this play from 1952 and revealed it as a masterpiece of American drama. Written not for stars but for an ensemble of actors, Inge's work, with its mixture of humour and heartbreak, seems much like Chekhov set in the American Midwest.

As in "Three Sisters" Inge presents us a group of female characters young and old in an insignificant town who feel doomed to a loveless life. Though the town here is in Kansas, the mood is still the same as in Chekhov that somewhere else, perhaps in a big city, life is more exciting, if only there were some way to escape. The focus of the play is the house of Flo Owens, deserted by her husband, and her two daughters, Madge, the town beauty, and her younger sister, the tomboyish Millie. Lodging in the house is a middle-aged schoolteacher, Rosemary Sidney, whose acquaintanceship with small businessman Howard Bevans has never led to a commitment from him. Flo's neighbour Helen Potts gave up any hopes of romance long ago when only she was left to care for her invalid mother. To add some excitement to her life Helen hires the occasional young drifter to help with the heavier jobs around the house. This particular summer Helen has hired the good-looking Hal Carter, once a friend of Madge's beau Alan Seymour. It has always been assumed that Madge would marry Alan, but she is put off by his lack of passion. Madge is attracted to Hal as soon as she sees him, and so is Rosemary. Things come to head during a dance at a summer picnic when the pent-up sexual frustrations of the characters lead to irrevocable consequences.

There is no weak link in this ensemble cast. They work in such harmony it is invidious to single them out. Yet, it seems clear that one way that Maxwell has given the play its tang of realism is by casting the major female roles against type so that we have see passion and seriousness where we don't expect them. The biggest surprise is Wendy Thatcher (Flo). We have seen here so often in comic roles it's a wonderful surprise to see her command of nuance and suppressed emotion in a serious part. Her sternness with Madge seems merely old-fashioned, but gradually Thatcher shows us that Flo lives vicariously through Madge and wants her to have the romantic happy-ending she never had. Her anguish when Madge considers leaving is truly shattering. Similarly, it's a shock to see Goldie Semple (Rosemary), who has played Cleopatra in "Antony and Cleopatra" and Larita in "Easy Virtue", shed all this glamour to play a woman embittered that she is becoming am old maid. Like Thatcher, Semple gives one of her best-ever performances. She shows how alcohol transforms Rosemary's lust for Hal into rage against him and makes it horrifying. She gives Rosemary's abject pleading to Howard finally to marry her an emotional rawness that is heart-rending.

Fiona Byrne (Madge) has played her share of innocent young girls, so it is all the more effective to see her as the one female who exudes such a straightforward sensuality. But Byrne, who is always excellent in conveying subtext, shows us fear and sadness lurking beneath this longing. The way Byrne communicates Madge's mixture of emotions when she decides to leave home is amazingly real. Jennifer Phipps (Helen) has moved into playing mothers and grandmothers so it's a treat to see her play a character unable to disguise her own attraction to her new young man. Lisa Norton (Millie), in only her second year at the Shaw, is very impressive in showing a longing to be appreciated beneath her character's tomboy exterior.

Mike Wasko (Hal Carter) is superb as the young drifter. He shows the shame and sense of inferiority that lie beneath his character's boastfulness and posturing. Hal is someone who thinks he can be better than he is but his own belief is not enough to counter the knowledge of his past failures. Like all the other characters he needs someone to believe in him despite his faults. Mike Shara (Alan) has the difficult task of playing someone who is not supposed to be interesting. There is more than a little ambiguity about whether he is more emotionally attached to Madge or to old friend Hal. His contemplation of the change of events in that last act is crucial to the whole show. Jim Mezon (Howard) is able to make the distinctly unromantic storeowner sympathetic who otherwise would seem merely callous.

In minor roles, Sherry Smith is Rosemary's talkative fellow schoolteacher Irma and Jane Johanson the extremely shy one Christine. Pete Treadwell is the newspaper boy who continually teases Millie.

Jackie Maxwell has drawn extremely nuanced, emotionally committed performances from the whole cast always giving each scene just the right focus so that the dilemmas of each of characters are given their due. The impromptu dance of Act 2 is the crux of the whole drama and Jane Johanson's choreography to Paul Sportelli's music brilliantly captures the naturalism of ordinary people gradually falling under the spell of music and rhythm at the same time as she reveals the sequence's symbolic function as a mating ritual. Robert Thomson provides the highly atmospheric lighting.

"Picnic" is a triumph for all concerned. It certainly augurs well for Maxwell's coming tenure as the Shaw's new Artistic Director. This is a production equal to the best at any major theatre centre. I wish there were a way for it to transfer to Toronto or elsewhere after its run so that more people could see what it's like when all elements of a production come perfectly come together. Let's hope Maxwell decides to forget that some of Inge's other major plays lie outside the Shaw's mandate. Please give us the rest.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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