This season Soulpepper's four main shows all lie within the Shaw Festival mandate with two shows the Shaw has done before-- "Present Laughter" and "Uncle Vanya"--and two of the kind, controversial in their own day, that the Shaw shies away from--"La Ronde" and now this Ionesco double-bill. If "La Ronde" was a major disappointment, this double-bill is a great success. It gives Toronto audiences a rare chance to see professional productions of two contrasting absurdist classics.
"The Bald Soprano" ("La Cantatrice chauve") was first performed in Paris in 1950, "The Lesson" ("La Leçon") in 1951. A double-bill of the two has been running continuously at the Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris since February 16, 1957, making it France's answer to "The Mousetrap." The Huchette productions have proved that plays can be both intellectually intriguing and immensely popular.
Both plays take language itself as their subject. "The Bald Soprano" satirizes those who value conformism over independent thought by undermining the belief in the accuracy of language as an accurate means of communication and logic as a means of understanding the world. The proudly prudish, anti-intellectual Smiths are virtually interchangeable with their friends the Martins since the language they speak is entirely formulaic. Both couples are so certain they know the world they have stopped thinking and so have nothing to communicate. Logic cannot help the Smiths unravel who is who when discussing a family all of whose members are named Bobby Watson. Mr. Martin thinks he can use logic to determine if Mrs. Martin is, in fact, someone he knows. But even after he believes he has proven that he and Mrs. Martin are married, the Smiths' maid reveals that Mr. Martin has only piled up an extraordinary set of coincidences. When both couples sit down to talk it is a disaster since no one can think of anything to say. The appearance of the Fire Chief and the bout of story-telling that ensues only delays the final chaos of random words and sounds into which the characters descend.
Director Jim Warren focuses primarily on the patterns of symmetry in the play. As in the text after the play "ends" it begins again with the Martins saying exactly the same lines as did the Smiths when the play began. To emphasize this idea of symmetry, the two works are played on a stage in the middle of the du Maurier Theatre with half the audience on each side. Glenn Davidson's handsome set is framed by two identical sets of doors with a revolve in the centre used in the first play to move the actors into place, thus neatly underscoring the play's circular structure.
What Warren misses is the sense of satire. Ionesco's own notes quoted in the program refer to the characters' "absence of any inner life, the mechanical soullessness of daily routine." Having established the characters' interchangeability externally, Warren forgets that this will require a change in the style of acting. The source of the play's humour is the contrast between the increasingly nonsensical statements the characters make and the totally deadpan, unemotional way in which they are said. Bizarrely, he allows the actors to create individual personalities for their characters although this runs counter to the play's point and undermines its humour. I have seen the Huchette production twice in twenty and know that the play can be far more hilarious than Warren makes it.
The Soulpepper troupe is best known for its multilayered performances in emotionally complex plays. While they make a brave attempt, they come nowhere near the delicious moroseness of their French counterparts. Of the six players, Michael Hanrahan (Mr. Martin) comes closest to depicting an emotionless character for whom language has become an encumbrance. John Blackwood and Brenda Robins (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) tone down passion and anger as much as possible but do not quite reach the zero level the text requires. Martha Burns (Mrs. Martin) makes the mistake of seeking motivation for a character who is not supposed to think or feel anything. Kristen Thomson is a refreshing choice for the maid Mary, usually played by an extremely aged actress, though I could do without the magical powers Warren has pointlessly given her. William Webster is excellent as the Fire Chief and delivers his unbelievably complicated story "The Headcold" with aplomb.
"The Lesson" is the perfect companion piece to "The Bald Soprano" because it works in entirely the opposite way. Instead of achieving a kind of increasingly dizzying humour, "The Lesson" begins comically enough but soon delves into more serious questions of obsession and the abuse of power. Here language is used as a provoker and instrument of emotion even if it is objectively as dry as a textbook. The plot is simple enough. A young Pupil seeks the help of a Professor to bone up for her "total doctorate." Their discussion begins with deference and politeness as the Professor quizzes her about her present knowledge. But when it becomes evident that she is able to perform addition but not subtraction ("integration" not "disintegration" as the Professor puts it), his ire is provoked despite warnings from his Maid not to continue. She also warns of the direst consequences should he begin on linguistics, but that is precisely the subject he takes up next. While he seemed rational though ineffective when discussing arithmetic, the Professor launches into a fantastical tirade claiming that all languages are derived from "Neo-Spanish," including Latin, and are in fact exactly the same as "Neo-Spanish" except for imperceptible differences discernible only after years of study. He will not tolerate any interruption even when it is clear that the Pupil is in excruciating pain from a toothache and can no long pay attention. Tragedy ensues and when the Maid comforts the Professor by girding him with a Nazi armband (not used in the Huchette production), the allegory of the work is clear.
The same set is used, this time traversed by a long row of tables. Soulpepper is on firmer ground here with a text that requires communication a highly emotional subtext. Tony Nardi is outstanding as the Professor. He makes the extensive diatribe on linguistics one long crescendo of anger as his character gives vent to his obsession. The motive of teaching is supplanted by those of indoctrination and finally domination and murder. It's a truly chilling performance. Liisa Repo-Martell is also exceptional especially since half of her lines are variations on the phrase "I have a toothache." Just as Nardi finely gradates his anger, Repo-Martell finely gradates her expressions of pain in the most discomfortingly real manner. Kristen Thomson is again the Maid, this time costumed as a drudge, whose foreboding is in sharp contrast to Mary's vivacity in the previous play.
Director Chris Abraham has carefully orchestrated the action making "The Lesson" tauter and much more powerful than Warren's "Soprano." Victoria Wallace has designed the 1940s-influenced costumes for both shows, following Warren in overdifferentiating the characters in "Soprano." Bonnie Beecher's lighting helps create the two contrasting moods, playful in the first show, threatening in the second.
Even if "The Bald Soprano" is not as deliriously funny as it can be, it is well worth seeing, particularly in conjunction with so powerful a production of "The Lesson." This double-bill shows both sides, light and dark, of Ionesco and of the Absurdist movement that has influenced all succeeding drama from Beckett and Albee, Pinter and Stoppard, to the most recent plays of the younger generation. For anyone who wants to understand 20th-century drama, this double-bill is a must-see.
In 1998 and 1999 the Shaw Festival had a big hit with George S. Kaufman's and Moss Hart's 1936 comedy You Can't Take It with You. This year the Shaw has another hit on its hands with the same authors' follow-up to that play, The Man Who Came to Dinner, again under the expert direction of Neil Munro. Dinner is in many ways the flip side of You Can't. The earlier play deals with the visit of a daughter's tight-laced future in-laws to her extremely eccentric family. Dinner deals with the visit and prolonged stay of an extremely eccentric critic to a very tight-laced family. In both the liberating effect of existing or invading chaos is countered with a plot where love offers a woman a simpler, more ordered world.
The man in The Man Who Came to Dinner is the world-renowned critic and broadcaster Sheridan Whiteside, modelled after the real-life critic Alexander Woollcott. He has broken his hip in a slip on the ice at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio, where he was invited to dine after giving a lecture. Since he cannot be moved he must recuperate at the house. Much to the chagrin of the family, Whiteside insists his work cannot be interrupted and takes over the living room, dining room and library for his own use, exiling the Stanleys to the back of the house. When his trusted secretary falls in love with a local journalist and gives notice, Whiteside relies on the seductive powers of a famous actress to steal the young man away from her.
Such a simple plot summary does nothing to conjure up the atmosphere of this play, which is the zaniest of any screwball comedy. Whiteside's impossibly large list of friends, rather like Dame Edna's today, includes all the most famous men and women of his time in all fields of endeavour. Thus he receives phone calls from H. G. Wells and Getrude Stein, presents from Admiral Byrd, the Khedive of Egypt and Shirley Temple and visits from convicted criminals and characters representing Noel Coward and the Marx Brothers. As a collector of rarities of all kinds, he receives presents of a sarcophagus, cockroaches, an octopus and emperor penguins who threatened to invade the whole house at any moment. What was a respectable house of a well-to-do family soon becomes a circus-cum-theatre where anything can happen.
This lavish production has cast of 29 but the focus of the play and master of the revels is Michael Ball as Whiteside. Ball does not fall back on his grumpy old man routine but makes Whiteside, as he must be, a fascinating character. Outwardly he hurls his highly creative abuse at everyone simply out of habit. Inwardly he is a softy ready to aid the cause of reforming criminals and to help the two Stanley children find their destiny in a way their own father will not. He is also childish in wanting to hold on to his possessions no matter what and in preventing his secretary find a destiny that does not include him. Ball makes it believable that such a wit, ogre, sentimentalist and surrogate father can all exist in one person.
