Toronto opera-lovers have long taken to supplementing their diet of professional opera with the offerings of the University of Toronto's acclaimed Opera Division. First of all, the Opera Division often produces works that have seldom of never been produced by Ontario's larger opera companies. Second, the shows often give patrons a first glimpse of the stars of tomorrow: Frances Ginzer and Measha Bruggergosman are only two of a host of illustrious alumni. And third, tickets cost only a fourth of top-price tickets to the COC and frequently deliver productions as much or more enjoyable than those of Canada's largest opera company. A longer rehearsal period results in acting that is much more detailed than one usually finds in opera and the enthusiasm of singers essaying roles for the first time results in greater cohesion of ensemble and a higher level of commitment to the production.
All these factors are evident in the Opera Division's production of Benjamin Britten's comic masterpiece "Albert Herring" (1947). In 1964, the work was chosen to inaugurate the University of Toronto's new 815-seat MacMillan Theatre, one of the best venues for opera in the province, and was reprised in 1977. "Albert Herring" concerns the preparations for and celebration of May Day in the fictional village of Loxford in Sussex. The local worthies of the town meet at Lady Billows to decide which girl with most immaculate character should be chosen as May Queen. Unfortunately, this year no suitable female can be found. In desperation, the idea is floated of a "May King," whereupon the hard-working, virginal Albert Herring becomes the obvious choice. Albert, though still tied to his mother's apron strings, is coming to realize that there is a whole world of pleasure that his friends like Sid and Nancy enjoy but that life in his mother's grocery store has so far prohibited. Sid and Nancy play a trick on Albert at the May Day feast that ultimately causes Albert to break from the limitations of his life.
Eric Crozier's libretto is exceptionally witty and Britten's matches its wit through onomatopoeia and a host of sly musical allusions to other styles of opera, operetta and oratorio. With good reason, the work is counted as one of the greatest English comic operas ever written. Conductor Stephen Ralls studied with Crozier and his wife, who created the role of Nancy, and with Sir Peter Pears. He brings out the full humour of the piece as well as the beauty of its scoring for chamber orchestra. His pacing of the nonet in Act 3, "in the midst of life is death," is just one highlight of many.
Contrary to what one so often sees nowadays, director Maria Lamont has not imposed a concept on the work but pays minute attention to the words and music. Indeed, Britten's score so clearly supplies its own dramaturgy--clocks chiming, doors handles opening, people yawning, whistling, drinking--that to ignore it would be foolish. Under Lamont, all the action on stage from movement of groups to small gestures and facial expressions is so wedded to the music that the everything on stage seems to flow naturally from it. Fred Perruzza has designed the attractive sets, the square for the village fête being especially effective. For the interludes that cover scene changes, a large clock-face with moving hands is projected onto the scrim. It reinforces the theme of the passing of time that concerns all the characters--the old fear their ways are dying out, the young feel they must live now before they become old.
The opening night cast was excellent. Colin Ainsworth is an ideal Albert. His pure, clear tenor and subtle acting makes him a natural for this and all the other roles Britten wrote for Peter Pears. Other standouts include Phillip Addis (Sid) with a rich baritone and natural talent for acting and Michèle Bogdanowicz (Nancy) with a lovely, ringing mezzo. Playing the older generation, Janet Harach (Lady Billows) musters an imperious, dark-toned soprano and Virginia Hatfield (Miss Wordsworth) a bright, agile soprano. Mezzo Gaynor Jones, an Opera Division alumna, joins the cast to give a fuller-than-usual portrait of Albert's mother. The opening-night cast plays again on November 16; an alternate cast plays on November 15 and 17.
"Albert Herring" was last seen in Toronto in a Canadian Opera Company production at the Elgin Theatre in 1991. The smaller MacMillan Theatre is an even more suitable venue for this chamber opera. When as well sung, acted, conducted and directed as here, this piece would make a perfect introduction to Britten's operas and to the abilities of the University of Toronto Opera Division.
Michel Marc Bouchard's "Down Dangerous Passes Road" ("Le Chemin des passes dangereuses") may have premièred in 1998, but it is an extremely old-fashioned play. It's the kind of work that seeks to mythologize a country, here Quebec, by setting up a symbolic confrontation of allegorical characters. Fine acting and an unusual design can't overcome the feeling that Bouchard has given us only the skeleton of a play not a fully fleshed-out drama.
The most interesting aspect of the production is David Boechler's design. To enter the Factory Studio Theatre we ourselves have to travel down Dangerous Passes Road. A tree-lined gravel path dips diagonally across the narrow space dividing it into four awkward seating sections. To the right as you enter is a wrecked truck with a body in the front passenger seat. To the left is another body of someone seemingly thrown from the wreck. John Gzowski's soundscape of birdsong makes us feel right away that we're in the middle of nowhere. Andrea Lundy's lighting is not as atmospheric as the sound and is generally much brighter than the wooded setting would demand.
After we go to black and the lights come up, we find two of the young men we thought were dead now moving and talking. They are brothers, Ambrose and Carl, endlessly repeating lines of poetry, one concerning three possessions, the other about walking in a straight line yet circling round and round. A lighting cue switches them from this rambling to reality and they attempt to have a conversation but keep disagreeing about what is appropriate to discuss. Linda Gaboriau is an excellent translator, so I can only assume that it is Bouchard's inclination to use too many adjectives that prevents the dialogue from ever sounding natural.
Carl is angry that the crash has made him miss his own wedding. Ambrose is angry that his lover dying of AIDS has dropped him to prevent him seeing the ravages of the disease. Shortly after the discussion and rediscussion of their uninteresting lives has become tedious, the oldest brother Victor appears. Soon we learn that what binds the three beside their brotherhood is a shared guilt they feel involving their father's death very near the spot where Victor's truck has just crashed. Not only that, what has reunited the brothers for the first time in three years is Carl's wedding which he rather thoughtlessly arranged to take place on the fifteenth anniversary of their father's death. How are these coincidences related? Have the three in fact survived the crash? To reveal the answers would be to ruin what little tension there is.
The brothers each represent an aspect of Quebec. The three possessions mentioned in the poem are eyes, heart and soul. Carl, the youngest, who lives in Quebec City (the suburbs), is a manager at Price Club and thinks more of maintaining social appearances than of love for his bride, is "eyes." Ambrose, who lives in Montreal (the city), appraises art and mourns for his dying lover, is "heart." Victor, who still lives in the family's hometown of Alma (the country), is a fisher and forester and has separated from his second wife, is, as the town's name suggests "soul." They were their father's dearest possessions, but he did not allow them to grow, so when he fell into a river they did not save him. He is a Dionysian figure, holding a poem about them in one hand and a bottle of Labatts in the other, just before he fell. His body has never been found, caught forever in an eddy in the river. How fitting this is since the father's poetry itself, which all three can recite, is as circular and repetitious as a litany. In one of many over-inflated statements, Ambrose declares, "We are trapped in our father's poetry."
It is not unusual to discover symbols and archetypes beneath the surface reality a work presents, but in this case, it is clear Bouchard began with an allegory and then attempted to give it a naturalistic façade. I say this because the "real" dialogue among the brothers feels so forced and because Bouchard, never content to let us discover his symbolic content on our own, continually underlines it. In this lament for Quebec, the younger generation has allowed an ideal to pass away and are now haunted and powerless to reclaim it.
All three actors are well cast and try to give life to these walking symbols. Brandon McGibbon (Carl) has the best success probably because his shallow, materialist character is not as burdened with pretentious discourse. Tony Munch (Victor) looks and acts like the tough guy he's said to be but Bouchard gives him improbably lyrical speeches that undermine his character. I am surprised that a gay playwright like Bouchard would create such a clichéd gay character as Ambrose--witty, overemotional, fussy, preoccupied with taste. David Jansen at least keeps him from being effete by suggesting the underlying strength of his anger. His revelation of his early infatuation for Carl is the only authentic moment in the play.
Director Sarah Stanley manages the action well on this unpromising acting space. But she adds to the tedium by assigning the three actors repetitive gestures to go along with their repetitive phrases.
This is a play that wears our its welcome well before its 75 minutes are over. In his "message" printed in the programme, Bouchard claims that his play shows "thoughts stripped of life's armour of lies" to reveal "frankness." Instead of this supposed "frankness" all Bouchard really gives us are rattling bones of pretence.
Former Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney now lives in New York and has worked to shed the label of "comic" by making a name for himself there as an actor. Though the Winter garden is the wrong venue and the show needs crisper direction, the popular off-Broadway play "Fully Committed" now making its first Canadian appearance provides the perfect showcase for McKinney's abundant talents.
"Fully Committed" made its first appearance at the Adirondack Theatre Festival in 1998. Playwright Becky Mode based the play on the experiences of her friend actor Mark Setlock who was the "reservationist" for a four-star restaurant in Upper East Side Manhattan. When Setlock worked there, the restaurant, like that in the play, was the eatery du jour in the city. The restaurant's fame and high prices created an aura of exclusivity so that anyone who was anybody, or who thought they were somebody, absolutely had to eat there as a mark of privilege.
It is status not food that every one of the characters hungers after. The play may focus on New Yorkers as a particularly ravenous bunch, but we all have encountered examples of obnoxious me-firstism even among supposedly self-effacing Canadians. It is the role of the reservationist Sam to direct the rogue's gallery of more than 30 ego-trippers, sometime on four different phone lines, as best he can. The aural assault includes not just people trying to score the table number 31 in the restaurant, a visit by the Zagats and a photographer from "Gourmet," but also the more arrogant members of the restaurant staff, chief of whom is the star chef who makes Sam use the pretentious title phrase instead of "fully booked." But even Sam himself hungers for status. Like many in the "food service industry" he is "really" an actor and longs to have that second call-back for a show at Lincoln Center so he can leave the cacophony of his basement office behind.
While "Fully Committed" seems more like an 80-minute comic sketch than a full-fledged play, it is an extremely cleverly written sketch. The show's basis in reality and Mode's ear for natural dialogue keep the satire sharp. Though structured entirely as a series of interrupted phone calls between Sam and patrons, staff, friends and family, the play's increasing number of plot threads are not difficult to keep separate. Yet, having to keep so many conversations mentally on hold makes the show less a laugh riot that one might expect simply because the audience is so keen not to miss a single word.
Making a play like this clear requires tour de force acting and Mark McKinney certainly delivers. He is amazingly precise in keeping the 30 plus callers' voices absolutely distinct. Most often he uses only voice placement, accent and facial expression to characterize them. Sometimes he adds gestures. And for Jean Claude the maître d', the chef and Curtis at Lincoln Center Frances Aronson's lighting changes signal the callers' locations. Some of McKinney's most memorable creations are Sam's folksy, recently widowed father; the emotive French maître d'; the slick, mind-game-playing chef; prissy Brice, personal assistant to Naomi Campbell, who insists on a vegan "menu de dégustation" for fifteen plus a change of the restaurant's lighting; the abrasive Mrs. Sebag, distraught that her reservation has been lost; the determined 82-year old woman who wants her AARP discount after the fact; and the irate socialite who repeated calls back to speak with Jean Claude about what she deems an "emergency." Oddly enough, the character we have the least clear view of is Sam himself. In the short space of the show we see him throw off his innocence and change from a put-upon nice guy to someone who decides that to have success in the real world connections are more important than talent. Yet despite this change Sam still comes across as rather bland.
Daniel Goldstein has restaged the show, as he has done elsewhere, from the original direction by Nicholas Martin. One can't help feeling that something has been lost in the translation since the pacing tends to inhibit rather than reinforce the sense of comedy. We expect that this kind of play will build and build to a kind of frenzy, when in fact Goldstein keeps McKinney at the same energy level throughout and allows the action to drag when it should speed up. James Noone's set captures Mode's vision of a world off kilter by having the floor and ceiling of Sam's basement office askew and by painting all five surfaces in clashing colours.