Laurie Paton is excellent as his beleaguered secretary Maggie, who falls love for the first time and seeks stability after years of organizing Whiteside's chaotic life. Paton is expert at communicating conflicting emotions and a subtext at odds with the lines she speaks. Kevin Bundy makes her boyfriend the journalist Bert Jefferson a clear-headed all-American boy, but one whose innocence could well make him fall prey to the trap Whiteside sets for him. Patrick R. Brown does such a breathtakingly fine impersonation of Noel Coward (here called "Beverly Carlton") it stops the show. Simon Bradbury play Banjo, a kind of talking Harpo Marx, who infuses the last act with his manic energy. Jane Perry nearly pulls off the role of the Hollywood vamp Lorraine Sheldon but doesn't match the others in comic timing.
In smaller roles, Richard Farrell (Dr. Bradley) and Patti Jamieson (Miss Preen) both shine--he as Whiteside's bumbling doctor and she as the particular object of his wrath, his nurse. Lorne Kennedy and Nora McLellan (Mr. and Mrs. Stanley) are excellent as the irate father and fawning mother Whiteside has displaced and as are Matthew Edison and Caroline Cave as their two children who go to Whiteside for advice. Particularly noteworthy among the Stanley family is Mr. Stanley's wraithlike sister, Harriet. Mary Haney manages to make this mysterious character both funny and quite unsettling.
David Boechler's elaborate set is an exceptionally handsome home of the Gilded Age, so realistic you'd like to take a tour of the rest of the house after the show. Christina Poddubiuk has designed the huge array of detailed period costumes and Kevin Lamotte the lighting that ranges from the natural to the supernatural in number of magical effects.
Director Neil Munro has seen in this play the American tradition of the tall tale shading into absurdism. In inviting Whiteside for dinner, Munro shows that the Stanleys have unwittingly invited the thin edge of the wedge of chaos to slide into their staid lives until it comes near to prying their world apart. Munro has for such detailed realism from Boechler and Poddubiuk the better to undermine it with the increasingly bizarre nature of the action, which he pushes further into the surreal. Eerie music and weird lighting accompany mad Harriet so that we wonder if she is even real. The piano keeps playing even after Beverly Carlton leaves it while a bright follow-spot momentarily changes the set into a cabaret. A lamp tossed upwards floats out of sight. Papers once cast up in joy continue to fall throughout the show. Between Acts 1 and 2 there is a strobe-lit parade of all the characters seen and not yet seen. And into the increasingly outlandish accumulation of detritus in stage, Munro brings on boy-sized walking penguins (mentioned not seen in the text) as the clearest sign of chaos threatening to overrun the world and barely kept in check.
In short Munro's direction is brilliant. He's made this a play celebrating the crazy, improbable richness of life. You will leave exhilarated.
Daniel MacIvor's new play "You Are Here" is like a bizarre cross between Samuel Beckett and Danielle Steele. Set among the infidelities of movie directors, starlets and magazine writers, this da da kamera production aims to demonstrate man's essential aloneness, but the artifice of the melodramatic plot compromises the seriousness of the play's intent. Fortunately, MacIvor's chaste direction and the committed performances of the cast give the play its power and resonance.
The play begins when Caroline Gillis playing a character named Alison walks onstage and sets about, apparently, to tell the story of how the idealism of youth has led only to disappointment. The one thing she would save from a burning house is a bottle of sand from near the Dead Sea that her father gave her, a symbol of the sweat and blood of human effort in ancient times that by the end of the play comes to represent the memories of accumulated effort in a single human being. As Alison awkwardly tries to tell her tale, the characters involved in it suddenly begin appearing even when she does not want them to. Gradually she loses any narratorial control as the story tells itself and Alison has to relive increasingly more painful scenes from her life.
The first act ends after the first major tragedy in her life. Then her lifelong friend Richard suggests she needs a break and she in direct address tells us that we will have a break. The play is thus constantly aware of itself as a play. It is rather like "Six Characters in Search of an Author" except that it begins with the author, who is also one of the characters and cannot control the action. We the audience take the place of Pirandello's theatre company.
After intermission the reminders of theatre as theatre and story as story unfortunately become fewer as MacIvor is forced to detail Alison's further degradation where every step she takes to achieve something has the consequence of making her lose everything she cares about until, rather unbelievably, she sinks into heroin addiction. Much of what drives the complications of Act 2 is MacIvor's desire to work out the plot's symbolic symmetry--a failed pregnancy is paralleled with a successful one, Alison and her husband Jerry trade partners with the movie director Thomas Roman and the movie star Diane Briss, Alison in an afterlife (real or imagined?) is reconciled with her archrival from university Connie Hoy. While this is theoretically interesting, Act 2 is less effective than Act 1 because symbolism not realism has motivated the twists in plot.
It's hard to miss, since MacIvor underscores it four times in a row, that the play is an elaboration of the Hindu notion of "atman". In Vedantic philosophy the adept is meant to realize that there is no distinction between what you are, what you see and what sees you and it. This is summarized by the Sanskrit statement "Tam tvam asi" or "You are that"--that is your soul is the same as the world soul. Alison had found the maps in malls comforting that state "You are here" as if someone were watching and protecting her. The play starts with the notion that watching is alienating. Alison covers society parties for her magazine but is not part of them. Her husband Jerry is a psychologist who feels he only observes but cannot cure his clients. The introduction of film people continues the metaphor of distancing through watching. And, of course, this metaphor is relates to us the audience as we watch this self-conscious play and narrator. Then at the end, rather too hastily, MacIvor makes the point that while watching can be perceived as distancing, it can from another point of view be seen as the link that ultimately defines how we as individuals can be both separate and united.
What keeps MacIvor's melodramatic plot within bounds is his minimalist direction. Designer Andy Moro has covered the new proscenium at Theatre Passe-Muraille entirely in black leaving only a square opening for a bare stage with one chair as the only decoration for the majority of the action. Moro's lighting is often quite dim in order to fix a character in a bright square of light and thus reinforce the theme of isolation within a void. MacIvor's minimalism endows any additional prop, a glass of beet juice or Alison's bottle of sand, with multiple meanings. MacIvor draws excellent performances from the cast who maintain a clear emotional throughline despite the fragmentary way the story is presented.
MacIvor wrote the play for Caroline Gillis, who created the title role in his earlier work "See Bob Run". She is wonderful as Alison, showing warmth and intelligence behind her initial awkwardness, the pain of hindsight in reliving a past experience, her self-irony gradually shading into self-hatred. She seems visibly to age before us as the story progresses. Jim Allodi is Alison's confused university roommate Richard. He is the comic parallel to Alison, construing his inability to make a decision as a type of freedom where in fact not committing to anything results in his accomplishing nothing.
There is fine work from the rest of the cast--David Jansen as Alison's depressed psychologist husband who thinks of love as a cage, Fiona Highet as the star whose bimboish behaviour belies her integrity and Randy Hughson as the art film director who has sold out to Hollywood. Marjorie Chan plays the youthful then aged Connie Hoy, who Alison has always hated for knowing exactly what she wanted and getting it. Allan Hawco plays a compromised Christian actor and later Alison's violent drug-dealing "assistant". Ryan McVittie has three roles, most notably the laid-back professor both Alison and Connie are after.
On the whole, "You Are Here" struck me as MacIvor reinventing the wheel since Beckett's short 1963 play called "Play" covers so many of the same themes--watching, play as play, individuals isolated but related, infidelity, repetition as punishment--in a form much more elegant and compact. Yet, this is an important work in MacIvor's oeuvre as a link between the one-person show and the ensemble piece. There is no doubt about the talent and seriousness of the thought behind it. But most people will find that for a postmodern minimalist MacIvor, in this case, achieves his end by overelaborate means.
Max Reimer, Artistic Director or Theatre Aquarius, couldn't have known just how relevant "The Crucible" would be when long ago he programmed it to open on September 21. Arthur Miller's tragedy set at the time of the Salem witch trials in 1692 has always been relevant in a general sense in its examination of how fragile civil liberties can be in an atmosphere of fear. But the terrorist attacks in the US just the previous week gave the play an unlooked-for immediacy and sense of warning. When Graham Harley as Deputy Governor Danforth says of the trials that "a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it," an audible shudder coursed through the audience, the words seeming to echo to George Bush, Jr.'s words of just the day before, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."