There is no doubt that a play set in a cramped space and relying entirely on phone conversations and facial gestures would have much greater impact in a smaller venue. The Vineyard Theatre, where the play made its splash in New York has only 120 seats. It then transferred for a sold-out run at the Cherry Lane Theater with 180 seats. The Winter Garden with 992 is far too big. This tells me that Toronto really needs a theatre venue other than the New Yorker where an off-Broadway show like this can play to better advantage.
Nevertheless, even if the ambiance isn't right and the pacing too leisurely, Mark McKinney serves up this tasting menu of comic types with a panache that should please any palate.
Over the years the Royal George Theatre has become home to popular theatre at the Shaw, the mysteries and the musicals. This season only the lunchtime musical, Noel Coward's delicious "Shadow Play," has been an artistic success. To the full-length musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" director Dennis Garnhum gave artistic pretensions that this insubstantial work cannot support. For the mystery "Laura" director Neil Munro made a simple story incomprehensible by omitting the last two pages of the script. Now the late opener "Love from a Stranger" joins the list not because of directorial meddling but because the work itself is poorly conceived.
Frank Vosper (1899-1937) was a British actor and director who adapted the Agatha Christie short story "Philomel Cottage" as a star vehicle for himself. In London in 1936 it ran for 149 performances and in New York the same year for only 31. Plays of intellectual merit often do poorly on their first appearance, but when a play geared to a popular audience is unpopular, one has to wonder if in fact it is just not very good. Even mystery writer H.R.F. Keating's long note in the programme cannot avoid pointing out the play's inferiority to its source.
In brief, Cecily Harrington, who has always longed for adventure, has just won £20,000 in a lottery and plans to rent out her flat and see the world. Instead, she instantly falls in love with the American Bruce Lovell, who comes by as a potential renter. By the end of Act 1 she has agreed to marry him. By Act 2 they have already moved into an isolated cottage and postponed for a few months their travel plans. Bruce becomes ill. The local crime-loving doctor notes that serial killers often become ill from nervous tension until it is released through murder. But no one, except the audience it seems, is able to put two and two together. Visits from Cecily's London friends, her former fiancé, the gardener, the maid and the doctor are what delay the killer's action. Otherwise, they do little but increase Cecily's doubts about her husband.
Chistie's adaptations of her own work, like "The Hollow" (1951) seen at the Shaw in 1996, show her willingness radically to alter her novel in order to improve its effectiveness on the stage. Vosper's adaptation feels like a short story dragged out to a three-hour length. The main flaw, however, is that he gives anyone familiar with the genre (i.e. most of the audience) so strong a clue at the end of Act 1 as to the villain's identity, that the two-hour wait until he actually does something is less tense than tedious. Meanwhile, Vosper, unaware that he has already given away the identity of the serial killer, continues to pile up clues through Acts 2 and 3 that are not surprising since they only confirm our initial impression. I for one assumed that since everything is so obviously laid out there must be some plot twist to contradict our assumptions. But no, our first impression is repeated proved right and the single twist at the end has more to do with our heroine than the killer.
As with "Drood" we have another case at the Shaw where the quality of the performances outstrips the material performed. Lisa Norton copes as best she can in an attempt to make Cecily Harrington's general optimism seem the source of her singular obtuseness regarding negative facts about her husband. Considering the material it's amazing she succeeds as well as she does. The role of the suspicious husband, Bruce Lovell, give Mike Shara a change to break out from the string nice young guy parts he has played recently. He can summon up hidden menace and suppressed anger that would be quite chilling if the script did not make them so obvious.
Vosper provides a group of "normal" characters to serve as a foil to the increasingly abnormal relationship of the central couple. Chief among these is Cecily's Auntie Loo-Loo played by Jennifer Phipps. Her performance as a kind but addled woman who speaks in a sort of stream-of-consciousness no matter what the situation is the main pleasure of the show. It's too bad Vosper couldn't think of a way to integrate her more into the plot. Laurie Paton is excellent as Cecily's best friend Mavis, finding various ways to make what is otherwise a stock character interesting and vital. Hodgson, the gardener at the Lovells' country house, and Ethel, his daughter who becomes the Lovells' maid are purely comic roles played with gentle humour and expert timing by Richard Farrell and Helen Taylor. Lorne Kennedy, too, finds an understated humour in the crime-loving Dr. Gribble. Only Leo Vernik as Cecily's long-time fiancé Nigel disappoints. Admittedly it's difficult to make a bland character interesting, but Vernik doesn't have the command to make his love or anger believable.
The leisurely pace director Micheline Chevrier gives the piece undermines what little tension there is. In the closing tableau she tries for a sense of irony, but it is only confusing since she has failed to prepare it. Brian Perchaluk creates a great contrast between the stark, grey apartment set of Act 1 and the cozy country house of Acts 2 and 3, but his 1930s outfits especially for Paton and Norton look more peculiar than attractive. Ereca Hassell's lighting successfully captures just the right mood for each scene.
There are those to go to the Shaw solely for the mysteries and the musicals. With none of the three this year turning out well, I hope that some have looked beyond the Royal George to some of the great offerings this year at the Festival Theatre and the Court House. Personally, I wish the Shaw could somehow manage to wean the Royal George patrons of their mysteries since these plays, though popular, seldom provide roles interesting enough for a troupe of the Shaw's calibre, a fact painfully obvious this year. If the Shaw must programme mysteries, let's hope that next year they find a good one.
It must have seemed like a good idea to have bring the original American production of "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" to Toronto with its original director and a Canadian cast. That is, it would have seemed like a good idea about five years ago. But comedian Steve Martin's 90-minute comedy premièred at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater in early 1993 and it is now late 2001. Most major cities in North America have either seen a version of the Steppenwolf production or have mounted their own, and that includes the two main regional theatres in Ontario. Theatre Aquarius mounted its own production in January this year, the Grand Theatre (co-produced with the Vancouver Playhouse) back in 1998. Being the original production has a certain importance, but it does not necessarily mean that it is the best presentation of the text. I saw the Grand's production in 1998 and can aver that it was superior in virtually every way to the version now playing in Toronto.