Inspired by the contemporary "witch hunts" for communists under Senator Joseph McCarthy, "The Crucible" shows how an inflexible belief in absolute right destroys rather than upholds the rule of law. In an atmosphere where the accuser is not doubted and the accused has no defense other than to confess to untruths, the justice system becomes a tool for people to get revenge for their grievances. This is particularly the case after the Proctors turn a serving girl Abigail Williams out of the house because John Proctor has had sexual relations with her during Elizabeth Proctor's long illness. To save themselves from punishment after they have been discovered dancing naked in the woods, a group of girls, Abigail chief among them, shunts the blame from herself to "witches" in the community. Still in love with John Proctor, she accuses Elizabeth to have John to herself. When evidence is brought forward that the girls' sightings of the devil and sensing of witches is all a fraud, Abigail and the Proctors' maid Mary Warren widen their accusations to include Proctor himself and others in an ploy to avoid even greater punishment. As Proctor exclaims, "[C]ommon vengeance writes the law!" Miller's step-by-step detailing of how a community become prey to fear and how this gives rise to absolutism becomes a particularly pointed warning in the wake of real terror so recently unleashed.
Director John Cooper's fine production makes an already powerful text absolutely gripping. Douglas Paraschuk's design itself is brilliant. We see a raked stage with two movable side screens for walls, closing in for the final prison scene, with a stand of twisted metal trees like ghosts in the background. Dominating everything is a set of wooden beams raised or lowered as the scene demands. Under Ereca Hassell's highly effective lighting they seem not as protective as a ceiling should be but menacing, threatening to crush those beneath them.
Cooper's taut, clear direction and perfect sense of pace create an unrelenting build-up of tension. His firm hand compensates for the few weaknesses among the otherwise excellent 19-member cast. Among the strongest performances is Jack Langedijk as John Proctor. His Proctor is a rough-hewn, decent man who sees the material goals behind any mystical talk whether it be Reverend Parris's or of the girls who see spirits. He makes the final scene of the play when he must choose between confessing to a lie to save the life he loves or dying to save his good name wrenching emotional power.
Langedijk is well matched by his two main antagonists, Glen Gaston (Reverend Parris) and Graham Harley (Deputy Governor Danforth). Gaston's character traverses a contrary arc to Proctor from prudish high-mindedness to guilt and despair at the human cost of the inquisition he has supported. Harley is superb as the main inquisitor in Salem. Harley's characterization is all the more chilling for the coolness and control he gives Danforth, who until very near the end allows nothing to shake the circular logic of his absolutist beliefs. Erin MacKinnon is perfectly cast in the pivotal role of Mary Warren, torn between knowing of her friends' fakery and fear of being accused herself if she betrays them. The moment when she joins her wailing peers to condemn her own employer and his wife is as shocking as it is believable.
Among the other players in principal roles there are some difficulties. Deborah Pollitt, whose character begins the accusation is Act 1, gives Abigail far too much the insolent manner of a modern teenager to suit the 17th-century setting. Her wan voice and offhand manner only seem right in Act 3 when she becomes the girls' chief seer of visions. Jeffrey Renn plays the outsider, Reverend John Hale, who first sides with Parris and the inquisition, but who finally believes Proctor, sees through the fraud and defies Danforth. Renn communicates all the right emotions, but unclear diction deprives his statements and character of the force they ought to have. The exaggerated gestures and poses Linda Prystawska gives Elizabeth Proctor don't make sense for a woman of her time and place and give no indication that she has just recovered from a long illness. Worse, she doesn't suggest a sufficient underlying warmth for Proctor even when he finally has to choose between life and death.
There are many standouts in minor roles. Jill Frappier so radically distinguishes the upright, middle-aged Ann Putnam from the dissolute, elderly Sarah Good it's a surprise to find them played by the same person. Carolyn Hetherington makes the commonsensical Rebecca Nurse a pillar of sanity and strength. Don McManus provides a vivid portrait of the litigious Giles Gorey, the sole comic voice in the play. Ordena Stephens likewise gives Tituba, the Parris's Barbadian slave, integrity by making her character so vital and her belief in the spirit world so real. All three girls in Abigail's company--Sarah Babb (Susanna Walcott), Vivien Endicott-Douglas (Betty Parris) and Jill Morrison (Mercy Lewis)--are frighteningly good especially in their concerted fits of hysteria in Act 3.
"The Crucible" has been recognized as one of the masterpieces of American drama from 1953 when it first appeared up to the present day. Now when we have to confront terror of another sort and contemplate what civil liberties may be lost in fighting it, Miller's play seems more relevant than ever. Such a fine production as this, especially now, should not be missed.
Master of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugène Ionesco's stock has certainly risen in Toronto this year. In April the Théâtre français de Toronto presented a double-bill of "Jacques ou La Soumission" and "L'Avenir est dans les Oeufs." In September Soulpepper presented a double bill of "The Bald Soprano" and "The Lesson." Now the Modern Times Theatre Company presents the 90-minutes play "The Chairs" to inaugurate the Artword Theatre's new space, the Artword Alternative. Director Soheil Parsa has made changes to the play but in ways that link it to other absurdist works.
"The Chairs" (1952) looks forward to similar themes in Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" (1953) and "Endgame" (1957). As in "Godot" we meet two characters who wait through the majority of the play for the person to arrive who will give meaning to their lives. The difference is that in "The Chairs" that person does arrive, or at least the couple thinks so. Rather than the two tramps of "Godot," Ionesco gives us a husband and wife aged in their mid-90s, who live on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere. As in Beckett we have the sense that some cataclysm has destroyed most of the known world.
As the plays begins the woman, Semiramis, constantly praises her husband's brilliance (though he gives us no evidence of it) and cajoles him about all the high positions he could have had if the world had not been against him. Emotionally labile as the unnamed husband seems to be, all this talk of what he might have been alternately comforts him and depresses him. The wife herself uses the same words as praise or criticism depending on her mood. The two tell stories to entertain each other, finally becoming preoccupied with the husband's message to the world that will at last reveal his greatness. The husband says that he has hired an Orator to deliver this message since he is poor at public speaking. Soon guests arrive, invisible to us, and the couple start to bring in invisible chairs. Suddenly, in one magic moment, the chairs brought on become real and the space is filled with them. Just after the last guest, the invisible Emperor arrives, the first visible guest, the Orator enters. In an ecstasy of transport the old couple, now certain the husband's massage will be delivered, betake themselves to their graves. The Orator remains silent.
In the text, Ionesco gives a detailed description of how the set should look. It is to be a semicircular auditorium with ten doors and two windows. Parsa and designer Jan Komarek discard this. Instead, they place the couple in the corner of a dilapidated building with a (real) dirt floor and two child-size chairs. Komarek clothes them in rags and gives them an unreliable lamp to light the gloom. This immediately makes us see in the old couple "Endgame"'s Nagg and Nell before they were put in trash cans. The useless hopes of Ionesco's pair seem to look forward to the useless memories of Beckett's. The inhospitable setting makes the arrival of the invisible guests clearly the couple's fantasy.
Parsa has also altered Ionesco's ending. In the text, after the couple work themselves into a fit of rapture at the Orator's arrival, they hurl themselves out of the two windows. Parsa has the couple express their rapture and longing for death after they exit the stage but gives no indication that they actually commit suicide. This leaves open the possibility that the action will repeat as it does in "The Bald Soprano" or "The Lesson." In the text the Orator speaks gibberish and trying to make himself better understood writes (more gibberish) on a blackboard. Parsa has the Orator make no attempt to communicate at all. The Orator merely rotates his palms toward the audience in the attitude of Christ showing His wounds. Since the couple conceived of the Orator as their saviour this makes sense. On the other hand, the pose could suggest, incorrectly, that he actually is delivering the old man's message to the world.
The mandate of the Modern Times Theatre Company is "to use Middle Eastern theatrical tradition to ... explore the relationship between movement and text." And physical theatre this is requiring constant precise miming from the cast. Unfortunately, Parsa seems to forget about halfway through that the couple are supposed to be extremely old and gives them such strenuous physical movements that this undercuts the nature of characters the two main actors have built up.
Peter Farbridge is excellent as the Old Man, making his frequent changes from pride to chagrin believable. Michelle Polak certainly captures the gist of the Old Woman, but next to Farbridge under-characterizes her role. Both are excellent mimes. They are meant to progress from lethargy to frenzy, but Parsa has made them too energetic when the first guests arrive so that they don't have sufficient room to grow when even more energy is required. Komarek has made Ed Fielding look fittingly distinguished and enigmatic. The bleak setting is enlivened by Ben Grossman's sound design ranging from waves and boat horns to crowd noises and the elephantine groans of the Emperor. Parsa fortunately never allows the sound to overwhelm the words.