Martin's play, set at the Parisian bistro, the Lapin Agile, in 1904, presents an imagined meeting between the young Albert Einstein and the young Pablo Picasso. One year later Einstein would publish his Special Theory of Relativity; three years later Picasso would break from his "Blue Period" with "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Martin is obviously working in the recent subgenre of "what if they met" drama inaugurated by Tom Stoppard's "Travesties" in 1974. Martin is not as clever as Stoppard in form or content, but then how many popular American plays are there that concern the relation of art and science, desire and achievement, fiction and reality-and are still funny?
There are two sides to Steve Martin. Most people know him as the "wild and crazy guy" who most often appears in mediocre film comedies. Fewer people know that he is serious collector of modern art and former student of philosophy. The Steppenwolf production directed by Randall Arney relates "Picasso" only to the popular side; the Grand production directed by Peter Hinton related it to the other. Arney's approach is to treat the play as a 90-minute sketch, to turn all the lines into gags and thus to gloss over the many intriguing philosophical points Martin makes. Hinton's approach treated the play as a play, found humour in character and situation, and thus highlighted Martin's philosophical points to make the play intellectually interesting as well as funny. Arney's version may have been the original one, but to my mind Hinton's was richer by far and far more satisfying. It's too bad the Canadian Stage did not have the foresight to present the Grand's version four years ago.
Admittedly, Scott Bradley's detailed set and Patricia Zipprodt's period costumes, both enhanced by Kevin Lamotte's lighting, are much more elaborate than those at the Grand. But Arney relies on them alone to create the atmosphere. Hinton had the cast's interactions create the mood of an artistic community resident at the café. Arney, however, has no interest in ensemble and makes the cast seem like a pack of competing stand-up comics. One sign of Hinton's attention to detail that he had Einstein use a German accent and Picasso a Spanish one, while Arney doesn't bother with either.
It does not help that the cast CanStage has mustered is largely inferior to the one at the Grand. Geoffrey Bowes as the owner Freddy gives the impression throughout that he is running a Western saloon not a Paris bistro. Cara Pifko plays Suzanne, Picasso's latest conquest, and two other women. She makes Suzanne seems more like a pert schoolgirl rather than the world-weary woman of the world she should be with the result that her delivery never matches the sense of what she says. Eric Peterson's Gaston, an elder habitué of the bistro, is simply a caricatured old man. Under Hinton Gaston's frequent trips to the loo showed him reluctant to be torn away from interesting company; under Arney they are perfunctory and pointless. Worst of all is Jordan Pettle as Picasso. He simply doesn't have the poise or command of gesture and diction to bring the part off. His Picasso seems to come from New York not Spain and shows none of the charisma that would explain why so many women fall in love with him.
Alon Nashman is far better as Einstein. The quirky self-confidence and sense of humour he give the part makes him an appealing character, although doesn't quite catch the sense of Einstein as a genius the way David Storch did at the Grand. Both Nashman and Pettle suffer under Arney's failure to make clear that we are meeting Picasso and Einstein before they are famous. Arney presents them already as celebrities contrary to the text, undermining the humour of their various anachronistic remarks and missing the irony that the fictitious Schmendiman is at the moment supposedly the most famous person in Paris.
All the remaining roles are well taken. Michelle Fisk (Freddy's wife, Germaine) is the only cast member able to situate her character in the time and place of the action. Only when she speaks do we get the sense that a great century has passed and an exciting new one has begun. William Webster gives the small role of the art-dealer Sagot more character and vitality than Pettle gives Picasso. Ron Kennell makes the supposedly famous inventor Schmendiman suitably bizarre and Blaine Bray is super as the Visitor from the future whose identity I won't reveal since it is meant as a surprise.
This is not the first time I have felt that an American director did not mine the richness of an American text as fully as a Canadian director. One need only compare American William Carden's shouting match of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" this year at Stratford, versus Michael Shamata's far more subtle version at the Grand in 1998 or American Vivian Matalon's routine "Our Town" for Stratford in 1991 versus the Joseph Ziegler's more complex version for Soulpepper in 1999. In each case the American director, as in "Picasso," has conceived of the play in terms of star turns and fulfilling generic expectations while the Canadian has thought in terms of ensemble and conflicting modes of drama. Arney presents "Picasso" as a simplistic laugh-riot. This ultimately insults the author's work, the actors' abilities and the audience's intelligence.
In 1991, Toronto's own baroque opera company, Opera Atelier, made a splash with Mozart's "The Magic Flute." This production, the best I had ever seen of the work, proved that Opera Atelier could succeed not just with short, sometimes obscure baroque operas, but with one of the most beloved operas ever written. After securing sponsorship from a major European bank, their fortunes have risen ever since culminating in a spectacular production of Lully's "Persée" last year. Now, ten years later, the company returns with a new production of "The Magic Flute."
This time, instead of the excitement of discovery, a certain dullness seems to pervade the production. This is the result of director Marshall Pynkoski's decision to include all of librettist Emanuel Schikaneder's spoken dialogue for this "Singspiel" albeit in Andrew Porter's witty English translation. Most productions in German cut as much of the dialogue as possible both because most people prefer to hear more "Sing" and less "Spiel." It is admirable and instructive to present the work uncut. We are given a more accurate view of what this "play with songs" must have been like at its première in 1791 and we get a fuller view of the characters, but the work as a whole loses its intensity. The difficulty Pynkoski encounters is in not being able to maintain the momentum generated in the music through the spoken sections. If the full dialogue is to be included its pace has to be snappier and more inventively staged if the work, now three hours long, is not to bog down.