Unlike Jacques Lessard for the Théâtre français de Toronto, Parsa does not think Ionesco has to be made funnier. If anything, Parsa has made the play darker. Unlike the directors of the Soulpepper double-bill who gave Ionesco very straightforward productions, Parsa presents us with an interpretation that may be debatable in some details, but gives the play greater resonance. He reveals the play as one long crescendo of sound and action where the characters' "folie à deux" transforms itself into our "folie à nous" and asks us in our own chairs what meaning it is we wait for.
Over the past four years the Ausable Theatre has been working its way through the plays of Robertson Davies. This year they present a real rarity, his symbolic legend "King Phoenix." This is likely the first revival of the play since Davies directed it for the Peterborough Little Theatre in 1953. Those who know only Davies' novels will be surprised to find this play set not in Canada in the 20th century but in pre-Roman Britain. But, Davies fans will know, even when he uses a 20th-century setting his point is always to uncover the myth and ritual underlying the action. In "King Phoenix" he gives us the myth and ritual itself without mediation. Ausable has performed a great service in helping to rehabilitate this fascinating work.
The play begins with a dispute between Cadno the archdruid of Albion and Idomeneus a Phoenician merchant. For two years Idomeneus has been selling Cadno poison which Cadno has been using in hopes of killing the seemingly immortal king of Albion, Cole. (Yes, this is Old King Cole of rhyme who is also found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's histories.) Cole has outlived his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren except for his 17-year-old daughter Helena. Cadno finds the king's continued good health and procreative ability at his impossibly advanced age unnatural. Should Cole die, Cadno hopes to have influence through his disciple Prince Leolin betrothed to Helena so he can turn to his goal teaching Albion to dominate nature. Meanwhile Cole has a mysterious encounter with the ghost of the giant Gogmagog that convinces him of the inevitability of change, whereupon events lead to a sacrifice mingling joy and sorrow.
If this all sounds incredibly archaic and fanciful, it is. Upon reflection, however, one realizes that while dramas of kitchen-sink realism were becoming popular, other writers like Christopher Fry, T.S. Eliot, Anouilh and Giraudoux were also using drama to explore the realms of myth and legend. In "King Phoenix" Davies dramatizes not just any myth but the ur-myth of birth, death and rebirth that according to Sir James Frazer's "The Golden Bough" underlies all others. Under Cole Britain is happy and prosperous, but his unnaturally long life means that the country can never move forward since younger generations live and die without being able to make a contribution. Cole, after his strange encounter with Gogmagog, comes to realize that Britain has to move from its paradisiacal state of immutability into the state of change if his people and his land are to realize their full potential. Thus, "King Phoenix" is not at all peripheral to Davies' work. Since it gives us his view, leavened with his customary wit, of the ultimate story it becomes a key to his work in all genres in its celebration of the beauty and the irony of the cycle of life.
This is the first time the Ausable Theatre has used the McManus Studio, the alternate space under the Grand Theatre. The production is humble but imaginative and is directed with a clear understanding of the text by Ausable Artistic Director, Jeff Culbert. He allows the play to build steadily in meaning and emotion to its very moving conclusion. The song "John Barleycorn is Dead" that closes Act 2 is the high point of the play as each of the characters begins to realize the import of the song about death and rebirth as they sing it. Kevin Bice's set consists of a series of poles set at varying angles, suggesting the trees so venerated by druids. Sculptural plaques hung upon them facilitate changes of scene. Virginia Pratten's costuming uses shades of brown to link King Cole symbolically to the brewmaster, the shepherd and the merchant who represent various aspects of art. Michael Semple's lighting is particularly effective in the ominous forest scene of Act 2 and in the climactic sunrise of Act 3.
In John Turner Ausable has found the perfect actor to embody the larger-than-life figure of King Cole. Naturally and without cliché Turner moves Cole from his state of immense good humour to the doubt that comes over him in the forest to his drunkenness in Act 3. His rich voice and great presence make him dominate every scene. Tim Culbert is excellent as Idomeneus, an outsider who is gradually drawn into the intrigues in Albion and is transformed by them. Jason Rip has the look and presence for Cole's enemy Cadno, but his inclination to bluster undermines his menace. The role of Leolin is difficult since the actor must make us believe that the prince's coolness toward Helena and willing acceptance of martyrdom spring from an intense religiosity. Jan Weir does not quite bring this off, his under characterization making Leolin seem weak instead of inwardly strong. Serge Saika-Voivod as the shepherd Lug uses his fine singing voice to great effect. Jeff Culbert has wisely chosen not to have the ghost of Gogmagog appear on stage as in the original production. Instead we hear only the characterful voice of Andrew Gibbes as it seems to move back and forth across the back of the auditorium. Rachel Holden-Jones is a bright intelligent Helena, while June Cole as Boon Brigit, the brewmaster, brings out all the comedy of this tough, hearty character.
It happened at the performance I attended that Robert Hill, Leolin for Davies' production, was in the audience. Afterwards he showed all who were interested his own copy of the script and clippings concerning Davies' production. I couldn't help but think how wonderful it is that the Ausable Theatre provides this kind of continuity between the past and present. With "King Phoenix" they show us yet again how effective and thought-provoking Davies' plays are in performance. No one who wants to understand Davies or the importance of myth should miss the chance to see this play.
Musically the COC's new double-bill of Puccini's "Il Tabarro" and Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana" is filled with stunning moments. Each opera features an exciting performance by the female lead. Yet, contrary to what we have become used to in the best COC productions, the direction and design hinder more than enhance the theatrical experience.
Puccini's 1918 triptych of one-act operas, "Il Trittico," has never been popular in that format. In practice the three--"Il Tabarro," "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi"--are most often seen separately. "Cavalleria rusticana" has traditionally been paired with Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci," the similar style, setting and vocal requirements providing strong links between them. After a century of "Cav and Pag," it's not surprising that opera companies have lately been looking for other partners for them. In 1996 the COC paired "Gianni Schicchi" with "I Pagliacci," each assigned to a different director. Now the COC has paired "Il Tabarro" with Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana" in a unified production directed by Tom Diamond.
This pairing shows "Tab" and "Cav" as variations on the same theme. In both a jealous husband murders his wife's lover. In "Tab" the leading female is the wife; in "Cav" it is an abandoned woman who reveals her ex-lover's affair to the husband. In "Tab" the leading female wants to escape a relationship; in "Cav" she wants to be part of one again. Otherwise, the main differences are in the setting. "Tab" takes place on a barge in the Seine, "Cav" on the dry land of Sicily. The characters in "Tab" are cut off from the greater world around them; in "Cav" they are part of a larger community. "Tab" begins at sunset, "Cav" at dawn.
Designer Teresa Przybylski has brought out all of these parallels and contrasts but in totally unsubtle ways. The dominant colour for both operas is grey, both for the set and the costumes. She treats the audience as dimwits by colour-coding the leads in both works--orange for the leading female, blue for the tenor and grey for the baritone who kills him. This last, I suppose, makes the wronged husband a representative of the grey environment hostile to those who (colourfully) stand out by breaking the rules.
Her set for "Tab" is entirely open with a naturalistic barge jutting beyond the proscenium below a high metal bridge with Notre-Dame faintly in the distance. In contrast, "Cav" is set in a closed grey box, the façade of a cathedral painted on the back wall. Unaccountably the box has two large doors in the stage right corner that open into open spaces. But isn't the piazza in front of the cathedral an open space? Bizarrely what seems to be a cooled lava flow has crept into the box seemingly causing the cathedral to tilt. From a practical point of view both sets are extremely awkward in not allowing easy exits. We shouldn't have to see the cast still making their way off stage long after the applause after each finale. The treacherous lava flow in "Cav" also makes entrances over it difficult.
Tom Diamond, who has directed such delightful productions of Cavalli for the COC Ensemble in the past, uses a concept here that doesn't really work. He has decided that this double-bill is really a film noir double feature complete with projected title and composer's name. This idea works quite well given the amoral characters of "Tab," set in a world adrift where wife and lover plot to kill the husband only to be found out. It doesn't, however, suit "Cav" at all. Set as it is during a grand village celebration of Easter in and around a cathedral, this world has a firm moral basis even if, in a moment of weakness, a wronged woman seeks revenge. Diamond's direction in "Tab" makes sense, but in "Cav" he needlessly locates some scenes indoors relying solely on Kevin Lamotte's lighting to tell us where we are. The point, however, of "Cav" is it likeness to Greek tragedy, played entirely outdoors and with its violence off-stage. Both operas take place in real time, but Diamond has Lamotte veer between naturalistic and expressionistic lighting as if he weren't sure which style to choose.