What saves this "Magic Flute" from the constant threat of torpor is the amazing performance of Daniel Belcher as the bird-seller Papageno. Belcher is so perfect, I now cannot imagine anyone ever performing this role better. Not only does Belcher have a rich, deep baritone but also he is a superb comic actor. On top of that, Pynkoski has had the brilliant idea to assign Papageno balletic leaps and birdlike gestures thus finally making sense of the libretto's description of him. Belcher is lithe and nimble enough to encompass this added layer of physical movement with ease. Papageno is called a "child of nature" and for the first time I saw someone fully bring out this character's childlike attitude and link to the natural world. How exciting it is to see a classic role so fully realized!
Belcher's energy level and commitment to the role, however, are several degrees above those of the remainder of the cast. Closest to him in these are Peggy Kriha Dye, Krisztina Szabó and Vilma Vitols as the Three Ladies. Not only do their voices blend beautifully but their continuing rivalry for Tamino's attentions is genuinely funny for a change.
Otherwise, a sense of routine creeps into some performances. Soprano Meredith Hall (Pamina) produces a beautiful tone but little sense of passion or involvement. The same is true of Gary Relyea (Sarastro), who must hold the record for the number of times he has performed this role in Canada. Coloratura Erin Windle's underpowered "O zitt're nicht" in Act 1 does not bode well, but she rallies for the showpiece "Der Hölle Rache" in Act 2 including baroque trills in the famous staccato sections. She seems, however, to be giving a concert performance in fancy dress giving no hint that she is playing a character much less a menacing one. Tenor John Tessier (Tamino) sings with little nuance or variation in dynamics, capturing the Prince's youthfulness but none of the nobility of emotion meant to contrast him with the natural man, Papageno. Gerald Isaac played the lascivious Moorish servant Monostatos back in 1991. There is now little tone left in his tenor and his energetic acting jars with the rest of the production seemingly based more of Saturday morning cartoons than on baroque acting principles. Michael Meraw (the Speaker) is lacklustre and Gillian Keith (Papagena) has a lovely but small voice that seldom travelled beyond the orchestra.
The production design is even more sumptuous and inventive than it was in 1991. Set designer Gerard Gauci has taken to heart the opera's pseudo-Asian setting with architectural references to a wide range of styles. Especially effective are the scrim showing detail of a baroque painting of clouds behind which the Queen of the Night appears, the vaulted prison where Papageno and Tamino are tested, the three temples each with their hidden animals and the flying gondola carrying the Three Genii who lead various characters to reason. Gauci also makes explicit the libretto's implicit imagery of Freemasonry. By using exquisitely painted drops, the frequent transformations the libretto demands are accomplished in an instant. If Gauci's sets reflect the diverse elements that make up the plot, Dora Rust-D'Eye's costumes provide a sense of unity by picturing Sarastro's court as the seat of the Ottoman Empire. The traditional co-ordination of future mates' costumes (Tamino and Pamina, Papageno and Pagagena) is a delight and the linking of Sarastro's court colours of blue and gold to the slowly revealed backdrop at the end produces a stunning visual climax. Kevin Fraser's sensitive lighting recreates the ambiance of a candle-lit stage. And yes, that wonderful dragon of 1991 is back.
David Fallis, conducting the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, chooses tempi sometimes faster than usual (as in Papageno's "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja"), sometimes slower (as in Pamina's "Ach, ich fühl's"), in an effort to emphasize the broad diversity of the musical sections separated as they are by wider than usual swaths of dialogue.
This visually delightful production should serve Opera Atelier in good stead for a long time to come. Let's hope, though, that on its next appearance, Pynkoski can muster a more emotionally involving group of singers. And please, when you next revive this production, bring back the marvelous Daniel Belcher as Papageno.
Most people will know the story of "Mephisto" from the 1981 Academy Award-winning film of the same name directed by István Szabó. But two years before the film, acclaimed French director Ariane Mnouchkine premièred her own stage version of "Mephisto" with the company she founded, the Théâtre du Soleil. Both play and film are based on the 1936 novel by Klaus Mann, but theatre is the natural medium for an adaptation since the work's principal themes are actors and acting, the role of the theatre, politics and art. The Equity Showcase production, the play's Canadian première, is the kind of consistently thought-provoking, political theatre one seldom sees in Toronto any more. If on the whole the show is not as effective as it could be, it still contains a high proportion of trenchant scenes and fine performances.
Unlike the film, the play has a dual focus--one on Klaus Mann himself, the other on the actor Hendrik Höfgen. The play begins with a German publisher rejecting Mann's novel. He feels that the story of an actor who changes his political allegiance to further his career is too closely modelled on the life of the real German actor Gustaf Gründgens (1899-1963) and could lead to a lawsuit. Indeed, Mann's only solution was to have the book published in Amsterdam. Mann is also our narrator and plays his alter-ego in the play, the novelist Sebastian Brückner.
Through a series of short scenes we follow Höfgen's career from his rise to fame in Hamburg to his departure and success in Berlin, his most famous role being Mephistopheles in Goethe's "Faust, Part 1". He begins as a staunch Communist mingling with other Communist actors in the company as they try to deal with hyperinflation, high unemployment and the rise of the National Socialist party. Höfgen longs to move from the provincial stage of Hamburg to be in the national spotlight in Berlin. To do so, he has to conform to Nazi dictates and so must drop his former friends and his long-time non-Aryan mistress Juliette. As a result he reaches a pinnacle of success and is used to promote the superiority of Aryan drama but finds himself isolated and hated by his peers. It is a fitting irony that Höfgen's most famous role should be Mephisto, whom Goethe calls "the spirit of negation", since Höfgen tries to deny his opportunism even to himself. As Mann/Brückner is impelled to reveal the truth, Höfgen is impelled to hide from it.