"Il Tabarro" is probably most people's least favourite Puccini opera both because of its brutal ending and because none of the main characters is sympathetic. But Puccini expert Michele Girardi's close analysis of the music has revealed a symphonic structure in the work not unlike Act 1 of Berg's "Wozzeck." Richard Bradshaw's conducting admirably brings out the work's musical integrity. To be gripping "Tab" requires superlative acting skills from its singers. Eszter Sümegi (Giorgetta), fully rises to the challenge. Radiant of voice she gives a finely detailed performance with full expression of conflicting emotions. In contrast Yuri Nechaev (her husband Michele) has a face nearly devoid of expression allowing his rich baritone to do all the acting for him. Tenor Vadim Zaplechny (Giorgetta's lover Luigi) seems unsure how to play this unheroic character and this unsureness creeps into his vocal production and shows in his generalized gestures. In lesser roles, there is fine work from COC regulars Michael Colvin and Alain Coulombe (dock workers Tinca and Talpa) and Susan Shafer provides a delightful characterization of Giorgetta's cat-loving friend Frugola.
In "Cavalleria rusticana" the undoubted star is mezzo Alina Gurina as the wronged woman Santuzza. It's not hard to see why she has been compared to Maria Callas. In this demanding part, requiring her to be in a state on perpetual anguish, she shows total identification with her character and gives a performance of overwhelming emotional power. Zaplechny (her ex-lover Turiddu) is on firmer ground here and gives a fine account of the role vocally and dramatically. Nechaev (Alfio, another jealous husband) is still impassive but this is less important here since the role is smaller. Susan Shafer (Mamma Lucia, Turiddu's mother) sings with strength and vocal lustre. Krisztina Szabó, a recent Ensemble Studio member plays Lola, Alfio's wife, who has stolen Turiddu from Santuzza. She has just the right hauteur for the part and her voice has acquired a lovely burnished tone.
The COC Chorus once again prove how marvellous they are particularly in the stirring "Innegiamo, il Signor" that climaxes the Easter procession. Bradshaw gives the work a swifter pace than usual, most noticeably in the well-known Intermezzo, that cuts through the sentiment and heightens the dramatic tension.
Personally, I think it would have been more interesting to link "Cavalleria" with "Suor Angelica" as the Staatstheater Darmstadt is doing this very month. Two murders committed in different locales is not as enlightening as would be two works of completely different tone related by the larger themes of religion and death. Nevertheless, given the present double-bill, if one ignores the inimical design concept, there is much beautiful music to enjoy. And you won't want to miss Sümegi or Gurina.
Carole Fréchette's "Elisa's Skin" ("La Peau d'Elisa") is a delicate and mysterious 65-minute play that seems to be about a woman telling love stories in a café in Brussels is in fact a metaphorical tale about the power of art. In 1995 Fréchette won the Governor General's Award for Drama for "The Four Lives of Marie." Its first Canadian performance was John Murrell's English version at the Tarragon in 1997. The theatre is again the Tarragon, the translator is again Murrell, the title character is again played by Tanja Jacobs and the production is again a great success.
The play is deceptively simple. Jacobs as Elisa sits at her café table and speaks directly to us asking to remind her where she is in her stories and looking for confirmation of their effects. She begins with a story about the wild, insatiable Siegfried, who must have her whenever and wherever he chooses and who cuts the roof off his car to let in more sky. After pausing to check her skin in a compact mirror, she continues but now with a story about the breath-takingly handsome Jan, who contrary to all expectations comes up directly to talk with her one day. We hear more about Siegfreid, then more about Jan interrupted by Elisa's requests to look at the skin of her elbows and of her neck to confirm her fear that it has grown in the time that she has been talking. Then she launches into a story told from a man's point of view about Marguerite, a woman he has always observed but never had the courage to speak to. While we might have mistaken the first two stories as Elisa's own, this clearly is not. As if to mark this change the Young Man, played by Patrick Galligan, appears and we hear him tell the same story directly to Elisa.
While we initially become involved with the play through its central character and her stories of human interactions, it gradually dawns on us that Elisa's telling of stories, her concern with their details and her concern in examining her skin are all related. Her fear, as she tells us, is that her skin is continuing to grow, to double, until she will become such a mound of flesh she will become immobile. It's not much of a leap to see that Elisa's predicament is similar to that of Winnie in Beckett "Happy Days" who is gradually being buried alive in sand. But while Winnie's incessant chatter is a way of distracting herself from her inexorable obliteration by time, Fréchtette offers Elisa a way out of her similarly bizarre situation. The Young Man tells her that through the telling of love stories a mysterious chemical is released in the body that inhibits the growth of skin. He knows because he has tried it. The story-teller knows that the telling is successful if it produced a frisson of recognition in the audience. When Elisa fears that she does not have enough stories of her own to tell, the Young Man tells her to borrow stories from other people.
Thus the telling of stories to the greatest effect-let us call it "art"-keeps the teller young, produces a reaction in the listeners that keeps them young. It is a way if staving off and perhaps even conquering time since the stories will outlast the teller as they are passed on. Elisa tells stories, as she says, "to save my skin"; civilization could be said to do the same.
Tanja Jacobs gives a luminous performance as Elisa. She gives the impression of an unprepossessing woman in the process of trying to conquer her fear. She has the calm of at least knowing there is a solution, but her frequent self-interruptions show she is anxious to know is the Young Man's scheme she accepts, but privately thinks is crazy, is actually working. It's a highly engaging portrait of a diffident woman becoming more courageous as she rallies herself to believe in hope. Patrick Galligan lights up the stage in his various brief appearances. He is suave, magnetic, fully at ease. The Young Man is more expert at telling stories than Elisa, which is as it should be since he has had more experience and is already convinced of the benefit.
Jackie Maxwell has beautifully directed the play. The pacing, the surprise entrance of the Young Man, the subtle growth of Elisa's confidence are all expertly managed. Ken Garnhum's set, like a sketch of a Belgian café, with a large abstract blue painting on one wall at first seems whimsical like Elisa's stories, but in its anti-naturalism it already situates the play in the realm of art. He is aided in this by Andrea Lundy's subtle lighting that changes with the changing moods of the stories and importantly helps us distinguish past from present. Lesley Barber's Satie-like music creates just the right air of wistfulness.
Why are love stories so effective? In one a young man goes to work feeling he has left part of himself with his beloved. In a story about Siegfried the woman feels complete when united in love. Love is the positive doubling of skin. In love a person is less without the other. Elisa's isolation makes her focus on her self and her aging; the stories take her out of her self. For an hour let her take you out of yourselves and plan to eat a small café afterwards to hold on to the regenerative mood of the play for just a bit longer.© 2001 Christopher Hoile
The one overwhelming reason to see Opera Ontario's "L'Elisir d'amore" is the outstanding performance of Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. The beauty of her voice and the naturalness of her acting make her perfect as Donizetti's capricious Adina. After seeing her you won't be able to imagine anyone else in the role. She is supported by fine performances by the other principals who, despite incredibly leaden conducting, bring this 1832 opera buffa to life.
"L'Elisir d'amore" is Donizetti's most popular opera after "Lucia di Lammermoor." The story is very simple. The poor illiterate peasant Nemorino is in love with the wealthy learned farm-owner Adina. She, however, is attracted by the pompous Sergeant Belcore and considers his proposal of marriage. At this point the travelling charlatan Doctor Dulcamara arrives who sells Nemorino the titular elixir of love. Though only Bordeaux, the potion works but for reasons that have more to do with the dawning of love in Adina's heart than with Dulcamara's magic.
Isabel Bayrakdarian has a stunningly beautiful voice. It is both clear and rich and retains these qualities even in her high notes when her voice seems open and bloom. The frequent runs Donizetti throws her way she tosses off as if nothing could be more natural. And since her subtly nuanced singing is paired with subtly nuanced acting, it's is easy to see not only why she won the 1997 Met Competition but is now so much in demand. How lucky for us Opera Ontario booked her when they did! Though this is her first Adina she brings out the full range of the character from sprightly disdain to deep emotion. Her "Prendi; per me sei libero" of Act 2 brought down the house.
Though Bayrakdarian clearly outshines the others, it's not because they are not shining brightly themselves. Hawaiian-American tenor Keith Ikaia-Purdy has a full, Italianate tenor and it is no surprise he should sing the main Verdi roles at his home base at the Vienna State Opera. His fine acting and singing make naïve, shy, gullible Nemorino quite a lovable character which makes it all the more understandable that Adina should eventually fall for him. Despite his natural approach throughout the action, when Ikaia-Purdy sings the opera's most famous aria, "Una furtiva lagrima," his manner becomes more formal and his rendition lacks that last bit of passion that would make it truly memorable.
The warm-voiced Canadian baritone James Westman, playing his first Belcore, seems to relish the humour and swaggering machismo of a character who finds it only natural that all women should adore him. Francisco Valls makes Doctor Dulcamara more of a genial host than a cheating scoundrel, but his wry attitude seems to anchor the mood of the piece. Amelia Watkins has a pleasant voice as Gianetta but could seldom be heard when backed by the chorus.
This "Elisir" could have far more exciting if the singers did not have to labour within the confines of Peter Oleskevich's conducting. To a work that demands zest and flair conductor he gives plodding deliberation. His tempi are all much too slow especially in Act 1. His habit of simply stopping at the end of each number does nothing to give the work forward momentum necessary for comedy. It also gives the audience no clear signal of when or when not to applaud. His cautious trudge leaves little room for expression from the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra or the chorus.
The forward momentum of the piece is further undermined by the decision to follow the libretto by setting the action in four different locations when, as one sees in modern productions, only one, the town square, is needed. The production, based on Alessandro Sanquirico's painterly designs for the opera's original production, are very attractive. But in Donizetti's day, the scenery would have consisted only painted drops and could be changed instantaneously. These sets (borrowed from Arizona Opera) involve multiple flats and props thus necessitating long scene changes in the middle of each act. This is especially unhelpful in Act 1 when the scene change occurs directly before Doctor Dulcamara's arrival making a rather extenuated set-up for what should be a surprise. Stephen Ross's lighting gives each scene of this gentle opera a suitably warm glow.
Hungarian director Miklós Szinetár has communicated the playful mood of the opera to the principals but does little else but establish a series of attractive tableaux. Many of the ideas he does add are far too distracting. He has Ikaia-Purdy hold a cabbage in one hand while shredding it with a sharp knife held in the other. It's impossible to pay attention to what he or Bayrakdarian are singing during this, and I'd much rather be concerned about a missed note than a missing finger. Later he has Ikaia-Purdy change into a military uniform on stage revealing a pair of Hudson's Bay long-johns. This is quite funny but it attracts our focus away from James Westman's run-filled aria.
Despite my concerns about various aspects of the production, "L'Elisir" provides an evening of delightful singing. International commitments will soon dominate Bayrakdarian's schedule. Don't miss the chance to see her while you can.
The Grand Theatre has chosen to celebrate its 100th birthday with Stephen Sondheim's musical celebration of ancient Roman comedy, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." On September 9, 1901 the Grand Opera House, as it was then called, welcomed its first patrons to a performance of the melodrama "Way Down East." In the 1920s it became a movie theatre, but in 1945 three local amateur theatre groups banded together as the London Little Theatre and reclaimed it for live performances. In 1971 the theatre began a three-year process to become a fully professional regional theatre and is now the largest regional theatre in Ontario.
"Funny Thing" is a very appropriate choice. When Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart wrote the book for the musical, little did they realize that the show would become most people's sole experience of anything resembling the ancient comedy of Plautus (c. 254-184 BC) with its set of three houses, bawdy humour, farcical plots and collection of comic types. Sondheim responded with youthful exuberance quite unlike the darker mode of his most recent creations. Sondheim enthusiasts will be pleased to find that this production is more complete than most, including the song "That'll Show Him" cut from the 1972 Broadway revival and "Pretty Little Picture" cut from both it and the 1996 revival. The production itself is quite enjoyable but, were it not for some unhappy directorial decisions, it could have been more effective. My primary complaint is that the musical is amplified both for speaking and singing. We are told nowadays that audiences expect musicals to be amplified. That is a self-fulfilling prophesy and it was certainly not true in 1962 when the show premièred. If Stratford could do their highly successful Gilbert and Sullivan series in the 1980s unamplified in the 1100-seat Avon Theatre, why should the Grand need to amplify Sondheim in its smaller 839-seat theatre, especially with only a six-piece band? What is lost through amplification is the unmediated effect of the performers' power on the audience.
My second complaint is director Bob Ainslie's haphazard pacing. Farces such as this need taut direction since only a crisp pace can make tension mount. Here surprise entries are too slow and there are lulls in the dialogue and lags between dialogue and song. For a farce to run like clockwork it needs to be wound up tight.
Allan Willbee's set captures the right mood with its tilting columns and slightly tipsy houses rather like a Loony Tunes version of a Roman street. Bonnie Deakin's earth-toned costumes for the principal characters suits Wilbee's sets, but she lets herself go a bit too far in her costumes for the courtesans and their keeper. Yes, the courtesans are supposed to be highly differentiated but here they each seem to have descended from various 1950s sci-fi movies rather than ancient Rome. Ainslie has not asked for especially interesting lighting from Steven Hawkins, except for bizarre signals of mood shifts within songs.
At the centre of the show is Denis Simpson as Pseudolus, the slave who wants to win his freedom by helping his master Hero win the girl he loves. Simpson is immensely talented, with a malleable face and a voice able to mimic anything he thinks of. Though often very funny, he seemed to me to being trying too hard. Under his various grimaces and sound effects there seemed to be no underlying character. In the best productions we are always aware that Pseudolus's increasingly outrageous stunts are aimed at a personal goal--his freedom. Here after the song "Free" that goal dissipates into manic energy. By contrast, Ed Sahely (Hysterium), Jayne Lewis (Domina) and especially Neil Foster (Senex) receive just as much laughter by staying within a well-defined character, whether the fusspot household servant, the domineering wife or her grumblingly submissive husband. Foster's hilarious portrayal of a man as aware of his desire as his inability to perform stole the show. In other roles, Gregory Cross (Miles Gloriosus) is suitably imposing in bulk and voice, A. Frank Ruffo (Marcus Lycus, the dealer in flesh) suitably sleazy and Bryan Foster (Erronius) suitably addled.
The discovery of the evening was Jamie McKnight as the dim-witted Hero. Not only is he a good actor but he has a very attractive singing voice that made "Love, I Hear" and "Lovely" the musical highlights of the show. Callandra Dendias, as Hero's beloved and equally dim-witted Philia, also has a strong, clear voice, but hadn't a clue how to play a dumb blonde. Rick Kish, Michael-Lamont Lytle, James Quigley are excellent as the "Proteans" who play multiple roles, particularly funny as the Marcus Lycus's mincing eunuchs and Miles Gloriosus' spear-twirling soldiers. Caitlin Murphy, Jenni Burke, Catriona Ferguson, Heidi Ford, Tanya Rich and Janet Zenik play the Courtesans, all adept at performing Kimberley Timlock's varied choreography. "A Funny Thing" is a reminder of a time when people expected musicals to have witty lyrics, good tunes and a bit of ribald humour. It the perfect piece to revive for a celebration since it is itself a celebration of theatre. Even if the show is not a tight as it should be, it makes a positive impression and is a happy start to the Grand's second 100 years.
What a pleasure it is to see the intelligence shining from a play reflected in all aspects of its production. This is the case with David Hare's "Skylight" receiving its belated Toronto première at the Tarragon Theatre and starting the theatre's 30th season on a high note. The writing, staging and acting are so natural you can easily forget you are in the theatre and not witnessing real people having real conversations.
On entering the theatre you are confronted with John Thompson's highly naturalistic set. It is basically a dingy one-room apartment with only a makeshift curtain to separate the bedroom from the living/kitchen area. It is so realistically decorated, including British plugs and sockets, that with enough scrutiny one could, as in Balzac, extrapolate the nature of the person who lives there from her surroundings. Kevin Fraser expertly recreates the naturalistic lighting throughout.
The exactness of the design sums up how Hare's play works. He gives us an accumulation of detail in setting, words and action from which we have to determine what is or is not significant. Unlike the vast majority of playwrights, Hare seems deliberately to avoid simile (no "You are like that seagull," etc.) with the result that, as in real life, we have to determine what characters are like based on their patterns of behaviour. This can make the play seem prosaic and difficult since the Hare never descends to "in case you didn't get it" speeches. He demands heightened observation from the audience which if given is rewarded with greater enlightenment.