Mnouchkine and her Théâtre du Soleil have continued the traditions of Brecht's Epic Theatre. This is a huge narrative play with 20 actors playing 36 roles. The use of a narrator/actor is only one of Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekte" that mark the play. Mnouchkine has constructed "Mephisto" from so many scenes of rehearsals of plays or cabaret skits that Brecht's ideal of our awareness of the actor acting is built into its structure. Indeed, we first meet several characters acting roles before we meet them as themselves. The play most similar to "Mephisto" is "Our Country's Good" by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who translated "Mephisto" into English. While Wertenbaker's later play focusses on the power of theatre to transform people and society, Mnouchkine has the more difficult project of asking what role theatre has in a society that has transformed itself into something inhuman. Although Mnouchkine herself is a leftist, she presents the dilemma of the characters in an even-handed way, even showing the Nazis' early appeal to the working class and the Communists' misguided faith in Stalin.
That this complex work comes across so clearly is due to the intelligent direction of Bruce Alexander Pitkin. If there is a flaw it is his attempt to reach the same pitch of emotion in each scene. Jacques Lamarre's set, creatively lit by David Meredith, consists entirely of chairs in different styles. Pitkin has the actors carry them across the stage for each change of scene, but this ultimately slows the pace and is mostly unnecessary. Yet, the show is filled with memorable scenes most notably the last scene of Act 1 when the characters recall scenes from "The Cherry Orchard" and we see the correspondence between their roles in "Mephisto" and those in Chekhov's play.
The cast is generally very strong. Peter Van Wart (Höfgen) is best in Act 1 portraying an actor torn between comradeship with his friends and longing for fame. In Act 2 he does not quite reveal the charisma that would explain Höfgen's success. David Petrie (Mann/Brückner) gives us a rumpled intellectual whose wealth no longer isolates him from rising evil. Andrew David Long (Hans Miklas) is excellent as an actor and early Nazi sympathizer, humiliated during rehearsal by an imperious Höfgen, but who finally recognizes the Nazi revolution as a new form of tyranny. Stephen Jennings (Otto) and Michael Wacholtz (Alex) make a strong impression both as Höfgen's fellow communist actors and in the various roles they play in the left-wing cabaret they run. Dwight McFee (Sarder) has an excellent scene as an old-school playwright who in a drunken fit blurts out a lament for a Germany who has betrayed her former ideals. Allan Rosenthal (Gottschalk) seems more like a car salesman than a theatre manager, but rises to the occasion in his final scene with his wife, and Christian Lloyd (Josthinkel) needs more control to make the the new Nazi thaetre manager as chilling as he should be.
Among the women, Catherine McGregor (the Gottschalk's Jewish wife) clearly distinguishes her primary role from the two comic ones she plays in the cabaret. She is especially moving in the scene where she convinces her husband that their best act of resistance will be suicide. Imali Perera (Höfgen's mistress) is excellent at expressing conflicting emotions particularly in Act 2 when she realizes that Höfgen is breaking with her because of her race. Deborah Hay (Nicoletta) is also excellent in detailing the transformation of another opportunist, an actress who breaks off a lesbian attachment to link herself to Höfgen's rising fortunes, finally becoming his own apologist. Araxi Arslanian (Theresa) makes her role as a no-nonsense actress and Communist a vivid character throughout. Unfortunately, two actors in major roles--Lorraine Sinclair (a renowned Jewish leading lady) and Susanne Schneider (theatre and cabaret actress and Brückner's sister)--neither have the strength or presence necessary for their parts.
Although the production is uneven, there is so much that is good I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the period or in plays about the theatre. We should be grateful that we have the Equity Showcase Theatre to bring us this kind of large-scale, politically charged theatre that commercial theatre shies away from nowadays. The questions Mnouchkine raises won't go away and in face of the latest propaganda war are more pertinent than ever.
Since Theatre Passe Muraille rarely ventures into the classics, one might its production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to be unconventional. It is the first all-female "Dream" in Toronto theatre history and the fulfillment of director Kate Lynch's own four-year-long dream. This may be new to Toronto but women have played men's roles in this play elsewhere. Earlier this year at the Albery in London's West End, Matthew Francis contrived a framework for this play so that women, including comedian Dawn French, would have the chance to play the Mechanicals. "The Independent" commented that the framework was "a benign way of giving us Dawn French's Bottom without making an ass of the play." The same cannot be said of the framework Lynch has fashioned. It provides for an all-female cast, but treats the play as only so much material to spoof and mock.
Lynch's framework places the action on a beach where Amazons have just landed after a battle. After a bit of impromptu soccer with a severed head, Diane Flacks as their leader asks "How shall we beguile the lazy time, if not with some delight?" The line and the plays recommended are the same as those that Theseus asks for just before the performance of the Mechanicals' play in Act 5 of "Dream." Theseus' request leads the Amazons to act "Dream" from Act 1 onwards through the request again to the end. After Puck's epilogue, a guard sounds the conch calling the women to leave their revelry and return to battle. The play thus appears as a short diversion from the Amazons' ultimately doomed battle against the Athenians.
Lynch has extrapolated this frame from Shakespeare's play itself, which begins with the Greek hero Theseus' marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, whom he just conquered. Yet why, one wonders, should Amazons have in their repertory a play celebrating their own defeat at the hands of their worst enemy? There is no good answer to this unless we are to believe that the Amazons have bothered to con an entire play for the sole purpose of mocking its inherent assumptions about patriarchy, male superiority and typical female behaviour. Illogical as the set-up is, this is the route the production takes. The second aspect of this frame is that what we see is the Amazons' own amateur production. Given that the whole text of Shakespeare's play follows lines that usually preface the Mechanicals' play, it seems that Lynch wants us to view the entirety of Shakespeare's "Dream" as equivalent to that play, i.e. as a poorly written, poorly acted farce. We are confronted with the paradoxical attitude of a director who aims to be provocative by being deliberately superficial. Her approach is thus not much different from Rick Miller's in his "MacHomer" where the Simpsons do "Macbeth."