In "Skylight" 18-year-old Edward Sergeant seeks out Kyra Hollis, a 20-ish primary school teacher, to ask her to return to his father. Since Edward's mother died more than a year ago, his father Tom has not been able to pull himself out of the gloom. Kyra was Tom's lover while Tom's wife was alive but left without a word when the wife discovered the truth. Not long after Edward's departure Tom himself arrives to ask Kyra to come back to him. The long discussion that ensues as Kyra makes dinner suggests by the end of Act 1 that despite their differences they both still long for each other. In Act 2, after they have had sex, it becomes clear that the six years they had together was the only part of their lives when they could accept each other's values. Tom, a poor boy made good, has become a wealthy restaurant entrepreneur. Kyra, from a wealthy family who spent all their money before she could inherit it, finds fulfillment in teaching tough kids in an inner city school. Those six years were the ones when their paths and statuses crossed. Now they have become opposites in every attitude--male versus female, rich versus poor, helpless versus self-sufficient, conservative versus liberal, materialist versus idealist, to which director Dennis Garnhum's brilliant casting adds white versus black. This scheme of opposition gradually emerges from the detail, but what makes the play complex is that both Kyra and Tom have very accurate insight into each other but see less well into their own motivations. Indeed, the political and personal motivations of the characters are so interconnected it is difficult to know where one begins and the other ends. Tom and Kyra's encounter leaves them both shaken, both learning more about themselves than is comfortable. The epigraph to the play (which might usefully have appeared in the programme) is from Yeats: "We had fed the heart on fantasies, The heart's grown brutal from the fare."
The metaphor of food and hunger links all the characters. Some audience members may find the sight of a woman preparing a real supper on stage distracting (it's seldom that a play has such olfactory appeal), but it ought to dawn on an attentive viewer that a woman making a meal for a restaurateur, a meal that they never eat together, recapitulates before our eyes the their previous relationship and is a key to the play. Ultimately, what a person does and gives is more important than what a person has and takes, even if society does not mete out its rewards accordingly.
Garnhum draws richly detailed performances from the cast, absolutely necessary for such a realistic play. All three players display the kind of acting that is so natural it conceals its art. Yanna McIntosh is superb as Kyra, a role that requires constantly changing mixtures of emotion--pleasure in the midst of annoyance, self-doubt in the midst of self-justification, sadness in the midst of anger. Her strength makes us believe Kyra when she says that changing the life of only one student is enough to make all the unpleasantness of teaching worthwhile. Joseph Ziegler's character does not cover as wide an emotional arc as McIntosh's because Tom, as a "real man," is so unable to express directly what he feels. But Ziegler makes us sense beneath Tom's control a mass of conflicting emotions. As Edward, Brandon McGibbon is exceptionally fine at bringing out the sense of goodness lurking behind this teenager's awkwardness and anger.
The skylight of the title refers to the skylight Tom had put into the bedroom he specially had built for his wife dying the cancer she learned of shortly after discovering Tom's affair. Tom built it to help ease her suffering and to help assuage his guilt. Hare doubts that people ever have totally pure motives for their behaviour, but suggests that some endeavours like Tom's can leave a person empty while others like Kyra's can make a person full. "Why is this?" is what the play asks, and the asking creates its own light.
Robert Lepage's double-bill of Béla Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle" and Arnold Schoenberg's "Erwartung" is still one of the most perfect theatrical realizations of opera I have ever seen. Every element of the mise en scène-gesture, pose, movement, light, shadow, set and costumes-is married to the words and music in such minute detail the link seems inevitable. As is seldom the case, the mise en scène is not an imposition of a concept onto the work but rather enhances every aspect of meaning in both operas while not compromising their mystery. The two works are fascinating in themselves, but Lepage has also fully brought out the parallels between them so that we gain more from the operas and their staging with every acquaintance.
This is the third time the COC has presented this double-bill. It premièred to unanimous acclaim in 1993, toured to Brooklyn and Edinburgh where it reaped more awards and praise, returned to Toronto in 1995, before touring to Hong Kong. Yes, with this third appearance, restaged by François Racine, the element of surprise has worn off but it has been replaced with a deeper sense of wonder at how brilliant the staging really is and how marvellously the COC performs it. This double-bill marked a turning point for the COC and become their calling card to the outside world. It also marks a turning point for opera in Canada in general since it shows that works no matter how abstruse or "difficult" can be immensely popular and draw a diverse audience if the staging can rise to the imaginative level of the opera. This double-bill drew an exciting mixture of people: bejewelled women with blue rinses along with young people with punkish hairstyles and multiple piercings. So diverse an audience is itself a sign of success.
The mise en scène so completely suits the two works that it gives us a rare glimpse of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" that Wagner imagined opera should be. Levine's sets and costumes, Robert Thomson's lighting, Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy's media effects, the singers' positioning and gestures are precisely integrated with the words and music. Together they become an artwork in itself uniting all the arts. As with the greatest artworks, new times brings new interpretations. In "Bluebeard's Castle" when Judith has entered Bluebeard's low hall with its forced perspective and has seen all the terrifying secrets behind each door, her horror seemed not be merely a realization that she too was now one of the dead but that, as Bluebeard's last bride, the apocalypse had finally come and all would return to darkness. In "Erwartung" the emphasis seemed to shift from wondering whether or not the lone Woman wandering the stage did or did not murder her lover to a queasiness at how accurate Schoenberg's depiction is of what it is like to be engulfed by an unknown terror that changes all one sees. The claustrophobia of Michael Levine's set for Bluebeard's hall gives way to the agoraphobia of the open space in "Erwartung." Lepage and Levine show us the two sides of the same fear, the ineluctable entrapment of the mind by time.
The COC orchestra by now has these two works in their bones. They play so naturally and with so much beauty the question of the scores' "difficulty" simply does not arise. On the evening I attended Richard Bradshaw, who toured with these works, stepped in for Bernhard Kontarsky, who had to return to Germany for family reasons. Bradshaw's exact pacing brought out the gradually mounting sense of tension up to the spectacular opening of the Fifth Door and beyond it to the greater mental horrors of the Sixth and Seventh Doors. In "Erwartung" he brought out the atonal score's inherent lyricism linking it clearly back to Wagner.
The singers in both works are superb. Peter Fried uses his magnificent bass to communicate the full emotion of Bluebeard's situation, trying to shield Judith from learning too much about her fate yet aware of its inevitability. Mezzo Sara Fulgoni with her clear, ringing voice, details Judith's transformation from curiosity and wonder to apprehension, terror and acceptance. As beings with human emotions but greater destinies, their interaction seems to echo that of Wotan and Brünnhilde in Wagner's "Die Walküre." Their clear portrayal of complex emotions that humanize their roles provides the best point of entry to this symbolic work.
Soprano Nina Warren gives a fearless performance of the Woman in "Erwartung." She, too, finds the lyricism the jagged vocal line of Schoenberg score. Her acting does not efface memories of Rebecca Blankenship's portrayal in 1995 in what has been called the longest mad scene in all of opera. But Warren's voice is powerful and dramatic without sacrificing beauty of tone despite the role's punishing demands. As in the double-bill's previous appearances, non-singers Pamela Sue Johnson (Bride/Mistress), Noam Markus (Bride/Lover) and Mark Johnson (Bride/Psychiatrist) amaze us with their slow-motion acrobatics.
It's an immensely satisfying evening that proves yet again how richly this pair of operas deserves its past acclaim. If you have seen them at the COC before, renewed acquaintance will bring increased rewards. If you have not and care at all about art, theatre, music or opera, see them now.
There's no point in beating about the bush: "Habitat" is the worst Canadian play I've seen so far this year. If the play were by a newcomer there might be some excuse for its weakness. But no, the author is Judith Thompson, twice winner of both the Chalmers Award and the Governor General's Award. It is depressing to see an acclaimed author fail so miserably. It is also depressing to see such a fine cast attempting to make sense of such a muddled work. The play is ,so riddled with errors, it is best just to list them.
Plot: Lewis Chance has bought an expensive home on the exclusive Mapleview Lanes in order to turn it into a home for troubled teens. We are supposed to be surprised and angered (though are not) that the neighbourhood led by the lawyer daughter of a long-time resident opposes this and ultimately forces Chance and his home out. Thompson wants to rally us about the social injustice of the situation and reveal the callousness of the rich, but the situation as set up is implausible and the result (and politics) totally predictable. Nowhere does she explain where Chance, who has a criminal record, has managed to get more than $600,000 to spend on a house nor why he should so stupidly choose to set up a group home in a neighbourhood he already know will oppose it. We learn that Chance skims money from the home to send to his poverty-stricken mother. Why then did he not buy a less expensive home to have more to help her?
Characters: Thompson has neglected to give her characters consistency. She wants us to see that Chance, despite his flaws, is a fighter for social justice against the rich. Unfortunately, his flaws besides the money skimming include having had sex with a male ward. It's hard to see him as daring when in fact he is clearly untrustworthy and foolish.
A girl named Raine hates her father and his girlfriend and goes to live in the home when her mother dies. In the first scenes she is depicted as an usually inarticulate Canadian version of a Valley Girl. In Act 2 she suddenly becomes an orator declaiming in long elaborate speeches. Did she learn this in the group home she hates? I think not. Just after one especially expended speech, we find that she has just tried to commit suicide. While this makes no sense especially after her impassioned attack on all forms of discrimination, Thompson has neglected to gives us any indication that Raine's mood is so fragile or in any way declining.
Chance's main opponent is Catherine, identified as a lawyer. However, her legal training seemed to have given her no skills in public speaking or logic. She doesn't know, for instance, that Chance cannot legally show her confidential documents about the home's residents. She constantly claims the home has a right to exists, yet spearheads the movement to oust it. Catherine's mother, Margaret Deacon, fears for her safety when the group home is opened, yet seems to view those who break and enter her home as possible friends. She views Raine as a daughter just after she breaks in and later is convinced of the evils of her prejudice when another home resident, Sparkle, does likewise. Sparkle is the only characters who actions are consistent since his nature is supposed to be erratic and dangerous. Why at the end he and Raine burn down the home (I assume, though it is unclear, it is the group home not Mrs. Deacon's) is unknown or why their new-found status as street kids should make them elated.
All five cast members give fine performances--Stephen Ouimette (a folksy Down East Lewis Chance, Kristina Nicoll (Raine's dying mother Janet and the uptight Catherine), Corinne Conley (the depressed then outraged Margaret Deacon, Holly Lewis (the tough girl Raine) and Luke Kirby (the unpredictable Sparkle). But in this case acting alone, no matter how good, cannot hide the flaws that make these would-be serious characters seem ridiculous.
Theme: As I have suggested one can hear the sound of Birkenstocks padding the floor has Thompson trots out her warmed-over 1960's politics. The play might have seemed with it 35 years ago, but it seems totally out of touch. The attack on NIMBYism is too clichéd to arouse interest. What is worse the play becomes extraordinarily pretentious. The newly eloquent Raine recalls partway through Act 2 that her (hated) father is Jewish and compares the Mapleview residents' treatment of the group home kids to the Nazi's treatment of Jews and homosexuals. She then ranges through other examples of genocide including the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Needless to say, Thompson's structure is too feeble to support such weight.
Director Katherine Kaszas has no clues to remedying this mess except to add sound designer Richard Feren's jetlike whooshes between every short scene in a vain attempt to create tension where there is none. Shawn Kerwin has create a design that is cleverer than the play. It is a diamond of real grass with a few tress. Margaret's living room is in one corner of the grass and Chance's on the other, thus suggesting the artificiality of borders and divisions of land. John Munro's lighting effectively indicates the many locations of the action.
The failure of the play has wider implications. "Habitat" is the first play commissioned in CanStage's partnership with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England. Since the play is going to represent Canada abroad, how is it no one had the courage to tell Thompson her play is just not good enough? Receipt of past annually-decided awards is no guide to present quality. If the CanStage equivalent of a building inspector had done her job, this "Habitat" would have been condemned.
Tillsonburg, immortalized in the song by Stompin' Tom Connors, is a small town about 40 kilometres east of St. Thomas, Ontario. It is also the name of a play by Irishman Malachy McKenna now playing at the Canadian Stage Theatre at Berkeley Street. The main draw is the play's curiosity value: How many plays are there set in Southern Ontario written by non-Canadians? For once we think we might get an outsider's perspective on Canada. As it turns out the play is too formulaic to provide much insight. Canada merely provides local colour for the central story about the friendship of two Irish men. And, as it turns out, the event that changed both friends' lives happened not in Canada but in New York City. That the play works as well as it does is due entirely to superior direction and acting.
McKenna based the play, his first, on his own experience of seven summers picking tobacco in Tillsonburg. The play covers the Canadian sojourn of the friends, Michael "Mac" McBrien and Donal "Digger" Hogan, from their arrival at the tobacco farm to their departure at the end of the season. Providing glimpses of the lads over such a long period makes the play is necessarily episodic, but ultimately it falls into the pattern of what passes for "serious" drama on Broadway, i.e. first half is all funny jokes and situations, second half all emotional confrontations where hidden secrets are revealed.
The humour of the first half derives primarily from the adjustments of our two innocent Irishmen to the filthy lodgings, the backbreaking works and the Canadians they meet. The weirdest of the Canadians is Billy, a regular tobacco-picker whose marijuana-induced non-sequiturs and far-out behaviour are a negative advertisement for what the job can do to a person. There is also the tobacco-farmer Jon, who manages to be cheery most of the time despite having lost his wife to Pete the Indian, as he is called, who seems to be the most charismatic person in the community. The dialogue frequently falls into the set-up and punch line style familiar from sitcoms. Except for Digger's nightmare that closes Act 1, there is no clear hint of the buried strife between the two friends or of any but imagined danger from Pete. Act 2 brings the hidden suffering of the characters to the surface in ways that involve awkward coincidences and Hollywood-style melodrama.
What makes the play watchable are the exceptional performances of the cast. Paul Essiembre (Mac) and author McKenna (Digger) both give intense, detailed portrayals of the two innocents as they come to terms with their new circumstances. It a major credit to Essiembre that his accent so closely matches that of the author. Essiembre's part also requires the greatest range from an ability to bring off the deadpan humour of Act 1 to the outpouring of painful emotions in Act 2. The hilarious sequence when Mac experiences his first high on Billy's marijuana is a masterpiece of acting in its own right. Digger is the more detached of the two, but McKenna is excellent at suggesting the unspoken emotional undercurrent of their relationship.
Paul Fauteux is so realistic as the drugged-up Sudbury boy Billy you forget that he is acting at all. The glazed expression, the discontinuities in what he says and does are all keenly observed. On top of this he wins our sympathy for this lost soul when at the close it is time for the workers' goodbyes. David Ferry is also excellent as the farmer/owner Jon. He makes us perceive that there is a personal grudge underlying his torrent of racist remarks against native people before we discover this is true.
McKenna has included Pete the Indian in a misconceived attempt to link the oppression of native people by Europeans to the oppression of the Irish by the English. McKenna tries to confound our preconceptions of native people by making Pete more articulate and informed than any other character. But when in Act 2 McKenna has Pete spout a series of politically correct bromides about oppression while attacking Digger, we see that McKenna is making the same mistake so many other non-native playwrights make when including native characters--Pete is there not as a fully rounded character but as a symbol. Lawrence Bayne does what he can to make Pete imposing and powerful but McKenna has given him little to work with.
Miles Potter proves yet again his expertise in reproducing the rhythm and flow of natural dialogue on stage. His highly detailed direction makes the Irish friends' first encounter with Canada especially enjoyable. He tries to keep the melodramatic events of Act 2 within a realistic focus, but McKenna's Hollywood solutions to the characters' problems can't seem other than false. Peter Hartwell has designed one of the most naturalistic sets yet to appear on the stage at Berkeley Street. Every aspect of the filthy bunkhouse has been so accurately broken down from the wood shavings on the floor to the discoloured sheets and the stained toilet that you can almost smell the place. The same is true of the characters' increasingly sweat- and tobacco-stained clothing. Kevin Lamotte's lighting reinforces the realism Potter and Hartwell have so painstakingly created.
Depictions of life in Canada by non-Canadians, especially in drama, are so rare that people will want to see "Tillsonburg" even if it is not a great play. People should not be surprised, however, if the play says more about its Irish protagonists than about its setting. As McKenna shows, frustrated expectations and dashed hopes can occur as easily in Canada as in Ireland. The Irish, though, bring such baggage with them that no new country can be an escape. If only McKenna had jettisoned the generic baggage borrowed from Broadway and Hollywood, "Tillsonburg" would not be so burdened by cliché.