Shakespeare's plays were, of course, first performed by all-male companies, so I was quite eager to see what nuances an all-female cast would bring out. When, as here, an entire play is held up to ridicule, subtlety and nuance are replaced by parody and slapstick. Where Lynch's approach works best in the scenes involving the four lovers since Shakespeare himself is parodying the excesses of young love. In too many other productions the four are indistinguishable, but here Lynch differentiates all four and the best-earned laughs of the evening come from the actors' detailed portrayal of the barely controllable desires and rivalries of newly-smitten teenagers. In the scenes involving the Fairies, however, Lynch's approach fails utterly since parody undermines the magic. Only Titania's main speeches are delivered straight. Otherwise, Puck, incomprehensibly, is made to seem like a modern streetwise kid and Oberon, like all the males, as a chauvinist after whatever the females possess. Lynch does try to make it seem that Oberon is unhappy about duping his wife into falling in love with an ass, so much so we wonder why he should do it at all. The Mechanicals all appear as caricatures of males much giving to spitting and belching. Their "Pyramus and Thisbe" is hilarious but the direction is not much different from some of the more outlandish versions I've seen at Stratford.
Lynch has asked the actors for caricatures not characters. Their primary freedom within such confines is to play at least two main roles beyond those in the frame. At first, seeing an all-female cast so strongly exaggerate the differences between male (awkward louts) and female (feeble ninnies) is delightful. But as the play wears on the acting devolves into camp. Within these parameters, all seven are excellent. Kristen Thomson is truly hilarious as both Hermia and Bottom. It a treat to see her transform herself in just a turn from a preening, tiptoeing airhead to a gruff know-it-all with the demeanour of Charles Laughton. Catherine Fitch is funny in a much subtler way as the put-upon Helena and the well-meaning Quince. Diane Flacks makes Theseus patronizing and overconfident and Titania into a kind of goddess of the Amazons. She also plays the meek Starveling, which does not work as well, since in Act 5 she compelled have a dialogue with herself. Waneta Storms gives us a subdued Hippolyta, clearly displeased with her forced marriage, and an intense, quirky Oberon. Ruth Madoc-Jones clearly distinguishes between her two old man roles, Egeus and Philostrate, and she would make an excellent Puck if Lynch hadn't given her a modern day attitude that makes nonsense of the Amazon framework. Karen Robinson is a recalcitrant Demetrius and quite a hoot as Flute playing Thisbe. Camille Stubel captures the youthful awkwardness of her runny-nosed Lysander.
The design is handsome, all sand and earth tones, from Steve Lucas's beach set against a blue backdrop and reflecting the summer glow of his lighting to Jennifer Triemstra's costumes. It is part of the camp aspect of the production that we know the women are Amazons mostly because their two-piece outfits remind of 1950s sci-fi movies. Rick Sacks's fusion-inspired music is highly effective.
Near the beginning of the Mechanicals' play when Hippolyta starts to mock the actors, Theseus says, "The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.... If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men." It is typical of Lynch's approach that she should have Theseus toss off these remarks as jokes rather than as proof of his generosity of spirit. This "Dream" is enjoyable in spite of Lynch's derisive attitude because of the ability of the seven actors themselves. Their overabundance of talent is the most persuasive argument in the production to widen casting choices for this play in future.
"Soldier's Heart" is the latest installment in David's French's acclaimed series of plays chronicling the tribulations of the Mercer family from life in their native Newfoundland to their relocation to Toronto. It is the latest installment and also the least. Unlike the previous four plays, "Soldier's Heart" is unconvincing on every level. The flaws in dramaturgy are so deep neither the cast nor a director who has been the main proponent of French can disguise them.
All five plays place the tensions inside the family within specific historical periods. French's first two, "Leaving Home" (1972) and "Of the Fields, Lately" (1973), showed Jacob Mercer's conflicts with his sons in the 1950s and 1960s respectively. French then backtracked in "Salt-Water Moon" (1984) to show the courtship of Jacob and his future wife in 1926 Newfoundland. "1949" (1988) gave us Mercers on the eve of Newfoundland's entry into Confederation. With "Soldier's Heart" French backtracks again to June 30, 1924, two years before "Salt-Water Moon," with the 16-year-old Jacob Mercer, bags packed, waiting for the Caribou to take him away from his family to St, John's. The date, coincidentally, is exactly eight years after the Battle of the Somme.
As we soon discover, Jacob's mother has suggested he leave after Jacob's father, Esau, caught in a sudden flashback to World War I, tried to attack Jacob with a knife. Jacob, unbelievably for his age, time and place, rather than being put off by his father's attack sees it as a cry for help. Like some sort of junior psychotherapist, he is consumed with the notion that if only Esau will talk to him about what happened at the Somme where Esau's brother Will was killed he will exorcise the memories that haunt him and thus conquer his "soldier's heart" which, as we are told, is now known as "shell shock." Esau had promised to tell him about the war when he first returned from Europe, but has never kept that promise. Not content with Esau's silence, Jacob has pumped all the locals once in the Newfoundland regiment, including the stationmaster Bert, for all the details they can remember about their years overseas. In the tradition of classic American drama, a terrible secret known to Bert and Esau eventually comes to light. Rather than being shocked by the revelation, Jacob, improbably, is easily able to put Esau's horrible deed into context and forgive him. All three sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," and we are to believe that the terror Esau has relived for eight years is now over.
The dialogue is as unconvincing as the plot. Since Jacob already knows most of what Esau did in the war, he is constantly prompting him to tell him information that he already knows with the excuse that he has to hear it "from your mouth." Repeatedly Esau gets angry and refuses to say anything, Bert chimes in with his own memories and Esau, for unknown reasons, immediately joins him. The artifice of this procedure as we move from Esau's training in Scotland to Gallipoli to France is obvious long before we get to the "secret." Bert, meanwhile, has rather inconsistently been encouraging Esau to talk and warning Jacob not to ask Esau too many questions. Once at the "secret" Bert abandons the former for the latter at which point Esau, again for unknown reasons, decides to press on with the worst of his tale. The information about the Newfoundlanders in World War I is quite interesting, but French is unable to make what sounds like a voiceover for a documentary into anything resembling natural speech.
Bill Glassco has directed the premières of all of David French's Mercer plays. It is thus all the more surprising that the characters are so ineffectually portrayed. Glassco allows the three actors to make only rudimentary attempts at a Newfoundland accent. Only Darren Keay (Jacob) gets the rhythm right. Oliver Becker (Esau), who has mastered other accents in the past, seems to have no clue how to do it. Keay is excellent as the angry youth of the first part, but once the play settles into his constant prompting of "Tell me more," there's little he can do to make the artifice of the situation seem natural. Randy Hughson (Bert) plays the most realistic of the three characters. But his vacillations during the questioning are nothing more than French's inept attempt to create tension. I have admired Oliver Becker in the past but he seems as much at a loss with his character as with his accent. If Esau truly is so adamant about saying nothing about the war--which is the whole premise of the play--why does Glassco have him chime in so readily with facts along with Bert and why does Becker not muster some sense of conflicting emotions when he does so?
At least Sue LePage's costumes capture the period and her set of an isolated train station looks under Robert Thomson's moody lighting at once realistic and symbolic. Yet, it is not clear why she did not turn the set to the right by 45s to make it more visually interesting and to put the playing area within sight of the whole auditorium.
Rabid followers of the Mercer plays will want to see "Soldier's Heart" even if it provides little insight into the rest of the series. Those curious about these plays should wait for a revival of one of the earlier four. The play is only 85 minutes long, but I would rather spend the time reading the history French used as a background rather than see it dressed up as this ill-conceived, ill-executed play. © 2001 Christopher Hoile
In Marsha Norman's two-hander 'night, Mother, a daughter announces to her mother near the top of the play that she is going to kill herself in a couple hours' time. The remaining 70 minutes of the 80-minute play is taken up with the mother's futile attempts to persuade her daughter not to do it. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 mostly likely because of its supposed likeness to Greek tragedy, its natural dialogue and its two powerful roles for women. If you can accept the initial premise, the play seems written almost intentionally as a subject for compare-and-contrast essays for first-year English students, which it has indeed become. The Eclectic Theatre production was a hit at the 2001 Toronto Fringe Festival. This fuller production now at Artword has its moments and a great performance by Jayne Eastwood as the mother, but it never convinces us that the initial premise is anything but artificial and manipulative.
The premise of the play is that Jessie, the daughter, can announce her plan of suicide and still expect to spend a normal last evening with her mother, Thelma. After the understandable fuss Thelma makes, Jessie exclaims about three-quarters through "I should've just left you a note!" We can only agree--but then there would be no play. Except for the short duration of her failed marriage, Jessie has lived with her tradition-bound mother all her life. Why then is she surprised that Thelma does not take her news well? Norman would like us to believe that Jessie has told Thelma to attempt a last chance at bonding with her. Yet, we hear that she has been planning her suicide for several months. Why then does Jessie decide to cram all this bonding into less than two hours? Why also does she look for her father's pistol less than two hours before she plans to use it? Written as it is in a realist mode, much of the play reads as much like Jessie's justification of suicide as Norman's justification of her premise. The mother's response, for example, to Jessie's exclamation about the note is, "Yes! No. No. I -- might not have thought of all the things you've said."
There are a number of aspects of the play that have led to comparisons with Greek tragedy. The play observes the unities of time, place and action. All the events that lead to the fatal conclusion have already taken place. Violence occurs off stage behind a significant door. Jessie could be likened to a protagonist like Antigone or Phaedra who seems to long for death. Thelma could be likened to a combination of the Nurse and the Chorus who understand nothing but the everyday and plead for the continuance of life. The problem with this, as with all bourgeois tragedies, is that Jessie's suicide which she construes to be saying "No" to the world as it is and herself as she is, derives from a purely personal and idiosyncratic point of view and much as Norman would like it to have greater resonance, it is too particular to do so. Jessie's justification of suicide seems to derive entirely from Albert Camus's early existential works, ignoring of his repudiation of suicide in his later writings in favour of living for others. Unlike real tragedy, "'night, Mother" is a downer without being uplifting.
To reinforce the unities, designer Sean F. Mulcahy has made the set identical in size with the stage in Artword's main space. He has reproduced in minute detail the everyday clutter of a lived-in home. The downside is that this spacious set does not conjure up the claustrophobia that the play asks for and that would help explain why Jessie seeks to escape. Mulcahy highlights the important door with his lighting, but to make a more accurate reference to classical tragedy the door to Jessie's bedroom should be in the centre of the back wall.
Director Jordan Merkur has made the interaction between Jessie and Thelma as naturalistic as possible. The main difficulty is that he makes Jessie's revelation of her intentions seem impromptu rather than planned which compromises the sense of inevitability Norman tries to create. If the play is to be viewed in the light of classical tragedy, we should be certain long before Thelma is that Jessie will not be dissuaded.
The one reason to see the play, one that overrides all my negative remarks, is the superb performance of Thelma by Jayne Eastwood. She is utterly convincing as a middle-American woman of middling interests trying to cope as best she can with the total affront to her way of life that Jessie's suicide represents. Eastwood gives us an ordinary woman stretched to the limits of her abilities, using every argument she can muster to prevent disaster. Yet, in the midst of all this, she gives us the sense of Thelma's own narrowness, that she wants things to return to normal as much to prevent any disruption in her own as to save her daughter's life. When the inevitable happens it is heartbreaking and we cringe as if voyeurs of someone's personal grief.
As Jessie Alison Smiley suffers under Merkur's indecision about her character's motivations. We should never think, as we do here, that Jessie might waver in her decision. Smiley herself allows the tension to relax which should be present even when the two are sharing cocoa or putting a slip-cover on the sofa. Smiley so well conveys Jessie's love for her mother, it is difficult to see why death is the only solution to her discontent. But this is one of the problems with the play itself.
If you can ignore
the central premise, 'night, Mother can be enjoyed
for its realistic depiction of a mother and daughter in crisis.
But even if you object to the artifice of the central premise,
you will be happy not to have missed one of Jayne Eastwood's rare
appearances on stage especially in so powerful a performance.